Recently, Electric Lit published an essay by Erin Spampinato titled, “The Literary Roots of the Incel Movement.” In it, the author argues that a culture of reading and privileging “white male” (para. 5) texts has resulted in the modern-day incelmovement (note: the term “incel” is a portmanteau for “involuntary celibates.” It is most often used by white, male, heterosexuals online who claim they cannot “find love/romance” because of contemporary culture’s “demands” on their gender [read: supposed emasculation]. The term is now often used as analogous to misogynist because these self-described incels believe they have a “right” to sexual intercourse, without condition).The author names titles such as Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Things They Carried, to support her point that much of our school-taught canon (aside: I was not required to read any of these in school) is made up of books whose protagonists are sexually frustrated, then connects that literary frustration to modern-day “young men [who think] that male pathos is so pathetic, so worthy of tribute” (para. 1). Just a few sentences later, she connects that sentiment to the dawn of “the incel,” a “monstrous birth of our casually cruel and anonymous internet culture [and] a product of Anglo-American literary culture, which treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all” (ibid).
While I find much of Spampinato’s argument regarding the tradition and its still-too-exclusive canon compelling and accurate, the leap she makes between reading literature (even literature of the white male) and becoming a violent misogynist and/or internet troll, is tenuous at best. Consider two prominent incels (I refuse to use their names, but they are easy enough to find) who made headlines for their violent attacks in North America: one, a self-identified incel who carried out the recent Toronto van attack was 25-years-old; the other, described as the Toronto terrorist’s “hero,” murdered six people at a University and was 22-years-old. Isn’t it just as (perhaps even more) likely that the dominate narrative exposure these young men had was not from literature, but from, say, streaming television and social media?
In addition, study after study suggests that reading classic literature/literary fiction, among other genres, makes people more humanist and empathetic. In addition, study after study demonstrates that people are reading less and less (especially “literature”). People having these conversations (writers and readers of articles like this one) are discussing these very ideas about men and women, masculinity and femininity, race and class, nationalism and colonialism, patriotism and religion, in literature and elsewhere. Are we to believe that these “incels” are reading literature and also having these discussions? Reading these books but ignoring their themes or interpreting them differently? Treating The Awakening, for example, as a story about woman who got what was coming to her, rather than an example of a courageous woman who boldly demands her sexual freedom in a time when that was nearly impossible? And, assuming they are readers, what’s to say they’re not reading someone like Ayn Rand?
I take Spampinato’s point that we must continue to diversify the canon and discuss what gender (and other) disparities in reading and publishing have done to readers, writers, and cultures to date; however, I think the author’s primary thesis is unsound and no evidence is given to support her major claim, that reading classic literature causes misogyny. Do we have statistics, for example, on incel members and their reading habits, including choice of texts, frequency of reading activity, or favored genre? Where does the writer’s assumption originate, that literature causes these tendencies rather than helps people realize them? After all, without any data, isn’t it equally possible that these men simply do not read literature and therefore are less empathetic because of lack of exposure to humanistic ideals; or that they have not studied literature and therefore lack comprehension skills and global awareness?
Indeed, while some kinds of reading might make human beings “better people,” other genres seem designed to do the exact opposite. How do we know these men are not instead being influenced by, say, classic westerns or true crime novels, or comic books? (no shade meant to these genres!) Spampinato suggests that the problem is classic literary fiction, specifically, and its focus on male sexual superiority, that causes cultural sexism/misogyny, but fascinating textual analysis aside*, where is the evidence that would support this claim? As a part of the larger context, certainly our literature is a contributing factor to how we think about and communicate with the world around us. But to claim it is the root?
