It is astounding to reflect on just how much times have changed and roles have shifted. It used be chauvinistic men telling women what to in, so I’ve been reliably informed, unbelievably condescending and insulting ways. Now we have women doing the same to men, except now men totally deserve it. Remember: men and women are absolutely one-hundred percent equal, except women are better at everything.
This apparently applies to taste as well. There’s an article from British QG called “Conversations with friends: why men need to read more novels” that’s been making the rounds. It’s written by a person calling themselves Ash Sarkar, a self-styled journalist and “libertarian communist political activist.” A little more about Ms. Sarkar:
In her writings and commentary, Sarkar has expressed anti-imperialist, feminist, anti-fascist, and libertarian communist views. She has taken part in anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-Trump protests and in 2018 joined a hunger strike to protest against the detention of asylum seekers at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. She supported the Stansted 15’s actions against deportation flights.” She doesn’t have a book published, but that will apparently be remedied in 2023.
If you guessed that the thrust of Ms. Sarkar’s article is that “straight white men suck,” you’re partly right. That is the easy and relatively safe assumption based upon the above snippet of Ms. Sarkar’s philosophy, but it’s also the facile Internet version. In truth, Ms. Sarkar’s article is a little harder to pin down since her point isn’t entirely clear. What I get out of it is that men should be more like women, and that she doesn’t like straight white men very much. She thinks they suck not because they don’t read, but that they don’t read what Ash Sarkar thinks they should read.
Before we begin, I want to make it clear that I’m aware this article is likely bait. I don’t know how sophisticated a troll Ms. Sarkar is, if she means this sincerely or if it’s just a way for her to provoke a response by saying inflammatory things and then pointing to the reaction as proof straight white men are big crybabies who can’t handle their replacement (which totally isn’t happening), but I think there are so many misconceptions and contradictions in this article that it bears a deep dive. So here goes:
It’s bedtime, and me and my boyfriend are comparing notes on what we’re reading. I flick through the tomes on his e-reader; it’s science fiction, politics, or politics in space. He’s halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson, following hot on the heels of China Mieville, Vincent Bevins, and Ursula K. Le Guin. He peers over at the pages of my Jane Austen, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s all chitter-chatter.” I ask him to explain what he means. “Well, there’s just a lot of talking.” He hunkers back down with the expanse of Red Mars and leaves me in the drawing rooms of Mansfield Park.
It’s not that he’s a protein-powder-where-a-brain-should-be bro. Indeed, he bears all the hallmarks of a fully reconstructed man: NTS on the radio, bell hooks on the shelf, a yoga membership used at least thrice-weekly. But literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, history, or sci-fi, just doesn’t interest him. Why prod the nooks and crannies of the human heart, when you can terraform planets, or dig into the CIA’s murky psy-ops in Indonesia? And he’s not alone. According to Nielsen, despite men famously making up half the population, they only account for 20% of the audience for literary fiction.
In proper essay writing form, Ms. Sarkar has her main thesis near the beginning: Men only account for 20 percent of the audience for literary fiction. And to Ms. Sarkar, that is a problem, for reasons we will get to later.
What is literary fiction? A broad definition might make you think “All the junk I was forced to read in high school that I hated,” but it’s more of a catch-all for works that are considered “serious” as opposed to “genre”:
Literary fiction is a label that, in the book trade, refers to market novels that do not fit neatly into an established genre (see genre fiction); or, otherwise, refers to novels that are character-driven rather than plot-driven, examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion, or are simply considered “serious” art.
Literary fiction is often used as a synonym for literature . . .
“Character-driven” gets derided sometimes as “people sitting around talking,” a characterization I personally object to. Interesting characters are part of what makes a novel worth reading. I have read many where the plot might be engaging, but the characters are boring and make me not care about what’s going on. But in the minds of many, literary fiction is art, while all that other stuff is just entertainment.
Ms. Sarkar continues:
Part of this may be down to the changing landscape of authors themselves. In 2000, men made up 61% of the UK’s top selling hardbacks. By 2020, this number fell to 43%. Where straight white men used to dominate bestseller charts and prize shortlists, now it is people of colour, LGBT people and women who are both at the avant-garde of writing and driving sales in stores. Bernardine Evaristo, Paul Beatty, and Anna Burns have been lauded by the Booker committee for their narrative experimentation; meanwhile publishing houses across the country scour the internet for the next Sally Rooney. Commercially successful writing by women is, mercifully, no longer automatically designated as ‘chick-lit’. In recent years, the work of Marian Keyes has been critically reappraised; meanwhile Torrey Peters, and Candice Carty-Williams have garnered both plaudits and decent sales figures. Celebrity authors and those with big fan bases, like Richard Osman and Lee Child, may shift product, but creatively, straight white men haven’t kept up with those who’ve previously been consigned to the margins.
