A Conversation with Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert’s debut novel, The Men Can’t Be Saved, appeared from Abrams/Overlook in August. His poetry collection, For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018), was named one of Adroit’s Best Poetry Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Slate, Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He holds degrees from Harvard and NYU, where he was a New York Times Fellow. He is the editor of Back Draft, a Guernica interview series focused on revision and the creative process. He currently teaches in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.


The arrival of Ben Purkert’s The Men Can’t Be Saved comes at an interesting moment for white male protagonists and their so-identified inventors. The sun has set on heroic masculinity, surely. If the novel as a narrative site for male heroics or redemption can appeal to as wide and diverse a readership as currently exists, it must focus its moral energies, some say, on the source of a new problem: masculinity itself. Or more specifically, toxic masculinity.

Purkert’s debut novel may well typify this culturewide effort to detoxify  masculinity, even if its title appears to foreclose on the possibility of any sort of redemption for the men chronicled. 

It’s Purkert’s second book, and a leap across genres—he’s a poet. Anyone who’s surveyed contemporary poetry over the last 10 or so years with a certain degree of studious intensity will have encountered a Purkert poem somewhere—they’ve graced the pages of The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and Kenyon Review, among other places. And, at a moment when the culture is desperately searching for new models of masculinity, Purkert’s writing testifies to the fact that men of letters have long been engaged in that search, and continue to be, through the austerity of the poetic line and other forms, post-#MeToo. Which is why I was intrigued to learn that he had written a novel, a chance to move from the carefully dosed procedure of the poem to experiments in long-form narrative. 

I spoke with Purkert about his new book; about taglines and professional jockeying in New York City; about Ben Lerner, an inescapable influence for those us interested in the masculine critique, and “toxic” masculinity; and about Mad Men and the false progressivism of the corporate elite, among other intersecting topics. 

I spoke to him about whether men, in fact, can be saved. 

–Tanner Stening


Tanner Stening: This is your second book, a novel, which follows your first, a poetry collection. What made you decide to take the plunge into fiction?

Ben Purkert: I was really inspired by Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” which came out when I got my MFA in poetry. Ben Lerner was one of my favorite poets, and when he moved over to prose that felt so exciting. 

I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book—it’s explicitly about a poet thinking about poetry, thinking about life; thinking about relationships. Sometimes as a reader you encounter the right book at the right moment, and that was the moment—from a reading perspective—that I suddenly felt like, Oh, maybe I have permission to attempt it. My novel is very different from Lerner’s fiction (I could never do what he does) but it still opened a door for me. 

TS: Yeah, the whole world of autofiction is interesting. Another example of the hybridification (if that’s a word) of literature, which feels simultaneously like an expansion and destruction of literary categories. I’m just curious, since you cite Lerner as an influence, do you think of your novel in any specific way?

BP: I wouldn’t necessarily attach a label to it. But I also think that, as a writer, it’s not for me to say. It’s an interesting thing, how you put out a book and then suddenly you go on Amazon—which, of course, no one should do—and you see that there have been these labels attached to it that someone decided to attach. Someone has decided that it is satire; someone has decided that it is “Jewish humor;” or someone has decided that it is a social novel

There’s part of me that says, Hold on, wait a minute. It’s not those things; I wouldn’t classify it quite that way. But ultimately it’s not my call to make. My job is just to write the thing. 

TS: You quote from the feminist critic Vivian Gornick: “He was a man; he heard the sound of no voice but his own.” Anyone who holds this book will know, just based on the cover contents alone, that it is trying to communicate something—broadly speaking—about the state of men in society, in professional culture, or toxic masculinity. Is this true, and if so, what more can you say about it?  

BP: I’ll come at the question this way. I started working as a copywriter at a large New York City branding agency—I was specifically a tagline copywriter—in 2007, which was more or less the same time that the series Mad Men debuted. I don’t know if you’ve watched it. It’s probably still my favorite TV show. 

All of us in the agency, we’d watch Mad Men, and the next day we’d come to work and talk about all of the things that had very clearly changed from the agency world of the 1960s to today, and then all of the things that hadn’t changed one bit. And one of the things that very clearly had not changed was the megalomania, egos of creative directors—particularly (though not exclusively) male directors—the toxicity of the workplace, the eccentricity, the electricity. There were so many characters that I worked with in the agency world that I wanted to carry into fiction. 

So, is the book a sociological exploration of masculinity? I’d say that it’s a book that examines a set of men who rationalize their bad behavior by looking around the workplace and telling themselves, well, I may not be an angel, but at least I’m not that guy. And I do think that that is something that does contribute to a kind of toxicity. This, I’m a man and I’m going to compare myself, not against the best, but the lowest common denominator. I’m just fascinated by that rhetorical maneuver and what it permits, you know what I mean?

TS: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I would love to hear you talk about the difference between “men who see no problem with their bad behavior” and “men who don’t see it [their bad behavior] as bad at all.” If we were keeping a scorecard here, we would award more points to the former group for at least being conscientious enough to recognize that their behavior is bad; but I’m wondering if you can discuss this difference in terms of the book’s protagonist, Seth, and another notable character, Moon?

BP: I’m really glad you mention it, because, to me, their relationship is the crux of the book. Seth is very much the character who uses Moon to excuse himself. Moon is the “bro,” the fratty one. He’s all id; he’s all bluster; he’s inappropriate; he’s crude.

But on some level he’s also honest in a way that Seth is not. Seth is obsessed with telling himself that he’s better than Moon—better than this much more explicitly vulgar creature that he works with. Over the course of the book, I think we’re meant to question that a bit. And that was also connected to my own personal experience working in the agency world. It’s an industry that is really invested in the idea that it is progressive; that it is feminist; and I think on some level that insistence has perhaps blinded it to the reality. 

