I wasn’t going to write any more about Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men. I already had my say. But the book and the response to it has got me thinking about what counts as a Big Book. Consider this a postscript to my WaPo review.
If you follow bookish or pop-culture chatter at all, the book’s has been hard to escape. It’s everywhere, and by “everywhere” I mean all over the pages (virtual or otherwise) of the country’s high-profile cultural outlets.
It’s been challenged on the front of The New York Times Book Review, while David Brooks spun off an admiring op-ed for the same paper. It’s been critically examined in The LA Review of Books, where contributor Maria Bustillos issued a “corrective” to Rosin’s argument that women are faring better than men are in the new economy. It’s been celebrated and defended in the Atlantic (where Rosin is a senior editor, and where the book got its start as an article with the same title) and in Slate‘s XX blog. (Rosin co-founded XX and is married to Slate’s editor, David Plotz). Reviewing the book for NPR, io9.com editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz called it “a frustrating blend of genuine insight and breezy, unconvincing anecdotalism.”
Newitz and I reacted similarly to the book. Here’s what I said in my Washington Post review:
Messy is how things are. The book roams freely, sometimes haphazardly, through a chaotic, shifting, uneasy social landscape. Rosin reviews some of the research — not enough to be entirely persuasive — into how fluid gender roles and expectations have become.
No review I’ve read of The End of Men has been entirely complete. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a fully satisfying review of this book. What many of the reviews share, as far as I can tell, is a sense of frustration: with the title, with Rosin’s grab-bag approach, with the balance of data and anecdote she went with, with what the book doesn’t say. But they also acknowledge she’s on to an important subject, one worth investigating and talking about, and that she has some evidence worth considering.
For me, the frustration boils down to a sense that we’re hearing a partial argument. The End of Men has enough substance to make it worth reading and talking about–but maybe not quite enough to make it the Big Book it’s being presented as.
Then there’s the frustration with how Rosin makes her argument. On my public Facebook page, where I posted a link to my Post review, a commenter said this about Rosin’s approach:
It’s like she can’t decide between a serious public-intellectual perch (where her voice is needed), and just being off-the-cuff.
Which got me thinking: Anybody trying to write about a serious topic in a public way confronts this problem. There’s always pressure (and incentives–book sales, interviews, the talk-show circuit, etc.) to Make It Sensational. Pick a headline-grabbing title. Play up the anecdotes. Think up quotable sociological observations or categories (in Rosin’s book, it’s Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man, terms I didn’t feature in my review because they didn’t really stick for me).
As a writer, I’m down with the desire to make a piece of writing fun to engage with and lively to read. That’s generally a good thing. But being too breezy–to use Newitz’s word–can backfire.
I’d like to think there’s room, and readers, for nuance and sustained argument in the big conversation. I’ve got more questions than answers, though. Does a nonfiction book count as big–intellectually telling, culturally significant–if it’s breezy but still gets us talking? Does it become important just because it gets talked about? Will it not get talked about if it’s considered too serious? If The End of Men didn’t have that hot-pink lettering on the cover, if it were called something like “Women Are Doing Better Than Men Are in the New Economy,” would I be writing this post at all?