Photo: Suzanne Goldish
When Keith Gessen and his friends launched literary magazine n+1 in 2004, they did so to mixed reviews, with some criticizing their self-importance and elitism and others hailing them for those same qualities. Gessen’s new novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, a work of fiction based on his own friends and colleagues, is already garnering similar reaction. Vulture talked to Gessen about his book, his portrayal of female characters, and how he’s dealing with haters.
So the character in your book generally goes about treating women like total crap. What’s that about?
I was trying to describe what I see out here. It’s not pretty!
The women seem to have it pretty much together, yet they’re just taking crap and never getting mad. Is that what you’re seeing in your friends and colleagues?
Do I see women putting up with this stuff? Yeah. I think the guys behave badly, but I’m not sure they’re bad guys. I think part of it is that women see that something might be done with them. It’s an ancient mistake, or an ancient gift, that women give to men, where they give them the benefit of trying to straighten themselves out. I had a very interesting conversation with an older woman friend who’s a well-known and much-admired, by me and everyone else, feminist writer, who was talking about Roth and Bellow and she was saying, “Well, you couldn’t possibly write like that anymore. You couldn’t possibly have men who treat women in this way in your books.” And I thought, Geez, you know, I sort of do in my book.
Had she read it?
No, she hadn’t. She said, “No way.” Some of the kind of instinctual misogyny that you find in Bellow has been educated out of these men. You know, they went to college. They’ve been civilized. And yet, you know, it’s still the case that you come to New York in your twenties, you sort of find out your place in that world based on the sort of people who date you. And so, for all the progress that’s been made, that’s still going on. Gosh, you know, you would be writing a dishonest book, I think, about men and women in their late twenties in American cities if that wasn’t part of it.
It’s an interesting choice to call the character you write in the first person by your own first name. Everybody is going to think it’s you.
When I read a book, I partly read it to find out what might possibly conceivably happen to me in life. I tried to write this book within the confines of fiction, but within that, I really tried to write a book that if you were a young person getting out of college and wondering what to do with yourself, you could read it and it would give you an imperfect sociological picture of the various possibilities. And if the price of that is that people are going to think that it’s me — and some of it’s me and some of it’s not — that’s fine. I think that’s part of the bargain.
I have to ask you about Nick Denton and the post he wrote on Gawker about you and your girlfriend, Emily Gould. What was your reaction?
It was hard to tell what he was getting at. He seems to be angry about something.
Were you upset?
I really have nothing to say about it. Otherwise I’d have to turn n+1 the Website into a kind of war zone! I can’t do that. —Jesse Ellison