These days an article published in the new magazine The Critic, sponsored by Brexiteer billionaire Jeremy Hosking, has made a bit of noise. In their launch issue of November 2019 editors Michael Mosbacher and Christopher Montgomery announced that “Our writers will subscribe to no editorial line nor serve the interests of any party, faction or cause. We ask them to write because we expect them to be honest, and lucidly so. Look to our contributors and fault us if they are not”. However, it seems to me that the critic calling himself (because this is clearly a ‘he’) Secret Author (a “former professor of English and creative writing at a leading British university”) who signs the article “Decline of the English Novel” (https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/july-august-2020/decline-of-the-english-novel/) has a clear agenda. This is dominated by the defence of things as they were when white, straight, middle-class novelists ruled uncontested.
Secret Author bemoans in the July-August issue that the weekend arts sections run full of “a cornucopia of alleged talent”, when, in fact, the “awfulness of most of the fiction” available today is “one of the great unacknowledged secrets of modern cultural life”. What’s wrong with the English novel?, he wonders. Three factors: lack of technical ability, the snobbery that has radically undervalued the middlebrow novel, and, brace yourselves, a lack of religious belief and moral standards. Religious belief is not “a fit subject for a novel” (obviously he means Christian belief, for I am sure he would immediately reject fiction about any other religion), “while ‘moral behaviour’ is mostly reduced to the pressing dilemma of who to sleep with this week”. I would agree that too many new novels are usually overhyped and that technique could be improved in all fronts, but this appeal to traditional values is plain wrong.
This is where I started thinking that, unless this critic is past the ripe age of 100, he must be a troll. His idea of a good novel is one in which “the fount of all moral goodness flows from a country house in Gloucestershire and the lower orders are portrayed as shiftless and venal”, the kind “no one in these enlightened times would dare to publish it”. If, he sentences, you ignore “God, class, power and bourgeois moral values and all you have left for a subject is identity politics (of great importance to a sociologist but a desperate yawn when peddled by writers of both right and left) and some very minor social interactions”. Ah, here is what bothers him: that the ‘others’ who are not white, straight, male and middle- or upper-class have something to say at all, and that their work is appreciated.
The Guardian article by Rhiannon Lucy Coslett, “The Novel is Dead – Again. And this Time, It’s Women Who Have Murdered It” highlights how Secret Author identifies Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney with this “supposed decline” of the English novel (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/10/novel-dead-again-women-murdered-it-sally-rooney). Coslett claims that Rooney in particular “drives men wild” with “jealousy” but I must say that although I am not a man and I have no reason to feel jealous of Ms. Rooney I intensely dislike her novel Normal People. I am not going to fall into the trap of defending anything a woman writes just because I am a woman, though I will certainly refrain myself from attributing to Rooney faults that should be shared by the whole publishing industry, above all, the frantic search for the next masterpiece that burns so many young writers out. Let Rooney and all the others have a career before calling them superb.
I do agree with Coslett, however, that the problem with men like the Secret Author is that they do not understand that the Great White Male Novelist has also been expressing the identity politics of his type but without seeing them as such. The problem is, she says, that he is “still cloaked in too high a regard for some to see he has as much of an identity as anyone else”. I am not sure that I see the connection between high regard and identity, for me this is a matter, rather, of a general failure on the part of reviewers and scholars to make the label “men’s fiction” as visible as “women’s fiction”, or any minority label. Coslett concludes her article by re-assuring the indignant Secret Author that “No one wants to make the Great White Male Novelist extinct – they just want more diversity in publishing” for readers “who truly love books are hungry for a range of perspectives”.
I am afraid this is not true. The title of the interview with new Australian novelist Jessie Tu in the same publication, The Guardian, is “I will probably never read another novel by a straight white male” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/01/jessie-tu-when-you-dont-see-yourself-on-the-page-you-literally-dont-exist). Tu is the author of A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing, a novel about former child prodigy Jena Lien “who, as a young adult, now uses men to fill the void left by fame”. This includes her looking for validation from a powerful “older guy, he’s white, he’s a fucking douchebag” and he is, in essence, toxic but still socially valuable. This seems to define as well the “straight white male author” that Tu will not read again because “Those guys are always going to have readers … I’ll spend the rest of my life reading black writers and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] people and LGBTQA people, because there’s so many books out there written by these people who don’t have the platform naturally that conservative straight white male guys have”. I could not agree more, yet at the same time I believe that this is absolutely wrong.
