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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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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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