I coped pretty well with the fuel shortage while it lasted, pivoting to bus, train and bicycle with no trouble at all. And I have found ways to cope with the anxieties raised by failures in the supply chain for turkeys, pigs in blankets, Christmas trees, chefs, waiters, kitchen porters, HGV drivers and butchers. But recent news from the literary world that we are facing a dearth of young male novelists has utterly felled me.
What has happened? Where the hell are they? Are they all backed up in shipping containers on the outskirts of university towns, in their elbow-patched tweed jackets and cords, unable to burst onto the London book scene because of haulage issues? Is it, like everything else, the fault of Brexit? Have our brilliant young authors been left to rot in the fields, like courgettes, because we had no itinerant Romanian peasants to bring them in before the first frost? What on earth are we going to do without the Christmas glut of tortured memoirs by young boys from the boondocks who scraped a place on the creative writing course at UEA and now have 100,000 words of closely typed fretting to sell us about their first experiences of shagging?
The Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Elizabeth Strout has said the publishing industry needs to “mix it up” to ensure that male novelists get equal opportunities. Most fiction editors (who are the ones with the buying power at publishing houses) are women, she says, and buy books mainly by women to sell mainly to women, who do most of the world’s reading. “It makes it too narrow,” she says, which is gallant of her.
According to the book sales data company Nielsen, women wrote 57 per cent of all hardback fiction best-sellers last year (the other 43 per cent were written by Richard Osman) and as far as the big literary prizes go, no men were shortlisted for the Costa first novel prize last year at all, while the lucrative Women’s Prize for Fiction is once again tipped to go to a woman (although if you can get Richard Osman at 12-1 or better, it’s probably worth a tenner). There is also the problem, raised by one unnamed publishing figure recently, that it has become difficult “to write honestly about what it’s like to be a young man, because then you’ll be accused of sexism”.
But, at the risk of being accused of sexism, I think the answer is probably much simpler. I think there are no young male novelists coming through anymore because young men have realized that writing fiction in 2021 is no sort of job for a man.
There’s sod all money in it, for a start. Most of the available cash for advances goes to the very small handful of nailed-on best-sellers upon whom modern publishing houses base their entire business plan. As far as men are concerned, that works only for Richard Osman and Robert Galbraith. And Galbraith isn’t even a man. I mean, what chance have you of enticing young men into novel writing when the second most successful male novelist in Britain is a figment of JK Rowling’s imagination? They might as well dream of becoming a golden snitch.
Young men have realized that writing fiction in 2021 is no sort of job for a man.
After those two have been paid, that leaves little pots of three or five or at best ten grand for a first-time novelist (assuming he’s not already a famous comedian, and it isn’t a children’s book), as recompense for perhaps three years’ work. And even if he does “make it” as a writer after that, the average salary for a full-time novelist, according to a 2018 survey, is just over $21,000, with fewer than a tenth of 1 per cent clearing $68,000 a year, which is what a chap can currently earn driving an HGV (while consuming nearly as much porn during working hours). Modern women are less venal than men, I suppose, so do not find the prospect of penury quite as off-putting.
Then there’s all the crappy litfests in front of nine OAPs and a cow that they make novelists do in a tent somewhere, unpaid, for reasons known to nobody. Would James Baldwin have done rubbish like that? Or Ernest Hemingway? I suppose he might have fought the cow. But you know what I mean. It’s hard to imagine George Orwell sitting in a sweaty marquee at Hay-on-Wye with literally nobody queueing for a signed copy because they’re all waiting for three seconds with David Walliams, who has a new kids’ book out all about poo.
And, of course, there is the endless Instagramming novelists are expected, nay, contracted to do once the book is out. The traditional young male writer whose creative urge was powered by dreams of fame, travel, sex and general adulation is not going to be turned on by a requirement to do at least ten selfies a day in front of small piles of books in empty warehouses next to the most junior girl in the PR department, who’s looking miserable in the photos because she is not on the gigantic party yacht off Ibiza they’ve chartered to launch a new short story by Sally Rooney. Nothing about this life is very … I don’t know, Vladimir Nabokov.
The young male writer whose creative urge was powered by sex is not going to be turned on by a requirement to do at least ten selfies a day.
Sorry, I didn’t mean Nabokov. He was a pedo. Name mud, backlist pulped. I meant Philip Roth. Sorry, misogynist. Mailer, whoops, wife-beater. JD Salinger then, hang on, sorry, sexual abuser. These were the men I most wanted to emulate when, as a young man, I dreamt of writing novels as a way out of the drudgery of the family business. I thought it might be the route to power and influence and respect like… er, who, in England? Martin Amis? Priapic midget laughing stock. Rushdie? Pompous one-hit wonder. Will Self? God save me from that humiliation. Self was denied the Booker prize in 2012 when Hilary Mantel won it a second time for the same novel, and is now the most ridiculed man in Britain. There is even a new novel out, Sour Grapes, about what a plonker he is. But it’s by a bloke, so no one will read it.
Even my own 2005 novel, Winkler, was no sooner in print than winning the Bad Sex Award. Three years of effort, some perfectly decent words in roughly the right order, and all I got was a load of raspberries blown by a roomful of plummy virgins who’d only come for the free Soave and strippers. Scorn and mockery, boys, scorn and mockery. That’s all there is in the novelist’s life.
Nor is the hope of remembrance after death any sort of enticement to write. Look at Dickens: wife-abuser. Defoe: racist apologist for colonialism. HG Wells: eugenicist. Evelyn Waugh: antisemite. Orwell: Old Etonian poverty tourist. Finished, the lot of them.
And if there’s no money in novel writing any more, no power, no respect, no sex and no immortality, well then I say we leave it to the ladies. As long as we’ve got our HGV licenses and our jazz mags, we’ll be fine.
Giles Coren is a columnist for The Times of London