Chris Parker: Writing about maleness


20 October 2023
The debut author writes about challenging received perceptions about gender in fiction

My debut novel, Nameless Lake, has at its heart a lethal relationship involving coercive control, glimpsed by a narrator with a partial view of the truth. Writing at the beginning of the #MeToo era, I felt this was the most urgent subject matter possible.

I was curious to see how other male writers had taken on this issue, but examples were hard to find. At the same time, men were everywhere. Men who had killed themselves and their families, named in news reports. Men in custody, usually too late for it to matter. Men of my generation, who could be my friends or brothers. Men who looked like me. Why, then, was it so hard to find men writing about gender inequality and the violence it so often spawns? The question led me to think more widely about the assumptions that are still being made about 'men’s writing', and how often it dictates the stories we tell.

We’re all shaped by the times we grew up in, and the recent death of Martin Amis reminded me just how large he loomed for any young would-be writer during his peak years of popularity. The bravado, the snarky superiority, the knowingness. These shaped the template for male writers to a degree that seems incredible now. In the pages of his lesser imitators, this obligatory street-smart worldlness became a reflex reaction to everything. Literature became less a space for thinking than the kind of arena reserved for white-collar boxing.

As I entered my late 20s, Nick Hornby had become the totemic figure, with countless writers struggling to clone the DNA of his hugely popular books. Acknowledging male vulnerability was part of his great appeal, but the blueprint he inadvertently created had a downside. Countless books were written around the stock figure of the 'hapless' male, his misadventures a vehicle for the metronomic setting up and detonation of punchlines. Hornby had created brilliant and entertaining examples of how men might write about their personal lives and relationships, but compulsory comedy had become the price of admission.

And honestly, how humourless is it to complain about too much humour? Isn’t men’s writing just reflecting the culture of the sports field, the workplace, by prioritising what we are now too modern and savvy to call banter? Maybe, but I don’t listen to an album or go to an exhibition demanding a belly-laugh, so I wonder why place that requirement on books. And as much as I love comedy, I’ve come to believe it can set limits on creative expression in the same way that it too often stifles meaningful discussion around the pub table. Caitlin Moran nails this sad truth in her new book What About Men?, identifying enforced banter at its worst as a pernicious ritual which blocks the possibility of any real feelings being aired.

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What becomes of all these socially isolated, bottled-up men? Like so many of them, I grew up with these unspoken rules about expressing emotions. These strictures are hard to shake off, as a writer and as a man. The revolution began for me when I read Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison - writers who prioritise a fierce commitment to truth-telling over eliciting a wry smile. I went on to discover the likes of Garth Greenwell and Teju Cole - writers whose forensic study of their own gender is at one with their fearless self-questioning.

There are voices who try to discourage any solidarity or ally-ship between different groups of people, who imply that violence against women is a matter for women alone. But male writers have a part to play in fighting the self-pity and entitlement that can fester in the lives of men and end up devastating those around them. Perhaps we can begin to stop the same terrible story repeating itself again and again.

Nameless Lake by Chris Parker is published by Salt (£10.95)

Read more on challenging stereotypes in fiction in this piece by Jim Gibson, author of The Bygones