That the publishing industry has actively sought to sign authors who are not of a certain hated demographic is important to not here as well. This changing landscape has changed by design, and it is a disingenuous stretch to say that straight white men can’t keep up “creatively.” That’s kind of a racist statement.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t another article bemoaning the dearth of straight white men in contemporary literature. Culture changes faster than politics. Elected leaders look at Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and LGBT rights with hostility and/or befuddlement, but publishers and editors have seized the identitarian moment – also known as identity politics – with all the zeal of the recently converted. Elite tastemakers can’t deliver social equality, but they are attempting to commission a diverse cultural landscape into existence. And I reckon the literary canon will survive having to hear more from ethnic minorities, women, and queer people, and a bit less from middle-aged uni professors lamenting their employer’s updated guidance on sexual harassment.
Here, Ms. Sarkar answers the question posed earlier. Is it that straight white men can’t keep up “creatively,” or is it that the publishing industry is “attempting to commission a diverse cultural landscape into existence” by “seiz[ing] the identitarian movement” in order to fight the battle for social equality? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. But the idea that the gatekeepers are gatekeeping in order to get a specific outcome is far more plausible. It’s akin to symphony orchestras ending the practice of blind auditions in order to get a more diverse (read: non-white) orchestra . . . the exact same rationale for having blind auditions in the first place.
While the material privileges of race, class, and gender remain stubbornly intact in society, the distribution of visibility has shifted meaning the caucasian Big Dogs of prestige literature can’t present themselves as the universal perspective anymore. Now that minorities and the historically marginalised have a voice in publishing, no one really needs Jonathan Franzen or Martin Amis to speak on behalf of humanity. Who are men when they don’t get to simply claim the status of godlike narrator? Aside from some notable exceptions – Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi being one – male writers who aren’t otherwise talking from a marginalised perspective have largely abandoned the novel as a means to make sense of cultural change. Faced with the challenge of articulating themselves as themselves, it’s like straight white men have given up on the subtleties of literary fiction and said: “Fuck it – I’m doing stand up about cancel culture instead.”
The distaste Ms. Sarkar bears towards men, mostly of European extraction, is palpable in this paragraph. “Who are men when they don’t get to simply claim the status of godlike narrator?” These are the words of the resentful, someone with an axe to grind against a very specific group of people. Ms. Sarkar simultaneously thinks men are grandiose megalomaniacs who can’t “articulate themselves as themselves” but also can’t “talkn from a marginalised perspective,” even though people like Ms. Sarkar don’t think men should “speak on behalf of humanity” in a “universal perspective.” Forget that writing is teasing out the universal from the particular.
This is a problem inherent in much identitarian politics: when there is still a risk of saying “I just don’t like Race X or Gender Y,” meaningless word salad has to be employed to make the point in a roundabout way that won’t alienate too many readers. Perhaps this is indicative of a deeper problem identitarian writers face. However, said writers would need to possess at least a fraction of self-reflection to explore this possibility, so don’t hold your breath.
Rather than bemoan the loss of the male novelist, as other commentators have done, it might be useful to ask where exactly the male reader of novels has gone – if he even ever existed. Even the male literary titans still clinging on, such as Booker winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel, have audiences which are 60% female. In truth, despite the historic dominance of men writing literary fiction, the idea of a male reader has been consistently derided throughout history. Even in the novel’s 19th Century heyday, reading fiction was a feminised activity – there was something a bit sexy about women who allowed books to activate their passions (Henry James wrote that one lady’s reputation for reading a lot “hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic.”)
This is all specific to literary fiction as currently defined. And in the 19th Century, this wasn’t about literary fiction. Ms. Sarkar provides no evidence that these attitudes are still widespread. Times change. Reading fiction isn’t considered “feminised” anymore.
But men who spend too much time indoors, reading novels and living their lives vicariously through the trials and tribulations of others, were widely considered cucks. A man’s literary interest had to be justified by ambition, linked to his masculine capacity for action, or contextualised in real-world exploration. They wander lonely as clouds, touch the heart of darkness, seek adventure on the road and end up getting dysentery. This gendered division of the imagination endured even through the social and political revolutions of the 20th Century. Karl Ove Knausgaard has spoken of the suffocating weight of gender expectations on his own experience of writing: “It put such doubt in me that I’ve never really recovered from it,” he said to The Observer. “I don’t talk about feelings but I write a lot about feelings. Reading, that’s feminine, writing, that’s feminine. It is insane, it’s really insane but it still is in me.”
