When Philip Roth died in 2018 an era of unpalatable writing by men about men seemed to close. Roth, who often wrote about antagonistic relationships, was dogged by accusations of misogyny for his portrayals of women. Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago resigned from the judging panel of the Man Booker International Prize in 2011 when it was given to Roth: “he goes on and on and on about the same subject. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe”.
Roth wrote regularly about betrayal: by wives and daughters, and by friends and brothers and Cold War foreign policy and the voting public and antisemites and Puritanism and medicine, by one’s own spine, prostate, penis and heart. But it was for the focus on the penis that Roth was best known, for his willingness to portray masculinity in the unflattering light of desire. In the course of his most extreme and nihilistic novel about lust, Sabbath’s Theatre (1995), Mickey Sabbath remembers the taped phone sex (transcribed word for word) with one of his students that lost him his job, steals a pair of his friend’s daughter’s knickers and tells his wife while trying to seduce her that “there is no punishment too extreme for the crazy bastard who came up with the idea of fidelity”. The novel is shocking in its accumulating vision, though some of the depraved things Sabbath does are simply the result of following the kind of commonplace urges generally kept in check by the male super ego.
When the superego fails, restrictions must be imposed from without. There is a pressure now to avoid the unflattering light, to the extent that you might conclude from reading many recently successful male literary authors that they have “solved the problem of sex”: their male characters have idealized sex drives, or ones we know little about. Meanwhile female writers have taken up the gauntlet, presenting sexual relationships that are real and complex, in which goodness is difficult. Many of us male writers have ceased to describe ourselves honestly, and no longer seem able to present a world in which reconciliation with women is fraught.
Heterosexual male desire has been linked so closely to abuses of power for so long that the two seem inextricable. It is understandable, then, that male writers might want to turn away from it altogether as subject matter. But the risk of avoiding the unpalatable aspects of our experience of love is also that of avoiding what is true and compelling. To write about negotiations of power in relationships with nuance and sympathy – as done by Gwendoline Riley in First Love or Lisa Halliday in Asymmetry (inspired by her own asymmetrical relationship with Roth) or Sally Rooney in Conversations with Friends – might now seem invidious for a man, for expressing sympathy with the type of desire that has frequently been harmful to women, for fear of being seen to diminish the significance of the history of sexism. In the wider context of intergenerational inequality the plot about love’s interrelationship with property arises organically – I used it for my own novel, Theft – but the tradition of men writing about such relationships from the perspective of the older partner is regarded as stale and sexist: no sensible man is impolitic enough to write these sort of novels now.
We do still have Michel Houellebecq, of course, the exemplar of the miseries of the male libido, who was widely portrayed as a misogynist in reviews of his recent novel, Serotonin (2019). You can certainly say that his characters see women primarily in terms of offering sexual gratification. His exaggerated portrayal of the way men objectify women and prioritize sex over everything else is designed to provoke: an overstated refusal of a sentimental humanism which, in ignoring the losers in an atomized society, is no more progressive than portrayals of men only interested in “blowjobs and pussy”. But his vision is too extreme to be representative: there must be a space for presenting men as other than monsters without doing a PR job on them.
The idea of having “solved the problem of sex” comes from J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace in which David Lurie, a Byron scholar, is pleased to have found a way to avoid the chaos of romantic relationships and seductions by making a weekly visit to a prostitute. Lurie’s disgrace falls on him when the object of his desire, whom he has begun to think of affectionately as a girlfriend, on exactly his terms, stops wanting to see him. During the madness of his unreasonable grief he manipulates an undergraduate into sleeping with him – “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core”. This use of position and experience to sweep past the objections of a younger woman is the sort of abuse of power that the #MeToo movement addresses. Back in 1999, when Disgrace won the Booker Prize, Coetzee could put into the mouth of Lurie’s ex-wife the sentiments that have been more widely vocalized since: that men accused of such abuse should expect “No sympathy, no mercy, not in this day and age”.
Coetzee’s novel is not an apology for the ways in which entitled men’s desire inflicts violence on women, but it dramatizes the way men’s desire inflicts violence upon women – with a fearlessness that I would argue is difficult today. Lurie maintains to the end that he has been “enriched” by his desire even as we see the case for how his and other men’s desire has impoverished others – even after his daughter is raped by three men – and even as we might (or increasingly might not) share some of Lurie’s suspicion of the pious uprightness with which his colleagues conduct his arraignment.
…Saunders is also on record as saying that becoming a parent made him a better writer. One way of writing about masculinity without having to write about sexual desire is to write about men in the act of parenthood. Max Porter’s male protagonists (in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, 2015, and Lanny, 2019) are children, or fathers, or surrogate fathers in the act of parenting or being parented. The “good-dad” narrative advertises its own progressiveness. The rich responsibilities engendered by parenthood are emphasized above the selfish urge to escape them. Karl Ove Knausgaard who in My Struggle admits to resisting the joy that children can bring – “But joy is not my goal, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal, either” – has described being attacked at public events in Sweden for admitting to being “a man who looks after children but is bored and would rather write”.
…The literary-minded men I see socially are London-based, in our thirties and forties, and unlikely to represent a perceived idea of the male reader – a category that doesn’t actually exist – in that we read more fiction written by women than men these days, particularly in terms of new writers of literary fiction. The culture encourages us to do so, and there are more good new books published by women than men. (When I scanned the publishing catalogues for January–July 2020, the only lead literary debut written by a man I spotted from a big publisher was Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez.) It could be that fiction by women as a whole feels more alive at the moment because of women’s freedom to own their desire in all its destructiveness and to write about it with relish: not just theirs but men’s desire too. Taffy Brodesser-Aknar’s bestselling Fleischman Is in Trouble (2019) is an account of a decent dad’s sudden ecstatic promiscuity as he is let loose on hook-up apps in the months after his marriage ends: territory one could imagine appealing to Bellow or Roth or Updike, though there is a sting in the sudden reversal of perspective at the end of the novel in which we see his wife’s side of the story, the status-obsessed villain who has run away and abandoned her children – and we realize the role our protagonist has played in her breakdown.
…Sex in the imagination has never fitted neatly into a moral framework of the good and the bad, and men who want to be on the right side of history may feel it is no longer politic to write about it. We must acknowledge again the rhetorical logic of Lerner’s idea of the Spread: We’ve had to listen to men’s accounts of desire for a long time; now it’s women’s turn. Men are always reducing women to minor characters. Why should we listen to them exalting their lust? Isn’t this the cultural noise that allows a man like Weinstein to make his moves? Aren’t you embarrassed to be making the case you’re making?
Men who feel entitled to abuse women need to be stopped. Just as men who feel they have an enlightened attitude to women need to be on guard for complacency. Pointing the finger at the wrongdoing of other men or of younger selves is too easy a way of dealing with the conflict a man will have in his life with women. And when we examine ourselves we should be prepared to disagree with generalized judgements of what men are like: righteous anger provides no guarantee of accurate analysis. There can be no progress towards an ideal unless we start off from the real.