by Sean Thor Conroe
Published January 2022
There is this often-quoted adage about internet comment sections, probably you’ve heard it. It’s called Godwin’s Law and it predicts that if an online discussion goes on for long enough, the probability of a reference to Nazism or Hitler approaches one. According to the man who coined it in the early 90s, Mike Godwin, this intentionally pseudo-scientific theory is meant to suggest that someone who readily ‘escalate[s] a debate into Adolf Hitler or Nazi comparisons may be thinking lazily, not adding clarity or wisdom, and contributing to the decay of an argument over time.’ Since the 90s online commenters have come to invoke automatically Godwin’s Law whenever Nazism is mentioned, as though the current argument is already lost, as though such a reference could only ever signify hyperbole. That was until the policies of the Trump administration blurred the distinction. In 2018, Godwin wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that clarified his own interpretation of the law, ‘GL is about remembering history well enough to draw parallels – sometimes with Hitler or with Nazis, sure – that are deeply considered,’ he wrote. ‘Sometimes those comparisons are going to be appropriate, and on those occasions, GL should function less as a conversation ender and more as a conversation starter.’
I bring up this law because I think when it comes to literature about the internet – whether that’s literature that takes the internet as its subject, like Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler or No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, or literature where the internet’s cadence has influenced style, form and vernacular, such as the alt-lit movement and its enduring influence on books like the subject of this review, Fuccboi by Sean Thor Conroe – what’s being responded to, even obliquely, is the development over time of a sort of discursive futility. Online is where we now conduct the majority of our communication with each other. It is where we have come to have our most granular ideological debates, only this granularity has never resulted in any accelerated social progress. We continue to get deeper into the muck, and exhibit greater confoundment at anything less than conformity in these debates, despite the fact that online discussion almost always fails and fails spectacularly. Misunderstanding, miscommunication and projection is so rife that to watch a thread of comments or replies unravel is to see people routinely assume and respond to the exact opposite of what’s actually been said. It’s this constant spectacle of consumption in bad faith that stalls rather than crystalises social cohesion. Sometimes I take screenshots of the most egregious examples, tracking this deterioration. The last screenshot on my phone is the caption under a video of some cats standing in a bathtub under a running shower faucet. The first line says, in sentence case, ‘I want to really point out she chose to stand there and would not move’. The next line, an update in all caps, reads ‘NO WATER IS GETTING IN THEIR EARS. WE WROTE A COMMENT ABOUT IT. THEY HAVE BEEN TO THE VET RECENTLY AND WE DON’T TYPICALLY BATHE THEM THIS WAY, OUR FAUCET WAS BOKEN, CHICLE WALKED UNDER THE RUNNING WATER ON HER OWN. THEY. ARE. FINE.’ Not an example of an ideological debate but a great snapshot of the internet’s tendency to ignite any situation into a contest of moral condemnation and defence.
One of the reasons online discourse tends to fail is because the hypocrisy of hyperbole inevitably sneaks in. Engaging in discussion on the internet is rarely about uncovering or exploring truth, difference and opportunities for compromise but most often about winning, proving yourself correct or morally superior, and doing so as quickly as possible. Sometimes people do this ‘meanly’, they might call someone a dumbass, and sometimes people do this ‘nicely’, they might say they feel sad for the other person (for being a dumbass). Both methods seek to win. I wonder if one of the reasons engaging in discourse on the internet seems to so often be done in bad faith is that to assume everything you encounter might be wrong presents the most opportunities to prove yourself right and therefore win. This culture of competitive discourse has two broad effects on the human psyche, at least as captured across internet books. It either rallies a narrator to consider the culture that produces such phenomena and its effects – what is the right way to thoughtfully exist with others? – or it deadens a narrator’s affect and turns them away from society – there is no right way to thoughtfully exist with others.
In the last year an internet book divided, well, the internet. The book is Fuccboi by Sean Thor Conroe. I’m a bit late in reviewing it because the takes started coming and they didn’t stop coming and I got nervous that I didn’t have anything to add about it. I can’t confidently tell anyone that this book is good and they’ll enjoy it. I can understand why so many people don’t like it. But I have found myself fascinated by it, both by its craft and its extremely divided, often vitriolic, reception and so I am entering the discourse late in the game, doing my best but ultimately failing like everyone, to avoid hyperbole and hypocrisy.
