Why Don't Women Like Jack Kerouac?

Illustration for article titled Why Don't Women Like Jack Kerouac?

Do any non-teenage women actually like Jack Kerouac's On The Road? At least one woman does: The Millions' Stephanie Nikolopoulos, who was surprised to hear that most women eschew the Beat author but more than a little pleased that she would be "the vixen of the literary matchmaking board" at her local bookstore because she adores Kerouac.

Illustration for article titled Why Don't Women Like Jack Kerouac?

Whenever anyone tells me they "adore" On The Road — which doesn't happen that often because I don't hang out with sixteen-year-olds — I can't help but think she or he isn't particularly well-read, just eager to come off as adventurous, spontaneous, and/or sexy. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, and I shouldn't judge re: literary nostalgia — I recently reread Judy Blume's Forever — but Nikolopoulos' thoughts on why women don't like Kerouac bugged me:

Until my sister showed me the matchmaking article, it had never occurred to me that the author of On the Road could be a cement divider on Lover's Lane. I had met guys who'd been inspired by Kerouac. They thrilled at the freedom of stuffing beef jerky in a backpack, wearing the same band t-shirt for days, and hitting the road with no plan but more life experience. It's true I didn't personally know any women who admired Kerouac, but I figured he just wasn't on their radar since fifty years had passed since On the Road was published. There were plenty of women I knew through books who had loved Kerouac - women like Edie Parker-Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, and Helen Weaver, who wrote memoirs about their romances with Kerouac. Overcome with his prose prowess as I was, it was easy to overlook the parts that weren't exactly rom-com material - the failed marriages, the refusal to acknowledge his own daughter, the fact that he lived with his mother until the day he died - particularly since I didn't read his novels as love stories but as poetic travelogues.

Then I encountered a woman who openly disdained Kerouac - and all that he seemed to represent. It occurred to me that women saw him as a misogynist vagabond, the bad boy who had left their broken hearts in a trail of exhaust fumes. He didn't like being tied down by responsibilities, or women. Perhaps those female readers who actually did like his writing feared adding Kerouac to their list of favorite authors for a literary matchmaking board because they didn't want to end up with someone like him: a penniless drifter, a dreamer, an alcoholic.

Nikolopoulos goes on to claim that most women crush on Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy instead, because he's likely to "put a ring on it." Um? First of all, Darcy is a fictional character, not an author. Second, I've never met any women who dislike Kerouac because they're afraid of ending up with a man like him. (But hey, sounds like a great Modern Love pitch!) Third, the women she lists who "love" Kerouac literally loved him, not (only, at least) his prose.

I agree with her basic premise that women might not be looking for a guy who loves Kerouac, because I'm a proud member of that group; warning signs flash in my eyes when I meet a guy who waxes poetic about the Beats. But it's not because I'm trying to get hitched anytime soon or because I'm scared of being alone, and I doubt any women looking for love on a Brooklyn bookstore message board are hiding a fervent love for Jack for those reasons either. Maybe it's because most people grow out of On The Road idealism once they realize that rambling on about roman candles only gets you so far (and/or that the Beats were kind of immature dicks). Nikolopoulos' essay is all over the place because she's conflating the invulnerable woman she seems to want to be with her love of the Beats:

I was never looking for someone to jumpstart my story, to open the car door for me, to give me permission to do something. It didn't occur to me that I needed a boyfriend or even a friend to accompany me to art galleries or readings or to make my life full. I wasn't looking for my Jack Kerouac. I was Jack Kerouac. And so I never signed up for the matchmaking board. I didn't believe in lonely nights. I was a reader. If I wanted company, all I had to do was pick up a book - or my car keys.

It's offensive to assume most women read books and identify with characters because they want to "put a ring on it." Women from M.F.K Fisher to Cheryl Strayed have been writing about traveling alone for quite some time — and, in my opinion, far more eloquently than Kerouac. Everyone has different literary tastes, and I don't personally care if one chooses to ignore (or can come to terms with) the Beat writers' issues regarding women and sexuality. But humblebragging about loving On The Road because you're, like, such an iconoclast is like claiming you don't have female friends because you want to fit in with dudes.

On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women [The Millions]



This is slightly off-topic, but...

Can someone explain to me why The Unbearable Lightness of Being is often classed with the likes of On the Road, or Ayn Rand novels, as "something you can like when you're a teenager but if you still like it past age 21 you're immature/a jerk/suspect in some other way." I loved that book when I was 16, still love it, and I never liked OTR or Ayn Rand... I'm wondering if I just took away a different message from it than a lot of other people did? Because I don't really see how it's comparable other than that its protagonist is an asshole (but I don't feel like the book is necessarily trying to get you to think he's anything else).

No one's brought it up yet, but I see it brought up so often in "Literary Dealbreakers" discussions like this, and I've never understood why.