Man Troubles

In her new book 'Stiffed,' feminist author Susan Faludi portrays the crisis in which American men find themselves. Or does she?

Cover Story

October 03, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

It seems there's been a misunderstanding.

One minute Susan Faludi is starting a tour promoting her new book, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," the next thing you know she's saying her critics have it wrong, she's actually not making a big generalization about "the American man."

How do these things happen?

Of course, says Faludi, there can be no "the" in "American man." There are so many, after all, living all over the place. Who could cover that territory? As it is, she spent six years talking with hundreds of men, then published hundreds of pages -- 608, not including footnotes, index and acknowledgments (in which she allows -- lo and behold -- that men can communicate!). All that, yet you probably can name an American man or two Faludi did not mention, maybe even another who would pick up her book, read the inside flap where it says "America is having a masculinity crisis," and say, "Who, me?"

Faludi says she wasn't about dissecting every Tom, Dick and Harry. She looked at places on the American manhood map where economic and social distress seemed particularly apparent. Like any respectable seismologist, she examined fault lines. The question is what, if anything, the earthquake hot spots reveal about the rest of the landscape.

Much, says Faludi, which is not to uphold the good journalistic tradition of conveying the wrong idea.

"This is not an attempt to diagnose an entire life, a hidden inner life of the American man," says Faludi, who made the cover of Newsweek with the headline: "A Feminist's Surprising Take on the New Male Dilemma."

Hype and hoopla aside, Faludi says the book is "not about what all men are feeling or even what the majority of men are feeling. It's about a cultural change that has caused a lot of pain," says Faludi. "It's not trying to make some sweeping statement about the state of men today."

What, then, is the reader to make of the passages establishing the premise of the book, evoking a moment when a torch passed to a postwar generation of boys in the form of a wondrous new light orbiting Earth? There's a reference to the American satellite Echo becoming "a remote point of triangulation connecting one generation of men to the next, and a visual marker of vaulting technological power and progress to be claimed in the future by every baby-boom boy."

And what's this a few pages later?: "It is as if a generation of men had lined up at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to liftoff, only to watch their rocket -- containing all their hopes and dreams -- burn up on the launch pad."

Sounds vaguely like the prose equivalent of the Richard Strauss music opening "2001: A Space Odyssey." A rather grand overture for a book making no grand statement.

Going on tour

Perhaps it's not what Faludi had in mind. It's worth noting that when she spoke at the Baltimore Book Festival last weekend, she made minor changes to remarks she delivered two days before at the National Press Club in Washington. She answered the criticism that "I'm picking marginal men and using them to represent the whole" by saying the men she has written about may be seen as "canaries in the mine. What they experience as catastrophe, others see as pressure."

She spoke and signed books for a mostly female crowd of about 200, stopping in Baltimore on a tour that takes her to 16 cities in eight weeks. She'll hit the TV networks, National Public Radio, bookstores, libraries and points between. It's what happens when your profile rises in the media, even when your new book says the most destructive toxic plume in American culture today oozes from the very celebrity marketing machine that makes such tours happen.

Faludi, 40, who won a Pulitzer Prize for labor reporting at the Wall Street Journal in 1991, came to national media attention the same year by publishing "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." She challenged a cultural assault on feminism, blasting, among others, the media for failing to scrutinize the evidence before concocting all those trendy stories about overwrought, overworked and underloved women. The book became a best-seller and won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

If you bump into her on the book tour, you're apt to wonder if she's hasn't pulled an Andy Warhol stunt and sent someone else to take her place and use her name. This is Susan Faludi? This petite woman with the big smile and the little voice? This person who approaches a live microphone as most folks approach a live snake?

You need a good ear to hear Faludi, even across a table in a corner of Baltimore's Penn Station on a sleepy Saturday afternoon. She's sitting over coffee, waiting for a train to New York, apparently tolerating the presence of one more reporter, yet more skepticism about the American masculinity crisis. She's putting up with it gracefully, as one might acquiesce to dental work.

An idea takes form

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