Fuccboi is a work of autofiction. A character named Sean, an Ivy League graduate, reckons with the end of a long term on-and-off relationship with ex bae, ending in the wake of some poorly navigated polyamory and, we eventually glean, ex bae’s abortion. The specifics of how and why these things led to a tortuous aftermath for Sean aren’t detailed, though their weight on Sean’s consciousness and the soul-searching they’ve prompted is. Somewhere between graduation and the beginning of this book (which starts one year after Trump was elected), Sean attempted a walk across America and wrote a book about it, the manuscript of which now rests in the hands of editor bae. He also has a past as a weed farmer and Soundcloud rapper. And now, Sean works as a delivery rider for Postmates. Sean is the son of a Japanese teacher mother and American military officer father. All these biographical details the character Sean shares with Sean Thor Conroe. Sean ‘rails’ weed, shrooms, coffees, cigarettes, occasionally bananas and granola bars. Sometimes, when he’s not delivering late-night pizza or groceries or sneakers, skrt-ing around Philadelphia on his bike (‘after navigating past two police blockades for an anti-Proud Boys march, I finally found a sign to lock my bike to’), he takes manual labour jobs with friends. The rest of the time he thinks about art, mostly literature and rap, and how he can integrate their lessons, make it as a writer and be good to his various baes.
The importance of morality versus aestheticism as indicators of artistic value has long been debated. Should art be judged by the quality of the aesthetic experience it provides, per Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde? Or, does the artist have a moral duty to lead their viewer on a quest to uncover some essential truths that will lead to a more just and honourable society? Does art need to have a point? Do artists need to be ‘held accountable’ if they fail to create works that will improve or in some way offer moral value to humanity? The culturally approved answers to these questions tend to change throughout history, dependent on the conditions of the culture. In the reception to Fuccboi, there are no culturally approved answers to such questions of artistic value. Dependent on the culture of the internet, the book is secondary to the task of proving one’s moral superiority to its author.
A lot of people hate this book and have been saying so since before it even came out. Maybe you have read that Fuccboi is not deconstructing so much as celebrating toxic masculinity, or that Fuccboi sucks, that Fuccboi doesn’t fuck!, or, the take-down that started all the take-downs, that Fuccboi is a plagiarist. Fuccboi, in its reception, has found itself squarely in the smug, vitriolic fray of contemporary considerations of moral responsibility in literature.
The shape of it seems to be: Conroe and Fuccboi, in unpublished manuscript form, were championed and edited by Gian DiTrapano, the beloved cult-figure publisher of indie press New York Tyrant. DiTrapano connected Conroe to an agent and was helping him prepare for its sale. Then, when DiTrapano died unexpectedly last year, it’s generally acknowledged, even by Conroe himself, that on the gravitas of his posthumous recommendation, Fuccboi went from small indie book to very big deal. It was picked up by ‘big 5’ publisher Little Brown for an unspecified six-figure advance. And this struck a lot of writers, mostly other litbros, as unfair, as unearned cred and unearned success.
The author and painter Sam Pink, a bit of a king of American indie publishing, whom Conroe cites as a large influence on Fuccboi (he appears in the book’s works cited list as well as in its acknowledgements) wrote an essay titled ‘Fuck, boy!’ decrying what he viewed as Conroe’s cringey, weaselly ways. Reproducing emails Conroe sent him asking for his blessing on the book, Pink argues that Conroe is a rich kid poser, who plagiarised his style and used it to get into an MFA at Columbia and make bank on his book deal, all the while riding on the cred of alternative indie publishing and pretending he’s ‘from the streets’. It’s very, Azealia Banks voice, The girls are fighting!
