In Conversation: Russell Smith

Is Russell Smith not our Nick Hornby, only with more classical music and less soccer? I’ve been thinking a lot about Smith’s 2004 novel Muriella Pent, a comedy of manners set in a wealthy heritage enclave much like Wychwood Park or Baby Point Road or Rosedale that also happens to be a serious exploration of what kind of art we value in Canada and what we expect from it in turn for financial support. Those questions have only heightened in the last few years while taking some unexpected turns. Smith’s fiction has darkened since his first novel How Insensitive (1994) – Girl Crazy (2010) builds up as the narrator slowly comes apart, and his most recent, clear-eyed collection of stories Confidence (2015) is a jewel box of betrayals, narcissism, loneliness and greed. I was a fan of his arts column in the Globe, but that column is now gone the way of the Globe’s other arts and culture content. It’s had a remarkable 20-year run.

LP: My first Toronto neighbourhood was the Ossington—Hallam area and I used to see you out and about a lot. And Girl Crazy probably comes from that time, as it’s set in that area?

RS: That’s right, one of the drug dealers in Girl Crazy lived around there. The opening scene in that book, he runs into a girl at the payphones at the Christie Pits parking lot where now Indian restaurants are – that happened. When I lived in Shaw and Dupont, I was always in that neighbourhood. One day I was walking past the payphones on the corner on Bloor, and there was a young woman and she was crying and asking me to see if an ambulance is coming. I got her some water and got her out of the sun, I asked if she was OK, and she said ‘I’m haemorrhaging’. The ambulance drivers came and they were very rude to her, they treated her like crap, they suspected she was on drugs; she was rude to them back but she got into the ambulance and left; and I thought, what would have happened if I got in with her? And that’s how that story started.

I remember the heat in that book.

I love trying to portray that. My second novel Noise is also set in an hot sweaty Toronto summer, pounding noise all around. I’m from Halifax and I wasn’t used this kind of heat and found it unbearable. The first how many years I lived here I never had air conditioning and worked form home so I had to do the interviewing of politicians or police officers in my shorts in my little bedroom with the fan on. And I always found that stressful and in Noise in particular, I really wanted to catch the stress of the city.

When characters in your novels come to live in Toronto, they arrive to a place with so many print outlets to write for.

Yes, I had numerous characters who’ve been variations on me. They’re freelance writers and producers of some kind, and it’s hilarious to look back and think all these people could make a living, easily, freelancing! In Noise, my character gets a big assignment from a magazine and with that cheque he’s able to put down first and last month’s rent on an apartment. This idea of living downtown, in the Annex or Little Italy, and writing for magazines on whatever you want, culture, arts, food, fashion, and making a living from it – obviously, that doesn’t exist any more. 

So I’ve just completed a new novel that I’m looking for a publisher for – it’s called Self Care, it’s sort of about present-day young people. There’s a woman who’s a protagonist and she has graduated with degree in various humanities from university of Toronto, gender studies in particular -- which to some degree has replaced the traditional humanities. And she is working writing copy for a website that pays her $75 per article and they’re mostly click-bait articles. She also writes a column called Daily Self Care, and it’s filled with anodyne advice from the internet about ‘taking time to love yourself’, and she loves to use the word trauma… it’s satire on certain type of online outlets.

So she kind of develops double consciousness?

That’s exactly it, she fakes it and she’s sceptical of it all but she has to work so she makes up quotes and she makes up experts and finds trauma in everything, and emotional labour, and for her actual labour she is being paid very little. She’s being exploited in various ways. What happens is that she develops a relationship with an incel boy, who she meets at a demonstration, and they develop a hostile relationship that turns sexual. She’s trying to change him – and neither of them can admit to their friends that they’re seeing each other. It’s a sort of Romeo-Juliet situation. And he can’t admit to his friends that he’s not an incel any longer because he won’t be part of the group.

Have you studied these subcultures? I guess he’d lose an identity and a community by… not being an incel any more?

