A crop of recent novels tackle changing attitudes to masculinityby Anthony Cummins / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
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…