June 5, 2018

Maybe we can blame the canon for the incel rebellion?


A little more than a month ago, Alek Minassian murdered ten people in Toronto in an effort to advance the “incel rebellion” — a movement among extremist members of the “involuntarily celibate” community to punish women for not wanting to have sex with them. Think pieces ensued. The most offensive among them entertained the suggestion that women, much like money and property, are objects to be “distributed” in a way that is more fair to men whose sexually-motivated violence isn’t condoned but is understood.

Writing for the Guardian, Erin Spampinato posits that men might feel this kind of radical entitlement because anglo-American literary culture teaches them to: the books we read in school “[treat] the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.”

It may be a little generous to suggest that these homicidal maniacs are taking their cues from a deep internalization of Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or The Things They Carried, but there’s a valid (if elliptical) argument to be made that the “crisis in masculinity in America” might be at least partially addressed by “reassessing the canon.”

“I’m not saying that we need to divest entirely from the mid-century authors like Pinter, Bellow, Updike and Roth who have so shaped American literary culture,” Spampinato writes:

But I do think it’s time to be done with this particular story, which treats white male rage as a ceaseless source of interest. Perhaps we already are done with this story, and instead of representing a generation-wide crisis in masculinity, the incels are just the dudes who haven’t gotten over the fact that we’ve gotten over them. In that case, we might view their terrorism (or even the affront to civil rights represented by Trump’s win) not as the beginning of an uprising but as the last gasps of a defeated army.

Let us hope.

NB Spampinato also makes some good points about how we address male sexual deprivation with concerned interest, while we have traditionally identified women’s sexual frustration “as the psychological problem of hysteria.” For more on that, may we recommend Sady Doyle’s masterpiece Trainwreck?



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.