Yes, I’ve studied them on the internet. I don’t know anyone who’s an incel, but I’ve read as much as I can, all the interviews with the incels that have ever been published, and I’ve gone on the forums. Forums are increasingly difficult to get on to because they are hidden now because of all the attention. They have codes to prevent the ‘normies’ from coming on. In all the interviews that I’ve read with these guys, they all make the same claim, that it’s not real, that they’re playing a role to let out steam, and they would never do the things that they’re joking about doing online.

Until one does…

Until one does. There’s so many interesting things here… they often describe themselves as  “unattractive loser” and then you see photographs of them and they’re completely normal looking, they’re not unattractive at all.

How does that happen?

It’s some kind of weird dismorphia. Seeing yourself in the mirror and seeing something else. I don’t know, it could be the culture of the image that we live in, with Instagram showing beautiful people all the time?

Or they were rejected once or twice, and gave up? I mean, lesbians and straight men share this knowledge: rejection from women is a fact of life. It’ll be… happening.

Maybe it’s that, that they gave up. I grew up before the internet of course and so my earliest sexual experiences and later adult sexual experiences had nothing to do with the internet, they were all face to face, I never met anyone online. It is very difficult making sexual advances with somebody face-to-face. But now we have a generation of people who are not used to it at all and who rarely do it. So it becomes even more difficult, even more fraught, simply because they’re not used to it. It’s much less risky to interact with people online.

I don’t think we’ve seen any self-identified incels in fiction so far?

Obviously it’s very risky, I may get accused to trying to make him sympathetic. He’s not, and I’m certainly not intending him to be. But you see, I’ve talked to a lot of women about this and I have heard a couple of young women admit, after a couple of drinks, to having a fantasy about developing a relationship with an incel boy and being then the love of their life. And then of showing them what an actual sexual relationship is like. One of my authors admitted this to me.

Is that really a fantasy among popular straight women?

I’ve heard it a couple of times, and yes, popular straight women. I expect it’s because they’re being treated like shit by straight men.

Young men have so many sexual options available to them right now. Exactly the opposite of what incels believe. There are more sexual opportunities for young men than ever before. Because we’re sort of in an age of general promiscuity, the societal attitudes toward casual sexual relationships have changed. Women too are used to the idea of casual sex – they weren’t when I was a teenager, for example. It was very problematic in my high school, there was a lot of religion, a lot of shame and guilt about it. I’m talking about Halifax in the late seventies, early eighties. Small, conservative place, half of the kids are Catholic, and the other half from some protestant conservative sect. (My girlfriend was Lutheran.) Sex was really problematic for both of those groups.

It’s different now, especially in large cities. There’s the dating apps. There’s Tinder. And casual hookups are incredibly easy.

But the incels have the impression that it’s harder than ever to get a date?

It’s why I find them so fascinating. They’re convinced about absolute alternate reality that doesn’t exist.

Do you think this disconnect is there because we’re all living on the internet now?

I think so. I think they’re isolated from the world – by the internet. And they’re interacting with other boys who are repeating the same thing, and don’t know any girls. They’re in internet subcultures that are male dominated, gaming in particular, they’re in tech world, they’re on 4chan, all male dominated. They hear about what I’m describing and they hate it. That’s the Chads and the Staceys. They’re strangely puritanical and conservative. And a lot of them believe in old-fashioned ideas of chivalry. I’m going to be a knight with a princess and cater to her every whim, but she has to be devoted solely to me.

So you just finished this manuscript? I hope it sees light of day.

It’s with my agent. Who knows if it’s going to get published. It’s provocative, it may scare people away.

Don’t we need provocative and controversial? So people actually read books?

I think so. But I’ve always been on the side of provocative literature. The literature that I’ve loved the most and that most people have loved throughout the history is the literature about flawed people. Perfect people and role models make very boring protagonists. And there’s a Canadian tradition in literature of role models who are victims. The story is they’re overcoming adversity because they’re good people who had bad things done to them. I find that very uninteresting. Anna Karenina is not a good role model. Madam Bovary. Phaedra. Terrible role models.

Medea… But seriously, do we still want that from fiction? The earnest phase of CanLit was long time ago?

It’s coached in different terms. You still hear demands for ‘strong female characters’.

But Anna Karenina and Medea are just that, no?