There are some funny bits in Pink’s essay. In one of Conroe’s emails, he tells Pink that people are often asking him where got his style from and he tells them back, Sam Pink bitch! Pink points out that the people asking him this question are likely the Ivy League kids who Conroe supposedly hangs out with, ‘Not, as he’s sort of portraying here, some dudes in an alley playing dice, one of them stopping as they notice him, tapping his friend with the back of his hand. Is that fuccboi!? Where you get that style!?’ I can sympathise with Pink to some extent. He cultivated his style over many years and watching someone capitalise on something very personal can, for sure, be a painful experience. But ultimately, being influenced by someone’s style, even copying it, to make your own thing is not plagiarism, as annoying or unoriginal as you might find it. Plagiarism is plagiarism, as Australian readers have recently learned once again. Even characterising Conroe as weaselly seems unfair. He reached out to Pink for blessing and seemingly he also reached out to the other authors he references, including Sheila Heti, whose Motherhood has a profound impact on Sean in the novel, and whose real-life emails with Conroe are reproduced in the book. Heti allegedly was at first weirded out by this but then read the book and blurbed it. ‘Got under my skin in the way the best writing can,’ are her words on the cover. It obviously got under Pink’s skin too, only he didn’t give his blessing, and he is entitled not to do so. The drama kicked off a few months before Fuccboi’s release and lots of people leapt to Pink’s defence, and lots of people called Pink bitter and petty. The criticism that manages to move past the distraction of questioning whether Conroe deserves his success is equally divided on whether this book is the arrival of an exciting new voice, an urgent interrogation of liberal masculinity under late capitalism, or the thin, incoherent naval-gazing of a narcissist.
Dive into the discourse and you start to get the sense that no one, sometimes not even Conroe, knows exactly what this book is. Conroe isn’t great at defending his book. In Dazed:
“I would rather it just be a quiet release… I don’t want all this noise.”
“At the same time,” he muses, “if what I was putting out didn’t receive any type of clapback, is it really living up to all the things that I say art should be in the book – pushing back against something, or saying something different?”
He often seems nervous and bummed out by its reception and hesitant to argue against his more high-profile detractors, like Pink, because those are the people he respects. But even as Conroe seems hesitant to commit to positioning his book’s aim as any one thing, reading it, I think he knew what he was doing with Fuccboi. It’s a performance of ‘very online’ litbro writers (Sam Pink, Tao Lin, Nico Walker, the archetype of men who idolise tormented male writers like Knausgaard) as an entry point to considering a widespread societal denial and discomfort with our own hypocrisy.
Fuccboi is defined by the voice and charm of its narrator, with little narrative or relational character development. The tension driving its loose plot is the mysterious auto-immune disease Sean develops, which causes all of his skin, head to toe, to ooze pus, dry up and flake off in repetitive cycles. His helplessness dealing with this illness and the failure of any of his metaphorical rebirths to stick, propels Sean’s considerations about how to get healthy, get stable, set himself up for functional relationships and create meaningful art.
The marketing material for this book directs us to take it as, ‘A fearless and savagely funny examination of masculinity under late capitalism’. This is a performance whose scope is not limited to masculinity, but extends to the ideological hypocrisy that we all, regardless of gender, fall into. Conroe’s ‘apeing’ is not of one author’s style but of the attitudes of many litbros who want to believe they’re one of the good guys; whether that good versus bad dichotomy is about mainstream Ivy League success versus slept-on indie genius or woke saint versus red-pilled devil. I think Conroe wanted to investigate his own hypocrisies, and in the ensuing pushback found that others of his ilk didn’t want to be put on blast. And others not of his ilk found that they couldn’t convincingly distance themselves from the same tendencies being explored. In many ways, the alleged hypocrisy of Conroe’s autofictional construction works to strengthen the persuasiveness of the performance. If you dismiss Fuccboi Sean as the type of person you would never be, his priorities as vapid and self-indulgent, even dangerous, you get to be one of the good ones too. You escape the burden of confronting your own hypocritical tendencies.
Reading Fuccboi, the impulse to dismiss Sean is strong. It’s something you have to fight against. As Mary Gordon wrote in a 2005 essay for The Atlantic, ‘Moral Fiction’, ‘Not all virtues are equal to all people at all times … What we might like to call the truth is often made up of several truths, including the first thing we thought, its opposite, and something in between.’ In accepting Sean as someone whose virtues are different to yours and going along with him anyway, you are granted the opportunity to ponder opposites, of which he expresses many, and move through hypocrisy.
