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13 April 2023

The decline of the Literary Bloke

In featuring just four men, Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists confirms what we already knew: the literary male has become terminally uncool.

By Will Lloyd

The most understanding account of male literary ambition was written by a woman. It comes about a third of the way through Mrs Dalloway, and lasts no longer than a page. Virginia Woolf describes the doomed Septimus Smith, “one of those half-educated, self-educated men whose education is all learnt from books borrowed from public libraries”, and his life before the First World War.

Smith wants to be a poet, a literary man. First he must escape the backwaters, so heads to London, “leaving an absurd note behind him, such as great men have written”. He lodges dingily off Euston Road, and stews in contradictory, writerly emotions: “vanity, ambition, idealism, passion, loneliness, courage, laziness, the usual seeds”. Septimus stays up until 3am tinkering with his masterpiece. He writes love poetry to his neighbour, who sighs, and asks, “Was he not like Keats?” He starves. He drinks. He reads all of William Shakespeare. Then, suddenly, he is pulled into the European War, before he has had so much as a book review published.

As an X-ray of the sad young literary man these passages are incomparable. Woolf, surrounded by boys like this all her life, knew them in their anxious-ambitious marrow. Her words were true when Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, they were true in 1802, they were true in 1992. “London” she wrote, with wry sympathy, “has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith”. Particularly the ones who wish to become Great Literary Men. Perhaps it always would.

Except the Great Literary Man is no longer the role model he once was. The seemingly eternal trajectory outlined by Woolf has been broken. The statistics are drearily familiar. Fewer men read literary novels and fewer men write them. Men are increasingly absent from prize shortlists and publishers’ fiction catalogues. Today’s release of Granta’s 20 best young British novelists – a once-a-decade snapshot of literary talent – bottles the trend. Four of the 20 on the list are men. That’s the lowest in the list’s 40-year history. In its first year, 1983, the Granta list featured only six women.

Don DeLillo once called lists a form of “cultural hysteria”. Although at an empirical level they are total nonsense, at the level of numinous cultural “vibes” lists are powerful barometers. The absence of Bloke on Granta’s fifth list will probably tee up some hysterical questions: is the novel dead? (No.) Is literary fiction no longer at the centre of the culture? (Ask Sally Rooney, Elena Ferrante and Annie Ernaux that question and tell me it’s not.)

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More compelling than these questions – which tend to frame the novel as an exclusively masculine ranch, where men can safely pad about pretending to be Ernest Hemingway and behave very badly whenever they’re not at their desks – is a statement: literary fiction written by men is increasingly irrelevant to the culture at large. I think that is hard to disagree with. Scanning the Granta list I realised (somewhat ignobly) that I recognised only one of the male names. If I – a long-time subscriber to literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, card-carrying London Library member, Daunt Books tote-bag owner – don’t know who they are then who, their mothers and the editorial board of Granta aside, does? It is inconceivable that someone in my position, with my interests, would not have known the names Amis, McEwan and Ishiguro when they looked at the Granta list in 1983. The last seven (recently published) novels I’ve read were all written by women, and the last literary novel I can remember buying on the day it was released was – please forgive me – Purity by Jonathan Franzen.

[See also: Julian Barnes on 110 years of the New Statesman]

Franzen is an illustrative figure here. America’s most famous male novelist. The last male novelist to appear (gloomy, nebbish in his spectacles) on the cover of Time magazine. Franzen could sneeze on a blank sheet of paper, photocopy it, send it off, and see it appear in the New Yorker a week later. And yet somehow Franzen, who writes capacious, heart-driven social novels, is just fantastically uncool. Possibly the least cool writer working today. Constantly mocked for being sad about the extinction of small bird species in North America and parodied for his self-importance, Franzen, the most successful male literary novelist by most metrics, stands as an anti-model for the young male writer.

The irrelevance of male literary fiction has something to do with “cool”. A few years ago Megan Nolan noted – with as much accuracy as Woolf on these men in Mrs Dalloway that it might be “inherently less cool” to be a male novelist these days. Male writers, she continued, were missing a “cool, sexy, gunslinger” movement to look up to. All correct. The one male writer that my male writer friends look up to unanimously, quote repeatedly in conversation with each other, and magpie from in everything they write is… Martin Amis. Whatever his Mick Jaggerish charms, it might be a bit much to think of him as sexy. I love Amis in some unreasonable ways, but he will be 74 this year.

How did male literary novelists become uncool? There’s no scientific answer but a clue might be found in the transition between two emblematic American authors, David Foster Wallace and John Green. There was a not-so-subtle cultural shift in the 2010s, and during it the “literary man” as an identity became a laughing stock. He could be identified by various signifiers (like reading the late David Foster Wallace), and by living in the same emotional atmosphere described by Woolf. Rather than being laudable, these qualities came to stand for a pretentious, self-serious, basic literary masculinity. (Sadly though, almost all young literary men are like this.)

The male novelist of the decade was chummy John Green. The author of The Fault in Our Stars presented as an antidote to the severe and brooding stereotype of the literary bloke. Unlike Wallace, who was both a genius and a bad man, or Franzen, who wrote with skill and ambition, Green wrote nothing ambitious and is nothing like a genius, while being a very nice man. He wrote a series of lachrymose novels about men who cry at the appropriate times, who never lie to their girlfriends, and who have never farted, and certainly never masturbated. He made many millions of dollars for this. Green was not cool, nor was he sexy, nor was he a “gunslinger”. The Fault in Our Stars is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and yet I have never met a male writer who expressed admiration for him. Nobody could even be bothered to be rude about him.

Inevitably, it all comes down to status. The decline of male literary fiction is not down to a feminist conspiracy in publishing houses, nor is it evidence that the novel itself is in decline. Reality is simpler. If men cannot dominate the literary landscape, cannot walk into lists like Granta’s, deservingly or not, they will look for other landscapes to colonise. If serious – and unserious – male novelists of stature are held in contempt, then why risk your reputation on something that pays as badly as writing fiction? The traditional dividends paid to literary talent, whether financial, reputational or sexual, no longer seem to exist for the male novelist. The incentive structure has decayed over time. Fame and fortune might be ransacked from non-fiction (look at Michael Lewis!) but not from the novel. Septimus Smith will always be with us. Just don’t expect him to turn up in London these days with a mind ringing to the sound of poetry.

[See also: Milan Kundera’s identity crisis]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats