There’s Sean Thor Conroe the author, and then there’s Sean Thor Conroe the fuccboi. To mix them up would be “absurd”. The latter is a chainsmoking, eczematic, near-nocturnal Postmates delivery guy, who has trained his body to “rail caffeine” and various other substances to get him through the night. When he’s not pedalling through Philly, blaring Kodak Black or Lil B under his balaclava, he’s navigating a series of pseudonymous “baes”, one of whom might be key to getting his debut book published.
Conroe the author probably won’t have to cycle through the snow to deliver a single bag of fries any time soon. The 30-year-old’s debut novel has been hailed as its generation’s coming-of-age novel by Jay McInerney, and – after years of work with the late, legendary Tyrant Books editor Giancarlo DiTrapano – bagged him a six-figure deal with the publisher Little, Brown. On social media, the publication has been polarising, as you’d expect from a book titled Fuccboi.
It’s easy to see where some of the confusion lies, though, about the line between Conroe and his semi-fictional counterpart. Besides sharing a name with the narrator, the author’s likeness is printed on the book’s front cover, and he mines personal details to furnish the plot: a failed attempt to walk across the US, a SoundCloud rap career that didn’t quite take off. Hopefully, the real Conroe doesn’t keep the same sleep schedule as his narrator, at least? “If there was any crossover, hopefully it would have changed by now,” he says over a Zoom, with a laugh.
Fuccboi itself is written in a heightened version of the conversational tone that Conroe uses on his podcast, 1storypod, where he monologues about books by Karl Ove Knausgård, Michel Houellebecq, and Elena Ferrante (Knausgård and Ferrante also appear in the book’s bibliography, alongside the likes of Drake, Nietzsche, Hitler, and David Foster Wallace – a reading list for toxic lit bros). In other pods shared since 2020, meanwhile, Conroe interviews fellow writers such as Sheila Heti (a notable influence) and Sam Pink (a fellow-writer-turned-literary-rival).
Given the overlap, it’s difficult to read the character’s rants about the publishing process and not tie them to Fuccboi’s difficult inception. “Over the six months after I agreed to work on my Walk Book with editor bae,” Sean says at one point in the book, “I cut – nixed, snipped – every savage, ugly, testosterone-fueled, shameful thing it had been most difficult to write.” In reality, the finished product is filled with ugliness and shame, as the character struggles with his own masculinity, railing against “kombucha-guzzling hippies” and “woke organiser fucks”.
This could have something to do with DiTrapano, Conroe’s publisher and mentor. While others suggested that he should tone parts of Fuccboi down or cut controversial segments, Conroe says: “[DiTrapano] was always like, ‘No, fuck that, dude. You got to go further. You got to confuse everybody.’”
More controversy came in the form of an inflammatory essay published by Sam Pink following the deal with Little, Brown, in which he claims that Fuccboi is “a complete rip off” of his style and a “terrible” read with “offensively appropriated” slang. (Conroe himself acknowledges the influence, with a nod to Pink in the novel’s acknowledgements, “for lighting the way”.) Now, Conroe is quick to distance himself from the controversy, saying: “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?” Needless to say, the hype-slash-hate is probably good for Fuccboi. If anything, we’ve been starved of a good literary scandal in recent years.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Fuccboi’s fame is evidence that the young, male novelist is back for good, with all the theatre and outrage that usually entails. For now, Conroe is “just trying to keep his head down” and keep writing. Below, we talk to him about embracing the loud response to his debut novel, his unique spot in the literary scene of 2022, and what he’s got lined up for the future.
Fuccboi is like a künstlerroman – a ‘portrait of the artist’ – mapped onto the gig economy of the late 2010s and early 2020s. Were you consciously writing in that tradition?
Sean Thor Conroe: There’s definitely a ‘portrait of the artist’ tradition it’s partaking in. Even the humour of a totally lost artist who has this idea of making it, or fame. In terms of mapping onto the gig economy, I think that was just [Sean’s] character. That’s where he was at. That’s where I was at when I was writing it. I think for a certain type of young guy who doesn’t want to or isn’t able to partake in a more cooperative type of work environment, that’s the type of work that’s available. And it’s probably only increased in relevance, since [writing Fuccboi]. And I wasn’t trying to make some big commentary on it, necessarily, but I’m glad that that narrative is out there, especially as I see, like, where the world is going, where the economy is going in terms of that of two-tiered workforce.
That feeds into the high-low aesthetic of the book as well, which really comes through in the ‘Works Cited’ section.
Sean Thor Conroe: Yeah. I think when things are deliberately trying to be high-low, or whatever that even means – I don’t even like using that term – I don’t think that’s a good thing. But that’s not to say there isn’t an awareness that I have of knee-jerk reactions, especially in literature, to certain ways of talking and certain types of art. I think the assumption that there is no self-awareness, when people express themselves in these ways, is pretty suspect.
I think that has to do with the reaction that some people have been having to the book. People don’t really understand why they feel so affronted by certain modes of speech and partaking in certain types of art. But I think I wanted that reaction. I wanted people to think about that. Why do they have certain knee jerk reactions to types of expression and types of art. And I think that that ‘Works Cited’ section is just an expression of that. There’s a lot of anti-literary energies in the book, but that's not to say it’s against finding its own type of rigour. And I think it’s just fun. A lot of this stuff is just fun, that I like to mash up in a book.
