In March, Vintage, one of the UK’s largest literary fiction divisions, announced the five debut novelists it would be championing this year: Megan Nolan, Pip Williams, Ailsa McFarlane, Jo Hamya and Vera Kurian.
All five of them are women. But you could be forgiven for not noticing it, so commonplace are female-dominated lists in 2021. Over the past 12 months, almost all of the buzz in fiction has been around young women: Patricia Lockwood, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, Avni Doshi, Lauren Oyler. Ask a novelist of any gender who they are reading and they will almost certainly mention one of Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Kushner, Gwendoline Riley, Monique Roffey or Maria Stepanova. Or they will be finding new resonances in Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston, Natalia Ginzburg, Octavia Butler, Ivy Compton-Burnett. The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.
So is the media coverage. Over the past five years, the Observer’s annual debut novelist feature has showcased 44 writers, 33 of whom were female. You will find similar ratios on prize shortlists. Men were missing among the recent names of nominees for the Costa first novel award. Here, too, the shortlisted authors over the past five years have been 75% female. This year’s Rathbones prize featured only one man on a shortlist of eight. The Dylan Thomas prize shortlist found room for one man (as well as a non-binary author), and so too did the Author’s Club best first novel award, which prompted the chair of judges, Lucy Popescu, to remark: “It’s lovely to see women dominating the shortlist.”
But not everyone in publishing sees it in such benign terms. “Why is that ‘lovely to see’?” a male publisher emailed me shortly after the list was announced. “Can you imagine the opposite, a shortlist of five men and one woman, about which the chair says, ‘It’s lovely to see men dominating the shortlist’?”
A generation ago the shortlists were dominated by men: the “big beasts” of the 80s and 90s. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro et al in the UK and Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow in the US. The writers we considered our leading novelists were men. This has changed, and while it is almost universally accepted with publishing that the current era of female dominance is positive – not to mention overdue and necessary, considering the previous 6,000 or so years of male cultural hegemony – there are, increasingly, dissenting voices among publishers, agents and writers. They feel that men – and especially young men – are being shut out of an industry that is blind to its own prejudices.
That male publisher is at pains to point out that, yes, “the exciting writing is coming from women right now” and that he himself publishes more women. But this is “because there aren’t that many men around. Men aren’t coming through.”
Many women may instinctively take a dim view of men saying they need better representation. There were similar worries voiced when girls started to do better in their GCSEs than boys; there are whenever women are able to compete on equal terms to men. And certainly, when you raise this issue with anyone in publishing, you tend to receive an eye-roll – perhaps followed by a “Hang on! Wasn’t last year’s Booker prize-winner a man?” Those who don’t believe there is a problem will pounce on Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain, as evidence of male supremacy. But they will often struggle to name younger men making their way on to awards lists or bestseller charts. There’s Max Porter… Sam Byers… a handful of Americans such as Ben Lerner and Brandon Taylor. Yet few of these men are household names and none has anything like the cultural buzz of a Sally Rooney.
Why is this? That same male publisher points to the Vintage promotion in particular, noting that almost all the editors in that division are female. (Of 19 editors commissioning fiction at Vintage, only four are men.) And this isn’t just one team in one company, he argues – it’s a gender balance replicated across the industry. (A diversity survey, released in February by the UK Publishers Association, had 64% of the publishing workforce as female with women making up 78% of editorial, 83% of marketing and 92% of publicity.)
“Whenever I send out a novel to editors, the list [of names] is nearly all female,” a male agent says. Like the publisher – who fears being seen as “some kind of men’s rights activist” – he will only speak on condition of anonymity. The subject is such a hornet’s nest that almost every man in the books industry who I approached refused to speak on the record for fear of the backlash.
“I’ve grumbled about it for years whenever I’m at a publishing dinner party. I get roundly told to shut up,” the agent says. But it’s not the gender make-up that bothers him, he insists, it’s the prevailing groupthink – the lack of interest in male novelists and the widespread idea that the male voice is problematic.