When the convo flagged/veered woke towards the patriarchy and how women, in America, in 2018, were held down, I felt a rage bubbling.
A rage I knew was sus but nonetheless couldn’t suppress.
How tf was I privileged.
I couldn’t do shit.
Not only that, no one allowed me to show/admit I couldn’t.
Not men nor – if not especially not – women.
Gimmicks in Fuccboi abound. This book has everything. There’s a map of Philadelphia at the start, each section is divided by seasons and introduced with a quote by Nietzsche, male friends are referred to by their initials, crushes are always some variation of bae, that works cited list at the end of the book. The prose is largely stream-of-consciousness one liners, separated by line breaks and delivered in a singular slang-heavy voice purportedly imparted by Sean’s transient upbringing. ‘Ages 1–5 Japanese; 5–8 Gaelic-Scottish accent, UK slang, 8–9 upstate New York, insulated American white folk talk; 9–11 Sactown Latino-Black hood speak; 11 onwards Santa Cruz surfer speak.’ The mish-mash of lingo and Soundcloud rapper affect has also struck a bad note with many of Conroe’s detractors. It’s cringey or appropriative or both (whatever most serves the argument that his success is undeserved!).
Got into a thing with the Fresh Grocer lady over coffee filters.
It honestly wasn’t a biggie, but why say they’re on sale if they aren’t, all I’m sayin.
She was like This muhfucker. What aisle.
I told her what aisle and we went and checked. Together.
Well we started to, but then she told me not to follow her when she noticed me following her.
I was like Aite, fasho putting my hands up. Like I’ll hold it down. Man the reg’.
When she came back and said No du’, they ain’t on sale, I snapped.
That’s why I tried to come with! I said. To show you they are.
So we checked, actually together this time, she hemming and hawing the whole way.
Honestly can’t remember whether they were or weren’t, but I’ll never forget that incident. It connected us. It marked the start of a long, fruitful, and strictly nocturnal friendship.
The thing with all of these gimmicks and with the voice of Sean is that they’re deliberate stylistic choices. Fuccboi is a funny book. Sean’s hyper-seriousness about his quest to transcend his own bullshit and his fervent belief in his ability to read and think his way to an answer for all the contradictions within cultural debates about privilege and power, delivered in impotent lad-speak, is funny!
Before one of the girls from the whitegirl trio he’d flailed at, who followed me out, cut in like “Dude. Chill. You need to go. You’re making it worse.”
“I need to chill?” I said, feeling gaslit. “I-”
The performance of this book, its frequent incoherence and easily argued insights, is not really about Sean ‘toxic mascing his way through it’. It is the distillation of the hypocrisy that grips the cultural discourse milieu and that none of us are immune to. What’s more, and perhaps most provocative of all (like the title designed to provoke, annoy and arouse in equal measure), it’s coming from everyone’s least favourite authoritative voice: the charming lad who perpetually avoids any real responsibility. This is a guy feeling the social pressure to educate himself and engage – discourse his way through it – but discovering that what he naturally finds enlightening/exciting, others find ‘sus’ and shutdown.
“Well yeah, people paying women 70% what they pay men for the same work,” she continued.
I’d just spent the last month unable to walk. The last six unable to work. Holed up, stalled out, body fucked. Watching lowkey red-pill videos on this exact thing.
“Well that doesn’t really make sense, does it. Wouldn’t that incentivize employers to hire women? If they could do that?”
Needless to say, we were no longer homies.
“I’m not saying that’s true necessarily,” I said, going small. “Just saying that’s what I heard.”
“Well, why are you just spewing random stats you heard?” she said.
“Well isn’t that what you’re doing?”
The hypocrisy Sean identifies and is confounded by isn’t entirely imagined. At this moment in time, if you’re moving in vaguely left circles, everyone has experienced the cognitive dissonance of someone who has ACAB in their bio but goes absolutely scorched earth punitive on their friends/loved ones/Twitter followers/Twitter strangers when they disagree. We largely (quietly or otherwise) agree that cancellation and social ostracization are extreme and frightening but also that people who make others feel unsafe should probably not remain in positions where they continue to do that. We will use the phrase ‘my body my choice’ in defence of bodily autonomy and abortion rights but treat anyone hesitant or distrusting of vaccines as the enemy. Please, do NOT tell people that Oliver Reeson is an anti-vaxxer on the back of this review. I love a vaccine, herd immunity is my friend whom I trust and believe in, but putting my beliefs or your beliefs aside, there is some semantic contradiction in these examples, and we are often impatient with anyone who doesn’t immediately see things as we see them. We think the right answer should be obvious, and we’re frustrated when we have to explain it because this can be difficult to do, more difficult than we want to admit after positioning ourselves as experts.
This cultural tendency towards dogmatic absolutes occurs even as we witness them clash frequently. We choose to ignore such clashes, hold fast to the assumed obviousness of a correct answer, because we sense that we are right, that we have synthesised the information available to us in the best way, the right way. We fall back to the intellectual or moral high ground when actually what is happening is we have a feeling, a personal desire, an independent choice about what to believe in and this is what drives us, all. As well as expressive frustration, perhaps what fuels impatience in discourse is the fear that if things aren’t as obvious as we thought, the illusion of certainty we’ve constructed for ourselves, in order to have some sort of mental stability, crumbles. And while that certainty was always only ever imagined, we experience a psychic pain having to give it up.
In a very uncertain time, clinging to constructed certainty as a way of avoiding pain and fear becomes more important. We are living through an age of speaking as experts on matters we are not experts in. As long as you’ve listened to a podcast or read a few articles citing experts, you can decide emphatically that you know what’s right. Even the term fuccboi, or fuckboy, represents a sort of moral vagueness. What does it mean? It was in heavy usage for a while, to refer to a sort of insidious romantic irresponsibility, a useful fallback reference for neoliberal feminism. Over the years it’s become less meaningful and barbed and used to refer to people of all genders. Sometimes a fuckboy is someone who won’t text you back, sometimes it’s someone who wears a lot of adidas. Neither are the greatest of moral failings. Nowadays it tends to only be sharpened when it suits, in the same way we deploy moralistic slogans for their effectiveness in the situation we want to defend rather than an inherent truth they contain. I’m not saying it’s wrong necessarily – when these placard slogans work, they work! But when delivered as indisputable truths that should be universally obvious in one context and then swiftly abandoned in the face of different interests, distrust is fostered. And arguably this distrust is part of what fuels the resentment and miscommunication in the increasing rift between America’s political right and left, and that has a global impact.
To return to the question of aesthetic versus moral value, Conroe’s detractors claim he fails at both, hence the passion behind their distaste. The reception to Fuccboi’s aesthetics falls into a number of traps. For the indie-scene crew, Conroe’s style is the inauthentic approximation of something ‘cool’. For mainstream audiences, all of Fuccboi’s gimmicks are the quaint at best, incoherent at worst, manifestation of an unchecked ego. The most popular forms of literary fiction are plot and character driven novels – those of Moriarty, Franzen, Yanigihara, for instance. Authors who test the limits of this form, Moshfegh, Lerner, Conroe, and manage to do so outside of indie publishing, getting mainstream releases, are less popular – which is to say, lower sales, fewer book club picks. Writing that plays to the interests of other writers isn’t automatically a failure or elitist. It makes sense that if you’re attempting to experiment with form you’re doing so with an audience in mind who will understand that experiment and the traditions that inform it – and writers are among the people who read critically, or at least pretend that they do. And maybe, over time, as literary minimalism led to dirty realism which led to alt-lit, these style trends became narrower and increasingly insular, paring and paring back the elegance of literary flourish. And maybe the mainstream uptake of this experimentation makes it less ‘cool’. But does it matter? If the increasing minimalism of literary style eats itself completely, it will mimic the natural process of digestion and new trends will take its place. The people who like these internet-fuelled literary forms will probably always like it, or always value the time they liked it, for it represented the time in which they lived. Conroe’s style of writing might not be what you like, but dismissing its form as elitist or objectively bad or divorced from literary tradition is untrue. People have always been sceptical of literary trends, and literary trends have always endured for a time before becoming something else.
With regards to its moral duty, Fuccboi’s success or failure is more complicated. Fuccboi extends the lineage of the Künstlerroman. Sean is trying to understand art and trying to understand how art can teach him a better way of being in the world, or make sense of the world, and he repeatedly seems to fail at this understanding, or he fails to explain it to anyone other than himself. He feels the art he encounters but any change in him is intuited rather than articulated, it remains hidden from the reader. The hardest parts of Fuccboi to read are when he tries to, as Sam Pink says, write mini book reviews about the works he’s ingesting. When Sean tries to explain what he’s learned from writing, he is incomprehensible. When this is a short description of its effect on him, as here encountering the poet Gina Myers at a reading –
Hers was like: Yo, here’s a concerted, focused communication of my realest, deepest, fkng feelingest feelings, bro. Take it or leave it.
My heart was beating so fkng hard, so sick.
Or relating to Lenu from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels –
Lenu was getting tanner and sexier every day. Feeling herself. I was feeling myself, basking in the muted midday sunlight on the Rittenhouse lawn, waiting on the shroomies to start hitting.
– he’s still sort of innocently charming. When he breaks into longer analysis, like here, after encountering ‘outdoor hunter dude’ Steve Rinella on Joe Rogan’s podcast and is reminded of a passage from Tao Lin’s Trip about the ancient roots of patriarchy –
Just think about that a sec: muhfuckers hoofing it around, hunting for berries and shit, tryna hit that watering hole or whatever; then one day some savage wrangles tf out of a horse and, suddenly – boom! That watering hole mish ain’t shit! Pull up on a bison right quick with that drive-by spear shot.
This an inevitable, Promethean shift.
But Tao was pointing out the flipside of it: Northern, fairer-skinned folk, dealing with harsher conditions only the most savage didn’t die in, naturally, became savager. Those who survived at least, which was sorta case in point.
– these parts, of which there are many, get fairly boring and tedious. In the way that it’s boring and tedious to meet this sort of guy at a party who monologues unsolicited book takes like he’s doing you a favour, explaining it to you. Sean loves writers, but he has no idea how to integrate any of what they say in a meaningful way. Though there are also plenty of winking hints that Conroe knows what he’s doing. For instance, analysing the formative experience of encountering Lil B, he writes:
He demanded the attention of every demographic, and forced each to question their assumptions: Lil B’s troll element – his outfits, his apparent lack of artistic talent, his funny ad libs – made him an internet phenomenon anyone seeking to ‘understand the times’ had to pay attention to
For this, the subtlety of his subversion (where you couldn’t, like with Bolaño, quite decide ‘whether or not he was an idiot’) Lil B was the goat.
The tension of this himbo on the cusp of epiphany never breaks, no peak of insight is really ever reached or sustained. What leads to Sean’s breakthrough and delivery from illness isn’t choice or action – he falls playing basketball when he shouldn’t, doesn’t do anything about his injury, and ends up being rushed to emergency where he luckily falls into the hands of the people who can help his skin condition. His physical wounds heal but whether he gets anywhere new with his thinking is uncertain.
Sean repeatedly lets himself off the hook and only ever realises in retrospect what he’s done. When editor bae casually confides in him about an assault he reflects:
Her telling me this didn’t preclude me from those very same tendencies that made him do what he did.
Those very same potentialities.
But that’s how I took it.
“I’m one of the good ones!”
One of the moments of genuine insight offered comes, too, from his encounter with Gina Myers.
