I've just finished reading Phillip Roth's The Human Stain and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, both well-crafted novels that have in common but one thing, which they share with practically every other work of literature: they are all about assholes. Have you noticed this? Virtually every great work of fiction is about someone acting as stupidly as he or she possibly can. Okay, we all have friends who occasional act like assholes, as we all do ourselves, and part of the purpose of friendship is to call out our buddies on this, and we expect them to call us out as well. It's a big part of friendship, and it's a common observation that assholes often lose their friends. Nobody likes an asshole, except in literature where we can't seem to get enough of them. Have Roth and Franzen, to take a couple of examples, ever written about someone who wasn't being a complete jerk? They have not. Being a jerk is what literature is about and I wonder why this is so. And don't these people have friends? For example:
Achilles, what's with the sulking? Guys are getting killed out there and you're pissed off about a girl? You know what? You're actinglike a girl! Don't be an asshole!
Oh,you saw a ghost? A ghost? Give me a break! And on this basis you're going to screw up your life? Stop being an asshole, Hamlet, and get your butt back to school.
Lear, Othello, Macbeth, the list goes on. Okay, the tragic flaw and all that, but still, even in naturalistic novels, the asshole rules.
Emma, I get that Bovary isn't what you expected, but he's a nice guy and he loves you. And, girl, if you keep messing around like you're doing, you're gonna wind up dead.
Nasty families, people behaving badly, betrayal, self-betrayal, sexual katzenjammer, this is what we struggle to avoid in real life and seek out in fiction. It's so common, it's like water to a fish, it's what quality fiction essentially IS, and so we barely notice it any more as being a little strange.
And why especially do we dote on assholery of the sexual type? Is it inherent? Do chimps sit in trees and stare at fellow chimps having dysfunctional relationships? Or is it a peculiarity of our culture? In real life, the work that goes into making a good relationship is more interesting than the noise of a bad one, but we don't see a lot of that in fiction. To paraphrase Tolstoy, bad relationships are all alike; each good relationship is fascinating in its own way.
Interestingly, too, while we get to read only about assholes in fiction, in non-fiction, the asshole memoir is in the minority. We actually love to peruse the lives of the non-asshole, the great and successful, as long as they're real. (Yes, the great are often mega-assholes, but by definition, unless they're Hitler or the like they have striven to overcome or conceal this aspect and have thus triumphed.)
My theory has not developed enough to propose a cultural substrate for the asshole phenomenon. Is it what we have instead of morality plays? Are we supposed to derive warnings--don't be like that? That's not the sense I get from this kind of fiction. The sense I get is despair. The world is such, the authors seem to be saying, as to make assholes of us all. There is no place to stand as a human person: love, patriotism, work (and why do we hardly ever see in fiction compelling descriptions of working life, except miserable degrading work or the working life of writers?) religion, child-rearing--all the ancient touchstones of human existence are depicted as incompetent for salvation. What remains is the Me, raised as the sole object of devotion, the asshole triumphant. This is why, after reading the prize-winning, beautifully written, exquisitely crafted novel, I feel like I've had an unpleasant, embarrassing experience, like a a public quarrel with a drunk friend.
I think this is why people turn to genre fiction, which, as bad as it often is, does not entirely concern itself with assholes getting into trouble. Strangely enough, despite the preposterousness of the genre plot, genre characters are more lifelike than those in literary fiction, in that they are serious about the ultimate significance of what they're doing. They may have a veneer of cynicism, but they never think catching the killer is absurd. Occasionally, you see a prominent literary writer try genre--detective stories or science fiction. Maybe even they get tired of writing about assholes.