The first omen that Caitlin Moran’s new book What About Men? will be an outright catastrophe appears on page 13. Moran is stage-managing some faintly unbelievable reasons for writing it. And then, perhaps with faked incuriousness, she asks: “I couldn’t think of any book, play, TV show or movie that basically tells the story of how boy-children become men.” I mean, hang on a minute: what?
Let’s put aside the fact that the Star Wars films, which Moran references at what feel like ten-page intervals, are about a boy becoming a man. Let’s think for a moment about books that tell “the story of how boy-children become men”. What about David Copperfield? A Sentimental Education and The Red and The Black? Kim? Sons and Lovers and Demian and The Catcher in the Rye? How about The Rachel Papers? Has Moran heard of… Harry Potter? There are seven of those. But this is merely the first surreal claim in a book that itches with them. As the rash spreads, the reader begins – fretfully at first, and then with mounting panic – to wonder if Caitlin Moran has ever met a man.
It has become popular to view, as Moran does, straight white men as the downwardly mobile gender. Men keep losing to women. They lose at school and at university. Unemployment, homelessness, prison time, dying in wars, losing custody of children – men claim gold in these events. When it comes to losing, men win.
Young, straight white men, Moran tells us, are aware of this. They know they are Untermensch: tiny, furious embryos stewing in fear, resentment, envy and hatred. Young men are 24-carat haters. They despise: girls, teachers, housewives, people with master’s degrees, hot jocks, Taylor Swift and the entire LGBTQI+ community. Whenever you warily check in on young men, mesmerised by a Jordan B Peterson video, you find their hatreds incessantly updating, like a smartphone. How did so many young (and old) men join what the podcaster Marc Maron called “the army of unfuckable hate nerds”? What can be done about these losers?
Until very recently, these questions did not trouble Caitlin Moran. The Times columnist, author and broadcaster busily slayed other dragons. First: the patriarchy, which she gored in her 2011 memoir-polemic How to Be a Woman. Moran wrote a sizzler. It was funny, as queasily intimate as Portnoy’s Complaint – but real, and for millennial women. In fact, it shifted enough units to be for everyone. Kate Moss was photographed (nude, drinking champagne) with her copy. Moran became a star.
Feminism – which in Moran’s formulation meant saying it was OK for women to talk about being fat and wanking – was cool. This was the early 2010s. Life was simpler, maybe even sexier. Benedict Cumberbatch was in Sherlock, but he was also wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘This is what a feminist looks like” printed across it. Moran was part of the giggly mainstream atmosphere of these times.
Then the times changed. Britain turned meaner and poorer. It became harder to describe everything as “awesome” as Moran still often does. As the years wore on, and her star burned brighter, Moran’s journalism took fewer risks. When she interviewed celebrities, it felt like going on a visit to Madame Tussauds. (“Here,” she seems to say, “look at the lovely famous person!”) She admitted on a podcast with Elizabeth Day that “I now am in the very lucky position where I only interview people I like, and what I want to do is explain why I think they’re great.” That’s good news for Helena Bonham Carter. It’s bad news for readers.
After a while, Moran had the look of a listless major talent in search of a subject. What did she see when she looked at the early 2020s? “All the energy, and joy, is with the women right now,” she explains in What About Men?. Women had Beyoncé and Finland’s prime minister. They didn’t really need Moran anymore. Her work was done. That left the other gender: men. What does Caitlin Moran think about them?
[See also: Adventures in the manosphere]
The first thing Caitlin Moran thinks, simultaneously grandiose and naive, is that what men need is Caitlin Moran. She had believed she was “the Woman Woman!”, and that men could fend for themselves. But then Moran noticed, whenever she gave a talk, or chatted with other mothers, that boys had Problems. She was galled to discover there was an “absence of appealing, relatable, sound advice coming from the good liberal progressive men of my generation”. If no “good liberal progressives” were prepared to hose the testosterone and soiled kleenexes off the world’s young men, then Moran would have to do it herself. The Woman Woman was now a Man Woman.
What About Men? details the problems faced by the modern bloke (though not topics such as video games and violence that Moran “didn’t really know, or care, about”). We follow the arc of male life; boy to adolescent to man to very old man to coffin. Along the way Moran attempts to solve the problems faced by “straight white men”. Problems with their bodies, banter and clothes (a chapter that feels like it was written about Moran’s husband’s wardrobe); problems with their cocks and balls and the way they shag. Their struggles with dating and porn. Their neglect of friends, family and children. Every “crisis of masculinity” box – Jordan B Peterson’s popularity, Neil Strauss’s pick-up guide The Game, Andrew Tate haunting teenage boys’ phones, over-masturbating – is ticked off. Structurally, there are similarities between this volume and How to Be a Woman – except for the fact that Moran, as a woman, really had a hold of her material there, and here she starts from a position where “90 per cent of all my information on what it’s like to be a normal, average boy actually comes from The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole”.
Moran needs more than Sue Townsend to solve the riddle of male identity. So she digs deeper. Why do men wear such tight jeans? Moran safaris around a shopping centre in Solihull, resembling “David Attenborough – collecting visual information about an intriguing species”, to stare at the boy’s clothes. Like Attenborough, she does not cross examine the animals. To be fair, she does do some interviews. She asks questions of her husband and a few of her mates about their boyhoods in the Seventies. She Zoom-calls her daughter’s teenage school friends, and is surprised to learn that they think “feminism has gone too far”. She half-remembers something the writer Jonathan Coe (a man) said in an interview once. In an entire chapter about male friendship, Moran hangs out with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse, then asks them why they are so happy. Weirdly they don’t say “because we are rich, successful comedians who are always on television”. Mortimer, helpfully, has given What About Men? a really nice blurb for the cover.
