You have to wonder what kind of anxiety about masculinity drives the editors at the New York Times. Last week it was “bullish on boyish-boys,” a survey of current talk show hosts. This week it’s a question generated by the 100th anniversary of writer William Burroughs’s birth.
“What has become,” the Bookends section headline wonders, “of the so-called literary bad boy?”
In what appears to be a gesture toward gender parity, this column typically solicits pieces by a man and a woman. There may even have been an occasion on which two women writers squared off.
The odd thing is that neither James Parker nor Rivka Galchen is enamored of the category “literary bad boy.” But both take a stab at the question.
Parker opens with the (universal) writer’s dilemma: “It’s the question every writer faces every morning of his or her life: Am I Malcolm Gladwell today, or am I Arthur Rimbaud? Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head in a bucket of absinthe?”
Hmm. I’d love to know whether any woman writer starts her writing day with that conundrum. It’s curious that Parker goes for the “his or her” gender gesture and then comes up with his two male models. I suppose that if I were a poet, I might wonder, as I drank my morning tea, whether I’d ever reach the heights (or depths) of the man who composed “A Season in Hell”; and if not, I might well, as a mere memoirist, envy the genius of the poet who declared “Je est un autre” (I is another) at age 16! And absinthe is hard to come by. But still, why the bizarre binary?
All the more so that Parker, after cataloguing a genealogy of bad boys from poets to bad-boy chefs (never mentioning Burroughs), reaches the sublime gender counter example of Emily Dickinson! “Who was badder then Emily Dickinson, housebound and life-abstemious in Amherst, Mass., but kicking open the doors of perception of with every poem?” Hurrah for Emily. Why not refuse the bad-boy category from the start and begin there: Who am I today? Emily Dickinson or―hard to find the loathed Gladwell female equivalent―and I don’t think I’ll try.
Galchen’s cautious (good-girl) meditation, and homage to Burroughs, concludes with her conviction that so-called “literary bad boys” still exist, even thought she’d be reluctant to name any.
Curiously, neither mentions the well-known fact that Burroughs accidentally killed his common-law wife in a drunken game of William Tell. And Burroughs is said to have claimed that the accident engendered his literary career.
If that’s what it takes to make it into the bad-boy category, I’ll take “life-abstemious” (?!) Emily Dickinson any day.