I haven’t fisked anything for a while, but when Mike Kupari showed me this pretentious dreck from GQ it was so awful that I was legally obligated to step in and break down all the goofiness line by line. As usual the original article is in italics and my response is in bold.
EDIT – when I saw how many times I used the word “bullshit” I went ahead and added it to the title, because it is the best way to describe this mess.
Conversations with friends: why men need to read more novels
I agree with this title. More people need to read novels. That’s how I get paid.
Never mind the so-called demise of the male novelist, where are all the male readers? Ash Sarkar on why we all miss out when half the population turn their back on books
This is actually a really interesting topic (one which I think about a lot, because I am a male novelist!) however the conclusions Ash draws are totally ass backwards, and actually serve as a perfect example of why the same people currently whining about this problem are the ones who caused it.
By Ash Sarkar
Who apparently also writes for the Guardian, a commie rag of a newspaper that will not rest until it sucks all the fun out of books, so none of what she says next is a shocking twist.
It’s bedtime, and me and my boyfriend are comparing notes on what we’re reading. I flick through the tomes on his e-reader; it’s science fiction, politics, or politics in space.
Uh oh. It sounds like somebody is having wrong fun.
He’s halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson, following hot on the heels of China Mieville, Vincent Bevins, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Robinson and Mieville are talented, but not my thing. I don’t know Bevins. I’ve enjoyed the Le Guin I’ve read. Luckily her boyfriend wasn’t reading something really trashy, like a Larry Correia novel. She would have dumped him on the spot.
He peers over at the pages of my Jane Austen, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s all chitter-chatter.” I ask him to explain what he means. “Well, there’s just a lot of talking.”
As opposed to all the many other common definitions of chitter-chatter…
He hunkers back down with the expanse of Red Mars and leaves me in the drawing rooms of Mansfield Park.
Because a book from 1814 consisting of a poor girl’s conversations with her richer cousins is inherently superior to a lesser book about pioneers colonizing a planet. Why? Shut up, Ash explained.
It’s not that he’s a protein-powder-where-a-brain-should-be bro.
Because you know, vapid stuff like the challenges of growing crops on an alien planet with different gravity are the kind of topics enjoyed by big dumb idiots. Grog smash. Grog like to ponder orbital mechanics.
Indeed, he bears all the hallmarks of a fully reconstructed man: NTS on the radio, bell hooks on the shelf,
I don’t know what any of those things are, and I am fine with that.
a yoga membership used at least thrice-weekly.
Who the hell unironically uses “thrice”? I won’t, however, knock yoga. After a lifetime of injuries related to manual labor, fighting, and lifting heavy things, Diamond Dallas Page’s yoga for broken down dudes has been AWESOME for me.
But literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, history, or sci-fi, just doesn’t interest him.
And? You know it is okay for different people to enjoy different things, right? That’s why genres exist.
Why prod the nooks and crannies of the human heart, when you can terraform planets, or dig into the CIA’s murky psy-ops in Indonesia?
Because the nook and cranny thing sounds painfully boring?
Plus, honestly, we can do the whole prodding of the heart thing in genre fiction too. The literati don’t hold the patent on human emotion. The main structural differences are that literati settings are more mundane and less stuff happens. Whoop de fuckin’ do.
And he’s not alone. According to Nielsen, despite men famously making up half the population, they only account for 20% of the audience for literary fiction.
Meanwhile, my audience is probably 70-80% male, and I’m rather successful at selling books to them, but we’ll come back to that.
Side note, I like how men “famously” make up approximately half the population. Duh. When I’m editing and I see shit like that it tells me GQ pays by the word and by golly this writer’s gonna get every cent she can.
Part of this may be down to the changing landscape of authors themselves.
This next bit is partially correct, and presents some evidence about the declining number of men in publishing, but she’s getting the cause and effect completely wrong. I’ll explain in a second.
In 2000, men made up 61% of the UK’s top selling hardbacks. By 2020, this number fell to 43%
This is probably accurate.