Yes, true. But there’s also this nervousness about different identity groups, whether racial or sexual, being portrayed in any negative light, which is going to be called stereotypical. And that’s really problematic. I know it’s problematic – I understand where it comes from; there is a long history of reinforcing stereotypes through literature. But I taught creative writing for many years. In the last few years of my teaching in the MFA program I noticed that my white students, which is the vast majority of them, are very concerned about the ethnic makeup of their characters. The stories are often autobiographical stories, as young people’s stories often are, about growing up in Winnipeg or Thunder Bay. But then they would be very nervous about the fact that they’re not racially diverse, these stories about white, working class life in Thunder Bay. What do I do about this, there’s no diversity in my book? And I would encourage them not to feel guilty about this. Should I put characters of colour or Indigenous characters in the book? If the danger of doing that is getting some detail of that representation wrong or seeming patronizing or caricature, and then getting into even worse trouble, I don’t think anybody was going to fault them. But they felt guilty about this.

It’s even worse to have a cipher character…

Absolutely, I told them for god’s sake, don’t put a token character in. That’s what’s condescending.

II.

A lot of your characters go from a smaller place to a large city – usually Toronto. I don’t think we have a lot of novels in which people find liberation in larger cities, while cities like London and NYC for ex have a lot of those.

Yes but it’s taken us a long time to think of Toronto as a big city. And for many decades it wasn’t but then suddenly it was. The 1990s was the first wave, and I was part of it, of portraying Toronto as the big city that the small town people would get away to. It used to be Montreal before that. Mordecai Richler’s, Leonard Cohen’s Montreal. Now I think it really is the big cosmopolitan centre where you can get all kinds of subcultures and undergrounds. There was no mythology around Toronto… it was, as Wyndham Lewis called it, a sanctimonious ice box. It no longer is. I think Toronto is a fascinating place right now. Not always in a good way, of course. There’s so much money in it that’s making it impossible to live in for people like you and me – look at the housing crisis – but the new money that is coming here is so brash and so flamboyant that there are parts of Toronto that could be anywhere else genuinely global. And I’m talking about extremely expensive places – and you know, I have a history of finding my way into these places, for years I wrote about fashion and was in a circle of fashion journalists, & would receive invitations to exclusive places. And I dated for many years the editor of Fashion magazine, Ceri Marsh. We would go to Paris to see shows there and so on. When I first moved to Toronto I had a friend who was from a privileged private school background, he introduced me to a lot of Rosedale kids. We had gone to Queen’s University together, and he introduced me to a lot of young people who came from Rosedale. My first novel was about that world. For me Toronto was fantastic, but they all wanted to be in NYC.

And I stayed in that world of restaurants and fashion shows for many years. And even until recently I would go to places in Yorkville or the new places on King St. like Lavelle, and the rooftop bars with pools. I wrote about this in the Globe. There’s still protestant Puritanism about ostentation, I think. The person who reads the Globe is not the kind of person going to the roof of the Thompson Hotel and what is fascinating about roof of the Thompson is the multiculturalism. Something people don’t understand about the new money in Toronto. You go up there and there are 28-year-old Pakistani guys in velvet jackets smoking cigars. And Persian girls, the most beautiful girls you’ve seen in your life. And Russian is being spoken in there, Mandarin, Farsi by the ton. There are Lamborghinis parked outside. There’s not a WASP in sight. You sit there thinking I could be in Shanghai, I could be in Miami, this is not Robertson Davies’ Toronto.

I mean, look at Drake’s mansion.

I know. And he was next to Conrad Black, it’s hilarious.

One day I heard that somebody had gone up there to Lavelle with a pet tiger on a leash and posted pictures on Instagram. And Toronto people were shocked and outraged because it’s not legal to have exotic pets, and also tigers don’t like being on a leash, it’s not very nice for the tiger.

The tiger-appreciation community was offended?

They were really offended, but what I wrote is that glamour and decadence really go hand-in-hand. They’re intertwined, and if we want this ‘world-class’ city we’re going to get stuff like this, the good with the bad. I think we want more places like this, where the old Toronto values are being upturned and are being upturned by non-white people.

Will they continue the tradition of the previous generation of WASP billionaires and sponsor arts and culture?

