Friday, February 7, 2014

Fratire (Frat-boy Satire) Is So Yesterday

It's difficult to discuss this topic because so few people know the term fratire, and still fewer apparently think it deserves any attention at all. The term fratire, derived from "fraternity satire," was coined by New York Times book reviewer Warren St. John after his editor informed him that calling the as-yet unlabeled literary genre "dick lit" was not fit to print. St. John was working at the time on a piece that surveyed the landscape of male-audience relationship fiction. That literary vista seemed unaccountably barren in comparison with the highly populated shelves of the female-audience counterpart, chick lit.
Too bad for the sake of the publishing industry that this anonymous editor made that call. When you have to explain what's behind a brand name, it's not a brand at all. Fratire was a murky concept, and a too-narrow focus. Dick lit, on the other hand, might have gained some traction in popular culture, while also having legitimate roots in Freudian theory (phallic narcissism). And it would have a time-honored literary tradition, albeit with a new label. To explore phallic narcissism, read just about any book by Philip Roth. In this genre, Portnoy's Complaint is a, uh, seminal work.
By the way, it's no use discussing the lame terms guy lit and lad lit. No one knows what they mean. And geek lit is a much larger tent - basically populated with anyone who'd go willingly to Comic-Con.
The poster-boy author for the emergent fratire genre was Tucker Max, whose collection of short stories, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, took his college-age readership by storm. The success of the book inspired a movie, which proved to have exactly zero appeal with general audiences. About the same time, Chuck Palahniuk's Choke was also rendered on film, and it, too, disappeared from theaters quickly. The wizards of Hollywood probably rightly concluded that fratire, or anything like it, would never grow legs. A few years before, Palahniuk's Fight Club had proved a remarkable exception. But that story was not so much about relationships as about the more traditional movie fare of watching reckless, desperate men duking it out. Oddly enough for the purpose of defining literary genres, Fight Club was also something of an exception to Palahniuk's recurring themes in his other books, which have more to do with the puzzles of heterosexual relationships. But that movie, more than any of his books, established his cult popularity. An image of him on his website shows him with a black eye and a bandage over the bridge of his nose, an obvious reference to the enduring popularity of his more belligerent material. And he's announced he'll do a Fight Club sequel.
Two recent articles report the retreat of Tucker Max from the literary stage, along with the predictable pronouncements of the demise of fratire: New York magazine announced "Notorious Frat Douche Tucker Max Is an Angel Investor Now," and ezine Jezebel continues the thread with "Tucker Max Is Now an Investor, Doesn't Care for Hookup Apps."
In my view, there was never anything all that interesting about fratire. I once called it "puke-on-your-shoes journalism." And when Max's stories weren't literally studying his vomit after binge drinking, they were about planning or attempting or succeeding at date rape - or passing out beforehand.
The theme of Max's stories, as well as the popular reception he received on campus-tour interviews, seemed to be that women just want to be dominated. His message to young men seemed to be, "Man up and get it done." And to women, "Cut the crap and admit you're all sluts at heart."
And it won't come as any surprise that this approach was deliberately and calculatingly offensive. After all, it takes a lot to shock audiences these days, and Max pulled it off, for awhile.
On the chick lit side of the ledger, the long-playing popularity of Bridget Jones's Diary, Sex and the City, and The Devil Wears Prada - all of which have been made into wildly successful movies - would seem to indicate that women, unlike men, are eager to analyze their relationship troubles. However, notably absent from the conversation is how sexist the chick-lit genre is. Helen Fielding has admitted that she modeled Bridget Jones's Diary on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The engine of that early 19th century plot is that an educated and refined - but disenfranchised - woman had only one hope of social success - to marry a wealthy nobleman. In Sex and the City, that engine is still purring right along. Carrie Bradshaw thinks she's liberated and self-actualizing. She's a self-supporting journalist and book author, after all. But the engine of her story is all about deciding on a role model for herself. She has three close female friends - each of which has coped with the plight of being single and female in a different way. One is a traditionalist, one a single-mom professional, and one a libertine. Carrie ends up landing and marrying Big, a macho wizard of Wall Street who can give her the social standing she craves. It seems that, despite the measure of success she has enjoyed on her own, she knows she will never go zinging about the globe on private jets and be invited to palatial estates unless she welds herself to such a benefactor.
Even more appalling in terms of its sexism and blatant misogyny is Fifty Shades of Grey. This story  retools The Story of O, a cult novel of the 1950s, which was itself a thinly disguised retelling of the exploits of the Marquis de Sade, whose name inspired the term sadism.
And what's the theme of Fifty Shades of Grey? Women just want to be dominated.
Perhaps it's that women at times like to fantasize about being dominated, about how their lives might be different if they'd found Mr. Big, or about what it might be like to have a new luxury of choice in life direction and relationships.
And perhaps also these urges are no more grounded in reality than my wanting to confront the guy next door and pound his face in. (Which I don't, Rock. Honest!)
I coined the term boychik lit to describe a male-oriented genre that, like chick lit, puzzles about relationships, but from the first-person point of view of a young man. I invented a main character, Rollo Hemphill, a geek who fails continually upward. He is puzzled not only by his success but also by how little that success has to do with the happiness of his relationships.
It may be that boychik lit is as unfortunate a choice of labels as fratire was. Some portion of my audience, not so used to Yiddishisms, might think a boychik is some kind of cross-dresser or transvestite. I really have nothing to say to them. I bet they don't read much.
Again, a brand name that has to be explained is probably no brand at all.
But I did make the effort. And I think an ongoing discussion about what type of satirical fiction might appeal to men should survive the justifiable demise of fratire.
Let's face it, young women - generally, but not always - seek relationships, and young men seek sex partners. So boychik lit is about a young man on the make. But in its audience are also mature men who want to remember what it was like to be in the marketplace, as well as women of any age who can't help being amused by how foolish all men are.
RIP, you authors of fratire. But I fear that, like the newly popular characters of zombie-lit, you won't stay buried. ~ ~ ~

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