Internet factions have celebrated the apparent decline of men writing fiction over the past year – but what culture and society loses when we miss the prospect of young men?
Twitter has gotten weird, yet again.
The Sunday opening hours had published a short article with the title bait-y “Young male novelists left on the shelf”. The play was triggered by American writer Elizabeth Strout who claimed that the “female domination” of the publishing industry had resulted in a shortage of young male novelists. The article also claimed that last year, 57 percent of hardcover novels were written by female novelists, while the majority of men who make up the remaining 43 percent already had long-established and fairly solid careers. leaving virtually no room for the incubation and development of young male talent.
As a book reviewer and young writer, the article succinctly summed up one of the least talked about issues (and it really is) within the current UK and Irish publishing industry: the lack of young male novelists. Virtually every generation of writers has had its team of young guys, from Friends and Ishiguro to Franzen and Foster Wallace. The fact that there is no great British or Irish novelist, no known name, aged 25 to 35 at the moment is extremely strange. Especially when you consider how welcome it would be to see how young men cope in our politically and culturally difficult times. How utterly bizarre to see people on Twitter then nibble at the hook – discussing the article as if it were some kind of joke.
“It made me laugh this morning,” said a former editor of a national art magazine, attaching a photo of the article. Another editor of a glossy national women’s weekly said she was “looking for a tiny little violin.” A bestselling author offered the Crying Laughing Emoji. The whole reaction to the Twitter post seemed like a big exercise in misreading, surely all of those famous writers could not have deliberately ignored the early “young” novelist.
So where have all the young men gone? I put this question to Marigold Atkey, the editor-in-chief of Daunt Books Publishing. “Certainly a novel by a young Briton in my submissions inbox is a bit rare. I think the truth is that of early British novels (translated or US novels present a different picture), the majority are written by young white women. It’s not just young men who are missing. We shouldn’t see the lack of young male novelists as a triumph – the old king is dead, long live the queen – we should see it as part of a much larger problem.
Indeed, young women are currently the pioneers of literary fiction, from the rare and tender studies of Sally Rooney’s relationships to the fragmented and frantic experimentation of Rebecca Watson. However, if one were to make a list of names that pop up frequently when discussing the “hype young female writers” of the moment, there would be some milky whiteness to the list. Likewise, the story of the young male novelist could also be described as the story of the young middle-class white male novelist, like Eliza Clark, author of the book Boy Parts and young verified novelist, she told me.
“White novelists have been incredibly over-represented for so long. Granted, 15-25 years ago the boredom with male literary writing was totally justified, but now it feels like we are applying the same brush to every male writer, including men from marginalized backgrounds. Clark says. “It is more important than ever to raise the voices of young men of color, men with disabilities, working class men and gay men. If we really want to stand up for diversity, we have to include men. “
Megan Nolan, author of Acts of desperation, shares a similar sentiment. “It is true that the relative lack of young men writing celebratory early novels doesn’t make me sleep too much because I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the ‘publishing industry’,” says Nolan. “Either way, it’s nothing that I’m celebrating, although I’m happy that so many women see their great debut rightly adored. For the record, some of the more serious and talented young writers I know want to write novels, but only after they’ve finished a piece of non-fiction, or a podcast series, or a scenario, or whatever.
“It is more important than ever to raise the voices of young men of color, men with disabilities, working class men and gay men. If we really want to stand up for diversity, we have to include men ”- Eliza Clark
“Most of the time, these forms are more financially rewarding and more accessible and shared than novels. It seems pretty incredible to me that there is such a drought of weird, brilliant, vibrant, shocking novels about men written by men right now, but maybe the problem was we were all so exhausted with the trope of the male writer reveling in the glory of his penis and his glow and his arrogance and his self-destructive and cherished libido etc.
Nolan makes a point that also came up in my discussions with Marigold Atkey – that maybe young men don’t see much about a career as a novelist. Instead, they focus on the areas of writing where one can still glean a profit. It must be said, being a novelist is not as chic as it used to be. Some young novelists now subscribe to the concept of confidentiality, like the aforementioned Sally Rooney, who explains very clearly what she thinks of the world that interferes in her personal life in her latest novel. Beautiful people, where are you.
We also prefer to let the work speak for itself while its authors hide like dormice under layers of fleece. The flamboyance of Truman Capote or Gore Vidal or Tom Wolfe is gone, the writer is now a gentle figure, someone we automatically assume to be introverted. Dare I be binary enough to suggest that this comfortable character recently adopted by young novelists would be unattractive enough to a young man because he is simply contrary to their nature? Where does the brash young man, high in his own boastfulness, fit into the current scene?
My thinking in binary definitely permeates a few flaws in this piece. So far I have led with a very masculine / feminine outlook on young writers. So, does this problem also affect trans and non-cis writers? “I think there’s definitely a lack of trans men and non-cis male authors,” says Jenn Thompson, of radical queer publisher Cipher Press. “(Yet) unlike male cis writers, who have enjoyed a golden age, books by trans and non-binary authors have always been lacking. Perhaps a question about the shortage of young male novelists applies primarily to the Big Five (referring to the five publishing houses that run almost all of the traditional publishing industry). In the independent edition there are still young male novelists published, both cis and trans. But as independent publishers, we don’t have the same resources or budgets to raise our author profiles as the bigger houses do. When we do open submissions, we get a lot of fiction from trans men and transmasculine writers. The writers are definitely there.
Thompson’s last point is interesting. It’s not that there just aren’t many young male novelists left, it’s just that they just don’t seem to get published as often as they used to be. And of those who are …? Well, take the case of Alex Allison. His novel, Body art, was published by Dialogue Books in 2019 when he was almost twenty years old. The book was somewhat of a critical darling, winning the Somerset Maugham Award and making the Desmond Elliott list. However, since then Allison has somewhat disappeared from the literary landscape.
“Maybe the problem is we were all so exhausted with the trope of the male writer reveling in the glory of his penis and his shine and his arrogance and his self-defeating libido, honey, etc. not a monolith, neither are male novelists ”- Megan Nolan
“Dialogue Books was the only publisher nominated for my novel because they believed in the story and cared deeply about advocating for underrepresented voices,” Allison said. “I come from a working-class background and my novel deals with disability. Despite much praise from other publishers, no one else thought they could find a market for the story. The book won an award and has been on some charts, but has not received real media attention and has not been widely read. Likewise, no one in America wanted it. I don’t know how much it was due to being a man.
Allison goes on to tell me that her agent’s lack of confidence in the marketability of her second novel, a gay romance set in the world of Premier League football, led to her being dropped.
We can’t conclude that Allison’s market value was affected by his identity as a young man, but it’s a story that doesn’t really raise much hope for other young men hoping to break into the business. industry. As he tells me, “If you already have friends in publishing or an existing profile in journalism and media, this can be an extremely favorable industry. As a foreigner and a man, it can be quite lonely and difficult to establish meaningful and lasting connections with one’s peers.
The case of the young novelist is strange. Most admit that this is a problem, but when you try to come up with a solid answer as to why it is, you end up going in circles. Editors like Atkey point to a general lack of young men making submissions; young men like Allison point to a lack of confidence in the industry. Either way, however, everyone wants to see what young men can do with the novel now. I can’t think of a time in culture or society where the perspective of young men is more needed. Hope they hear me.