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Talking to Adelle Waldman

Author of the controversial new novel 'The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.' explains why women readers hate her protagonist

2:14 PM, Sep 26, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Since its July publication, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. has quickly become one of the most controversial novels of the year. The literary debut of author Adelle Waldman gives an account of the romantic and intellectual life of a young writer who, on the verge of publishing his first book, is starting to become, in the terminology of Nietzsche, who he is. The issue is that women don’t like who that is, neither the women the protagonist Nate dates, nor women readers, many of whom find him this “sensitive literary man” the most loathsome male character in modern American fiction since Philip Roth’s lust-addled narcissist, Alexander Portnoy.  

Nonetheless, Waldman’s landscape of early 21st-century life among the young, talented and ambitious urban elite has won a large following and wide acclaim, here at home as well as abroad. A Jane Austen-like social drama about the peculiar mating habits of a privileged class, Nathaniel P. is a compelling and unsentimental portrait of those who, frankly, do not easily or often command sympathy and affection. Waldman, a 36-year-old Baltimore native who now lives in Brooklyn, the “writerly” borough where her novel is set, seems to take pleasure in undercutting all sorts of platitudes and conventional wisdom. Indeed, from one perspective, her skillful novel may be best understood as a Balzac-like documentary detailing the effects of the sexual revolution—or what happens when under the banner of women’s freedom, men, free to choose among a multitude of possible partners, are afforded the luxury of having what they want at discount.

If men and women have strong feelings about Waldman’s book, and her characters, that’s because the stakes are high. The particular form of their relationships and the ones dramatized in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. were shaped by a cultural shift that they merely inherited from previous generations that never could have imagined the effect the sexual revolution would have on American society, the family, and the individual, both men and women? Recently, I spoke with Waldman about her book.

The novel is in the third person, but written from a male perspective. What were the pitfalls and what were the advantages to writing across that divide?

I think people initially suspected that even if the character was believably male, he’d likely be an especially tender-hearted or feminine guy. Others assumed the book would be full of feminist dogma or reductive, therapeutic explanations for Nate’s behavior. I wanted to explore certain types of behavior that seemed to me typically male, and yet were not, to my mind, adequately covered in books by men. I think if you read Roth and Bellow, in addition to other contemporary male authors, you get many terrific things, but I’m not sure one of them is an accurate picture of what a certain type of man is like to date. Many contemporary novels seem to me idealized or sanitized when it comes to relationships—not that they are stripped of bad behavior but that the bad behavior is trumped up, made to become glamorous. I set out to explore a certain type of thinking in all its humiliating ordinariness: the shallowness, the dreary, repetitive alternation between the desire for togetherness and the desire for solitude, the intermittently lacking self-awareness, the batting away of feelings of discomfort or guilt and the failures of empathy. I also wanted to explore ideas a progressive modern man might have about women’s intellect and writing. At one point in the novel, Nate says 80% of the writers he likes are men. He thinks women are more prone to advocacy and less capable of dispassionate analysis. I felt as a woman I’d run into that kind of thinking.

Why do you think that women, as you told me, hate Nate as much as they do Portnoy?

Though I too have a pretty extensive moral critique of Nate, I’ve been surprised by how many women hate him so unreservedly. (Personally I have some fondness for him.) The women who dislike him most tend to feel that he reminds them of an ex-boyfriend or else they find him arrogant, not simply with women, but in his judgments generally—he reminds them of people they knew in life and felt judged by. I find that interesting. I think we live in a moment that prizes egalitarianism so much that as readers we often expect to be flattered—we don’t want to feel threatened or implicated by a character’s intelligence. On the other hand, women who defend Nate sometimes come down hard on Hannah, the woman Nate spends much of the book in a relationship with. Her vulnerability angers them.

This is of course a novel and not a tract, but where does the novel come down on the legacy of feminism and the sexual revolution, insofar as it affects intimate relationships, marriage and family? And where do you come down on it?

I tried very hard to document what I saw in the real world; I wanted to avoid flattening or distorting reality to fit a pre-existing mold or make an argument. I hope that the novel looks, for better or worse, like modern urban life. If the picture it paints of gender relations gives people something to base arguments on, I am glad for it, but I don’t think the novel itself contains an argument.

As for what I think, I believe that women benefit from feminism far more than they’ve been hurt by it, but I think many of us feel a disconnect between our ideas and our feelings. People who grew up after the sixties imbibed this notion that all that matters is honesty, that one’s only obligation is to treat people like responsible moral actors and that therefore if a man doesn’t lie to a woman or mislead her, he has done nothing wrong. But I think our emotions often clash with this pat theory; I think this is what Nate struggles with initially in the novel. In practice, sexual liberation has tended to mean that typically male behavior is held up as the norm and seen as something women should aspire to. By which I mean, I think young women often feel they should be okay with casual sex—that it’s a sign of an adventurous spirit—or that they shouldn’t be so focused on relationships and worry that to be concerned with relationships signals a failure of intellectual or artistic spirit. To me, the reverse is true. Men like Nate should care about relationships more. I think it’s a very useful inclination that pushes one forward toward intellectual growth, maturity and greater empathy as well as the humility of spirit that comes from spending a good bit of one’s time with a person who knows your weaknesses and sees through your pretenses.

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