They might. Dundurn Press for example is owned by tech millionaires. They decided to buy themselves a small press as a project; they’re philanthropists from Waterloo, I think.

Good, because the arts will need them, now that arts journalism and criticism are gone.

Yes, it’s all gone, and almost all arts in the media are gone. I remember when I first started publishing there were television shows about books. Nothing on TV now of course and book sections are all gone. I contribute regularly to a radio show from Montreal on Radio Canada, they have a daily book show on the first channel. It’s called Plus on est de fous, plus on lit’. Two hours. Every day, five days a week, a book show. I really love it; it’s fast-faced and they don’t tend to interview authors very much, they interview critics. So they’ll have a panel discussion about a series of books, they’d have a professor of literature talking about a book, they do a lot of non-fiction too so they’d have specialists from whatever the area of the book is, and then they’ll have critics reviewing novels. On English language CBC we don’t have that at all. There are some brief reviews some time but mostly it’s interviews with authors about their life. French don’t do that at all. It’s a round table format, so when one person is being interviewed the others are waiting their turn but can jump in and comment.

That’s like ‘Tout le monde en parle’. So smart of them to do that.

It’s exactly like ‘Tout le mode en parle’. That is the Quebec model that they absolutely love – a talk show model, but for literature. People jump in with a joke, it’s fun and fast and entertaining but it’s not Tell me about your sad childhood. They don’t do that. That’s the CBC. It’s all about how we must find sympathy for an author. I’m not interested in authors’ lives.

Yes, Eleanor Wachtel specializes in that kind of interview. Tell me about you parents, tell me about your life. 

She has interesting guests but I’d rather have them talk about the books.

We touched on art donors etc – Muriella Pent often comes to mind these days. The novel is very much about how the arts get funded. And Canada’s system is a mix of government grants and private donors, and each side comes with its own demands.

I’ve mixed feelings about government funding of the arts the way it works in English Canada. I have to say I benefited from it a great deal in my life. (Though the novel that I just finished was rejected for funding by the Canada Council, Ontario Council and Toronto Council, which has never happened before.) I think a purely market driven model would not be sustainable for Canada...

Yes there are people who argue, like Jon Kay for example, why don’t we leave it to the market. What gets the sales, survives.

Then we’d get American-style sitcoms but even those couldn’t survive – we would have nothing. We would have thrillers, and chick lit, all on the American model, all probably set in the United States. There would be nothing Canadian available for Canadians to purchase. The whole thing would collapse.

But the problem with the purely government grant-driven system is… there is no huge pressure to sell books and build a readership, especially in smaller presses. More importantly, that which gets funded is dependent on political trends, movements and fashions. And somebody has to be choosing the peer juries. And the people that are choosing those juries are bureaucrats given a mandate, a mission statement, an ideological direction.

It’s not really the diversity of opinions that’s in their mandate?

Quite the opposite. A uniformity of opinion, likelier…

And diversity of aesthetic approaches?

And aesthetic approach tends to go with that. Now, that’s not spelled out. The aesthetic approach part is not spelled out, but we do know that certain things go hand in hand. In many ways it’s not unlike trying to get a grant in Hungary in say 1965. You are presenting to a bunch of aparatchiks who are going to judge if your book meets the approved ideological standards. And you can still get by, I’m happy to fund the writing of my book myself, and I think I would have done with all my books whether I had grants or not. But now I’m up against the problem of having the presses evaluating the book also conscious of their funding and their grants situation.

Don’t large publishers now have sensitivity readers?

Some do, and that’s their own choice. It exists so far only for YA, as far as I know. However increasingly a copy editor for adult literature is tasked with the same job as the sensitivity reader. So the copy editor would say, You can’t say ‘He was deaf to my pleas’. And you can usually override it. But that role is there. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing because usually that person is pointing out something that it has not occurred to you and you have to make a decision.

III.

You’ve had a long and distinguished career. But in Canada that won’t necessarily mean you can earn a living from writing. How did you make it work financially?

