I’ve been expecting to hear Junot Díaz’s name since the #MeToo movement began. Not for personal reasons—I’ve never met or interacted with Díaz—but simply because I’ve read Diaz’s novels and strongly suspected, from his prose alone, that he’s a virulent misogynist. I don’t think this took any special perceptiveness on my part, and I’m far from the only person to recognize the unironic contempt for women that dominates his work. Last week, the novelist Zinzi Clemmons tweeted about the time Díaz forcibly kissed her, and other women came forward to share their unpleasant experiences with him. The writer and critic Carmen Maria Machado described a troubling incident in which she had (very bravely) confronted Díaz about the misogyny in his writing. She tweeted:
During his tour for THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, Junot Díaz did a Q&A at the grad program I’d just graduated from. When I made the mistake of asking him a question about his protagonist’s unhealthy, pathological relationship with women, he went off for me for twenty minutes… He asked me to back up my claim with evidence. I cited several passages from the book in front of me. He raised his voice, paced, implied I was a prude who didn’t know how to read or draw reasonable conclusions from text.
This is the same response I’ve heard for years whenever Díaz has come up in conversation (and yes, this has happened a considerable number of times, I’m a book nerd, I hang out with lots of other book nerds, okay?) Whenever I’ve mentioned that I find Díaz’s work misogynistic, men—and more than a few women—have Explained Díaz To Me. “That’s the point,” they’ve said. “It’s a critique of misogyny. Díaz is intentionally using misogynist tropes and sexist language in order to expose his protagonist’s failings, and dissect machismo in general.”
The people who Explained Díaz To Me had also never met him. They had no personal investment in his work, or his fame, or his success in the publishing industry. Just like me, they were ordinary readers. But they were convinced—absolutely convinced—that Díaz’s misogyny was a deliberate artistic conceit, and therefore my critique was completely invalid. “Díaz’s protagonist isn’t him,” they insisted. “He’s using an unreliable narrator on purpose. It’s a literary device. It’s not him.”
I had to be wrong. I just had to be.
Because Junot Díaz is a genius.
If you’re unfamiliar with Junot Díaz, you should know that not only has he won the MacArthur Fellowship (better known as the Genius Grant), he’s also won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Malamud Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. His adult books—Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This Is How You Lose Her—all feature the same narrator: Yunior de las Casas. Like Junot Díaz, Yunior was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up mostly in New Jersey; like Junot Díaz, Yunior eventually becomes a writer and professor; and like Junot Díaz, Yunior confesses to cheating on at least one girlfriend. Díaz has readily admitted that his books are semi-autobiographical, and “Yunior” is his own nickname.
But Junot and Yunior aren’t the same person. Of course not. We know this, because Díaz has told us so, and he’s a designated genius. Of course, given Díaz’s over-the-top defensive reaction to Machado’s questions about Yunior’s misogyny, we might be a little suspicious. Machado noted: “I’d obviously struck a nerve, though I didn’t understand precisely how. Because even if his book contained autobiographical material, I knew that reacting to a reader’s criticism this way—confusing yourself for the character—was amateur hour. I knew it even then.” Even Díaz, it seems, can’t always separate himself from Yunior.
Still, let’s look at the text. Maybe there’s some evidence of disassociation between author and character in Díaz’s work, some indication that Yunior isn’t a mere self-insert protagonist. Yunior is the primary focus of Drown and This Is How You Lose Her; in Oscar Wao, Yunior remains the narrator but not the protagonist, taking a backseat to the titular character Oscar Wao. It’s worth comparing the respective characterizations of Yunior and Oscar. Oscar is a sweet sad sack, a fat, awkward nerd obsessed with Lord of the Rings and utterly unattractive to girls. Here, Díaz shows his genuine literary talent, successfully turning what could have been an unpleasant incel into a sympathetic (if pathetic) hero. Yunior, entering the story as Oscar’s childhood friend, is equally nerdy, and his narrative voice is almost snowed under by the weight of geeky pop culture references. (Male writers seem to be under the impression these days that constantly referencing pop culture artifacts is an endearing narrative device instead of an unbelievably obnoxious tic.) But Yunior, unlike Oscar, is good with women. Great with women, in fact. Oscar’s smart, talented, beautiful sister Lola not only has sex with Yunior, but inexplicably falls in love with him despite his obnoxious personality and near-constant cheating. I hope at this point we all understand that when a male character creates a near-perfect, gorgeous female character who falls in love with a character very like himself—even if he claims she’s based on a real ex-girlfriend—this is a laughable act of fantasy wish-fulfilment. In the book nerd world, we call these clumsily-constructed autobiographical heroes “Marty Stues” or “Gary Stues”, and they’re usually the hallmark of thirsty male writers with little imagination and even less self-awareness.
