Father holding his newborn baby girl

What does it mean to be a man?

A crop of recent novels tackle changing attitudes to masculinity
July 14, 2016

In 2011 the feminism issue of the literary magazine Granta featured “Night Thoughts,” a satirical story by Helen Simpson, in which a teacher lies awake fretting about his workload at home as well as at school. Reversing the stereotyped roles, his wife—snoring obliviously—leaves mess everywhere and has nothing to do with child care. She is boorish and even violent but if her husband objects, she sulks: he has learnt not to threaten her “feminine pride” and to see her behaviour as “natural.” Simpson engineers the story’s every last detail to make the point that in the real world men’s behaviour harms women and needs to change, but that it won’t because it’s in their interests to keep women down.

“Night Thoughts” doesn’t mean to be subtle: it’s not Simpson’s priority to ask if patriarchy hurts men too. But questions of this kind have become more common in the interim between the story’s first publication and its reappearance last year in Simpson’s collection Cockfosters (Cape). Artist Grayson Perry recently presented a Channel 4 documentary entitled All Man, in which he visited ultra-male worlds reflecting on how identity is shifting in the face of increasing female equality. Journalist Owen Jones wrote a much-shared piece in which he examined how economic insecurity among working-class men especially is affecting their morale. The statistics are all there in Rebecca Asher’s new book Man Up (Harvill Secker). There are too many men in boardrooms but there are also too many men in jail. Men are less likely than women to change the sheets or look after their kids, but they are also less likely to have close friends or go to a GP. They are more likely to commit murder but also suicide.

How are contemporary fiction writers—both male and female—responding? Usually the masculinity represented in fiction is either middle class or viewed through middle-class eyes. In the hands of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan the working-class male is someone to mock or fear. In McEwan’s Saturday (2005) the neurosurgeon protagonist and his family disarm a violent thug by diagnosing him with brain disease and reciting a poem—art and science combine to defeat an angry young man.

Other writers have tended to sanitise working-class men. The critic Adam Mars-Jones suggested that James Kelman’s How late it was, how late (1994) won the Booker Prize in part because its portrayal of a Glaswegian ex-convict appealed to liberal sensibilities. Its protagonist—unrealistically for Mars-Jones—disdained racism and homophobia, venting his spleen on the Tories or big business.

You don’t have to share Mars-Jones’s view of the working classes to note that literary fiction shies away from uglier expressions of male disenfranchisement. Irvine Welsh built his career on writing about an underclass embracing hard drugs after the decline of heavy industry. But the countercultural howl of 1993’s Trainspotting has now mellowed into a hard-luck story: Welsh’s latest novel, The Blade Artist (Cape), reveals that the psychopathic Begbie resorted to violence as a way to cope with dyslexia. The plot turns on his failures as a father—on the rare occasions he looked after his two sons he did more harm than good by teaching them to be homophobic. In one of those karmic rebukes that Welsh often dishes out to his characters, one of the sons turns out to be gay.

"From Martin Amis to Michel Houellebecq, the dominant note is of cynical, sometimes inept, chasing of women"
Novelists often use male homosexuality like this—as a plot point or source of pathos. The candid account of gay life in Garth Greenwell’s acclaimed new novel What Belongs to You (Picador) is eclipsed by a backstory that describes the narrator’s shaming by his intolerant father. In outline the setup is similar to Ben Lerner’s 2011 Leaving the Atocha Station: a solitary young literary man abroad, in Lerner’s case in Spain; in Greenwell’s Bulgaria. Lerner’s novel is a buffoonish portrait of the artist as a young man, who lies that his mother has died in order to seduce a girl.

In literary fiction sex tends to be a bigger preoccupation than work and this colours its portrayal of masculinity. From Amis to the French provocateur Michel Houellebecq, the dominant note is of cynical, sometimes inept, chasing of women. It’s in this tradition that David Szalay writes in his new novel-in-stories All That Man Is (Cape). The direction of travel in the title is ambiguous: do these nine snapshots of men from 17 to late age, among them a medieval philologist from Belgium, a suicidal Russian oligarch and a French double-glazing salesman, represent the breadth or the smallness of man?

Almost all the men here are lonely: little is said about their family relations and friendships are insubstantial. But they swagger on. “I think you should do her,” an A-level student tells his mate. When a workaholic tabloid journalist exposes an MP’s affair with a married celebrity carrying his child, he justifies the phone-hacking that led to the scoop by comparing it to war and bullfighting. It is a rare moment of kindness when one of the oligarch’s staff notices his employer’s distress and invites him to his living quarters to share a microwaved curry.

