Except for those writers who make their livings as critics, the nonfiction book review is a cheerless affair, accepted only out of professional duty, professional penury, or professional self-promotion. The proof is in the contributors’ notes. Self-promotion is unmistakable in a note such as “Ann Marlowe’s second memoir, The Book of Trouble: A Romance, has just been published by Harcourt,” with the obvious subtext being, “so go buy it already.” 
Not to say there’s any shame in self-promotion. Like book reviewing overall, personal propaganda is part of being a writer, and (full disclosure) self-promotion looms large in my last book review, a favorable reading of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man in the February 6th edition of the New York Press.
But that the above example of a self-promoting contributors’ note actually follows Ann Marlowe’s negative review of Self-Made Man in the February 6th edition of the New York Observer is absolutely astonishing because the review achieves the opposite goal.
Small and downright embarrassing in its arrogance, Marlowe’s review is at once bad enough to warrant a good critical slap, and culturally representative enough to illustrate the terrible solipsism of the contemporary Me Book movement.
Me Books are distinguished by the fact that the first-person voice is the only voice in the text, and “I-I-I” is tacitly believed to be the only seat of authority from which to report the world. That serial memoirists such as Marlowe own this seat of authority is perfectly harmless until the touching letters from readers, the millions of dollars, the Bestseller mantles and the cover medallions aren’t enough. They want to pretend that what they publish is more than eloquent journal writing; that it’s cultural commentary; that their accidental adventures in addiction, divorce, death, and disease can be activated into episodes of accidental ethnography. Because, after all, we’re all cultural observers, we all have a story to tell, and all our personal opinions are valid by virtue of being lived. This, plainly enough, is buncombe.
The criticism that Ann Marlowe directs at Norah Vincent—whose book is an intentional ethnographic study of working class male culture in America—is that Vincent doesn’t talk enough about herself. Basically, “well written book, Norah, but it’d be more likely to endure if you told us what it’s like to be you, instead of what you think it’s like to be a man.” Oh, and forget the fact that you spent 18 months secretly embedded as a man in male culture because, as Marlowe in fact writes, “How many men, straight or gay, are interested in finding out what a lesbian has to tell them about their inner wounds? Aren’t they more interested in what she has to tell them about her inner wounds?” This, obviously, is buncombe doubly damned.
Would Marlowe also advise Barbara Ehrenreich to cut all that poor-people talk from Nickel and Dimed to make room for her wounds as a middle-class writer? Darn shame as well that de Tocqueville wasted his Frenchness writing about America. The world is darker without Mixed Nuts in Unstable France: One boy’s story of growing up French—de Tocqueville’s unwritten masterpiece—and a pox on fiction writers making stories without the affirmation of personal experience. Imagine what we could learn about Bollywood and forehead dots from a Salman Rushdie memoir, but instead he writes Midnight’s Children. Imagine a South Africa revealed by J.M. Coetzee, when instead we get the Life and Times of Michael K. I’m making light, but it’s as if Marlowe, and for that matter the memoir-reading public, believes that only the memoirist can know the world, and teach it to the rest of us.
In the midst of the Me Book movement, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that having a personal perspective—the heart of memoir writing—doesn’t exclude one from being a legitimate cultural commentator. Just ask Tom Wolfe. Then, for an example, read Norah Vincent.
Wolfe describes in The New Journalism how and why he aspired to treat perspective in non-fiction writing “in the Jamesian sense in which fiction writers understand it, entering directly into the mind of a character, experiencing the world through his central nervous system throughout a given scene.” The idea, he says, “was to give full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.” The belief, Wolfe would contend, was that if a writer bases their reconstruction of a character’s subjective life on the most scrupulous reporting, it’s possible to approach the truth of the character’s inner world.
Wolfe would probably also contend that Vincent did something miraculous in Self-Made Man. She riffed off his formula, itself a riff of historical proportions, and created an authentic first-person account of life lived as a second person. Rather than reconstructing the objective lives of the men she meets, she asks them questions; she observes them; finally, after the most scrupulous of reporting, she recreates their inner world, like Wolfe recreating The Pump House Gang, but more heroically. She rents out the space of her own emotional life to accomplish the feat. She refurnishes the female mind with standard male appointments.