I’ve always had a dozen hats. For many years I was able to make a good living as freelance writer and creative writing teacher. I had a good job, one term a year at university Guelph, paid me $11,000 for one term. And then the ret of the time I was getting grants, writing a lot – big magazines would pay well and there were a lot more outlets – and I would get the odd advance or royalties and would piece those things together. Almost all that has dried out. My teaching has dried up. The newspaper and magazine work dried up. I quit the Globe and Mail column I wrote for 20 years because the pay has not increased for 10 years, and my living expenses in Toronto have. And I was asked to do far more work for the same fee. My new editor at the Globe asked me to be a book columnist, but I couldn’t keep up with the reading. I ought to be reviewing a book every week, and also doing interviews with authors, doing book news. I said I can’t be reading three days a week and then writing one day a week without more pay. And he said well this is just how things are, you’re talking about the 1998 model, and it’s 2020. I said well you’re paying me the 1998 wages.

How do you deal with the rude and outrageous fact – well it certainly was that for me -- of finding yourself middle aged?

It’s awful. That’s a very good way of putting  it. It is rude and outrageous. There’s this sudden indignity that one wasn’t prepared for. First there’s the indignity of age; I have multiple physical problems and I hate aging. But then there’s the fact that I expected my career to go up and up and up. But it plateaued and then it started to go down. I have great difficulty earning a living; a live in a rented apartment in Parkdale, I’m always worried about money and my quasi-fame such as it was has vanished entirely. I’m not known to anybody and I’m not trying to be. It’s normal I guess: the young new things are going to be interesting to the media, that’s always been the case, but you’d think that you’d be established by this point. You’d have a position teaching somewhere.

Has Canada ever really had a good infrastructure for mid-career writers? Plus the internet now, which shook everything up.

I wasn’t prepared for that. I feel quite humiliated by that, actually. I haven’t made financial preparations for it. Although I am lucky that my part-time job at Dundurn Press comes with benefits.

I think I remember reading that you did own a house in Toronto with your partner at one point, but had to sell it?

Yes I sold it in my separation with my ex and gave her half the proceeds and that wasn’t enough then for either of us to buy a house. And actually I’ve been living on that ever since. So selling the house was a financial disaster.

I did expect I’d always have to have a part-time job alongside writing, but it got quite tricky lately for a lot of people. Looks like if we want to pay rent in Toronto we’ll have to go back to the Chekhov and TS Eliot model and have a full-time career in an unrelated field, and then write on the weekend? I know writers now who are doing working class jobs in their dotage.

I know… and I don’t have a solution. The other problem that I see among young people – I don’t envy them at all, their situation is also bad. Particularly those who’ve decided to do a PhD. I see so many of my students get PhDs and live really stressful existence on contract positions hand to mouth, and in Humanities, where course they all are, the chances of ever getting a tenured position are slim to minimal. I’m advising everyone not to do it – for  the moment. Don’t do a PhD in English. Nor in any of the new disciplines. Because everyone else is. And you’ll be teaching in a small university two sections a year for $4000 per section.

Why do you think men don’t read fiction any more?

That’s fascinating. I’ve been talking about this for years, at least since the 1990s. I was stunned when I came to Toronto. I came after doing an MA in French surrealist poetry, my thesis was on Éluard, and I’ve been living entirely among graduate students. I had almost no contact with popular culture. I did not have TV, I just read and talked about underground music and classical music with people around me. And then I came to Toronto, had to make a living, had to work in the media and was exposed to people who didn’t come from that background and I was absolutely shocked that I was in the minority. I was naïve! They were immersed in the world of commerce where my values are not valuable. I was stunned to find that if I went to parties with lawyers or businessmen or real estate agents or even senior TV producers, they would say ‘I don’t read fiction’. So I have a couple of theories.

They said, Fiction is about relationships, and I’m more interested in systems. I’m more interested in how things work. I need facts. I need to understand how an economic system or an engine works. But I also think that the publishing industry itself has created this problem. It’s a completely circular problem. They started realizing late 20th century that women were buying majority of books and to capitalize on that market they started targeting more and more books  toward women. The industry of fiction right now is completely female-dominated and female-targeted. The all the majors literary editors in Canada are women, most of the publishers in publishing houses, most agents, almost all publicity staff. And probably 90 percent of novels are purchased by women. And so the covers are feminine…

But how about this: what if the profession opened up to women to such a degree because it’s now far less prestigious than it was 50 years ago? To be a novelist or a book editor is less prestigious and more precarious.