Tu’s words explain much better than Coslett’s what is happening now: a fragmentation of the reading public which can hardly end privilege and promote change. Coslett’s ideal readers “hungry for a range of perspectives” runs the risk of disappearing, if they are there at all, or of never emerging, if they are to materialize in the future. I have no doubt whatsoever that the white, straight, middle-class male writer is still privileged by the critics and very popular with readers but the way to undermine that privilege and that popularity is not at all ignoring him, hoping that, somehow, his work eventually loses appeal and his readers move onto other texts.
The way forward I think is twofold. On the one hand, privileged writers and readers that respond to that basic description need to be made aware of their own identity politics and educated in an appreciation of any other identity politics. On the other hand, the production of the WSMCM writer needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny anyone else passes regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, gender. I’ll cite, once more, black, lesbian, left-wing, working-class Scottish author Jackie Kay, currently the Scottish Makar (or poet laureate), to stress that the moment we examine in which ways Martin Amis is a white, straight, conservative, middle-class, male English novelist we will have gained much. If we only see Martin Amis as a major writer and Kay as an author marked by her identity politics we are stuck in square one. Do create critical categories that speak of ‘white man’s fiction’, or ‘heterosexual male fiction’, etc., instead of just letting WSMCM authors go on undisturbed and even send now and then a Secret Author in their defence.
Tu’s loyalty to BIPOC people and LGBTQA people is praiseworthy but also worries me because this battle is not just about who you remain loyal to but about how you re-educate people. Imagine you are a white, straight, male, middle-class man intent on starting a career as a novelist from a position that I am going to call anti-patriarchal and totally respectful of diversity. How would you react to Tu’s words? Why should you be automatically classed with the male writers of the past and be denied any chance to offer a different perspective? What is more, how are Tu’s words and invitation to appreciate BIPOC and LGBTQA authors? Do they want to be put in those categories? Why does Tu, the Australian daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, want to put herself in a category beyond the category ‘writer’? How can Tu and Secret Author communicate at all? Many questions, as you can see.
As a critic working on Masculinities Studies, or Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities, I often feel very foolish trying to convince others that we need to read men’s texts from the same identity politics position we use for the rest. Haven’t WSMCM authors received enough attention I am constantly told? Well, yes and no. They have received attention for their art, if you want to use that word, but not for their politics except to criticise how they represent women and the minorities. We have not really looked into self-representation, into how identity politics is altering (or not) the way men write. Secret Author would then understand that the absence of God and of upper-class morality in the current English novel has nothing to do with the rising presence of the women and the minorities but with the abandonment of these issues by the WSMCM writers themselves. Why Evelyn Waugh has no current equivalent might be a pertinent question to ask but within the field of what should be called Men’s Fiction.
This has to do with a strange tension between representation and authorship. As critics we are doing plenty to examine representation, increasingly including in this examination male characters (just see my previous post). But we are strangely reluctant to the see the so far dominant critical categories also as critical categories for authorship. Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam, the authors of Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age which I discussed last week, never think of Pixar as Men’s Cinema in the same way Women’s Cinema is assumed to exist in, for instance, Patricia White’s Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (2015).
If someone who is not a WSMCM author creates a text, their difference from the WSMCM norm is always incorporated into the way their authorship is read. However, and I know that I am repeating myself, we have great difficulties to see WSMCM authors as specifically conditioned by their identity even when we discuss how they represent the persons of their same type. It’s an either/or question: either we stop using identity politics for everyone who is not a WSMCM author, of we also use them for WSMCM. We cannot just allow the norm to remain unexamined and split the reading public into mutually ignorant segments. Whatever needs to happen will happen, of course, but one thing we do not need is literary separatism.
Secret Author, I know you are a troll planted there as clickbait for The Critic, which needs all the publicity it can get in this early stage of existence. You might have a point but if there is anyone to blame for falling standards in the English novel perhaps you need to look at you own kind for falling standards in criticism.
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