Sins of the fathers? Not necessarily

Here is a small but useful tip for a young man considering a career as a writer: trash your own gender whenever possible. Male-hating is a winner when it comes to image-building. In a society where perceived feminine values (empathy, communication, emotional intelligence) are highly valued while the gifts masculinity has to offer (aggression, competitiveness, emotional stupidity) are distrusted, it is helpful to express your “anger and disappointment with men”. Tell the world you have never really understood men, that your sympathies have always been with women, and the world will take you to be a serious, sympathetic person.

The anti-male anger and disappointment belong in this case to the highly acclaimed American writer David Vann, who is currently promoting his new novel, Caribou Island. The book may be a masterpiece – following the success of Vann’s Legends of a Suicide, it is said to be one of the most eagerly awaited novels of the year – but its marketing pitch represents an unattractive trend. The author has been dishing the dirt on the men in his family, placing himself carefully on the side of the (female) angels.

Born into a family of lying men, abused women, domestic violence and self-violence, Vann’s misfortune has at least given him a subject as a writer. The suicide around which his first fiction was written was a real one, that of his father. The protagonists of Caribou Island are given the name of his grandparents. Promoting it, the author volunteers the information that his grandfather was an abusive husband, something which Vann’s mother and aunt have said with some force that he has exaggerated (“I can’t remember for certain,” he now says cheerfully).

Where does it come from, this need in youngish male writers to present themselves as victims of the harsh masculinity of the past, to see it as their right and duty to set the record straight? When the past is being judged by someone in the family, a thumb is often quietly being pressed down on the scales. Those centre stage tend to feel superior to those who came before: it is what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery”.

When a writer like Vann recalls the terrible things that adults did to him when he was young, the inference is simple. I am not like my father, who took me hunting, his friends who played a nasty trick on me involving a dead fox, or my grandfather who “did this buzzing thing while his fat finger circled towards my belly, and nothing about his play was ever fun”. I am more evolved, more sensitive, less crudely male.

There are different kinds of unkindness, though. Writing of the men in his family, Vann is putting down his version of events, and it is the one which will remain in people’s minds. His tearful sympathy for his young self is not one he extends to other men. An undergraduate at Stanford, he joined a men’s awareness group, but when one man complained about not getting custody of his children, Vann decides “this guy was an asshole.” His grandfather’s collapse into lifelong silent misery after the suicide of his son (or maybe son-in-law; it’s hard to keep track of the men in this dysfunctional family) is briskly dismissed with the words, “I think he was a big baby.”

As is almost always the case with the contemporary memoir, the betrayal of family secrets, the sitting in judgement over parents and grandparents, is excused on the grounds that the author is exploring his own sacred self. He is disappointed with men because deep down – all together now – he is disappointed with himself.

It is the stuff of self-promotion, not serious fiction. Generalising about masculinity, presenting the men in your own family as miserable evidence for the prosecution, may gain media attention. It might win sympathy from other men mewling about their past or from women who rather enjoy being told they are the superior sex. But it is neither kind nor as honest as it pretends to be

Independent, Tuesday, 25 January 2011