Anthology of asininity

Lisa Hilton finds it hard to imagine that this guide will be of actual use to anyone at all

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Perhaps the most salient piece of advice in this new guide to life as a twenty-first century male is contained in what James Innes-Smith, following Shakespeare’s much-quoted lines from As You Like It, correlates to the fourth stage of man’s journey from birth to senescence, middle age: “Don’t dye your hair. It never looks natural and your friends will think you are mad.”

The Seven Ages of Man by James Innes-Smith Constable, £16.99

As regards the rest of the book, it’s hard to decide whether it is a cynically imitative attempt to cash in on the tremendous success of Canadian academic Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which has sold more than three million copies since its publication in 2018, or a well-meant if slightly dim effort to engage with a very real crisis.

Innes-Smith’s premise is that Millennial and Gen X men, in particular, are “disaffected and directionless” to an unprecedented degree. That a crisis is occurring within modern masculinity isn’t exactly news: Susan Faludi identified it 20 years ago in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (and predicted an election victory for a Trump-style demagogue into the bargain), but then that was back before you could earn your chops by calling out students on their preferred choice of pronoun on YouTube.

Nonetheless, Innes-Smith cites some chilling statistics: boys are far more likely to fail educationally, die prematurely or go to prison than girls, 84 per cent of homeless people who die annually are men, and suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45. If women were offing themselves at such a rate, it seems fair to say that we would be hearing a great deal more about it, yet the assumption that men continue to be privileged by virtue of their gender still pertains.

So what? “After thousands of years of patriarchy it serves the bastards right” might be the glib answer, but it is in no one’s interests, least of all women’s, that a generation of young men should be growing up confused, afraid, isolated, depressed and potentially violent. Nor, as Innes-Smith identifies, is it constructive to suggest that their problems lie in the inherent “toxicity” of the Western construction of maleness. Seven Ages takes a compassionate approach to the challenges of contemporary masculinity, and correctly notes that whilst gender and racial discrimination undeniably exist, disadvantage stems predominantly from poverty.

In the light of that observation, however, much of Innes-Smith’s advice seems deluded where it is not placidly homiletic. If your son shows a flair for music, you should provide private lessons with an “inspiring teacher” and a quiet space to practise — soundproofing recommended! Too much online gaming? Buy him a tent, a “sturdy pair of hiking boots” and encourage camping expeditions with chums. Broaden his horizons with an Interrail pass, and ensure that his itinerary includes Florence, Rome, Athens, Paris, Vienna and Venice.

Who exactly does he think his audience is, given that anyone in a position to follow his suggestions is relatively unlikely to be in need of them? No attempt is made to engage in any depth with the complexities and pressures created by urban poverty, gang culture, drugs and knife crime beyond the sort of vague commonplaces that might be delivered by a kindly vicar to the church youth club.

Innes-Smith has a go at confronting confusing messages around sex and relationships, where the posited misogyny of the “male gaze” co-exists with the brutalisation of women in hardcore pornography. He acknowledges the rage of online groups such as Incels, whose loathing for women, or “toilets” as they are referred to on Reddit, is as terrifying as it is pitiful, yet his advice on finding a partner (female, obviously; being gay clearly isn’t an option) includes gems such as finding a new hobby and “throwing regular dinner parties”.

Seven Ages plumbs new shallows in its handling of the “andropause”, aka the midlife crisis. A sports car or an affair with a younger lady, Innes-Smith reminds us, might not be the best routes to contentment in one’s fifties. There’s no howl of existential anguish that can’t be quieted with a brisk cycle ride and a healthy snack. The chapter on death comes as a relief.

It’s hard to imagine this anthology of asininity being of actual use to anyone at all, though that might not prevent the publishers coining off the trail of Peterson’s comet. Yet the government has launched a committee to investigate the educational failure of white working-class boys, Unicef has published research on the 85 per cent of incarcerated men who grew up with absent fathers, convictions of teenage boys for crimes of violence are rising: there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that young men are in trouble and that too little attention is being paid to why. Seven Ages may not be much of a contribution to a solution, but its very inadequacy serves its own argument. Unless young men are offered something better than platitudes, their plight will only get worse.

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