In Defense of Paul Auster on “Boy’s Literature”


The novelist Paul Auster caught some notice the other day by remarking, in a talk at the Morgan Library, that he liked to think about a class of books he called “boy’s literature.” In this category he includes the disparate work of Poe, Pynchon, and Borges. He is able to do this because he defines the quality of “boy”-ness, as such, pretty abstractly:

[S]omeone who is so excited, takes such a sense of glee and delight in being clever, in puzzles, in games, in… and you can feel these boys cackling in their rooms when they write a good sentence, just enjoying the whole adventure of it. And the boy writers are the ones you read, and you understand why you love literature so much.

Anne Margaret Daniel of the Huffington Post wrote up the remarks with an appropriately bemused tone. The questions she poses at the end are, naturally, also mine:

[A]s someone who aspires to fit into Auster’s definition of “boy writer,” I’m wondering if he might extend his coinage to include “girl writers” as well. Who are they among women, the creative sparks, the gleeful, the ones who make you want to read? Does the sometimes wickedly funny, immensely creative, and also stately Virginia Woolf, for example, cross the line, if there is one, between “girl writer” and “grown-up”? Would Auster care to add some “grown-ups” among women writers to be in company with Hawthorne and Tolstoy?

Daniel’s questions raise the issue of why this discussion should have to be gendered at all. There is nothing in the concepts of “glee,” “cleverness,” “puzzles,” and least of all “cackling,” which belongs exclusively or even predominantly to those who would answer to a disembodied voice crying, “Boy! You there, boy!” I assume Auster simply extrapolates from the fact that the writers which make him excited about writing are men, adds in his observations about playfulness, and stirs. But that doesn’t actually transform “books that led Paul Auster to love literature” into “books that have a monopoly on everyone’s soul,” and that’s where he’s reaching.

I’m actually not averse to either a concept of, or discussion about, “boy literature” per se. I’ve never heard it used the way Auster does here, sure. But people do sometimes use it to describe either Hardy Boys/Jack London/Robert Louis Stevenson type books, or else the sort of novel of arrested-Brooklyn-development which so plagues contemporary literary fiction today. And I think they’re not totally wrong to think that there is a certain connective tissue between those books, and also not wrong to see that as connected to the ever-evolving concept of “masculinity.”

Coming from someone who has spilled more than her share of pixels about gender and literature, perhaps that sounds strange. But I actually applaud the implicit recognition that even our best books are not adequately addressed as “literature” which emerged from an abstracted, universal subject sitting high atop Mount Humanity. It isn’t just “important” but actually crucial that we understand that the truths about human existence we are fed by any one book or author are necessarily partial and incomplete and unstable. And that one reason they are so is because Mount Humanity is more of a Tower of Babel kind of thing, teeming with a lot of different experiences. No man being an island in this Tower (woof, time to jump ship on all these metaphors), the fact is you have to read widely, and read a lot, to get any kind of depth of perspective. And so: it’s good to know what categories you’ve already got covered — meaning, knowing you’ve already read a lot of boys, you might then be more inclined to consciously re-orient yourself towards (cough) girls.

Furthermore, I’m just not one of those people who thinks that all sentimental attachments to literature should be put out of critical discussion. If Borges makes Auster excited about literature, that is wonderful and even, I would say in full sincerity, good to know. I would be happy to read an essay from Auster about it, and happy to listen to his talk. In fact, I would be happy to read pieces from all manner of writers about the books that make them excited about words. But the experience of coming to books is gendered in our world, and it might forever be that way. Just like the books aren’t produced in the abstract, they aren’t read that way either. Tune in to the conversation about Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch this week and you’ll see that she and others report that it affected them as women as well as readers. And again, if I’m making the rules, which I’m not, I’d rather be up front about the particularity of the attraction than simply do a lot of lit-professor hand-waving about “great literature.”

But that’s me, and maybe Paul Auster. As we say on the internet, your mileage may vary.