Michael Adelberg wrote two novels that we published: A Thinking Man’s Bully, in 2012, described by Publishers Weekly as “A fresh perspective on bullying and the consequences of brutality into a novel brimming with personality and narrative brio,” followed, in 2014, by Saving the Hooker. Kirkus called it "A funny tale of a lazy and unprincipled postdoc whose brain resides firmly in his crotch. Well-crafted and enjoyable if you are up for a rather raunchy read.” So it comes as no surprise that Mike titles his blog: Giving Voice to the Asshole.
* * *
"From the Greek tragedies, to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Voltaire, European stories were frequently built around prideful men doing terrible things. But the United States set out to be different. With few exceptions, they were optimistic. America’s first literary hero, Natty Bumpo, Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” boys, and the plain-spoken heroes of the great westerns and detectives all tread the same path. Readers fully understood that virtuous heroes would overcome the odds and beat the villain in the end.
"Even amid the tumult of the 60s and 70s, when so many of America’s cultural norms were challenged—the goodness of the hero persisted. Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H and Randal McMurphy of One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest were womanizing boozers bucking against society. They were more complicated than John Wayne’s “aw shucks” western heroes, but Pierce and McMurphy were still true heroes, driven by great inner integrity. We easily rooted for them against simplistic symbols of the status quo.
"In the 1980s, heroes grew simpler again, particularly in Hollywood, where a new generation of fearless muscle-bound nit-wits (Rambo, etc.) set box office records. While there were exceptions here and there, popular American stories have always featured heroic main characters. But if you look closely, that truism is becoming increasingly less true.
"Perhaps the tipping point came with the huge success of Seinfeld. The most popular television program of the 1990s starred a character who was a shallow narcissist. The so-called “show about nothing” built plots around waiting for a table at Chinese restaurant—there was never an existential threat to overcome, and only rarely a villain to best. By 2000, Americans were ready for something more interesting.
"We started patronizing stories with deeply flawed, non-likable main characters. In 2003, Edward Jones won the Pulitzer with The Known World, a non-judgmental meditation on slavery that reminded Americans that free African-American owned slaves in the Antebellum South. Peter Carey’s The True History of Kelley Gang, a fictional memoir about a non-contrite 19th Century murderer rationalizing his sins to his daughter, won the Booker Prize shortly after that. Meanwhile, authors such as Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and political satirist Chris Buckley built followings on novels starring non-admirable main characters.
"The foible-filled memoir-ish stories of David Sedaris and Augustin Burroughs found markets without heroes or big plots. Erik Larsen’s best-seller The Devil in the White City, took readers inside the head of a 19th Century murderer through journalistic narration. Even well-established, high-end authors like Philip Roth (Operation Shylock) and Don Delillo (Fallen Man) offered darker stories. It is hard to imagine a big publisher like Harper-Collins publishing something as dark as Alissa Nutting’s Tampa (unapologetic pedophile teacher gets away with raping a minor and manslaughter and starts up again elsewhere) even a decade ago.
"As is generally the case, small presses show the big presses what is possible. The Permanent Press, for example, has published several wonderful books with non-heroic main characters: The Double-Life of Alfred Buber (an older American attorney takes a prostitute bride in Thailand), Pretend All Your Life (Manhattan plastic surgeon operates on his son to help him flee his pre 9-11 life), and Time Among the Dead (aging English noble disparages his lineage, neighbors and society). I am honored that my own two novels starring non-admirable main characters are stablemates of these fine books.
"With small presses pushing the envelope, today’s best television programs are darker than ever. House of Cards, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Girls, and others, are all built around main characters who are basically assholes. Hollywood has not yet embraced this trend with open arms—but the success of The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street suggest that even a risk-averse Hollywood now understands that Americans will pay to see a complicated anti-hero in the starring role.
"Why do Americans increasingly love the villain? Perhaps it is because the typical hero-villain tale has grown boring. We have seen the hero overcome the odds to beat a simplistic asshole villain dozens of times over. Today’s reconstituted James Bond and today’s reconstituted Batman are basically the same person—they just dress differently. Yawn.
"Writers have long loved their villains even while forced by convention to vanquish him (or, very rarely, her). There is a reason that Milton’s Lucifer (Paradise Lost) and Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) have all the best lines. Recent trends, however, finally free writers to embrace anti-heroes and develop their complexities.
"To misappropriate Tolstoy’s observation about families, 'All heroes resemble one another, all assholes develop in their own way.' So authors, let’s keep developing our anti-heroes and continue giving voice to the asshole."
* * *
COMING NEXT WEDNESDAY be sure to tune in to yet another weekly blog.