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Before Sunrise (2004)
Before Sunrise (2004)

Where have all the young male novelists gone?

Factions of the internet celebrated the seeming decline of men penning fiction across the last year – but what does culture and society lose when we miss the perspective of young men?

Twitter got weird, again.

The Sunday Times had published a short article with the bait-y headline “Young male novelists left on the shelf”. The piece had been sparked by the American writer Elizabeth Strout who claimed that the “female domination” of the publishing industry had led to a dearth of young male novelists. The piece also claimed that last year, 57 per cent of hardback fiction had been penned by women novelists, while the majority of the men who make up the remaining 43 per cent already had long-established and fairly solid careers, leaving barely any room for the incubation and nurturing of young male talent.

As a book critic and young male writer myself, the article succinctly summed-up one of the least talked about problems (and it very much is a problem) within the current UK and Irish publishing industry: the lack of young male novelists. Practically every writing generation has had its crew of young guys, from Amis and Ishiguro to Franzen and Foster Wallace. The fact there is no major UK or Irish male novelist, no household name, aged between 25 and 35 at the moment is immensely strange. Especially when one considers how welcome a perspective it would be to see how young men are coping during our current politically and culturally fraught times.  How utterly bizarre it was to then see some people on Twitter take the bait – discussing the article as if it were some sort of joke.

“This made me laugh this morning,” said one former editor of a national arts magazine, attaching a picture of the article. Another editor at a national women’s weekly glossy said she was “off to find a really small violin.” A bestselling author proffered the crying laughing emoji. The whole reaction to the article on Twitter seemed like some grand exercise in misreading, surely all of these noted writers couldn’t have purposefully ignored the “young” at the beginning of “young male novelist”.

So, where have all the young men gone? I posed this question to Marigold Atkey, the editor at Daunt Books Publishing. “Certainly, a novel by a young British man in my submissions inbox is a bit of a rarity. I think the truth of it is that of UK debut novels (novels in translation or from the US present a different picture), the majority are by young white women. It's not just young men missing. We shouldn't see the lack of young male novelists as a triumph – the old king is dead, long live the queen – we should see it as a part of a much bigger problem.”

Indeed, young women are currently pioneering literary fiction from Sally Rooney’s sparse, tender relationship studies to Rebecca Watson’s fragmented and frenetic experimentation. However, if one were to make a list of the names that frequently appear when we discuss the ‘hyped young women writers’ of the moment there would be a certain milky whiteness to the list. Similarly, the history of the young male novelist could also be described as the history of the young, white, middle-class male novelist, as Eliza Clark, author of the book Boy Parts and verified Young Woman Novelist, tells me.

“White male novelists were so unbelievably over-represented for such a long time. Certainly, 15-25 years ago boredom with men’s literary writing was totally justified, but now, it feels like we’re tarring every single male writer with the same brush – including men from marginalised backgrounds,” Clark says. “It’s more important than ever to uplift the voices of young men of colour, disabled men, working class men, and queer men. If we wish to truly champion diversity, we must include men.”

Megan Nolan, author of Acts of Desperation, shares a similar sentiment. “Admittedly the relative lack of young men writing feted debut novels doesn’t cause me much missed sleep because I don’t spend much time thinking about ‘the publishing industry’,” Nolan says. “In any case, it’s nothing that I celebrate, even though I’m happy that so many women are having their excellent debuts justly adored. Anecdotally, a few of the more serious and talented young men writers I know do want to write novels, but only once they have finished a non-fiction work, or podcast series, or script, or whatever it may be.”

“It’s more important than ever to uplift the voices of young men of colour, disabled men, working class men, and queer men. If we wish to truly champion diversity, we must include men” – Eliza Clark

“Mostly, those forms are more financially rewarding and more popularly accessed and shared than novels are. It seems fairly unbelievable to me that there is such a drought of weird, brilliant, dynamic, shocking novels about men by men being written at the moment but maybe the trouble is we were all so burned out by the trope of the Male Writer revelling in the glory of his penis and his brilliance and arrogance and self-destructive, cherished libido etcetera... that we’ve failed to acknowledge that men aren’t a monolith, nor are male novelists.”