This Knausgaard guy sounds like a very troubled, conflicted, and confused individual. He also sounds like a guy who wants to say the right things about gender in order to be accepted into the club (you know the club . . . the big one that you ain’t in). Ms. Sarkar doesn’t though. Her “end up getting dysentery” crack isn’t about the Oregon Trail, but the futility of men acting upon their natural masculine impulses. Exploration is stupid, I guess. And “wander lonely as clouds” goes to show a common mistake that female writers make about men: men actually enjoy hanging out with friends and do more than just brood.
Women sit around and feel things, but men go out and do stuff: the idea of being confined inside, processing text and leading a sedentary lifestyle, has been traditionally disparaged as being unmanly. But today, that’s the way most people live and work. Even before the pandemic made offices of our homes, the shift to an information and services-based economy collapsed the indoors/outdoors distinction between men and women. It’s no wonder that male curiosity is being directed towards narrative podcasts, non-fiction, sci-fi and fantasy. These things take you out of the home, and into the world.
I have seldom read a more sexist article in a mainstream publication. “Women sit around and feel things . . .” The old “men have no feelings” stereotype. “[M]en go out and do stuff . . .” Another sexist stereotype, and a weird one considering Ms. Sarkar spent some time earlier in this article cheering on the fact that women now dominate traditionally male-dominated fields. Gender stereotypes are only good when they serve Ms. Sarkar’s point, I guess.
Men and women have different tastes, and that’s okay. The only reason I can think of for Ms. Sarkar’s wish that more men adopted the tastes and thought patterns of women is because she doesn’t like men qua men, which is readily apparent in Ms. Sarkar’s description of her boyfriend at the beginning of this article.
There’s a reluctance, perhaps, to grapple with what this all means for men. Melancholic longing for a lost world of exploration, purpose and action can – as we see in stand up comedy, or the online manosphere – curdle into a generalised sense of aggrievement. Maybe the problem isn’t that women have come to dominate the fields traditionally occupied by men, but that men don’t really want to think about how economic conditions and changing cultural values have made them more like women. But the thing is, women don’t just read novels to understand ourselves: we read them to understand each other. Literary fiction is how we can study human frailty, making the world of feelings, friendship, love, personal dilemma, rivalry, money and psychology rich terrain for exploration. And, with the selfishness of a voyeur, I want to know what that’s like for men. That means more male novelists, sure, but also more male readers. Take a break from Mars, and explore the cosmos of emotional minutiae. We could all do with a lot more of your chitter-chatter.
A serious question in response to this is: why? Why should men “[t]ake a break from Mars, and explore the cosmos of emotional minutiae”? What if those aren’t the kinds of novels men read? Why don’t women read more sci-fi? Maybe literary fiction as currently conceptualized and produced doesn’t appeal to men. Maybe the publishers of literary fiction are putting out a product that appeals mostly to women in order to court a female audience. And that’s fine. More power to them. Is Ms. Sarkar’s point that she wants to drum up more of a market for her own book in anticipation of its release? That is possible. Insult marketing is a thing that works for some people. Why not Ash Sarkar?
Yet I think this article takes it to another level, one that, again, would take the barest scintilla of self-awareness to recognize. “[M]en don’t really want to think about how economic conditions and changing cultural values have made them more like women”? Says who? This is incredibly presumptuous and chauvinistic. I guess this might be characteristic of feminism: the license for women to speak and act in all of the horribly offensive ways men do in their minds. Even the most cursory of glances through what Ms. Sarkar derisively calls the “manosphere” would show that these “aggrieved” men talk a whole hell of a lot about the effects that these societal changes—societal changes nobody was asked about—affect men.
Maybe, just maybe, men talk a lot about this stuff . . . with other men. Maybe men don’t find the female-dominated genre of literary fiction to be the best way of exploring the effects of these changes and what they mean for masculinity in the 21st Century. Maybe men, on average, have different tastes than women. Maybe men and women are not exactly the same.
If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the fact that Ms. Sarkar refuses to see a male gynecologist (though she’s a Muslim, so there are probably other reasons for this as well) or a male therapist. It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to see why men seek each other’s counsel, and not yours. Especially if this is the level of condescension we’d face.
My fellow men: never forget that you should not take advice about being a man from women who hate men.
I actually read and enjoy literary fiction and character-driven stories, and strive to combine these influences with my love of action and adventure. Check out The Last Ancestor for some male-oriented sword-and-planet, and A Traitor to Dreams for a female-led urban fantasy.