Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation BY Laura Kipnis. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 224 pages. $25.

The cover of Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation

The twenty-first-century critic asked to opine on masculinity finds available to her a limited number of explanatory templates, socially acceptable ways of speaking that dominate our collective thinking about the male psyche. Most clearly, there is that of disapproval, talk of privilege and patriarchy and, of late, the much-deployed “rape culture.” There is also the moralizing template, preferred by presidential candidates and megachurch pastors, which merely ascribes desirable qualities to the state of being a man, generally preceded by the descriptor “real”: Real men raise their children, real men don’t cheat, real men, I don’t know, exercise portion control. For those with a lighter touch, there is the template of amused condescension: One might, for instance, elucidate the various phenomena of American male sentimentality—depressive alcoholism, distant fathers, baseball.

Locating a tone that neither scolds nor belittles the subject is only part of the challenge, because, having found an approach, one comes up immediately against a conceptual and moral problem: how to write about masculinity in a way that is neither essentializing nor prescriptive. If we assume that the differences between individual men are far greater than anything that might bind them together, and that a better world would consist of a wider rather than narrower definition of what it properly means to be a man, it becomes rather difficult to say anything at all.

In Texas recently, the reaction to the rollback of abortion rights has prompted a wave of liberal rhetoric to the effect that “Texas women” are uniquely strong-willed, conjuring images of lone cowgirls lassoing steers amid tumbleweeds while keeping the men in line. This is strange for a number of reasons, not least among them that the women of Texas have voting rights, constitute a majority of Texans, and continue to choose legislators openly hostile to abortion. But there can be no male analogue to this, no declaration that Minnesotan Men Will Stand Strong, no righteous demand for a buffer zone outside the local “gentlemen’s club,” nothing that would not be met with confusion and derision. In the case of writing about women, a shared history of oppression, or at least an accumulation of small humiliations, allows for a measure of useful abstraction; feminism is a vocabulary, a language, a kind of permission. The privileged class can write about privilege, of course, just as they can get right to the point by talking anatomy, but it seems that there must be something beyond privilege and penises to discuss.

There is a way out of this for the essayist: focus on the individual case study and hope some generalizations rise to the surface without having to name and thereby defend said generalizations. “A dearth of sweeping theories about the differences between the sexes will be found in the pages ahead,” promises critic Laura Kipnis in her latest book, Men. In place of theories, she assembles divergent examples of the form, a data set designed to flummox even the most determined essentializer. Here we encounter porn mogul Larry Flynt, queer theorist and poet Wayne Koestenbaum, and Straussian philosopher of manliness Harvey Mansfield. Appearances are made by quondam presidential candidate John Edwards, pugnacious author-critic Dale Peck, and a Marxist professor who, upon being denied sex by the author, pronounces Kipnis incurably “bourgeois.” (Idiosyncratic examples aside, women reading this book will do a fair amount of I-know-the-type head-nodding.)

“I met Hustler magazine’s obstreperous redneck publisher Larry Flynt twice,” writes Kipnis, “the first time before he started believing all the hype about himself and the second time after.” Tasked with writing about the paraplegic pornographer, Kipnis had been collecting back issues of Hustler “the way some people go antiquing or collect Fiesta ware.” For the uninitiated, Hustler is not the gauzy dreamworld of Playboy but a magazine given to photo spreads of amputees and hermaphrodites, a magazine designed “to exhume and exhibit everything the bourgeois imagination had buried beneath heavy layers of shame,” a shame to which Kipnis is not immune, though she is, like many of us, “theoretically” against all those repressions. She finds Flynt a worthy subject, his “self-styled war against social hypocrisy,” his “echt-Rabelaisian” assaults on decency precisely as revolting as they need be to show the middle-class imagination to itself. She calls herself “kind of a fan.”

This is not the approach of director Milos Forman, who chooses to make a movie that “sanitizes Flynt’s cantankerous, contrarian life and career into one long, noble crusade for the First Amendment, while erasing everything that’s most interesting about the magazine, namely the way it links bourgeois bodily discretion to political and social hypocrisy.” In other words, Forman took a complicated outsider and reduced him to a redemption story with which pious liberals could live. It was a story Flynt came to like. “America hadn’t been content with simply paralyzing Flynt,” muses Kipnis, “it had to finish the job by reconfiguring him as a patriot and then dousing him in approval for finally growing up. That’s how they get you.”

