Chad Kultgen's first novel was a breakthrough book for me because it made me realize that I was capable of writing a novel.
Why? The simple answer is it was the prose. Kultgen's style was sparse, minimalistic, and clean, with few accroutements. Although I'd later realize that this sort of writing is actually not at all easy to produce, it gave me a sort of false confidence that I could readily write a similar type of "fratire" genre novel. My earlier drafts were a pure aping of his style, and over time, I started to develop my own twist on his contemporary conversational prose.
Really, though, I think the reason this book made something click inside of me was the banality of the protagonist. Although Bret Easton Ellis's novels are famous for their apparent lack of plot-based structure, it's difficult to relate to his very specific presentation of upper-class White Californian or New Yorker lifestyles. There's an other-worldliness to his fiction that isn't there in Kultgen's work, which is emphatically realist. Even though the protagonist in The Average American Male does little other than masturbate, play video games, and focus on sex, there's something engaging about the way Kultgen writes about his daily life, a kind of joie de vivre with which he approaches the description of modern aimlessness and boredom.
The Average American Male is clearly a satire about American masculinity and is meant to illuminate the supposedly base sexual motivations of young men, but the actual character simply reads like a straightforward sociopath with minimal affect or inner emotional life. The influence of Bret East on Ellis is clear, and Kultgen's stories have a distinct feel to them - his style and characters are more accessible and realistically drawn.
Deliberate or not, the title of the novel is definitely a misnomer. In fact, I'd submit that the power of fiction with young men as protagonists is that it can discuss the inner emotional lives of men that are typically deliberately blunted when interacting with others. Longing, loneliness, heartbreak, and pain are feelings that I'd argue fit squarely within the realm of realism for a lot of twentysomething men, even those who look like caricatures of over the top frat boys and the like. There's a reason men in this age cohort kill themselves with alarming frequency and it's not because they're detached hypersexualized sociopaths (in any event, sociopathy makes you more psychologically resilient). In any event, in Kultgen's later books, his intent veers back to the sincere, and although there are certainly satirical elements still present, the identical protagonist in The Average American Marriage is a fully fleshed out character, a veritable human being and not just a tool of satire.
This novel was Kultgen's first, and became a breakout success due in part to a viral marketing campaign (deliberately polarizing, Kultgen knows his readership well), but also because there aren't a lot of general fiction novels that are targeted toward young men (I am excluding genre fiction, obviously). I'm going through the querying process now, and it's clear to me that the literati in New York represent the old guard of establishment taste. The only agents that have asked for pages are those under the age of 30, and I'm not surprised by that.
There's an obvious homogenizing effect that comes from the top-down in the publishing industry, which is why so much literary fiction reads like the same old boring shit about middle class, maybe academic White people and the boring as fuck navel gazing lives. To take a chance on something really risky - like, say, a novel about a white supremacist misogynist written in the first person by a person of colour - well, that's probably not going to happen.
On Kultgen's blog, he writes that it took him seven years of trying before he made it through one of the gatekeepers who took a chance on him, and I'm not the least bit surprised. His writing is raw and honest and unflinching, but it's not the good kind of "raw and honest" that the literati like to splash on back covers full of recommendations.
Regardless, Chad, if you're reading this, thank you.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis