Where has the rock star male novelist gone?

The #MeToo movement has made men in literature more cautious

It is hardly a surprise that men buy fewer novels than women, and far fewer novels than they used to. The publishing landscape has changed. It is no longer ruled by the rock star male novelists of the 1980s. Instead, literary fiction is now dominated by women. It seems something has deterred men from literary ambition.

Every decade Granta Magazine releases its list of the 20 best young British novelists. This year only four on the list are men. In 2013 there were eight men, in 2003 it was 13. I am sure you can picture the rest of the trend, all the way back to 1983 – a list that contained Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro and Julian Barnes. Male dominance on Booker Prize longlists is ebbing, too.

So what happened? Where has this archetype gone? The New Statesman this week laments the decline of the “literary bloke”. It sees a world that lacks the brooding character of Amis, a world where there is no equivalent Ishiguro or Ian McEwan.

Writer Will Lloyd’s thesis is that the cool relevance afforded to the young male novelist is no longer there. And the dividends for being a great male literary talent have somehow faded. The male writer is now best typified by the nerdy and inane. Literary fiction is still in, he explains, but it belongs to the Elena Ferrantes and Sally Rooneys of the world.


This is true and perceptive. I cannot think of a single young male novelist who I might fan girl over in the same way I may have done over McEwan or Ishiguro (men love Martin Amis but I just don’t get it). I think we can go further. Men are not just uninterested in literary ambition, owing to the fact it reaps fewer and fewer rewards. They are actively turned off by it.

Here’s the thing: a man with an eye for preserving his reputation is inherently more cautious these days. Novel writing, as we know, is a fraught process: an immensely difficult and impecunious pursuit. In a post #MeToo world, it comes with huge scope for reputational damage.

This is not just mindless speculation. There is myriad evidence that the artistic work produced by men – particularly when the subject matter contains masculinity, women, sex – can be used against them, taken as proof of their worst tendencies, evidence that the writer is a bad person and their work ought to be discounted because of that.

We need look no further than the attempted posthumous cancellation of Philip Roth two years ago. Speaking to the Sunday Times, the American novelist Sandra Newman complained that people excused the misogyny of Roth, that they simply laughed it off. But, she said: “his books are on the wrong side of #MeToo.”

The charges against Roth were personal and artistic. Biographies of the man reveal him to be a sex-obsessed narcissist with a penchant for younger women. Not great. But what about his books? Well, they did contain unkind portrayals of women, usually focused on a central male figure who, at times, seemed a thinly veiled autobiographical depiction of Roth himself.

Roth received protracted attention in the press after his death – and the coverage was not charitable. But perhaps he is an extreme example. Ernest Hemingway was not known to be a particularly nice person, either. His novels contain dissolute girls, overbearing themes of masculinity, sex and the sidelining of women and their agency. But like Roth’s work, they are also human and funny and sad. It is hard to imagine that anything like Exit Ghost or The Sun Also Rises would be written today.

It seems an unfortunate byproduct of the #MeToo movement that it has made men in literature more cautious. Why write a novel that contains, perhaps, an awkwardly unfavourable characterisation of a woman if you know it will be used as evidence to prove your misogyny? Why not aspire to a different intellectual pursuit if there is every chance your work will be relitigated anyway?

We have found ourselves in a world where we cannot understand that the creator and the creation – though closely intertwined – are not the same thing; that a work of art does not require a good message to be worthwhile.

And what a shame. For the sake of art, it is usually good that we produce more not less of it. Obliterating the ambitions of an entire gender is a good way to ensure we end up doing the opposite.

I am glad the publishing landscape is no longer dominated by men. I am particularly glad that it has given space to the Rooneys and Ferrantes of the world. But diversity isn’t a zero sum game. Having more women in literature needn’t come at the expense of having fewer men. Literary ambition should belong to everyone.