“I was having a meeting the other day with yet another 28-year-old woman,” he continues. “I always ask editors, ‘What are you looking for’, and she happened to say, ‘What I really want is a generational family drama’. I said, ‘Oh, like The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?’ and honestly, you would think I’d said Mein Kampf. She said, ‘No! Nothing like that!’. And I thought, ‘But that’s literally what you’ve described!’”
Hannah Westland, publisher of the literary imprint Serpent’s Tail, says she’s not always confident that there’s a market for fiction written by young men. “If a really good novel by a male writer lands on my desk, I do genuinely say to myself, this will be more difficult to publish.” She believes that the “paths to success” are narrower because there are fewer prizes open to men, fewer magazines that will cover male authors, and fewer media figures willing to champion them – in the way that, for example, Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes have championed female authors on their podcasts.
According to figures obtained from the Bookseller, 629 of the 1,000 bestselling fiction titles from 2020 were written by women (27 were co-authored by men and women and three were by non-binary writers, leaving 341 by men). Within the “general and literary fiction” category, 75% were by female authors – 75% female-25% male appearing to be something of a golden ratio in contemporary publishing. The general consensus is that young male writers have given up on literary fiction. They see more possibilities in narrative nonfiction (particularly travelogues and nature writing in the vein of Robert Macfarlane) or genre fiction (especially crime and sci-fi), which is less mediated by the culture and the conversations on Twitter.
Sharmaine Lovegrove is the founder of Dialogue Books, an imprint she created to spotlight writers from marginalised communities who were being excluded from mainstream publishing. Lovegrove has been on the lookout for more young male writers. One of her recent successes was Paul Mendez’s debut novel, Rainbow Milk, about growing up as a black, gay Jehovah’s Witness.
“What’s really interesting is that if I’m publishing a black, gay man, I’m more likely to gain traction with their story because it’s considered original and it fits the #diversevoices box,” she says. “Whereas if it’s a white, working-class man, it seems to be much harder to break through.” She cites The Art of the Body (2019) by 31-year old Alex Allison, a novel about a man with cerebral palsy and his young female carer. “There were people saying, ‘Should men write women?’, and you think, ‘How can you write a book with only one gender? How can you not write a female character?’” She argues that publishing has become a monoculture, dominated by “white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative women” who feel that they are themselves victims. “Because it’s all about dismantling the patriarchy, men don’t get a look-in.”
Northern Irish writer Darran Anderson agrees that “Class is the dirty secret of publishing”. He says: “Working-class male writers, largely kept out of writing for decades by a middle-class male literary establishment, are now expected to answer for a past that isn’t ours.” He believes the backlash against the big male writer is being borne heavily by his generation of working-class men. “And I have neither the desire nor the means to pick up Martin Amis’s or John Updike’s bill.”
But regardless of class, do men, or at least male readers, actually want a look-in? Whenever I speak to men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most tell me they couldn’t give a toss about fiction, especially literary fiction. They have video games, YouTube, nonfiction, podcasts, magazines, Netflix. Megan Nolan, whose debut novel, Acts of Desperation, is one of this year’s biggest literary hits, says: “The only men I know who actively seek out and read fiction work in that field. I don’t think many men I know would read more than one novel every two years.”
Nolan wonders if it’s “inherently less cool” to be a male novelist these days and thinks men are missing a “cool, sexy, gunslinger” movement in fiction that rivals the scene in the 80s and 90s. “It’s unlikely now that you would have a male novelist on the cover of a non-literary magazine – as in a cultural figure who’s aspirational,” she says.
Nolan agrees that this cultural shift has coincided with “a momentous, dramatic influx of young women”. But that’s because “it’s only relatively recent that you could have fiction written by a woman about intimate subjects like sex – and for it to be classed as literary fiction”.
Her novel, about a 20-something woman in a controlling relationship with a man, has been praised for its honest and visceral portrait of female desire. Does she think women currently feel less inhibited than men to write about sex? “I think I feel less cautious than if I was in the same position as a man. I would probably feel more wary about the way I write. You still get some backlash, but it’s not like you’re a terrible person. It’s just a bit embarrassing.”