Yes, there’s that too. And men don’t go into the humanities as much any more so the book professions are not refilling with young men.

Sometimes very masculinist novels cross my desk – and I get nervous about them because if we do them we’d have to sell them to a largely female readership. Then there’s something of a trend to make fun of the famous male authors like Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace. There’s this American trend of saying, “the kind of guy who has DFW on his book shelves: red flag, he’s a dick”. And actually he’s probably anything but.

Is reading books tout cour now considered an effeminate activity? Like it happened with dance?

Yes and I think I’ve been noticing that since the 1990s. The book club is something your wife does. You’ll remember, I made fun of it in Muriella Pent, the businessman husband goes “I think it’s great for the ladies, keeps them busy”.

Figures like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly I think remind us that knowing how to impress on the dance floor was part of masculinity. And knowing your way around literature too was an important part of knowing how to live as a man.

Oh, for my father, absolutely. He was a professor of English literature and the novels were essential for him all his life.

We talked about the feminization of literature, and I think that happened alongside a change in how our media approach literature. Two big media stars doing interviews with writers today are on the CBC, Sheila Rodgers and Eleanor Wachtel. And they are interviewing people about their feelings. So the idea that is being promoted is of literature as a kind of therapy, perhaps? A kind of – an expression of personal suffering, and to understand it we must understand the author’s personal suffering. And if you’re a man with masculine interests, say you’re a big Raptors fan, Formula One fan, someone says to you You should be really paying attention to books, they can be really fun and then they turn on the CBC radio and there’s the radio host saying to someone, That trauma must have been difficult for you. He’s gonna say See, that’s what I thought about books, I’m not interested in that.

There was this huge phenomenon of a book some years ago about a guy stranded on Mars – it became a movie with Brad Pitt. It was a huge success. The Martian, by Andy Weir. He was a non-writer, had no literary background and he started publishing on his science blog these fictional stories. A man is on a space station on Mars and there’s been an accident, everybody else was killed and he has to wait several months for the rescue ship to come and save him. Because he’s a scientist he has to figure out all these methods of surviving, getting himself water and food. So the thrill of the book for the reader who likes this kind of thing is the technical stuff – that comes from the scientific knowledge of the author. It’s Robinson Crusoe 2020, and an adventure story. It became so popular on this blog that people said you should publish it as a book. He self-published it on Amazon and he set the price at the minimum amount that Amazon allows, 99 cents for copy. And he sold millions. Before you know it a publisher picked it up and movie rights were sold, etc etc. Men are dying for fiction I think – of this kind. That was obviously men buying that book. The guy who grew up reading adventure stories, Sci Fi, Sherlock Holmes, The Prisoner of Zenda… what is there for him now?

There are a lot of thrillers around, but that’s probably not literature.

See I don’t really care if it’s literature. Yes there’s Tom Clancy, and James Patterson, and John  Grisham. Late Michael Crichton. Stephen King. It’s funny I think they’ve decreased in power in the recent years. You don’t hears so much about the Grishams any more.

Maybe they’re less in the media. But they’re still selling a ton of books.

That’s true. But what’s in the media, what’s on Oprah, is the chick lit equivalent.

Nooo… Haven’t heard of chick lit since the 1990s Bridget Jones craze.

Oh sure it’s still with us – it’s just here in a different way. You’ve heard of Ashley Audrain The Push? That’s the new chick lit, the domestic noir. And there’s always the twist, it’s the narrator who’s the murderer usually. But there’s always an unhappy marriage and an unsatisfactory male and it’s women getting revenge.

Was Gone Girl one of those?

Yes Gone Girl, the Girl on the Train, a million titles with Girl in it. And those are massively successful. The Push is the Canadian equivalent, sold all around the world, first novel, translated into 30 languages…

How do we translate that into regular book buying?

I have nothing against it. I think that that is regular book buying, and I believe in fun, commercial books… how do we translate that into men buying books, that’s another question.

Or, I have to insist on this, how do we translate it into people buying literary books. Like, I don’t think the person buying The Push will go on to buy Rachel Cusk, or Lydia Davis?