Ron Galella in Leon Gast’s Smash His Camera, 2010.
Ron Galella in Leon Gast’s Smash His Camera, 2010.

This theme, of radical malcontents swept into the ranks of the rule-following hordes, of anarchic impulses quelled and awkward histories rewritten, is not limited to Flynt. Kipnis is drawn to obsessive men, in particular obsessive men with bizarre or taboo obsessions. There is, for instance, the photographer Ron Galella, who was said to have made a “curious, grunting sound” whenever he caught a shot of his preferred subject, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Galella trailed her on foot while shouting her name, tailed her in taxis, dated her maid, violated a restraining order mandating that he keep fifty feet away, and sued when secret-service agents interfered with what he deemed “photography” and many would call stalking. Four decades later, Galella was the subject of a 2012 retrospective in Berlin, admiring critical essays, a $300 book of photos (Jackie: My Obsession), and a documentary that spends a curious amount of time exploring the photographer’s interest in artificial flowers. There is a montage of Ron rolling around in bed with his pet rabbits. Says Galella, “They’re cleaner than cats.”

To which Kipnis rightly asks: “What’s with all the fucking bunnies?” Here again was a man made safe, the air of menace softened to mere eccentricity. His admirers seek to “sentimentalize away the aggression and egotism of art,” as if appreciating an artist’s work also entailed transforming him into an acceptable dinner date.

There is much fun to be had in experiencing the way that Kipnis follows her topics into unexpected territory, which is not unrelated to her charming inability to be the kind of easily outraged critic the world often seems to want. (“I mean, how come when they were handing out moral seriousness, Leon Wieseltier got so much and I got so little?” she asks.) The Marxist who accuses Kipnis of being too bourgeois to sleep with him follows up with a condescending letter six months after their nonaffair; she replies, accusing him of being a leftist cliché; he, pointing out that they were sitting on her bed, accuses her of trying to turn a romantic evening into “history itself”: a “battle between Feminism and the Male Left.” What was she doing sitting on her bed with him, Kipnis wonders years later. “The locale seems awfully equivocal.” This all takes place within the context of an essay on the self-delusion of John Edwards, which becomes an essay on the physical ugliness of Jean-Paul Sartre, which becomes an essay on Bad Faith. Most critics, having a moral point to score, would never let their thoughts wander so.

Many of the pieces in this collection are expanded versions of previously published essays. This gives Kipnis the opportunity to encounter these men after writing about them—men whom she has examined, judged, and invariably subjected to Freudian psychoanalysis. Peck, for one, is not pleased. Flynt calls her “feisty.” Harvey Mansfield, to Kipnis’s alarm, appears to admire her and, even after she eviscerates him in a debate, treats her with what can only be called a chivalrous courtesy.

“I find it hard to get that worked up about dumb expressions of unreconstructed sexism,” writes Kipnis of Mansfield’s Manliness. One might even say that there is a kind of pleasure in reading straight-up sexist tracts: how lucid the statements of superiority, how direct the condescension, how aware the protagonist of his sins. It’s the difference between slapstick and wit, and the latter can be exhausting to define and explain to those not attuned to subtle shifts of tone.

That the realm of gender privilege has narrowed to small gestures is, I think, central to this insightful, intelligent, and frequently hilarious collection. “Men have always wrested more freedom from the world and I envy that,” writes Kipnis, “even when it’s a stupid kind of freedom.” I would argue that the freedom to be stupid is not a stupid kind of freedom; more room to be dumb in public is a freedom to riff and ruminate and wonder aloud, as many a silent, anxiety-ridden A-student can tell you. (On this point, I refer you to Kipnis’s piece “Men Who Hate Hillary,” which is among the funniest essays I have ever read.) There is a sense in which men still have a slightly wider circle in which to move, less pressure to conform to type and to remain consistent with their past selves, a greater berth for provoking discomfort and disgust, more right to revel in the entropy that is our universe, and fewer requests to put all the pieces back into place. The men of Men, for all their faults, are worthy subjects precisely because they do not waste that freedom. Larry Flynt likes the version of himself as a brittle, truth-telling outsider; he also likes the consolatory, redemptive feel of his biopic. Among the narrowing privileges of manliness, fewer with every passing year, there is, perhaps, still this: He will never have to choose.

Kerry Howley is the author of Thrown (Sarabande, 2014).