Nolan makes a point that was also brought up in my discussions with Marigold Atkey – that perhaps young men just do not see much of a career in being a novelist anymore. Instead, they focus on areas of writing where one can still glean a profit. It must be said, being a novelist just isn’t as chic as it used to be. Some young novelists now subscribe to the concept of privacy, such as the aforementioned Sally Rooney who makes it very clear what she thinks about the world prying into her personal life in her latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You.

There is also a preference for letting the work speak for itself whilst its writers hide away like dormice under layers of fleece. The flamboyance of Truman Capote or Gore Vidal or Tom Wolfe is gone, the writer is a meek figure now, someone we automatically assume to be introverted. Dare I be so binary as to suggest that this recent cosy persona adopted by young novelists would be quite unattractive to a young man because it is quite simply antithetical to their nature? Where does the brash young man, high off his own braggadocio fit into the current scene?

My thinking in binary definitely imbues some flaws into this piece. Thus far, I have led with a very male/female view of young writers. So, does this problem also affect trans and non-cis male writers? “I think there is definitely a lack of trans men and non-cis male authors,” Jenn Thompson, from radical queer publisher Cipher Press, says. “(Yet) unlike cis male authors, who have had a golden era, books from trans and non-binary authors have always been lacking. Maybe a question about the lack of young male novelists applies mainly to big five publishing (referring to the five publishing companies that run the mainstream publishing industry to near totality). In indie publishing, there are still young male novelists published, both cis and trans. But as indie publishers, we don’t have the same resources or budgets to elevate our author profiles like the bigger houses do. When we hold open submissions, we get a lot of fiction from trans men and transmasculine authors. The writers are definitely out there.” 

Thompson’s final point is interesting. It’s not that there simply aren’t many young male novelists anymore, it’s just they don’t seem to be getting published as often as they used to. And of the ones who are…? Well, take the case of Alex Allison. His novel, The Art of the Body, was published by Dialogue Books in 2019 when he was in his late twenties. The book was something of a critical darling, winning the Somerset Maugham Award and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott. However, since then, Allison has somewhat disappeared from the literary landscape.

”Maybe the trouble is we were all so burned out by the trope of the Male Writer revelling in the glory of his penis and his brilliance and arrogance and self-destructive, cherished libido etcetera... that we’ve failed to acknowledge that men aren’t a monolith, nor are male novelists” – Megan Nolan

“Dialogue Books were the only publisher to offer for my novel, because they believed in the story and care deeply about championing underrepresented voices,” Allison says. “I come from a working class background and my novel deals with disability. Despite lots of praise from other publishers, no one else thought they could find a market for the story. The book won an award and appeared on some prize lists, but didn’t receive any real media attention and went largely unread. Similarly, no one in America wanted it. I don’t know how much of that was down to being a man.” 

Allison goes on to tell me that his agent’s lack of faith in the marketability of his second novel, a gay romance set in the world of Premier League football, led to him being dropped.

We cannot conclude that Allison’s marketability was affected by his identity as a young man, but it is a tale that doesn’t exactly strike up much hope for other young men hoping to break into the industry. As he tells me, “If you have friends in publishing already or an existing profile in journalism and media, it can be a hugely supportive industry. As an outsider and a man, it can be quite lonely and hard to make meaningful and lasting connections with your peers.”

The case of the young male novelist is a strange one. Most admit to it being a problem, but when one tries to find a solid answer as to why this is the case, you find yourself going in circles. Editors like Atkey point to a general lack of young men making submissions; young men like Allison point to a lack of faith in the industry. However, in all cases, everyone wants to see what young men can do with the novel now. I cannot think of a time in culture or society where the perspective of young men is needed more. Let’s hope they hear me.