Yeah, probably not. Or Anakana Schofield, or Elfriede Jelinek, or any of the fascinating female writers who do this kind of work.

Maybe if we can get them to the next step, say to Carol Shields. And then, bolder and bolder. We need a systemic approach.

Do you remember the Cat Person from the New Yorker a few years ago? I was the guest editor of the Biblioasis’ Best Canadian Stories in 2018, and that was the year that Cat Person came out. It was a fascinating phenomenon because people started arguing about it who don’t normally argue about literature ‘cause they didn’t realize it was fiction not a first-person confessional story of the kind that we’re used to reading everywhere. And they thought it was some kind of polemic against men and then people took sides, but it actually showed women in a bad light too… They thought, what is the point of this essay, who am I supposed to sympathize with? All these people are flawed and nasty in some way, I don’t get it. He’s an idiot, she’s an idiot… Then they realize it was fiction and that fiction can be interesting, and urgent. And I thought, you guys should discover Alice Munro. Because she has been writing a variation on that story since about 1975. That is a classic Alice Munro story.

Ah so we can say to everyone who liked the Cat Person: you should check out Alice Munro.

Yes! I like Alice Munro and I liked the Cat Person (although much less the book of stories by the same writer that followed).

I have a good female friend who’s a big activist and who also doesn’t read fiction, and she liked the Cat Person. At least it wasn’t literary, she said to me. I said of course it was literary, what do you think literary fiction is? Turned out she thought literary fiction meant it had to be a multi-generational family saga. And several generations of women in a Southern American family.

That’s what I also want to say to men. There is fascinating fiction on issues that you are interested in. With male perspectives. And about how things work. It’s not all I found my grandmother’s letters in the attic and I flashbacked to First World War when she was a strong female character.

Would men be into Knausgaard?

Maybe, but I think he’s off putting because it’s very literary and quite high brow and recherché and translated from a foreign language. In my father’s generation, when he was a young father, in 1970s, educated men whether they were accountants or lawyers or ran businesses, would have been expected to know about the big novel of the year. Because Esquire was writing about it, the NYT was writing about it, Time magazine. If you went to a cocktail party, you were going to talk about it. It’s no longer the case, and so something like Knausgaard doesn’t cross the radar of somebody who’s not already in the literary world. And it’s not action driven, and it’s very long. About feelings and relationships. I liked it, but I don’t think that it would sell with the kind of guy who bought the Andy Weir book.

Maybe it’s the YA bit that’s missing for the boys?

The YA is largely targeted at young girls. And I know this form my son; there are now a lot of middle grade books aimed at boys. But now we’re moving into the YA phase. There’s almost none I can find. I’m reading him old, really problematic adventure books that he absolutely loves. Biggles. This is so English. Biggles is a series of stories about a First World War pilot and adventurer, written by a British army officer in the air force of the time. He wrote them in 1920s 30s, 40s, and it’s all upper class British “fighting the Hun and the Bosch” and daring-do adventuring and getting out of scrapes and escaping from behind German lines and it’s classist and xenophobic and tremendously exciting for a 12-yo boy. There are all kinds of stereotypes about ‘silly Frenchmen’ and ‘uptight Germans’ but it’s intra-European so it’s fine.

He also liked the Narnia books. And he’s been reading this series of books published in the US, called Warrior Cats. There are about 40 books, he’s read every single one of them, we’re waiting for new books to be written, and they are all about cats. Living in groups with hierarchies, and having wars. It’s very sort of feudal society. There are both male and female characters and they’re both warriors but the female cats are obviously the only ones that can give birth so there’s about birth and motherhood but female cats are certainly warriors as well. And he absolutely loves these books. They’re full of adventure, and there’s death, and separation, a lot of orphans and huge tribal warfare, kingdoms and empires.

I’ve been reading him Damon Runyon too. Stories about characters on Broadway during the Depression and Prohibition, 1920s and 30s. The musical Guys and Dolls is based on a series from Damon Runyon. Gangsters, prohibition, speakeasies, petty criminals and funny stories. Written in the slang of the era, with a glossary at the back. And he loves them.