Men:  Notes from an Ongoing Investigation

By Laura Kipnis

(Henry Holt/Metropolitan, $25, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Laura Kipnis is a critic and essayist who writes about contemporary culture, a professor who teaches film making in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, a former video artist and the author of How to Become a Scandal, Against Love, and The Female Thing. She is fascinated by sexual politics, bad behaviors, emotions and the way people act out. She has written for such magazines as in Slate, Harpers, The Nation, Playboy, and The New York Times. Kipnis divides her time between Chicago and New York.

What is this book about?

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? In Laura  Kipnis’ case, the answer is, “write about them.”

In her latest book, she takes a look at men behaving badly and why she is fascinated by them, in public life and in her own private life. She takes a clear-eyed look at cheaters, “humiliation artists,” “trespassers” and  haters, such as sports stars whose private lives have dismayed their fans, politicians whose sexual escapades have disgraced them and other men who have gravely disappointed their families, friends and fans. She asks, what’s going on?.  And she provides some provocative answers in this collection of essays. Avoiding clichés, employing her considerable intellectual gifts and cutting through the simplistic explanations often offered to explain such self-defeating behavior, Kipnis brings an astringent wit and fresh perceptions to her exploration of why some men do the awful things they do.

Why you’ll like it:

Kipnis has a smart, sharply witty and sharply worded way about her, and while she comes from the academic world, her writing is anything but academic in the fussy, pedantic sense. She uses plenty of examples and anecdotes from her own life to enliven the text of Men, and her real-world examples of bad behavior give a sturdy grounding to her theories.

Here, to give you a sense of her writing style and choice of subjects, is a portion of her essay on Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine:

“. . . So there I was, a self-appointed expert on all things Hustler, seated across from the founding father himself in his thickly carpeted penthouse emporium atop the huge kidney-shaped office tower on Wilshire Boulevard, the one with his name emblazoned on the roof in towering letters that you can see for miles. If the magazine is a battleground of sex and vulgarity, Flynt’s office was no less an assault on the senses: Tiffany lamps dueling with garish rococo furniture, gold and velvet-covered clashing everything—it looked like armies of rival interior decorators had fought and died on the job. The surprisingly charming Flynt presided over this expensive-looking mishmash from his famous gold-plated wheelchair (a long-ago assassination attempt by a professed white supremacist enraged by Hustler’s interracial pictorials had left him paralyzed from the waist down2). All those years in the chair have given him an extreme case of middle-aged spread: his face has a melted quality, with only a hint of the self-confident cockiness from old pictures. Newly image-conscious with Forman’s biopic about to be released, he told me immediately that he was on a diet. “I may be a cripple, but I don’t have to be a fat cripple,” he chortled hoarsely.”

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…Men feels like something written by your most hyper-verbal friend, the sort of person who can turn even logistical planning into witty and dexterous prose…The patriarchal world, through Kipnis’s eyes, is consistently and quietly funny…At a time of trigger warnings and Twitter backlashes, when the media landscape can seem tripwired for even the most well-intentioned and accidentally insensitive of public figures (and civilians), Kipnis’s coolheaded, ironical assessments of modern masculinity read like perfectly-timed eye rolls.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Kipnis’s gifts are on full display in this irresistible collection of essays, in which she weaves together complex and penetrating insights about gender into provocative treatises. Though the book is putatively about men, Northwestern University professor Kipnis takes an appreciably unique angle on her subjects. Each chapter, save one, is devoted to an archetype of masculinity. Kipnis’s arguments are never predictable: for example, her chapter on “juicers,” ostensibly about steroid-abusing male athletes, evolves into a profound soliloquy about writing, plagiarism, and labor markets. Her examination of modern manhood sheds as much light on male vulnerability as it does on male privilege, entitlement, and abuse. If the book has a failing, it can be found in its unfortunate proclivity for armchair psychoanalysis, on display in the digression about Naomi Wolf’s story of sexual harassment at the hands of a male professor and the tale of a male writer who was the victim of stalking. In spite of this drawback, Kipnis has given us a necessary, and often witty, book that shows a brilliant, agile mind at work.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Feisty, unapologetic forays into the messiness of gender relations. In these essays, most previously published, outspoken feminist Kipnis fashions a fitting companion to her previous, self-described “conflicted” work on femininity, The Female Thing (2006). Male types—e.g., “the Con Man,” “the Manly Man”—fascinate the author and offer a way inside the male psyche in order to find out what men really think of women—and why we should care. Refreshingly, Kipnis operates by plunging into her subject, getting her hands dirty, her critics be damned—for example, reading back issues of Hustler magazine before interviewing publisher Larry Flynt—”the Scumbag”—which director Milos Foreman would not do when he made his film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Declaring the contents of the porn rag downright “Rabelaisian,” however gross, Kipnis offers some admiration that Flynt built his empire from the idea of fighting sexual repression. The author provides lively examples for each of her “types”: “humiliation artists,” like recently disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, are really all variations of the eponymous shame-seeking hero of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. “Cheaters,” like Tiger Woods, can only operate successfully due to the phalanx of women who possess “willing self-abnegation.” “The Trespasser” of Jackie Onassis’ privacy, photographer Ron Galella, is now elevated as an “artist,” and his aggressive stalking of his muse has been airbrushed. Kipnis reserves the final section for “Haters,” namely critics like Dale Peck, right-wing biographers of Hillary Clinton and even radical feminist icon Andrea Dworkin. Unafraid of offending the cause of political correctness, Kipnis is the kind of unfettered, freethinking observer who even questioned the nature of “unwanted sexual advances” at her school’s harassment workshop: “But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?” Dynamite examples rendered in funny, spirited writing.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has “Men” on the new books shelf.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.