Above all, Moran (867K followers) floats questions out on to Twitter, “the Twenty-First-Century Saloon bar”, to find out about “the World of Boys”. She asks men about their testicles, then prints some of their replies in this book. She asks Twitter whether it knows any young men who adore Andrew Tate. When Moran really hits her stride later on, she asks Twitter and Facebook what, if anything, is good about masculinity. “Obviously my Twitter timeline,” she writes, “is a self-selecting echo chamber.” As Moran herself might say: NO SHIT!
Which brings us to matters of style. There are about five funny newspaper columnists in Britain today, and Moran is one of them. How to Be a Woman was probably the punchiest British book published in the 2010s. There, the gags came in relentless Lenny Bruce riffs-on-a-riff-on-a-riff, twisting into ever-more absurd shapes:
I have, of course, tasted my own menstrual blood. By and large, I’d prefer a bag of Nik Naks, but it was all right: better than most stuff you can buy on an Inter-city buffet, and certainly an ethically sourced product. My welfare of me has been exemplary. I always have clean, deep hay to sleep on. Personally, however, I will not be urging you to taste your menstrual blood right now, as I’m very aware you might be on a bus, or sitting at the back of the Tick Tock Toddlers club…
This clips on healthily for another five sentences.
Now consider a similar effort from What About Men?:
We must, now, climb on to the Banterbus, and take a journey to Banterbury, where I, the Archbishop of Banterbury, will take you through the Bible of Banter – “The Banterbury Tales”, if you will – and chronicle the most formative moments of a new-born boy’s life: the Road to Banter… I am going to banter about banter!
In the first example Moran takes the idea of tasting menstrual blood and jumps it through hoops, until its ragged and tattered and shreds of it are flying around everywhere, hitting all sorts of targets. In the latter example, she just repeats the word banter over and over again, jamming it into two unoriginal puns. What’s the effect supposed to be, other than making the reader groan?
Moran lives for groaning. As a style, Moran-ese is aggressively demotic, creatively sweary, swift and glib. It reads like it comes very easily to her. It confuses candour (“I have touched 14 penises in my life”) with honesty. It leans heavily on replacing words with twee-whimsy Slanglish instead; so “anal sex” becomes “botty fun”, and “urolagnia” becomes “getting widdled on by Mexican twins”. Clichés are subverted in the same way: “If you’re tired of fanny, you’re tired of life,” writes Moran, with Dr Johnson screaming in his tomb.
When it comes to conjuring her own aphorisms, they are as vague and mass appeal-baiting as fortune cookie messages: “We are all just twenty-first-century people, trying to understand our medieval monkey brains.” Pages are strafed with exclamation marks and italics. If Moran thinks a paragraph needs a bit more oomph – and many, many paragraphs do – she will BREAK INTO ALL CAPS RANTING, HIDEOUS AND UNSTOPPABLE RANTING, AS ANGRY AS THE WORST ANGRIEST REDDEST BOILS YOU EVER HAD ON YOUR ARSE. And we know when the sad parts are because Moran always signposts them like this:
The Sad Parts are written as SINGLE sentences.
They are VERY sad and VERY profound!
The danger of an overwhelmingly ripe personal style is that it morphs into a substitute for thinking. (See: Morrissey.) Heavily stylised, What About Men? becomes thoughtless. Big old sexisms free-fall through the sky like meteorites. “Men don’t like things to change,” apparently. “Straight men flounder in the emotional desert of never being able to appreciate or support each other,” apparently. “Straight women and gay men can, more often than not, chat away all night,” apparently. “Women are far, far more breezy about an anal examination than men,” apparently. Moran compares men and women with all the delicacy of Roy Chubby Brown musing on which foreign nationality smells the worst. Were two women to meet on a train to Euston, Moran writes, by the end of the journey they will be best friends forever, be able to write novels about each other’s vulvas and so on. Were two male cyclists to share a changing room, the best conversation they might have would involve grunting about the football. This is tired stuff, and unworthy of Moran’s talent, although as she does concede: “I speak in broad generalisations”.
[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]
What About Men? does, at least, give us a clear picture of the world Moran would like to live in. It’s a padded, soft-play world in which men have role models who “honestly talk about the joys of going for a good poo”, where normal men have “normal relationships with their normal willies”, where there is finally a “male equivalent to the dancing-girl emoji”. It is a world without tragedy, where average people live average lives and everybody laughs at the same transparent jokes about farts and balls and cocks. Ultimately our differences are marginal, and in MoranWorld, man or woman, bro or hoe, gentleman or lady, “we’re all just one of The Guys”.
As I read What About Men?, I imagined how the book would go down with The Guys – some of the guys I’ve known all my life. The book is addressed to them: the default straight problematic males of the Western world. I imagined Moran barging into our rooms while we made desultory chit-chat, or played video games, or watched the football. I imagined her asking us to talk about our problems, and telling us that she could de-puzzle our enigmatic identities by making us talk more about our “normal willies”. I imagined the silence and the embarrassment, and wondered again: has Caitlin Moran ever met a man?
“Of course, I am not a man,” she confesses in her prologue. “I do not know what it’s like to be a man, or a boy. Not a clue.” At some point in the future, it might be useful to hear from somebody who does.
[See also: Tough Guy: What Norman Mailer can teach us]
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation