‘The Affair’: A Celebration of White Male Privilege in the Literary World

by Joelle Renstrom

When Showtime’s The Affair begins, Noah Solloway’s (Dominic West) first book is a “failure” due to lack of acclaim. Viewers initially root for Noah’s literary success until the show demonstrates how much his rising star relies on privilege. Rather than explore the way male privilege in the literary world turns Noah into a raging narcissist, the show uses that privilege to forward the narrative in laughably unbelievable—and, unfortunately, all too believable—ways.  But the show’s biggest transgression is how it undermines the women on the show and all women who read books.

“Anyone can write one book,” Noah’s father-in-law, a white guy, tells Noah with a smug smile. “Very few people can write two.” It’s entirely believable that Noah’s first book didn’t make him rich or famous; what’s unbelievable is that the publisher gives him an advance on his second book predicated on a “handshake deal.” Regardless, Noah ends up blowing off that publisher without a single scene devoted to that decision or its repercussions, suggesting that Noah has every right to ditch the deal. Instead, Noah’s father-in-law hooks him up with Harry, a high-powered agent (which means Noah got his first and his second book deals without one, which is highly unlikely). Harry, also a white guy, gets a literary philanthropist to put Noah up in her guest house so he can realize his literary greatness.

The patriarchal nature of the literary world is nothing new. The non-profit organization VIDA tallies publications by women and minorities in various outlets. While some magazines manage to achieve gender parity, roughly 75% of the pieces in high-profile publications such as Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker are written by men. Catherine Nichols describes sending identical book queries to agents under her own name and under the name George Leyer. Out of 50 queries, Catherine received 2 requests for the full manuscript, while 17 agents wanted to see George’s manuscript. “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” says Nichols of her male alter-ego.  Perhaps, then, The Affair is a case of art imitating life. But what happens after Noah publishes his second book constitutes a debasing celebration of that privilege.  

Noah’s second book—a memoir that masquerades as fiction about his affair with Alison (Ruth Wilson)—is a bestseller. Women flock to his readings to make eyes and passes at him. During a Q&A session, a woman praises him for how well he writes female characters, to which Noah replies, “I write the voices of the women I most admire.” The irony is almost too much to bear. Noah doesn’t show admiration for women unless they’re standing naked before him. He either doesn’t understand the women in his life or doesn’t care enough to try. The problem is that we’re not only meant to believe Noah’s full of shit—we’re also meant to believe these female readers are. That a woman—one who claims that the Great Gatsby is her favorite book, no less—either makes a vapid assessment of Noah’s female characters or doesn’t care how he writes women because he’s so darn handsome is an offensive dig on Noah’s most appreciative audience.

Later, the same woman asks Noah to sign a copy of his book to Daisy. “Is there a green light at the end of your dock, Daisy?” he asks.

“Why don’t you find out for yourself?” she says, and gives him her number.

Packed bookstores, impressive sales, and the admiration and desire of women represent Noah’s wildest dreams come true. Few men populate his audiences, which is also Noah’s preference. In her wonderful essay “On Pandering,” writer Claire Watkins says her first book “was well-received by the white male lit establishment [because] it was written for them.” While Noah writes his book, complete with detailed sex scenes straight from his real-life affair, for men, it’s the female readers, depicted as both desperate and superficial, who reward him for his book—and his behavior.

One of the few males at the reading is an undergraduate literature major who in his review likened Noah’s book to porn. Interestingly, he’s the only person other than Alison, who feels exposed and humiliated by Noah’s portrayal of her as a succubus, to question the book’s focus on sex (and Noah takes his comments more seriously, as Alison’s opinion isn’t published). In the Q&A, the reviewer references the James Frey controversy and asks Noah whether his book is memoir or fiction. Noah responds that “James Frey is creating a dense philosophy for the purpose of justifying his own fiasco… my book is fiction.” Because the show portrays the reviewer as insightful, and because he doesn’t make eyes at Noah, this irony resonates. Of course, Noah later picks a fight with the reviewer at a bar, which results in Noah’s humiliation by the only person who seems able to call Noah on his bullshit: a male who also happens to be black.

Lest viewers think Noah’s sex appeal accounts for his success, he also gets nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award. It’s not hard to buy Noah as a tawdry, “populist” (in Harry’s words) writer, but asserting that his literary chops rival those of Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, and Philip Roth stretches credibility and patience. Noah learns that he’s lost the prize—to a woman—and says to his ex-wife, “You know why I didn’t win, don’t you? I was a victim of affirmative action. It’s impossible to be a man in 2015… The Corrections lost to fucking Bel Canto!” (This is the show’s second Jonathan Franzen reference—the first is when Noah arrives late, without the turkey, for Thanksgiving dinner because he was out drinking with Franzen, an author with dubious views on females and feminism). Helen tries to get a few words in: “You did not just say that!” and “I loved Bel Canto!” But she’s laughing (which is probably more acceptable than smacking her ex in public). Beyond the lame joke that of course Helen loved Bel Canto, Noah (and the show) fails to realize the hypocrisy: without women, he wouldn’t have a career.

Noah’s publicist calls him out for requiring “universal adoration,” but instead of refusing to join his throng of admirers, Eden flirts with him incessantly. At the hotel after his reading they make out and start taking off their clothes and a suddenly shrewd Eden leaves him in the lurch. Yet in the next episode, she asks Noah to meet her in a bedroom upstairs during a party to finish what they started. It’s worth pointing out that they attend this party to meet George Clooney and a big-name producer to discuss the movie version of Noah’s book, another ridiculous contrivance. Even though Clooney doesn’t show up, and even though Noah ultimately doesn’t sleep with Eden, Noah snorts coke, ogles women, and ignores frantic phone calls from Alison, who’s in labor.

At the end of season two, it’s unclear whether Noah has a future with Alison or anyone else, and it’s doubtful viewers care. What we do know is that Noah boasts about a $400,000 advance for his third book. As for what he writes in order to get it, I’m not sure I’ll be tuning in to find out. In the words of Noah’s ex-wife Helen, who interrupts Noah’s rant about losing the PEN/Faulkner: “This is not my job anymore… It’s her job. I’m free!”

Image: The Affair

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