Many literary men I met in the late-2000s in NY got their idea of masculinity from the legend of Roth/Bellow/Mailer's selfish "exploits" OFF the page. These men were not reading the books as "critiques." Hence: a 2000s literary man had the sexual morality of a 1960s chauvinist.
The over-worship of particular writers (not necessarily the fault of these writers, i should add) calcified literary morality. This is why the diversification of the canon in the last decade--practically at gunpoint--has been a good thing.
When your masculinity is fragile as a young man, you read men with big "egos"--to shore up your own. But it is easy to forget that the WORST aspects of these men's writings spring from their overinflated egos. I don't just mean troubling male desire (Roth's great subject)...
but real problems on the level of form. If Bellow could "see" other people, he might have written books that had actual "form" and "shape"--that took the reader into account--rather than vast effusions of self-pleased chatter ("Herzog" & "Seize the Day" are exceptions).
And there is a reason that literally no one--not even the Sad Angry Young Literary Men Who Want to BE MAILER--read Mailer.
Roth exemplified the politically liberal / sexually regressive stance that many youthful worshippers of The Partisan Review happily espoused in the 2000s.
Why am I so disturbed the Blake Bailey news (when I thought I was unshockable now)? Is it because he seems like a fragment of the past commenting on a fragment of the past?
Another point. Young people think being "bad" or doing bad things or being emotionally destructive (like Bellow and Mailer) gives you material. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you grow as a person, the more bad past selves you can discard and use as dynamic material.
I remember reading somewhere: young men think Bellow's novels are good b/c he married so many times. But the critic I was reading asked: how do we know he wouldn't have been a BETTER novelist, say, if he had stayed with his 2nd wife?
I'm not making a "moral" argument about marriage or anything...but more this: If Bellow had worked through his ego, say, might he not have grown more as a writer?
So the selfish egotistical lives of these writers had two negative effects: 1) they encouraged the flourishing of other man-children, in perpetuity; 2) and, perversely, they probably stunted the writerly growth of these man-children.
side note: interesting to think about the cultural power of any kind of autofiction, which conflates the writer's art w/ their life or the "mythos" of their life. people look to these authors and their books for instruction b/c they *appear* to be drawn from life
the solution is not to stop reading these writers--roth and bellow are amazing writers--but to hold up different models of literary fame. we are still stuck in the hemingway-era when it comes to male success...
i just want to make clear that i'm not cheerleading for bourgeois life! no! i just mean we're all bad/weird enough as is...most lives are full of complex and highly troubling stuff if you're willing to be honest with yourself