Male writers definitely seem to be feeling more reticent about sex. Choire Sicha argued more than a decade ago in the New York Observer that his generation of male novelists (Jonathan Safran Foer, Joshua Ferris, Dave Eggers) had become emasculated. They were “malformed, self-centered boy-writers” – anti-Mailers who shied away from sex and controversy.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2020 and the novelist Luke Brown, author of last year’s Theft – a comedy of manners about sexualised class war – argued that only women have the freedom to present sexual relationships in ways that are “real and complex” (he singled out Sally Rooney, Gwendoline Riley and Lisa Halliday). Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, he said that heterosexual male desire had been linked so closely to abuses of power that “no sensible man is impolitic enough” to write honestly about the more unpalatable aspects of their experiences of love with women.
The only outlier to this trend, Brown suggested, is the Irish writer Rob Doyle, whose second novel, Threshold (2020), is by his own description a “gloves-off, messy exploration of my own damaged male psyche and masculinity itself”. But Doyle believes that as a male novelist writing honestly about sex, “You’re kind of despised. It can feel a bit like having some weird contagion, that you ring a bell when you come into town, and people can clear out.”
He sympathises with readers who are turning away from fiction by men, partly because “the whole 20th century was a pretty close examination of male sexual desire”, but mainly because he believes that today’s male writers are “running scared” and “pandering” to what they think women want. “They think that to be allowed a place at the table, they need to have the right views and be these nice guys. They’re in danger of rendering themselves even less worth reading than they are already.”
Not all young male authors recognise this as a grim time for men writing fiction. Sam Byers, who published his third novel, Come Join Our Disease, in March, is a 42-year-old man who is thriving in the modern publishing world. He believes we’re living through a particularly fertile time for literature that’s largely thanks to women breaking down traditional forms. He praises Rachel Cusk’s experiments in autofiction, Eimear McBride’s new approach to modernism, and Elena Ferrante’s “big, history-spanning state-of-the-nation novel”, which people used to only associate with the big male beasts of fiction.
“All it takes is one black woman winning the Booker prize and it’s the end of culture for some people,” says Byers. “Women and black people have been under-represented in fiction for decades and it doesn’t get sorted. But people get a whiff that men might be under-represented for even a year and it’s very urgent that we do something about it. Is this a genuine concern or is this about the dominant culture reasserting itself when it feels under threat?”
While the publishing world is beginning to address its woeful track record when it comes to fiction by women of colour, with high-profile debuts from authors such as Candice Carty-Williams, Kiley Reid, Ingrid Persaud and Oyinkan Braithwaite in recent years, many male writers of colour feel they are under-represented. Ashley Hickson-Lovence, a black secondary school teacher turned novelist, feels publishing remains a “white woman’s world”. When he was writing his first book, The 392, the statistic emerged that only one debut by a black British man had been published in 2016. “That number was pitiful. If I was a young black boy seeing that, I would think it’s harder to become an author than it is to become a footballer – and with a lot less money.” He ended up being approached by seven or eight agents, but points out they were all white women. He is now at work on his second novel, Your Show. “It’s experimental literary fiction, it’s lyrical, but it’s about football.” He says his female agent wasn’t initially keen on the idea – which was rescued by the enthusiasm of a male editor at Faber.
Karolina Sutton, an agent at Curtis Brown, is surprised that men are feeling excluded from fiction. She stresses that it has taken women centuries to find their voice and be confident within publishing: “Why wasn’t there uproar in the media when women were excluded?” she asks. “It’s happened for the first time ever and we know very little about what this means in the long term.”
She insists that there are plenty of successful young male writers, it’s just most of them aren’t writing from the dominant point of view or with the self-assurance that Roth and Amis had in the 80s or 90s. Still, she concedes that the expectations of male debut novelists are greater than they used to be: “For a young man to get a quarter of a million pound advance, the bar is really high. They have to deliver something really spectacular. It’s easier for women to get higher advances.”
You would have to go back 12 years, to debuts by Ross Raisin and Joe Dunthorne, to see big money spent on new male voices. Although Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water, published in February, is said to have received a “significant” advance after a nine-way bidding war, many agents and editors have told me how rare that is. Sutton believes this is because “the cultural moment belongs to women”, whose stories “seem to feel more fresh”.
But the anonymous male publisher I spoke to feels we should be wary of the argument that men aren’t currently producing “fresh” fiction. “There’s a flip side to that. Are we really going to say that 15 years ago, black women weren’t writing good books?”
Any feminist is likely to feel conflicted about all this. There is clearly a hegemony emerging in the publishing world, one that Lovegrove refers to as “white feminism”, which threatens to make fiction stale and predictable, as well as alienating potential young male readers. It’s both amusing and dismaying that the publishing insiders I speak to all seem to identify their archetypal reader as a 28-year-old white woman who grew up in Buckinghamshire or Oxfordshire. The Jamaican novelist Marlon James said something similar in 2015 when he won the Booker prize – only for James that “archetype of a white woman” was a long-suffering, middle-aged suburban reader. He argued that because these kind of women made up the vast majority of the fiction-buying market, authors of colour were being made to “pander” to them.
But I think we should be wary of shaming the women whose enthusiasm, passion and investment keeps the whole industry afloat. And there is also the question of whether for all their visibility, women are yet afforded the same cultural respect as the male novelist. There’s a danger that the novel gets dismissed as a feminised form, especially since the history of the novel, from its 18th-century origins, was rooted in the idea of it as frivolous literature for leisured women who didn’t receive a formal education in science or politics. It was male writers such as Samuel Richardson, as well as a generation of male critics, who were seen to professionalise fiction writing.
Which is perhaps why many women feel suspicious that the “where are all the men?” conversation too often goes hand-in-hand with the question: is the novel dead? Byers says there is certainly an authority attached to being a man in his profession. In interviews and talks, he is constantly invited to grandstand on politics or the craft of fiction in a way that his female contemporaries aren’t. Too often, he says, women are expected to write about and discuss their personal lives.
Kishani Widyaratna, editorial director of one of the UK’s most important literary imprints, 4th Estate, insists men aren’t being discriminated against. However, she does believe there is “a predominance of white, middle-class cis women at all levels of the publishing industry”. Widyaratna thinks that certain “received ideas” do need to be challenged – not least the reliance on “comp titles”, the system by which publishers consider a submission by comparing it to other similar books. The most obvious example of this has been the Sally Rooney phenomenon – in which every publisher rushed to find young female writers to fill what one called the “Rooney-shaped hole”.
“The reliance on that as a mode of thinking leads to publishers reproducing what already exists,” says Widyaratna. “It doesn’t allow publishers to innovate.”
For Lovegrove, change can’t come soon enough. “People in publishing say ‘I don’t read men’ like it’s a badge of honour, and it makes me uncomfortable because I also know that many of them share a bed with a man. Some have a son. This idea that you’re denying a voice to the very people you share your lives with and have hopes and dreams for seems really bizarre to me.” Lovegrove feels the industry is “failing in our mission to publish for society”. She’s worried about male depression and disengagement, and believes that if you exclude men you see “a backlash”.
But Rob Doyle suggests that maybe having pariah status isn’t such a bad thing. “It strikes me that really good writing and great literature historically has not come from glory and triumph. It has come from abjection and opposition.”
If we stop expecting the big male novelists of the 2020s to look like updated big male novelists of the 1980s, there are signs of an exciting new era of fiction by young men. This spring saw the publication of Caleb Azumh Nelson’s Open Water, while in the past year there have been critically acclaimed books from Gabriel Krauze, Sunjeev Sahota and Chris Power. Writers such as Nikesh Shukla, Luke Kennard, James Scudamore and Michael Donkor are hitting their stride, while Garth Greenwell, Brandon Taylor, Bryan Washington and Paul Mendez are producing powerful fiction about queer desire. There are also poets such as Sam Riviere and Will Burns, whose debut novels are expected later this year. And in 2022, 4th Estate’s lead debut is Good Intentions by Kasim Ali, bought as part of a six-figure, two-book deal.
Sutton says people have always read literature by men and this isn’t about to change. But what has “radically changed” is the literary space into which they are emerging. Their status no longer feels dominant.
“Their challenge is to surprise readers with new perspectives,” she says, “which is happening and will continue to happen, because literature and culture do not stand still.”