The characterization of Lola is a rare phenomenon in Díaz’s work: she’s a young woman with genuine personality and interiority who doesn’t simply get objectified (even if she is forced to fall in love with Junot—sorry, I meant with Yunior.) The female characters in This Is How You Lose Her, however, aren’t quite so lucky. Yunior spends most of the book bragging about his conquests and describing their breasts. These moments—as I’ve been told by the people who Explained Díaz To Me—aren’t simply misogynist objectifications, as they might appear to the unenlightened reader. In fact, they’re a self-conscious deconstruction of misogyny, an ironic look at the kind of man who would objectify women, as written by a genius who is definitely doing anything but that. Díaz himself has demanded that everyone adhere to this reading, saying in an interview: “For [the] kind of sophisticated art I’m interested in, the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don’t think makes for good literature.”
Well, get out your electron microscopes, and tell me if you can find the larger structural rebuke in these sentences from This Is How You Lose Her:
“She was Dominican, from here, and had super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe—I’m talking world class.”
“You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit. An ass she never liked until she met you.”
“Miss Lora wasn’t nothing exciting. There were about a thousand viejas in the neighborhood way hotter, like Mrs. Del Orbe, whom your brother had fucked silly until her husband found out and moved the whole family away. Miss Lora was too skinny. Had no hips whatsoever. No breasts, either, no ass, even her hair failed to make the grade.”
I don’t really see the deconstruction of misogyny here. Maybe my electron microscope isn’t strong enough. Maybe the critique appears elsewhere in the text. Maybe it’s when the older Miss Lora, bereft of personality, seduces the teenage Yunior in an unimaginative hot-for-teacher ’90s porn scenario. Maybe it’s when the adult Yunior confess-brags that he cheated on his fiancée with 50 (that’s right, 50) other women. Or maybe it’s when the Yunior of Oscar Wao blames his misogyny on Dominican culture—and the lingering curse of the dictator Trujillo—but, in This Is How You Lose Her, walks back the claim a little bit, sourcing his intractable misogyny in his personal history, in the bad behavior he learned from his father and brother and the other Dominican men in his orbit.
If your narrator keeps distancing himself from any genuine responsibility for his actions, and nothing in the storytelling indicates that he’s wrong to do so, then (unless you accept the existence of invisible sub-atomic rebuke particles) the conclusion is fairly inevitable. We are meant to excuse Yunior for his misdeeds, or at least sympathize with his lack of agency. His acknowledgment of his own misogyny reads like self-flagellation (“You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity”) or a watery attempt at self-realization (“I’ve never hurt a woman in my life. Then you realize how you sound—like a dude who hurts women all the time.”) What can Yunior do? He’s aware of the fact that he treats women like garbage, and when they leave him he’s utterly miserable, but it’s just so hard for him to stop. Don’t blame him, blame his upbringing!
In April, Díaz published a long essay in The New Yorker, disclosing in great and painful detail the fact that he was raped as a child. Some of his accusers have suggested he did so as pre-emptive damage control before the coming #MeToo accusations could surface. While this may have been possible, there’s no real evidence to support it, and I’m uneasy about this interpretation of his behavior. If #MeToo is about anything, it’s about believing victims. What’s curious about the New Yorker piece, however, is that Díaz admits he often “hurt other people” around him, a claim that, strangely enough in the #MeToo era, passed almost unnoticed in the flood of sympathetic press surrounding the publication of the article.