Where straight white men used to dominate bestseller charts and prize shortlists, now it is people of colour, LGBT people and women who are both at the avant-garde of writing and driving sales in stores.
It wasn’t the audience who changed. It was the publishing industry, as it became increasingly fixated on identity politics rather than the criteria that used to drive acquisitions. It wasn’t like straight white dudes suddenly stopped writing. They just weren’t the flavor of the month, and publishers couldn’t brag about how diverse they were at Manhattan cocktail parties.
The correlation between popularity and diversity is zilch. Publishers, critics, and social justice warriors care about an author’s skin tone or sexual preferences. The vast majority of readers don’t give a shit, and just want to be entertained. They usually don’t know what demographic boxes the author checks unless the marketing department beats them over the head with it.
Bernardine Evaristo, Paul Beatty, and Anna Burns have been lauded by the Booker committee for their narrative experimentation; meanwhile publishing houses across the country scour the internet for the next Sally Rooney.
I don’t know who any of those people are. I’m from the sci-fi/fantasy ghetto. Comparatively, most literati writers sell zilch, until they show up on some Oprah Book Club level promotion, then they sell a ton. Most of the ones I know in real life still have their day jobs.
Commercially successful writing by women is, mercifully, no longer automatically designated as ‘chick-lit’.
That’s crap. And extra ironic since she cites Le Guin as a bad example at the beginning. There have been respected female authors in most genres forever. Chick-lit was a specific subcategory and the stuff that got “automatically” put there was usually because it fit. This is sort of like complaining about Aliens and then pretending there were no strong female characters in movies until they rebooted Ghostbusters.
In recent years, the work of Marian Keyes has been critically reappraised; meanwhile Torrey Peters, and Candice Carty-Williams have garnered both plaudits and decent sales figures.
Good for them on the sales figures. Plaudits are utterly meaningless.
Celebrity authors and those with big fan bases, like Richard Osman and Lee Child, may shift product, but creatively, straight white men haven’t kept up with those who’ve previously been consigned to the margins.
Lol wut? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard today, and I just saw Joe Biden’s press secretary spend 4 minutes babbling inanely because she couldn’t explain how inflation works.
That is one seriously dumb ass take, and the line that caused me to fisk this. How the hell do you cite a bunch of authors most people haven’t heard of working in one particular niche genre, and then use that to pronounce that white men can no longer keep up creatively? How does somebody who sneers at terraforming, but praises navel gazing, define “creative”?
That’s a rhetorical question, because I’m sure the answer is really pretentious.
Also, “shift product”? Lady, Lee Child has sold enough Reacher novels to live in a house made of gold bars. The pretentious snoot literati twaddle novels which sell a handful of copies only exist because guys like Lee Child enable the bookstore to keep the lights on.
THE LITERARY CANON WILL SURVIVE HAVING TO HEAR MORE FROM ETHNIC MINORITIES, WOMEN, AND QUEER PEOPLE, AND A BIT LESS FROM MIDDLE-AGED UNI PROFESSORS
Holy shit, quit yelling at us, Ash.
That tiresome identity shit actually scares readers away. If your sales pitch leads with Buy This Because I Am A Bi-trans-queer-Muslim, that doesn’t inspire confidence in the consumer that the book will be good. If the book is good, you lead with the book. If the author has some pertinent identity, it had better relate to what the book is specifically about. Otherwise it’s a giant red flag to the audience.
Authors should lead with their product, not their pronouns. The market of people who buy books out of some identity politics sense of duty is small. Angsty white liberals and twitter weirdos talk a big game, but they don’t buy that many books.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t another article bemoaning the dearth of straight white men in contemporary literature.
Oh yeah. You seem real broke up about it.
Culture changes faster than politics.
They are not separate things. Politics is downstream from culture. The left has known this for a while. Most of the right is just starting to wake up to it. Guys like me have been pointing this out for years.
