Is Less Secretly Toxic? And What Type of Book Deserves to Win Major Literary Prizes? The Case of Less (A Pulitzer Prize Deep Dive)

As the Pulitzer Prize announcement for 2018 approached, literary minds had a lot to consider. Would Jesmyn Ward come out on top for her critically lauded novel Sing, Unburied Sing? Would George Saunders claim a double victory after winning the Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo? There were many names and titles to consider–all heavy hitters with dramatic plots and important subjects. Not many people considered Andrew Sean Greer’s comedic novel Less a serious contender, but it walked away with the prize in the end.

That’s right, a lighthearted comedy about a middle-aged gay man with romance problems beat out a bunch of serious novels by serious writers–books about systemic racism, generational trauma, profound grief, and more.

How did this happen? And is this the way it should have gone down?

What Type of Book Is Prize-Worthy?

When I embarked on a reread of Less, I was planning to litigate whether or not Less deserved to win over its competitors. My preconceived notion, having read the book once before, was that it should not have won. But as I reread the book, I started thinking about a case I’ve been making this year: that we as a culture (and we as readers) need to expand our definition of what type of book qualifies as great. I started wondering how Less fits into this.

When I started that argument in my wrap-up thoughts about this year’s Pulitzer Prize, I was specifically thinking about how authors of color are frequently snubbed (for clarification: I do not think this is a malicious or intentional move on the part of the Pulitzer jurors or Board. But I do think that when critically lauded books by authors of color manage to repeatedly miss the Pulitzer Prize and the list of finalists, it indicates that something is going on. And yes, the winners of major literary prizes like the Pulitzer are getting more diverse, and that’s great. But I also think that we need to continue to hold these prizes accountable when it comes to representation so we don’t get complacent and assume we’ve fixed something that’s still broken. Everybody got that?). Since then, I’ve expanded on the idea because genre snobbery is real and, let’s be honest, kinda silly.

From that perspective, things start to get more complicated. Because why not award the Pulitzer Prize to a seemingly slight comedic novel about a middle-aged gay man who can’t get his life together? After all, until Less was published, Andrew Sean Greer had a reputation as a serious novelist. This was his first book to use a comedic style, and it actually started life as a drama. As Greer was revising his book, he began to make it funny–but we’ll talk more about that later because here we go again: trying to explain why (or why not) a book deserved to win a major literary prize by examining how serious it is.

And here’s the deal: Less is a perfectly fine book. It really is. It’s well written with a lot of clever observations and lines. It’s also amusing (in a wry way, not a laugh-out-loud way). And in many ways, it’s about life in a relatable way–especially for a lot of gay men who aren’t used to seeing their narratives centered in art.

And yet! The second you give a book like Less an award like the Pulitzer, people (myself included) begin to assess its worthiness for the prize. We tend to like prizes to go to “VERY IMPORTANT THINGS.” Things that speak to human nature. Things that reveal deep truths about humanity and/or society. Things that speak truth to power. We have a very difficult time equating those qualities with comedy.

As an aside, it doesn’t help that we frequently dismiss books that do those same things when they come from minority authors or authors of color. Think of how it took Louise Erdrich thirty years to win a Pulitzer for her novels about Native American life in this country. Think of how Toni Morrison only ever won a single Pulitzer despite creating one of the most rock-solid author lists ever seen in this country. I could go on but I think you get the point.

The main point here is that we devalue comedy. We certainly don’t take mysteries, science fiction, romance, or books targeted toward younger readers seriously. They exist in their own categories that don’t win prizes like the Pulitzer. And that is something that needs to change.

But being honest, I have some significant problems with Less. There’s something deeply toxic about aspects of it. And we’re going to have to grapple with them because I don’t think they can be ignored in this conversation.

So the question isn’t whether or not there should be a path for a book like Less to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. There should be. Instead, the question is whether or not Less should have won the Pulitzer Prize for 2018. Let’s work our way through the book before we try to answer that. I just think it’s important to lay this foundation to set the tone for our discussion.

What Is Less About?

Arthur Less is a 49-year-old gay man who has coasted through life on a combination of luck, charm, and thoroughly oblivious privilege. He’s vain, self-absorbed, and entitled, but also incredibly vulnerable. You couldn’t say that he’s a well-intentioned person but he doesn’t intend to cause harm, for whatever that’s worth. He has also invested a shocking amount of his personality in a statement blue suit with Fuschia lining that he believes is his signature look. He’s your basic nightmare of a human being.

Less is a picaresque novel with an episodic structure, employing mild satire to relate the adventures of Arthur Less as he travels the globe literally trying to outrun his problems. Which, of course, he can’t do. Especially since one of those problems is his impending 50th birthday, which will arrive no matter what he does. Here are Arthur’s thoughts on getting older:

Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old. That is, at least, how he feels at times like these. … He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so, but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How are they meant to do it?

Page 34

The best Less can do is distract himself so he won’t think about it too much… except it never leaves his consciousness throughout the length of the novel–even after it has happened.

Less’s other problem is that his casual lover of nine years, Freddy Pelu, is marrying someone else. This is a conundrum for Less, who for years has adopted a policy toward love that strives to “live alone and yet not be alone.” He has spent considerable effort on not attaching himself to anyone, but now… well, we the readers can infer that feelings have crept up on old Arthur Less (he would hate being referred to as such, by the way), but Less himself won’t allow his psyche to parse through why he is so desperate to not attend Freddy’s wedding. As with the age problem, Less will spend the entirety of the novel running away from this problem while continuing to obsess over it–even after it has already been scheduled to occur.

To avoid his problems (and give himself an excuse to be out of the country during Freddy’s wedding), Less accepts a series of invitations to events all over the world. There’s an interview with an eccentric fantasy writer (I would love to know if this character was inspired by a real person), a panel discussion about the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was Less’s first love, an award ceremony judged by high school students, a teaching engagement, a birthday party in Morroco for a person Less has never even met, a writer’s retreat that turns out to be religious, and more. Each chapter is about Less’ adventures in a different country for a different event. By the end of the chapter, he will move on to the next destination.

Along the way, Less and our mysterious narrator reflect on life, love, art, aging, and purpose. Sort of. And they don’t really come to any conclusions.

A commenter on my YouTube channel says that Less seems to be inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. I have not read that book and was unable to find much comparing the two novels online, but I did notice a few references to Nabokov and Lolita. If you have more to say on that subject, please let me know.

Why Does This Matter?

Mostly, it matters because Less is unapologetically queer and it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But that’s an external force applied to this book and I’ll have more to say about it later. The internal aspect of Less that matters is that Arthur Less is full of shit. Like massively full of it.

Look at Less’ comment about feeling like the first gay man to grow old. Obviously, this isn’t true. First of all, he has gay friends who are older than he is. Second, it would be ludicrous to assume that gay men haven’t gotten old before. Sure, the window of time in which a gay man can openly be gay and live as a gay man is woefully small in our society. But it has happened. And sure, there’s truth in Less’ related observation that a generation of gay men was largely lost to AIDS. But it’s still a wildly inaccurate statement. Part of the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic was that young men who were Arthur’s age also died. AIDS didn’t target a specific age group because that’s not how diseases work. Arthur isn’t the first person of any category to get older.

To appreciate Less, you have to look beyond the bullshit to try to understand where it’s coming from. Less’ insecurity about aging has nothing to do with entering uncharted territory. That’s not what he’s doing, it’s just a deflection. Instead, it reveals Arthur Less’ profound insecurities about himself and how he has defined his own worth. Arthur Less has been able to skate through life without being serious, without really challenging himself, and without forming any real attachments. Getting older is terrifying to him because it means he might not be able to do that anymore. The text doesn’t say this. You as a reader have to look at him and what he’s doing to figure it out for yourself.

Is This a Gay Eat, Pray, Love?

First of all, that’s redundant.

I have seen a lot of people compare Less to Eat, Pray, Love, and, with all due respect, this is entirely inaccurate. Eat, Pray, Love is about a woman who travels the globe in order to find herself. Arthur Less is doing the opposite. He’s traveling to avoid finding himself because he’s terrified of what he might find. Throughout the book, he resists self-improvement, self-awareness, and self-introspection. If it involves soul searching in any way, Arthur Less wants none of it. And he continues in this vein to the very last page of the book.

Spoilers ahead–if you want to avoid them, skip to the next section.

Even at the end of the book, Arthur has learned nothing. He only gets a happy ending because our mysterious narrator reveals himself to be none other than Freddy Pelu, who has abandoned his marriage after a single day because he realized that he wanted Arthur Less all along. Why? I honestly can’t tell you. Freddy is the one who goes on a journey of discovery, and it happens off-screen. Freddy is the one who sees all of Arthur’s considerable foibles and loves him anyway, and since he’s the one framing the narration, the entire book is imbued with a helpless fondness for Arthur.

And yes, even Freddy is surprised that Arthur Less is what he wants.

LGBTQIA+ Representation in Literature (And Why It Matters)

LGBTQIA+ representation in literature matters because there still isn’t a whole lot of it. That’s changing, but we need more of it. And too often, when a novel about a gay or lesbian character does hit the mainstream, it has to make the protagonist palatable to straight audiences, so it’s rare to find honest depictions of the gay community.

Less certainly isn’t a reflection of the entirety of the LGBTQIA+ experience, but it is a refreshingly honest look at what a gay man of Arthur’s age would have experienced in his life. His casual approach to sex and indifference to long-term relationships is a hallmark of how gay men approached the world before marriage equality (and how many still do).

Part of why we need more representation is that Arthur is not a good, capable, or even entirely accurate representation of the queer community. He’s just a start.

Less Satire

I think a bit of the conversation around Less as a satire has become overblown. I think it’s a category that people can easily latch onto to describe this book and make it sound serious, like a book that deserved to win an award like the Pulitzer. Because since we don’t typically award this type of prize to a comedy, we feel like we immediately need to defend the decision when we do.

In reality, the edges of this satire are a bit dull.

Yes, there is satire to be found–largely in Arthur’s refusal to accept the concept of aging but primarily in his complete obtuseness as a traveler of the world. Arthur is ill-equipped to handle the complexities of the world on a good day. As I mentioned earlier, he coasts on a combination of privilege, luck, and charm. He is very much not an empathetic person. He does not spend a lot of time considering how other people feel or how his actions impact them, and as I said earlier: he is completely resistant to change, even if for the better.

Interestingly, this makes Arthur Less a perfect metaphor for Americans as a people and also for America itself. We’re not going to bother learning your language or your metric system, we’re going to assume you’re going to do the work to meet us on our level–even if we are literally visiting you on yours.

The problem is, there just isn’t really a purpose to this metaphor. It doesn’t come to anything in the end, so it just fizzles out.

I’ve also seen it stated that Less satirizes gay relationships, but anything that has to do with the gay side of Less is even more toothless than the American-in-the-world angle. Ultimately, the book just doesn’t have any point of view on these topics other than “they’re a mess.” And that’s just not really interesting to me. Which is a shame, because there’s certainly room for sharp satire on these topics. Considering the generational divide between Arthur and Freddy, a more pointed satire of gay relationships (and how they’ve changed in the post-AIDS, post-Ellen, post-marriage-equality world) would be intriguing. A farce about Americans in the world post-9/11 would be fascinating. This just isn’t interested in being either of those things.

Given how meta the creation of Less was (more on that in a moment), I wouldn’t be surprised if the satirical aspects of this novel were almost entirely unintentional.

Instead, Less succeeds best as a novel that uses comedy to reflect how helpless we all are. We all possess a desperate sense of pride and a cluelessness about how to navigate our temporary places in the world. If Arthur Less feels relatable–and it’s clear that he does to a lot of people–it’s because we’re all just helplessly floating along and although we want to believe that we’re trying to be better, most of us aren’t actually trying at all.

Less Meta, More Toxic

Interestingly, Less started life as a serious novel about a middle-aged gay writer wandering San Francisco and reflecting on his life. The reason that’s interesting is that this is exactly the plot of the novel Arthur’s publisher passes on in the beginning of Less. Andrew Sean Greer wrote the failed version of Less into Less.

If you’re wondering how Greer went from a serious novel to a comedy, it’s because Greer couldn’t feel sorry for Arthur Less until he made him funnier. Humor made this character more relatable. It turned him into someone an audience could root for. So Greer went in harder on the humor. Arthur Less has the same revelation:

What if it isn’t a poignant, wistful novel at all? What if it isn’t the story of a sad middle-aged man on a tour of his hometown, remembering the past and fearing the future; a peripateticism of humiliation and regret; the erosion of a single male soul? What if it isn’t even sad? … His Swift isn’t a hero. He’s a fool.

Page 195

Part of why I think the so-called satirical aspects of this novel are unintentional is that Greer expressed that the borders of the novel expanded beyond San Francisco purely because he had been traveling a lot and had a lot of funny stories about his travels that his friends found amusing. So he started putting those into the novel to help make it funnier.

The problem is that as expressed in Less, there’s something toxic about this conversation.

Less is writing a book about a middle-aged gay man walking around and no one wants to publish it because no one finds that type of character relatable or appealing anymore. Here’s an exchange Arthur has on this topic late in the book:

“It was about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco and, you know, his… his sorrows…” Her face has begun to fold inward in a dubious expression, and he finds himself trailing off. From the front of the group the journalists are shouting in Arabic.

Zohra asks, “Is it a white middle-aged man?”

“Yes.”

“A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”

“Jesus, I guess so.”

“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”

“Even gay?”

“Even gay.”

Page 170

Arthur Less spends almost the entire book feeling sad that no one wants to read his book about a white middle-aged American man. Until his a-ha moment about his hero being a fool, Less isn’t at all concerned with how to make this man a relatable character. Instead, it’s just meant to seem sad that the white middle-aged American man has fallen so far. There’s no reflection at all as to just how toxic that idea is.

Making things worse, the conversation in the United States around white men being afraid that their status at the top of the food chain was being threatened was already toxic when this novel was published. It was released in July of 2017–more than a year after Donald Trump’s toxic presidential campaign kicked into gear and months after he was sworn into office as President thanks in large part to stoking the fears of white men that they were being replaced. There was plenty of time to pivot away from this “woe-are-the-white-men” narrative and no one did.

Releasing a novel in which the protagonist echoes these beliefs isn’t really a great look. And it certainly doesn’t help that this conversation has only metastasized in the years since. Just this year, white authors like James Patterson and Joyce Carol Oates have stoked controversy about fears that white male stories and white male writers aren’t the dominant force in the publishing industry anymore–even though they still are.

It’s not great. Even for a lighthearted comedy that probably didn’t mean to wade into these toxic waters.

Andrew Sean Greer Pulitzer Prize
Andrew Sean Greer accepting the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in a colorful suit Arthur Less would be proud of.

Who Is Andrew Sean Greer?

Less was Andrew Sean Greer’s fifth novel and sixth book, and while some of those books (notably The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli) had caught some attention and good reviews, he was largely unknown until Pulitzer came calling.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli was praised by John Updike when it was released and when Mitch Albom selected it for The Today Show‘s book club, it became a bestseller. It’s a Benjamin Button-esque story about a man who ages backwards and it was the first book by Andrew Sean Greer that I read.

Greer lives part-time in Italy and is a graduate of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. Like Arthur Less, he has taught in Germany and been nominated for an Italian book award. He has also been a judge for The National Book Award

Are There Adaptations or Sequels to Less?

The timing of this deep dive isn’t a coincidence because a sequel, Less is Lost, will be released on September 20, 2022. I’m very skeptical of whether or not this book needs a sequel–especially a sequel with a plot so similar to the original–but we’ll see how it is.

UPDATE: my review of the sequel can be found here.

Is Less Readily Available?

Yes.

Snapshot: 2017

It feels weird to be doing a flashback to five years ago, but here we are. It feels like A LOT has happened the last few years anyway. And you might be wondering why we’re looking at 2017 since Less won the 2018 Pulitzer for Fiction. Here’s the deal: the Pulitzer is awarded the year after the eligibility period.

In Bookstores:

According to USA Today, the bestselling book of 2017 wasn’t for adults at all: it was R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. Thanks to a lot of adaptations the bestseller list was actually full of older books, with revivals of The Handmaid’s Tale, It, and the baby of the bunch: Big Little Lies (which was published three years earlier).

The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro, “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” The Booker Prize went to George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo and the National Book Award went to Jesmyn Ward for Sing, Unburied, Sing.

In Movies:

The highest-grossing movie of 2017 was the divisive Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Moonlight won Best Picture at the Academy Awards after that mix-up with La La Land was cleared up, but the movie that was released in 2017 that went on to win the Oscar the following year was The Shape of Water.

On TV:

The top-rated TV show was The Big Bang Theory but the Emmy for Best Comedy Series went to Veep (Drama Series went to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale–the first time a streaming platform won the top prize).

In Music:

Ed Sheeran’s Divide was Nielsen’s top-selling album of the year and he also claimed the top single of 2017 with “Shape of You,” but it was Bruno Mars who won the Grammy for Album of the Year and Record of the Year for 24k Magic.