“I was worried about women reacting to it badly, but there seems to be a specific type of dude who gets most triggered by it. An upper-middle class, self-righteous white boy” – Sean Thor Conroe
Were you expecting the reception that Fuccboi received, that controversy?
Sean Thor Conroe: Initially, no. But working on it with my previous publisher and mentor Gian DiTrapano… Sometimes it was a kind of standard editor-writer relationship, but there were also times when it was about the overall energy of it. Him in my ear. There were elements of like, ‘Do I need to tone down certain aspects of the voice here?’ And Gian’s energy was always like, ‘No, fuck that, dude. You got to go further. You got to confuse everybody.’ As I observed people’s reactions, and then thought about our interactions, I was like, I think Gian planned this all along.
Do we want more interesting books in the world, or not? That’s really the question. I would rather it just be a quiet release, I don’t want all this noise, but it seems having all this energy around the book is good for books.
Did attending a writing programme change your outlook at all?
Sean Thor Conroe: It helped me get a microcosm of the reaction I’d get from the book. When I was first submitting it, I was worried about women reacting to it badly, but there seems to be a specific type of dude who gets most triggered by it. An upper-middle-class, self-righteous white boy. There are certain types of dudes who move through the world in an unexamined way that have really violent reactions to it. [The workshop] helped me cultivate my taste of what types of feedback I wanted people to be having. That seemed useful. That seemed like it was pushing the right buttons.
Do you think it’s valuable to confuse or irritate people sometimes, as a writer?
Sean Thor Conroe: I’m most impacted by books that live with me for a while. Some of my favourite writers now, when I first read their books I was triggered, and I was confused. But then I was like, ‘I’ve also been thinking about this for the past month, and I feel like it’s tangibly impacted how I move through the world’. I value that as a reader. I think those experiences of reading have made me value that and want to create that. I guess the answer would be yes. It’s good to confuse people sometimes.
The buzz you’ve received these last few months harks back to young, controversial, male novelists like Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney. Maybe Houellebecq in Europe. Do you feel like you occupy a similar space in 2022?
Sean Thor Conroe: From my perspective, I’m just trying to keep my head down and stay focused on what the larger task is, but I do like those writers. At some point I made a decision to write with a certain type of irreverence, knowing that certain lines were being crossed, but I didn’t do it for that sake. It’s almost by default. If I’m writing how I’m writing, there’s gonna be resistance to it. I also think that a lot of the reactions aren’t really based on the book. I still think it’s kind of a trick that’s being played. I don’t think the book is what it presents itself to be, at least fully. But if I do occupy that space, that’s great.
You’d welcome that.
Sean Thor Conroe: For sure. Why not?
A lot of the controversy revolves around the views and voice of Sean Thor Conroe the character. Do you think likeability is important in a narrator?
Sean Thor Conroe: Likeability… I don’t know if I’d use that word specifically, but maybe like a degree of self-awareness, or showing the reader you know what you’re doing, or showing that you’re investigating something about yourself – that you’re giving something. I think generous energy is important to have as a writer. It demonstrates to the reader that the ride you’re proposing is worth taking. But Sean probably does a lot of unlikeable things in the book, so it’s not just that.
Did you worry that readers would conflate Sean the character and Sean the writer?
Sean Thor Conroe: As soon as you do that move, of having the narrator have the same name as the author, you open yourself up to that. But the book is called Fuccboi. It’s heightening all the ways this character is on some fuckshit. One of those things is being so obsessed with that tradition of coming-of-age as an artist, and really wanting to be recognised for their art. When you have a narrator who’s saying things like that, in that confessional mode, it creates a sense of intimacy with the reader. They’re going: ‘Oh, is that how I move through the world? Like, do I want to be a star?’ I think that’s a really toxic mode people have, especially in the US. I don’t know how much people care about a community or books, everyone just wants to be… That’s like our new God now, the idea of celebrity. So it’s playing in that sphere. People will conflate it in bad faith, but that’s absurd. It’s a novel.
“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?” – Sean Thor Conroe
How do you feel about the book’s success being partly tied up in the controversy leading up to its publication?
Sean Thor Conroe: I was talking to a friend about how I didn’t know it was gonna be received with this many different types of energy, and they were like, ‘But you always wanted the book to come out’. And I had to agree that I did want the book to come out. But in my head, I made a distinction between putting the book out, and then this whole other thing about hype. Those are kind of two different things, and I can’t control that second aspect. At the same time, 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? So I guess it’s kind of fitting. Ultimately, I think that stuff comes and goes as people express their feelings on the internet. That doesn’t change that I have to keep going and keep writing. It’s kind of like, we’re in this now.
Are you more hopeful than Fuccboi’s Sean?
Sean Thor Conroe: Yeah, I think so. I want to be more optimistic. Obviously the narrator’s ranting about stuff, and he’s mad at his own life, and he’s full of resentment. You’re listening to his rants, but you’re simultaneously aware the book is called Fuccboi and this dude’s kinda lost. I don’t think people should read the narrator going on his rants and feel attacked. I want to just encourage everybody to keep going in.
Do you have a specific project that you’re working on next?
Sean Thor Conroe: I’m just continuing to use the fictional space of writing to process real shit. You know? Same old, same old.
Fuccboi is out now