Elected leaders look at Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and LGBT rights with hostility and/or befuddlement,
Trite bullshit. Every one of those got polled, focus grouped, then featured prominently in the media, until the minute they were no longer beneficial to push a specific narrative. Then Patrice bought two more mansions and gave her brother $800k.
but publishers and editors have seized the identitarian moment – also known as identity politics – with all the zeal of the recently converted. Elite tastemakers can’t deliver social equality, but they are attempting to commission a diverse cultural landscape into existence.
The first bit is true. Publishers and editors are all in on identity politics. They jettisoned all that boring old traditional stuff, like making the audience happy, and instead concentrated on skin deep bullshit and author politics. Rather than entertaining, it became about THE MESSAGE.
That way people like Ash could act baffled when giant swaths of the audience got bored and wandered off. All we do is bore and lecture them, why are they leaving?
And I reckon the literary canon will survive having to hear more from ethnic minorities, women, and queer people, and a bit less from middle-aged uni professors lamenting their employer’s updated guidance on sexual harassment.
How is that working out for Disney and Netflix?
All that box checking nonsense doesn’t matter to the audience. They don’t care about middle-aged professors either (to be fair it appears lefty authors sure do know a lot about sexual harassment though!). The audience just wants to be entertained and not waste their time on garbage products that only got produced because a publisher was more concerned about identity politics than quality.
Watch. As usual some dumbass will get butt hurt at me and claim I’m saying authors from minority groups can’t produced entertaining books. On the contrary, I think any individual from any particular group can produce quality work. So how about we focus on creating quality work instead of your tiresome woke bullshit?
I’d be annoyed and disgusted by fake ass “allies” acting like I owe my success to the magnanimous white saviors in publishing. I know many of these vapid shallow assholes in real life, and they’ll give you a contract, brag about how they picked up Minority of the Week, then when your book doesn’t go gang busters, they dump you in the trash, then pick up a new hotness to brag about.
Unless of course you are an author who is really good at playing identity politics, then the publisher will flog you nonstop trying to make you the next big thing, regardless of how mediocre you are.
Crazy idea, but how about we just let authors write what they want, and then sell books that made the audience happy? Nope. Can’t have that. We need Own Voices and Sensitivity Readers, and better watch out if somebody on Goodreads doesn’t like something you wrote or the “writing community” will throw a tantrum until the book gets cancelled.
I despise this idiotic attitude that writers are only allowed to write certain specific demographics. We’re writers. Our job is to imagine extra hard and put it on paper. I’m not allowed to write a black dude or a French lesbian, but somehow I can write compelling space aliens or a time travelling manatee? Fuck that noise.
While the material privileges of race, class, and gender remain stubbornly intact in society, the distribution of visibility has shifted meaning the caucasian Big Dogs of prestige literature can’t present themselves as the universal perspective anymore.
Uh huh… Privilege remains stubbornly intact, as she just got done explaining how they’ve pushed the white guys out of publishing. I’m sure there are no other industries where this has happened!
Now that minorities and the historically marginalised have a voice in publishing, no one really needs Jonathan Franzen or Martin Amis to speak on behalf of humanity.
Is there anyone actually dumb enough to think any author “speaks on behalf of humanity”? Could you possibly be any more pretentious? Look, I know a lot of authors. As a group we’re pretty screwed up. I’d rather have a lottery and pick a random plumber to represent humanity and we’d probably all be a lot better off.
Who are men when they don’t get to simply claim the status of godlike narrator?
This kind of angsty twaddle is why most people avoid LITERATURE like the plague. She’s saying something really dumb but trying to make it sound profound. What if a writer is like god in that universe? (massive bong rip)… Duuuuuuuuuuuude.
Plus, 3rd person omniscient sucks anyway.
Aside from some notable exceptions – Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi being one – male writers who aren’t otherwise talking from a marginalised perspective have largely abandoned the novel as a means to make sense of cultural change.