Desire withers as the stories progress. The first three each show us a young man who at some point masturbates to the thought of the woman with whom they’re currently obsessed. Later we are shown two philanderers, one of whom tells his pregnant lover to have an abortion. Then there’s a married father whose fatigue stops him sleeping with a colleague on a work trip; and a failed businessman arrested after a mix-up on what he thinks is a date. The oligarch’s wife says he isn’t interested in sex; the book ends with a retired civil servant in lifelong denial about his attraction to men.

Szalay is a very fine writer sentence by sentence but you feel he has put his resources in the service of a tired narrative (surely we are beyond figuring male decline as repressed homosexuality?) One of the best and most affecting episodes here concerns a Hungarian bodyguard, Balázs, infatuated with the prostitute he’s been hired to protect during a visit to London. The job ends as a fiasco after he pre-emptively assaults one of her clients. But the emotion the story patiently builds up is all but thrown away by the conclusion as Balázs, wandering the streets in despair, notices for the first time the girl behind the till at a chicken shop he’s been visiting. “Part of the lace edge of her bra showed in the V-shaped neckline of her T-shirt... she had a nice face.”

You get a different view of what men can be from two recent books that show them doing what society still thinks of as women’s work. In his series of autobiographical novels, Norwegian phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard experiences domesticity as an existential threat. “Irrespective of the great tenderness I felt... my boredom and apathy were greater,” he writes of life with three young children. In the park, he feels “feminised” and doubts he’s the only father who feels the same way: “I thought I could occasionally discern an uneasy look on some men’s faces in the play area, and the restlessness in the bodies, which were prone to snatching a couple of pull-ups on the bars while the children played around them.” Attending a rhyme-time session, “led by a woman I would have liked to bed,” he feels “without dignity, impotent... I had forfeited everything that was me.”

Knausgaard shows that masculinity is often a relationship to time, or a mastery of it. When he complains he’s not able to write because he has to “clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bath them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs and cupboards,” many mothers must have thought: welcome to my world.

Housework also features heavily in Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone (Granta), narrated by a GP’s husband, Adam, an architectural historian who has always been the main carer of their two daughters, now aged eight and 15. Stung by blokey quips about being a man of leisure he thinks: “Mate, it’s a job, the making of cakes and the washing of sheets, the coordination of laundry with PE lessons, the handling of the Christmas shopping and the girls’ dental appointments, and the fact that your wife does it on top of her paid work without you noticing does not make you clever.”

For Knausgaard, feeling like a woman is something to be resisted; for Adam, the experience gives him a cautious sense of solidarity. Here he is on the awkwardness of having to bring his daughters into men’s changing rooms: “I am fairly sure that the mothers of small boys have an easier time in the other room, although I know that is partly because the difference in social and political power between adult women and little boys is much smaller than the difference between adult men and little girls. I am not suggesting that it is generally, taking any view wider than that of a provincial leisure centre, better to be a woman.”

Despite being wryly aware of how unusual he is, Adam doesn’t view house-husbandry as some kind of demotion. The crisis is more subtle, and has to do with his prickliness regarding his wife’s equal right to care about her children when she’s not the one caring for them—a buried grudge that surfaces when their eldest daughter is admitted to hospital after a mysterious near-fatal collapse. Adam knows he must keep in check his need for possession of his children: after all, his marriage is built on his “not being an arsehole”—another way to put what is conventionally expected of men.

If Knausgaard’s My Struggle is the father of dad-lit, perhaps The Tidal Zone is its grown-up son. In a meeting at the university department where he holds an irregular hourly-paid teaching contract, Adam wonders why “this mode of passing time is considered more manly or noble than cleaning the loo.” Contrast this with Knausgaard deploring the closure of his daughter’s nursery: “I have never understood the point of holidays, have never felt the need for them and have always just wanted to do more work.”

Rebecca Asher reports that in Britain only 6 per cent of men with dependent children are employed part-time; mothers (even high-earning ones) spend more than twice as long as fathers on housework and care. Moss is careful to establish Adam as exceptional—he grew up on a commune where domestic duties were shared and his mother died when he was very young. But it isn’t only a matter of role models or temperament. Economic forces are at play too—his sector’s rise in casual labour has made salaried work hard to come by. For now Adam might be a statistical anomaly but his story may be the one we hear more of in the future.