I was in a bookstore in Concord, NH last week staring at the gender studies section, both in awe and with some jealousy. If I were a woman, and wanted to read about what that was like for other women, I would have had dozens - hundreds - of books to choose from.
If I were a woman, I could read about how flaunting one’s sexuality is empowering and wonderful, or overblown and irrelevant. Or, I could read about all the ways it is difficult to balance womanhood with motherhood, or about how women shouldn’t have to balance womanhood with motherhood. I could even read books by women about the nature of men: how they are irretrievable, or about how they need to change, or about how they are glorious objects of desire.
I was and am jealous of the sheer number of contemporary memoirs written by women, about being a woman. I have read a lot of them, because it’s interesting for me to read about womanhood through the eyes of great female writers, but also because I have sought after male memoirs and simply come up short, so if I am to read a contemporary memoir I must content myself with memoirs written by women. That’s just all there are.
Before you ask, I have already read all of Bukowski, and certain various male writers who preceded Bukowski. A lot of them weren’t writing about maleness itself, but rather about life through the male lens, which is similar, but different. They also were writing at a different time, at cultural moments very different from the present. Few (perhaps none?) have written about maleness in the same detail that women write about womanhood.
At this point someone inevitably recommends a David Sedaris book to me. I’ve read Sedaris as well, but Sedaris is gay, and writing about being a gay man strikes me as different in important and profound ways from writing about being a straight man.
I left the Concord bookstore having purchased nothing, and on the way home with my partner and my grandmother in the car, I began to describe what I saw as the void in male memoirs, or even writing online about what it is like to be a man in these times. My grandmother, who as it happens has herself written a very good memoir, said I would just need to write the thing that I wanted to read. Which is always good advice of course, but that led me to another question: how do I write about these things?
I have never written about what it is to be male, or straight, or white, though those are the types of identity markers that seem to concern many of the female writers publishing. I told my grandmother and my partner that I’m not sure what men would even write about. Womanhood seems to be so nuanced, full of contradiction and complexity, an experience worthy of interrogation. Manhood in contrast can often seem one-dimensional. Just take a look at Bukowski’s one-note obsessions with sex and drinking and you will have some sense of what a male memoir might look like.
If you go looking on the Internet for writing by men about what it’s like to be a (straight) male in today’s society, you unfortunately get very little beyond the Red Pill crowd, or forums about Men’s Rights, or even worse the Incels. These men are resentful about women and resentful about their loss of status in society. They are angry about various things having to do with feminism. They feel attacked, under siege, defensive.
I’m not interested in all that, and I don’t feel any of those ways. I have little interest in contributing to a conversation about the things those men have conversations about. I don’t feel their anger or their resentment. Their experience is not my experience.
If you go looking for advice about being a man, you might come across Jordan Peterson, who hasn’t much written about manhood, as he has talked about it extensively. I hear, through the various Interweb grapevines, that a lot of men who feel resentful and angry love Jordan Peterson, and I can understand that: Peterson talks a lot about purpose and meaning, which are two things sorely missing in today’s society. I think everyone is missing them, not just men, but perhaps it’s true that straight, white, young men are especially missing them, and so they are drawn to Peterson’s talks, his YouTube videos, his content in its various forms.
But beyond Peterson and the various forums, I feel like there is a void, one that is incredibly difficult to step in to. It is the gender studies void of the bookstore, where I can find hundreds of books about what it is to be a woman, but virtually nothing about what it is to be a man. And I don’t mean “be a man” in the cultural indoctrination sense, but simply in the sense of being male. If I wanted, I could put on my historian hat and tell you what it used to mean to be a man at various points in history. I could talk about duty or chivalry or courage, or any number of other things that were historically associated with maleness.
Now, I’m not so sure what manhood is or should be, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because, to be honest, I am really interested in exploring what it means to be a man. I am interested for myself, and also as a father to a son. I am interested in what I should teach him, what I want to teach him, about what it’s like to be him in society.
It’s also a shame for our society and our culture, because it appears that men are going into that void and not finding anything. They go further and further, looking for something that will explain maleness, looking for someone who might be an example, and all they find is anger and resentment: a white nationalist looking to recruit, or an incel drumming up hatred of women, or an evangelist looking to convert or moralize.
I’m not sure what I can do to fill that void, if anything. I am used to writing about being a writer, or being a climber, or meaning generally. I am used to writing about what it is to be human. I have no experience of writing about maleness itself, despite the fact that - and this seems odd that it needs saying - I certainly do have an experience of being a male, and that experience of maleness has helped shape my identity, just as being a woman, or black, or gay, or transgender might shape someone else’s identity.
This is foreign territory for me. Each time I make a start, I find myself deleting sentences, paragraphs, whole posts, or just as likely not starting the posts at all. I am not sure that I can write about identity in this way. Not now, not in the middle of #MeToo, not in the middle of Black Lives Matter, not in the middle of national debates about reparations, and bathroom bills, and kneeling during the national anthem, and Planned Parenthood, and all the other battles being fought in this country.
But as my grandmother suggested, I should at least try to say something about it, to write to fill the void, to write the thing I wish existed, fraught though that process may be.