So publishers, who she admits are obsessed with identity politics, have quit buying/promoting books from one particular demographic, so that means writers have “abandoned” it. Uh huh. Whenever they swim toward the lifeboat you bonked them over the head with an oar, so clearly they have abandoned lifeboats and prefer to drown or be eaten by sharks.
Also, notice that everything Ash says is cloaked in this aura of ponderous importance? You can’t just write books. Oh no. They are tools to MAKE SENSE OF CULTURAL CHANGE HURUMPH HURUMPH.
That shit is why people come over to the genre fiction bad neighborhood where I hang out and buy fun books about zeppelin fights and giant robots.
Faced with the challenge of articulating themselves as themselves, it’s like straight white men have given up on the subtleties of literary fiction and said: “Fuck it – I’m doing stand up about cancel culture instead.”
That’s just wishful thinking and scare quotes. Has she presented any evidence at all that straight white authors can’t handle the “challenge of articulating themselves as themselves”? Especially when it contradicts her previous bullshit about their voices as middle-aged professors… Call it a hunch but I’m thinking Ash isn’t particularly honest, but figures as long as she makes it sound pseudo-intellectual enough nobody will question her circular nonsense.
Rather than bemoan the loss of the male novelist, as other commentators have done, it might be useful to ask where exactly the male reader of novels has gone
He ran away to escape from people like you.
– if he even ever existed.
Trust me, you sanctimonious shrew, male readers exist. I know because I’ve made millions of dollars providing entertainment products to them. Funny how that works.
Even the male literary titans still clinging on, such as Booker winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel, have audiences which are 60% female.
I don’t know why it offends Ash so much that different kinds of people enjoy different kinds of things. I write action-oriented fantasy and sci-fi, yet I’ve still got a lot of female readers. It’s almost like everybody is a unique individual who doesn’t neatly fit in a box or something.
In truth, despite the historic dominance of men writing literary fiction, the idea of a male reader has been consistently derided throughout history.
What follows is more broad strokes bullshit.
You guys ever notice it is always the caring liberal who barks about cultural diversity, who then assumes all cultures are the same? There are plenty of cultures where reading is promoted and respected by men. There are others (like the one I personally come from) where reading was seen as a sissified activity, and I should have been doing something manlier, like cow punching or teenage alcoholism, yet I kicked the snot out of anybody who gave me shit about my “stupid elf books” and went on to write 25 novels, because nobody has to be held prisoner by the culture they were born into. So I’m gonna say her thesis here is dreck. But just watch how she twists it so all cultures fit her stupid worldview.
Even in the novel’s 19th Century heyday, reading fiction was a feminised activity – there was something a bit sexy about women who allowed books to activate their passions (Henry James wrote that one lady’s reputation for reading a lot “hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic.”)
Well, Henry James is right. Chicks who read are hot.
But men who spend too much time indoors, reading novels and living their lives vicariously through the trials and tribulations of others, were widely considered cucks.
“Widely” in her imagination. I’m betting this vacuous mushroom never read any Louis L’amour. I’m also betting she’s never seen things like the Commandant’s reading list. I come from one of the absolute least likely places in America to respect books, and grew up in a poor immigrant farming community, where in my 8th grade class only half of us could speak English, and only half of those could read, and I still call bullshit on that fake ass, histrionic take.
You know, men can go do manly stuff all day, and then read books to relax. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
A man’s literary interest had to be justified by ambition, linked to his masculine capacity for action, or contextualised in real-world exploration. They wander lonely as clouds, touch the heart of darkness, seek adventure on the road and end up getting dysentery.
As an actual professional editor it is hard to read something that fucking asinine pretending to be literaary and meaningful, and not have my eye twitch. Calm down, you fucking try hard.
This gendered division of the imagination endured even through the social and political revolutions of the 20th Century. Karl Ove Knausgaard has spoken of the suffocating weight of gender expectations on his own experience of writing: “It put such doubt in me that I’ve never really recovered from it,” he said to The Observer. “I don’t talk about feelings but I write a lot about feelings. Reading, that’s feminine, writing, that’s feminine. It is insane, it’s really insane but it still is in me.”
Oh no. Another European I’ve never heard of has self-esteem issues. Clearly this represents the thousands of us who write books for a living.
Women sit around and feel things, but men go out and do stuff: the idea of being confined inside, processing text and leading a sedentary lifestyle, has been traditionally disparaged as being unmanly.
Lady, I was the bestselling author in Baghdad and Baghram. I know how to weld, drive heavy equipment, punch cows, and literally spent the last four days at gun school. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I take advice about the true nature of manhood from some chick writing for a magazine that features articles ranking the best metrosexual footie jammies.
I can’t possibly imagine why male readers are fleeing a genre dominated by people like you.
But today, that’s the way most people live and work. Even before the pandemic made offices of our homes, the shift to an information and services-based economy collapsed the indoors/outdoors distinction between men and women.
Yeah… That’s the primary differentiation between men and women. Working indoors or not.
Holy fucking shit. There’s nothing more annoying that a wannabe writer switching gears and pretending to be a sociologist. Stay in your fucking lane.
It’s no wonder that male curiosity is being directed towards narrative podcasts, non-fiction, sci-fi and fantasy. These things take you out of the home, and into the world.
Which illustrates just how sheltered and ignorant you are. I have readers who jump out of airplanes and blow shit up for a living. Cowboys and lumberjacks. Truckers and farmers. I’m talking the manliest stuff you can imagine. Yet they still read books, because even Navy SEALs don’t get to go to Mars or sword fight dragons. That’s the magic of what guys like me do.
I pity sad, unimaginative little rutabagas like you.
Don’t worry though. Your kind are actively trying to suck all the fun out of sci-fi and fantasy too.
There’s a reluctance, perhaps, to grapple with what this all means for men.
Nope. There’s zero reluctance. Guys like me have been talking about this for years.
Melancholic longing for a lost world of exploration, purpose and action can – as we see in stand up comedy, or the online manosphere – curdle into a generalised sense of aggrievement.
Yeah, I can’t imagine why men who get constantly told they’re useless shit failures by society and the Screaming Harpies of Tolerance might feel aggrieved. What a mystery.
Maybe the problem isn’t that women have come to dominate the fields traditionally occupied by men, but that men don’t really want to think about how economic conditions and changing cultural values have made them more like women.
Yep. A total mystery. It’s unknowable really.
Holy shit, this woman is like the living avatar of that pink haired wojack meme.
But the thing is, women don’t just read novels to understand ourselves: we read them to understand each other.
If this tripe is an example of your level of “understanding” others, you fucking suck at it.
Literary fiction is how we can study human frailty, making the world of feelings, friendship, love, personal dilemma, rivalry, money and psychology rich terrain for exploration.
Pro tip. When you’re getting paid by the word, try not to be so obvious you’re milking it.
Seriously though, get over yourself. Writers are just people. I say this as a writer. No matter how fucking profound you think somebody is, they are still only human. It isn’t a “study”. It’s one person telling a story from their imagination, which may or may not actually reflect some reality of the human condition.
And, with the selfishness of a voyeur, I want to know what that’s like for men.
There is zero evidence in your article that this is true.
That means more male novelists,
Who—you have already established above—you are happy publishers have driven out of publishing in favor of identity politics.
sure, but also more male readers.
Sorry. They’re busy reading books about monster hunters and gritty space cops.
So to recap… after kicking male authors out of publishing, and then telling male readers they have sucked throughout history, and suck even more now, they should come back to you… because reasons. Okay then. That was persuasive!
Take a break from Mars, and explore the cosmos of emotional minutiae.
And here is my counteroffer. Fuck off.
If you want more readers, you need to provide a product that they actually want. Readers don’t owe you shit.
We could all do with a lot more of your chitter-chatter.
Well here you go then, Ash. Have some chitter-chatter and a voyeuristic glimpse behind the curtain of male authorhood. Enjoy.