Perhaps, if we accept that these “incels” read classic literature/literary fiction, we should also look at the difference between “reading” and “comprehending” (or learning). If we are to grant that what she says is true, an overabundance of white male literature that privileges male sexuality is to blame for misogyny, must we then jump to the conclusion that it is because young men are simply reading a lot of these stories? Or is it possible that they are reading without understanding (or discussing) the issues? Here’s an excerpt from the essay:
The literature we choose to teach our children evidences how untroubled we are by this disturbing cliché that rage and a fascination with violation are characteristic features of (again, white) male sexuality. This is of course one of the main points of O’Brien’s beautiful book, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenager I had read many fictional accounts of men’s rape fantasies long before I had ever read a literary account from the woman’s perspective of rape, or even of consensual sex. I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. (para. 6)
I have highlighted two sentences in this excerpt because they are profound personal post hoc reflections from a thoughtful and critical reader (although she problematically provides just one scene/motif from each representative novel, all of which are arguably complex, and then suggests that these books are “about” that scene/motif). I think it is important to recognize, however, that while I believe she is accurate and honest in what she describes here as her own experience and edification, the anecdotes are also being presented in such a way as to suggest a generalization about larger reading outcomes for other groups/populations. I am not a female-identified reader, so I cannot speak to how broadly the author’s personal experiences translate to other women, but I believe her. As a gay man, I certainly felt the lack of LGBTQ representation (or at least the acknowledgement of it) in my own classes, even throughout college.
It seems important to acknowledge, however, that literary criticism itself has existed for generations because of these very individual interpretations and analyses, and that attempts to assert cultural causation (with any kind of media, really) have been regularly and resoundingly defeated. In other words, Spampinato’s personal reflections on and responses to the assigned reading she was given in school are an important and valid part of this conversation, but I am reluctant to accept them as examples for causation between reading literature and becoming “fill-in-the-blank” (in this case, militantly misogynistic), if only because it stems from a projection of her experience onto others’ reading experiences (all the while assuming that these other people have done the same reading and absorbed the same messages). It is also reductive to say that the incel movement is born in any single thing (i.e. “a product of Anglo-American literary culture”). Perhaps this is hyperbole to generate discussion about our (this community of readers) reading habits, or to illustrate just how systemic and institutionalized the problem of misogyny is; but if that is the case, it needs to be stated more clearly.
In the rest of this passage, Spampinato suggests that reading a number of texts that include, for example, rape fantasies, results in a kind of acceptance of or resignation to rape culture. If this is true, is that not a fault of the teaching and study of literature, rather than the literature itself? Perhaps that is too fine a distinction, but for those few remaining high school programs teaching classic literature, the question would seem highly relevant. It reminds me much of the debates over teaching books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some people object to based on its use of racial slurs (despite that fact that reading in context would and does reveal a great deal about why Twain chooses to use those foul terms, and about history itself). If “we choose to teach our children” literature that is violent or fascinated with white male sexuality, does that mean we accept those features as good, necessary, or normal? In other words, does “reading make it so?” (Et tu, “violent video games create violent people”?) Do we look at every other feature or theme in literature independent of its context, whether classic or some other genre, and suggest that reading a lot of it makes us think that only those issues are important or that only that way of thinking is the right one? Or is teaching these texts an opportunity to have these very discussions? To reject them, question them, teach alongside them? And is that happening?
Spampinato gets to these same questions near the end of her essay. She asks us to think about why we almost intuitively recommend Catcher in the Rye to a teenager, but not The Bell Jar. She suggests that we do not need to eliminate all these white males from the canon, but we do need to change the conversation and we do need to add more diverse voices. With all of these suggestions, I heartily concur. But just as we should avoid unexamined and habit-based recommendations in literature (casually or in the classroom), so too must we be cautious in suggesting, especially without evidence^ and in this age of anti-education, anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” that the activity of reading literature is damaging us morally, socially, or otherwise. That seems, to me, a leap too far.
*Her analysis of this theme in the texts she provides is interesting and provocative. I would like to read more.
^No evidence is presented that incels are reading classic literature/literary fiction of the types addressed in the article and no evidence is provided that reading literature causes negative socio-cultural behaviors (indeed, most studies seem to suggest the opposite). For a comprehensive study of this phenomenon and why “the answer is not simple,” see Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (John Hunt 2017).