I guess I hadn’t realized you could just be all the things you were to anyone whenever and that that was an OK thing and that it was an OK thing to talk and write and correspond directly and clearly rather than cryptically and strategically and manipulatively…
But we can’t be sure whether Sean draws a connection between his desire to be the one of the good ones, and the realisation that it’s perhaps better to just be who you are rather than control people’s reactions to you. Insights swirl and contradict each other, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe never breaking this tension, never becoming definitively not a fuckboy and renouncing his lowkey red-pill litbro ways, is what makes this writing get under your skin. A book doesn’t owe insight, if you value style it can just be an interesting or entertaining world or interiority, but there is certainly something dissatisfying about getting to the end of this journey with Sean, unsure if he’s really learned anything. When so much of the book is playing with hypocrisy and discursive failure, and requires the reader’s commitment to go along with the bit, it’s easy to get to the end and feel like you’re owed a little more commitment back from the author. Though, ultimately, I don’t think that being left with such dissatisfaction is a failure of the book and its writing. Because hypocrisy is so difficult to confront, because we are all guilty of it, performing it so committedly is complex and interesting. To get to the end of a journey and still exhibit a kind of moral ambivalence is in keeping with the performance. The sort of post-modern trickery you can get away with if you’re charming and it’s a first novel, which Conroe is and Fuccboi is. The dissatisfaction I felt at the end of the book was still generative in that it prompted me to grapple with its performance. To return to the political rift between right and left that this book is responding to, Conroe not picking a side is the point. Responding to Heti’s Motherhood:
The artist’s role, Sheila reiterated, was not to be political.
It was to be honest and uncompromising.
To shake people.
To, as DFW via Rilke put it: disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.
In the introduction to The Art of Cruelty, which investigates the ethical dilemma incited by witnessing and meditating on cruelty in art, Maggie Nelson writes of wanting to focus on works that demonstrate ‘the sometimes simple, sometimes intricate ways in which humans imprison themselves and their others, thereby causing suffering rather than alleviating it.’ She says, ‘true moral complexity is rarely found in simple reversals. More often it is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance.’ The auto/fiction divide is made most disruptive, and therefore interesting in the case of Fuccboi. The narrative is deeply related to Conroe’s own biography, seemingly, and yet still fiction. The book seems to parody its own discourse and be in dialogue with its reception. And the reception to Fuccboi seems to assume the author has unknowingly given himself away. But what Conroe has done is allowed himself to be viewed as a flawed, possibly foolish figure, standing on the precipice of hypocrisy, relying on self-education, unsure whether veering woke or red is more honest. Conroe understands that this dilemma is alive to some extent inside everyone engaging in internet-fuelled discourse, though he is one of the few ready to acknowledge it. To do this, I think, requires an intimacy with discomfort.
The similarities between Conroe and Sean make the hypocrisy of its narrator harder to locate and therefore analyse. Sean’s consciousness about race, gender, class, labour pinballs all over the place. And maybe it’s that Conroe isn’t able to coalesce these points, in the same way that his extensive use of blunt literary tools/gimmicks can appear oversaturated and random; perhaps he can recognise the crisis of hypocrisy and demonstrate it, but not offer any way out of it. But also, maybe there isn’t a way out yet. Conroe, through Sean the literary fanboy, believing in art deeply even as he demonstrates its capacity for superfluous effect, calls into question our reliance on art in this way, and troubles our passivity when it comes to consuming it. In this way he is making an attempt to shake people, not through simple reversal but by inviting us into the swamp of internet-educated discourse. An environment that, for all its furore and passion and performative soul-searching advocating for change, actually allows a lot of spiritual stagnation and decay.
For a novel that incited so much ethical discussion, the discourse around Fuccboi doesn’t take too much issue with its content. Beyond the fact that Sean listens to Joe Rogan, debates the gender pay gap and the careerism of neoliberal feminism, and the fact that apparently editor bae felt it necessary to edit out the ‘rape-y’ parts of his walk book manuscript, we’re not directly exposed to anything too distressing or upsetting. While I think there’s plenty of material for a moral reading of Fuccboi, the overshadowing concern in all this discourse is with the author, not the book. Namely, that Conroe will receive financial and cultural capital on the back of it. The scope of the moral argument in millennial literature has shifted from a concern with the potential instructional effect that an ‘immoral’ book will have on readers and is now concerned with the perceived success of someone (the author as person) deemed objectionable. Part of this is due to the aforementioned difficulty locating the book’s hypocrisy in the auto/fictional divide. We’re primed by its internet-influenced subject to engage our unmasking drive. But the frustration, I think, is also that Conroe is rewarded or celebrated for capitalising on a sort of vulnerability (depicting ‘controversial’ takes on masculinity) from a privileged position (the MFA, the unproven assertion that he’s a rich kid, being a straight guy), and piggybacking on the style of another writer, maybe. These crimes seem to trump the artistic experience or the idea of art for art’s sake. This is not the first work of recent years to incite controversy around possible plagiarism. Cat Person, the kidney donor thing, John Hughes. Who gets to capitalise off another person’s life or work? We are not always, or not always only, debating the moral direction of behaviour, attitudes and actions expressed or encouraged by works of literature. The question of moral debates in fiction now is also levelled at the moral character of the author. We readily condemn both authors and books when they fail us in our expectations of high-moral purpose. The intensity of our condemnation now is strange considering we are far from living in a puritanical society. Millennial literary concerns aren’t really about aesthetics or morality. I don’t believe anyone really fears that Conroe’s success will lead readers to emulate Sean’s behaviours in real life. The effect of the book is not the issue in this moral panic. Rather, Conroe and Sean are seen as morally reprehensible figures and so many readers resist the book’s aesthetic or thematic successes. There’s a new thing going on and it’s not repression. Having gained a lot of freedom to think and act however we want, we’re now palpably afraid of the freedom other people have to do, think and act however they want. If anyone is allowed to do whatever they want, how do we know who’s winning and who’s losing?