In the News:

I hate 2017 in the news because on January 20, Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and immediately set the tone for his shitty presidency by repeatedly lying about the size of the crowd. The inauguration crowd was minuscule compared to the turnout for the first Women’s March on Washington the following day.

Trump’s presidency was immediately plagued by scandal and corruption, kicking off an exhausting news cycle that plagues us to this day. The best signal of this would probably be The Mueller Investigation, which kicked off to examine whether or not Trump had coordinated with Russian interference in the 2016 election and ultimately went nowhere.

The toxicity of Trump’s rhetoric became apparent in August when neo-nazis (rebranded as alt-right white nationalists) protested the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia in what they called the Unite the Right Rally. A counter protestor named Heather Heyer was killed when a self-identified white supremacist plowed his car into the crowd. Trump infamously responded to this event by commenting that there were very fine people on both sides. Just to prove how gross the belief that white men were being replaced was when this book was published, the white nationalists chanted (among other things) “you will not replace us.”

Getting away from politics, the #MeToo movement revolutionized Hollywood after accusations of repeated sexual assault and harassment were levied at Harvey Weinstein.

It was generally a crap year in the news, so let’s move on.

Is Less the Great American Novel?

Lol, no. Not even close.

I ask myself this question with all of my Pulitzer deep dives because the Pulitzer seems intimately tied to the notion of The Great American Novel (check out my post about trying to define that here). Less is not a factor here. It’s only really an “American” book if you lean into the argument that it’s a satire of Americans abroad–and as discussed, I don’t think that really holds water.

What Was Less‘ Competition for the Pulitzer Prize?

The other finalists for the Pulitzer were two books I have not read: Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about Hernan Diaz lately because he made the Booker longlist for his newest novel, Trust, but In the Distance is mostly unknown to me. I looked it up on bookshop.org and it sounds fascinating–and like a better fit for the Pulitzer, which has the mandate to reward an American author for a work that preferably deals with American life.

I’ve heard a lot more about The Idiot because it has amassed a sort of cult following in the years since it was published (which makes it unsurprising that like Less, it has a sequel coming out this year). I confess I haven’t personally felt compelled to read The Idiot, but I respect that a lot of people have enjoyed it a great deal. Interestingly, since it is described as an amusing noble about a young woman fumbling through life as she careens into adulthood, it would appear that this year’s jury definitely had a type.

To me, the real surprises are the books that were left off of the list of finalists, particularly the books that claimed two of the other major literary prizes for that year: Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (Ward took the National Book Award, Saunders the Booker). They were two of the biggest books of 2017, which may be what ultimately hurt them in the end. The Pulitzer doesn’t always like to do the obvious thing. It certainly tends not to like awarding books that have already gotten another prize’s fingerprints on them. This year in particular, that tendency is unfortunate because I think Ward and Saunders were far and away the best American novelists of the year and both of their books would be good fits for the Pulitzer mandate (albeit for very different reasons).

Should Less Have Won the Pulitzer?

I’ve made a case that we need to expand our definition of quality literature to give comedies, science fiction, romance, etc. a fair shot at inclusion. And I will continue to champion that because I believe in it. But Less is not that book. Ultimately, I stand by my original stance on this novel: Less is a perfectly fine book that had no business winning a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I actually enjoyed rereading it more than I thought I would. But it wouldn’t have even been one of my finalists for this Pulitzer year.

Instead, I would have made Jesmyn Ward and George Saunders finalists and based on what I’ve heard about Hernan Diaz, I would toss him into the mix as well. For me, the winner is instantly clear: Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I truly believe that it is only a matter of time before Ward wins a Pulitzer for Fiction and the fact that she was snubbed for such a worthy novel only makes it more inevitable.

Here’s how The New York Times summed up Ward’s novel when they named it one of the ten best books of the year: “Their story feels mythic, both encompassing the ghosts of the past and touching on all the racial and social dynamics of the South as they course through this one fractured family. Ward’s greatest feat here is achieving a level of empathy that is all too often impossible to muster in real life, but that is genuine and inevitable in the hands of a writer of such lyric imagination.”

Yes, I’m saying that a serious book about serious issues deserved the prize over the light comedy. If you disagree, I hope you will let me know why. For me, there’s just no contest. Ward deserved it. And someday, I hope she gets it.

Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives

Gone With the Wind (1937)  Lonesome Dove (1986) Beloved (1988)

Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner

1917 2012

Less Andrew Sean Greer

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