Dismissing this accomplishment as “endlessly problematic,” Marlowe maintains in her review that Vincent never rented a square foot of her own emotional life. She couldn’t. The furniture is bolted down. The tenant never leaves. In playful staccato, these are the depressing notes of the serial memoirists, unable to escape themselves and unable to understand how anyone else could do so with any wherewithal. As an intellectual philosophy this is, unfortunately, buncombe triply damned.
That Vincent’s mind is of the lesbian female variety is merely incidental, and not at all a hindrance to accurate reporting on men. Tom Wolfe likes ice cream colored suits. He also has the talent to write about NASCAR, bohemia, seersucker suits and downtown chic. In other words, for Marlowe to remark that Vincent’s book is illegitimate because “[unlike a straight woman], she isn’t burdened by all that anger and resentment and neediness,” is like claiming Tom Wolfe can’t write about sequin jackets because he isn’t wearing one.
Vincent’s commentary on manhood is too rich and detailed to bear full recounting here, but as a young, ex-college jock, who knows my masculine share about strip clubs and bachelorettes, I can vouch for its resonance. I feel compelled to note, with a smile, that Marlowe has produced an inadvertent proof of Vincent’s conclusions.
Vincent found American cultural expectations to be a “leaden mythology.” Any man who has lived past high school will recognize the burden: a three-note emotional range, bland style, clipped speech, and toothy displays of prowess. Plenty of men buck this weight, of course. They grow up and become relatively free, their “burden” being their natural bulk. But according to Vincent, the average man – a man like the ones she lived among – suffers in silence, forever clamped in self-policed, culturally prescribed manliness. “That, I quickly learned is the straightjacket of the male role,” she writes. “You are not allowed to be a complete human being. Instead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses.” What’s more, Vincent found “not only that men are—here is the dreaded word—victims of the patriarchy, too, but that women have been codeterminers in the system,” at times as active as men themselves in making and keeping men in their role.
Don’t believe it? Marlowe’s review proves the point.
Of Self-made Man, she mindlessly writes “I suspect that the audience for this book is straight women [because] since when are men curious about themselves.” In the next sentence, directly after illustrating this expectation for manhood, she has the empty-headedness to fault Vincent for being “too ready to buy into the idea that men behave badly because they have to maintain a culturally mandated tough-guy front.”
The really unfortunate thing is that Marlowe is a singularly talented writer, with a big aphoristic brain, and a PhD in philosophy to boot. If only she weren’t so enthralled by her own perspective and stupid in her own culture, she could clearly be better than Vincent, more adept at illuminating the corners of humanity and elucidating the complexities of contemporary life. Instead, she reads Vincent and reacts as if the average man or woman, straight or gay, is exactly the person TV sitcoms and pop talk shows portray. In a sense, Marlowe has gone-native in TV Land. She can only think in stereotypes and write within the cultural lines.
For example, there is the previously quoted remark about women’s “neediness,” “resentment,” and “anger,” articulated in such a way to make it obvious that Marlowe believes these things are a kind of feminine birthright. To be a woman is to be angry (huh?). Then there is a backhanded slap to Vincent’s admittedly masculine-looking jaw and its lack of personal jabbering:
“Pretty scary to discover that one’s perceived gender is all in one’s attitude, no? But Ms. Vincent is neutral as ever…. she doesn’t want to go there, and her reluctance seems, well, very traditionally Anglo-Saxon and masculine.”
Marlowe, her doctorate evidently not stretching this far, seems unaware that gender is in fact perceived. Sex is biological; gender is cultural. But, yes, shame on Vincent for elevating a personalized rehash of cultural reality into an objective inquiry into manhood. Besides, everybody who owns a television knows that bathos and self-talk are the real sources of truth. Everyone gendered knows that.
 If interested, a note that says “Ann Marlowe is the author of How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z” reliably means the review is done out of duty; reviewing one’s peers is part of being a writer. But if the note says, “Ann Marlowe is at work on a memoir of romance in Afghanistan ”—the key phrase being “at work”—penury resulting from an overlived advance is likely to blame.