I didn’t read the New Yorker essay when it was first published; I heard about it and felt guilty, wondering if I’d been misjudging Díaz all along. Having read it now, I do have considerable compassion for what Díaz endured. Childhood sexual assault is hugely traumatizing for everyone, but men—especially men from cultures that lionize a particular set of “macho” values —have no social script for it, and are possibly even less able to process what happened to them. But the framing of the New Yorker piece is one of pre-emptive absolution without genuine apology. “I take responsibility for my past,” Díaz told the New York Times after the #MeToo accusations surfaced. “That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath.” (Though he did not, notably, tell the truth in the New Yorker essay about the abuses he committed. In fact, he didn’t mention his #MeToo accusers, or describe what he did to them at all). Díaz tells us he’s sorry he hurt people, but he insists it happened solely because of the awful crime that was done to him, and ergo, we are expected to believe that when he committed sexual assault or demeaned or belittled or used women—or simply shouted “Rape!” in their faces because they disagreed with him—it was never really his fault. We are to forgive, and excuse him, because he simply couldn’t help himself.
And this is part of why the myth of genius is so damaging. If Yunior was not a creation of amazing grace and brilliance, but an expression of Díaz’s true worst self, then it’s appropriate for Machado and anyone else to interpret Yunior that way, and to actually question Díaz about the ways in which his own demons manifested in his writing. But once Díaz was labeled a genius, his work was presumptively taken to be flawless and free of sin, which turned legitimate critiques into heresies and, ultimately, may have prevented Díaz from developing as a writer and a human being. I think Díaz is a gifted prose stylist (yes, I know those quotes from This Is How You Lose Her are absolute shit, but Oscar Wao really does have some wonderful moments, I swear) and it’s a shame that he wasn’t forced to learn how to write women, or really come to terms with his internalized misogyny. When asked about writing female characters, Díaz has made bizarre claims such as: “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck,” and “There’s an enormous resource for any male writer—and they’re called women. This is not fucking rocket science.” (It is, apparently, rocket science to notice that this quote itself objectifies women by reducing them to resources for male writers!) But Díaz’s statements were dutifully written down, and passed around as masterful writing advice instead of obvious examples of his own personal failings, because of course, Díaz —sigh—is a genius.
Of course, this essay is titled “The Myth of Male Genius” and that’s because genius has historically been gendered male, and the title has been more commonly bestowed on white men. Women writers, and especially women writers of color like Machado and Clemmons, are never given the benefit of the doubt that a male genius automatically receives, either when it comes to their critical opinions or their own fiction. That being said, I don’t think more women need to be raised to the unreal status of Genius. We shouldn’t want a world where women also get away with being bad writers and vicious abusers and cruel to their colleagues in the pursuit of lofty artistic goals. Turnabout may be fair play, but a female Genius who controls and abandons men (Ayn Rand comes to mind) isn’t exactly a feminist hero. What we need is an end to the myth of genius itself.
It’s healthy to be told that you’re wrong when you’re wrong; and possibly better to be told you’re right when you’re right. But what we have now is a system where brilliant men are almost always told they’re right, and brilliant women are almost always told they’re wrong, and how dare they criticize this man, this certified genius. So men assume their brilliance, and don’t improve; and women assume their inferiority, and shut down. But everyone’s up for critique. Every writer deserves to be taken seriously as they are, and judged by the actual words they’ve chosen to lay out on the page.
And no writer, no matter how many awards to his name or how much trauma he’s endured, gets to be validated by invisible particles of virtue that can’t be perceived.
 The playwright Euripides, living in one of the most sexist societies ever to exist on this planet (5th century BCE Athens), wrote complicated, achingly real women. So I don’t want to hear any goddamn excuses from contemporary men. If you can’t write half the human population, then you can’t write at all. Figure it out, or find a new job.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation or purchasing a subscription. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.