What is the point of a moral novel, or approaching a novel’s ‘point’ with a moral lens? Once it was about instructing a sort of care for fellow man, and now perhaps it is about reflecting an ambient societal care or dignity through who is elevated into success. This sets an impossible standard to meet in many ways. Watching the Fuccboi discourse play out paradoxically demonstrates a profound lack of care for the human experience and its vulnerabilities that literature is supposed to revere. What strikes me as particularly sad about Conroe’s difficulty defending his book is that the person who championed him is no longer around. And this too feels like a hypocrisy of the people like Pink shitting on him. Taking the moral high ground when you’re angered by something catalysed by a tragedy that the author is likely still grieving – I don’t know, seems pretty cruel! Maybe that’s too personal a take for me to have, I don’t know any of these people! Why am I talking about grief in a review of a stranger’s book? But the conflation of Conroe/Sean and the invocation of a writerly code of conduct in the criticism of Fuccboi didn’t start with me.
There’s a scene near the end where Sean visits his friend Ryden, one of the few people to get a full name in the book and someone who is facing his own health crisis. Amid all Sean’s bravado and silliness, it’s a scene that is heartfelt, moving and tender. Sean falters in finding the way to relate to his friend, registers the flimsiness of his own metaphor in the face of reality and corrects.
We were those deep winter babies. Just burrowing. Spring would come. We’d re-emerge, together.
Only spring had come. Ryden hadn’t emerged.
I stalled out in spiel, registering this. My voice cracking then stopping.
The seasons just kept going.
We only had so many seasons.
I thought about what Ryden’s dad had said. Shifted my approach. This wasn’t the time for symbolism. Ryden was dealing with something structural. Something neural. His situation didn’t fit into my symbolic structure. Wouldn’t, no matter how hard I tried to make it.
“Remember that day you saw me trolling around by that Rite Aid on Market bro? When you were headed to work? When I was headed home? You knew exactly what I was on, all that I was feeling, I felt. Your look felt so kind bc you didn’t pity me. I needed that shit.”
The performance of moral questioning drops and what you are left with is humanity, connection, and the frailty of these things. Hypocrisy is tiresome and undermining. It is also a devilish distraction. It’s something we all indulge in despite ourselves. As soon as you point out someone else’s hypocrisy, you have to reflect on your own. Both sides of the right and left divide exploit each other’s hypocrisies in order to win their arguments. As soon as hypocrisy is spoken, no one is right and everyone is wrong. And so, no progress, no change, just petulant resentment. So why keep talking, reading, writing at all? I think, despite its occasional tedium, what I liked about Fuccboi is the opportunity to stick with someone who might be the antithesis of everything you agree with simply because you like him, or you feel sorry for him, or because, despite yourself, you might find things you agree with or find new ways of thinking because of what you disagree with. There is very little to inspire hope and care in online discourse. The hopeful part is the belief that when it comes down to it, in the moments it really matters, offline and with each other, we are each able to cut through our own bullshit and give up the need to win each interaction.