TS: In Seth’s world, there’s a fundamental tension between this world of professional striving and achievement—obtaining partnership in his firm, specifically—and another world of faith, family, and tradition. I’m wondering if you can talk about that polarity, specifically about how faith and family play into that tension. 

BP: Seth desperately wants to make partner; and if you think about the term partner, or the idea of having a partnership stake at an agency, it’s a word that implies a lot of intimacy and closeness. Seth doesn’t see it that way. In his mind, it’s not about any of those things. He wants the fancy titles; he wants the biggest corner office, à la Kendall Roy in Succession.

But I think, in truth, Seth actually does want that closeness and connection. And for him that is where—and I don’t want to give much away—over the course of the book, family becomes more important to him; over the course of the book, Judaism and his Jewish identity become much more important to him. And I don’t think that’s by accident. It’s what he’s been yearning for all along.

Not to play sociologist here, but I think many of us do this in our own lives. We want to make partner; we want to be the boss; we want a big raise. And obviously there are material reasons why those things are desirable. But really we’re after a sense of belonging, a sense of community. The question is whether we can be honest with ourselves about our motivations. 

TS: The power of language is quite evident throughout the book, and Seth is particularly interested in the language of taglines. It’s as if the use of language is this core competency upon which professional brand culture turns. 

There’s something here reminiscent of Lerner and his interest in language—specifically in The Topeka School, where volubility in the context of speech-and-debate confers a kind of social power. His book speaks more to the power of language to overwhelm or disorient, whereas yours speaks more to the ability of language to reveal something fundamentally true or representative—the essence of what a thing (like a company or product) is via the tagline. The common thread, it seems to me, is language as that tool men have used to exercise power.

I’m trying to find my way back to toxic masculinity…   

BP: It’s an interesting idea. One of the things that is fascinating about a tagline is that a really great tagline doesn’t change. Part of the reason i’m lovin’ it, which the book goes into some discussion of—part of the reason McDonald’s keeps on lovin’ it, so to speak, is that the tagline is working. There’s no need to change. It’s replicated on every single franchise, every single commercial. And I think that immutability, the inability to revise or to change, is connected on some level to what you’re asking here. 

Seth does not evolve, or at least he struggles to evolve. Different readers will argue that Seth is the same person at the end of the book, or that he has grown and changed. That ambiguity is purposeful. I want readers to land in different places on that question—or at least have them decide on their own. It’s not for me to determine.

A brand is not a living thing. When you attach a tagline to it, it sticks without any sort of progression. When I think about the men in my life who I’ve known who I would describe as toxic, it is connected to that inability to change, grow, or listen, which goes back to the Vivian Gornick quote. I don’t know how you grow if you don’t at least examine the possibility for change. 

This answer’s a little bit all over the place—

TS: No, not at all.

BP: It reminds me a little bit—do you remember that meme: Men will do anything to avoid going to therapy, something along those lines?

TS: Oh, yeah.

BP: There’s real truth in it. The minute you stop permitting the possibility of your own growth or your own self-improvement—that is the toxic thing, in some way. 

On the point of toxic masculinity, Garth Greenwell had an essay recently in the Yale Review about fiction and moralizing. He talks about Philip Roth and the character Mickey Sabbath, who’s just a revolting moral creature, but how a reader shouldn’t simply dismiss him out of hand; that it’s important (both ethically and aesthetically) to engage with him, rather than resort to a kind of knee jerk judgment.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the conversation of the “likable narrator.” You know, is this a good or a bad person? And I think that a good novel—it’s not that a good novel side-steps that question, necessarily—but that it presents a reader with someone who they want to spend time with; assumes a reader who would become interested in the decisions that character makes, not because they’re good or bad, but that they reveal a certain dramatic tension, or they frame moral questions in ways that we might otherwise not have a framework or a language for. 

TS: Right.

BP: I don’t think any thoughtful person could look at our society and think to themselves, there are no issues with men. Clearly there are. On the other hand, if we’re using the term “toxic masculinity” as a way to diagnose the condition without considering any sort of treatment, then that feels dismissive to me in a way that doesn’t really do justice either to the problem or to men themselves. 

TS: You mention Greenwell’s essay, which feels pertinent to our discussion here, particularly as it relates to how works of fiction are received by readers today. The point he was making, I think, is that sometimes our engagement with a text is limited by a tendency to hone in on the ways it—or its author—offends or runs afoul of certain moral principles. 

As a man writing about men and masculinity, is this something you felt you had to navigate with this book? I ask, also, because I found that your own description of the book, “a lovable book about unlovable men,” may speak to this challenge of squaring one’s moral sensibilities with another’s work of art.  

BP: One reviewer of my novel described it as a daring moral act, as if, by writing about men behaving badly, I had effectively “dive[d] into the shallow end of the pool.” I’m flattered, I guess, but I’m not convinced that what I’ve done is more or less daring than what any other writer takes on. As a writer, you’re always diving in headfirst without knowing how deep the pool goes. You’re always taking some amount of risk. And if you’re not, why bother doing this writing thing at all?

What I like so much about Greenwell’s essay is that it doesn’t say that morals and novels don’t mix. On the contrary, he suggests that there are real moral dangers to reading literature in a way that flattens out deeply complicated moral questions, simply rendering characters either good or bad. The men in my novel are unlovable, yes. But I also see it as my responsibility—both artistically and morally—to portray them with as much care and precision as I can, such that their humanity can emerge, if not endear us to them. Unlovable characters deserve love too.


Tanner Stening

Tanner Stening is a poet and journalist based in Boston. His writing has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Rattle, New York Quarterly, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Poetry Online, and elsewhere. He writes for higher education.

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