100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell
Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends is about a wide range of lovers and boyfriends, and it shows men at their most unique and generic. By telling stories about the Agent Boyfriend, the Satanist Boyfriend, the Mountain Boys, and other people, Purnell does one of those rare literary magic tricks: He shows the reader types, but then reveals the humanity beneath the stereotype. Another thing: His depictions of queer male desire and love are more diverse in literature because they aren’t soft. In 100 Boyfriends, the men are glimpses, fractions, and lost, but they are still alive and well.
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson
Survival Math, a memoir in essays by Mitchell S. Jackson, is a wide-ranging look at how modern ideas about masculinity are shaped by both structural and personal factors. Survival Math is a great example of how to be accountable on both a large and small scale. A letter to the first black person who set foot in what would become Oregon starts the book. From there, he explains the racist policies that were in place when Oregon was a land grant. The Survival Files that appear in the book are second-person stories from men who tell Jackson about the toughest thing they’ve ever had to deal with. The essay “The Scale” is where Jackson holds himself accountable. In it, he writes about how he hurt women and gives them a chance to talk about how he hurt them. This is a book about thinking about what you should do. Here, you can read a small piece.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor wrote a campus novel called “Real Life,” which is told from the point of view of a Black queer grad student named Wallace. Taylor reimagines the old expectations of the campus novel, which are usually about the misadventures and exploits of cis white men. Taylor is a master of writing that is both beautiful and eloquent. In just a few sentences, he can tell the stories of whole lives. Most impressively, he writes very well about how friendship, attraction, and grief all mix together. His male characters, even though they have been hurt by their pasts, are never defined by them. They live and love without being influenced by the things that happened to them.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Interior Chinatown is a lot of different things. It’s a film-world satire, a clever thriller, and a sharp critique of tokenism and anti-Asian American racism. We learn about Willis Wu, who wants to be more than a generic Asian man or disgraced son in the background of big TV shows. Yu talks about how hard it is for Asian men to achieve success and be themselves in a world that wants them to fit into stereotypes. That’s what this book is about: the relationships between men and the way that too much of modern masculinity is based on “acting like a man.”
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
In the last few years, Lightning Rods has been one of the most insightful and savage comedies. The book is about a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman who makes a lot of money selling companies a way to cut down on the number of workplace violations that male employees commit. DeWitt makes the men in this book seem lustful and manipulative, but in doing so, she shows how male-dominated industries still put profit above everything else, even the most basic human needs. This is a grim and hard piece of art by a great person.
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville
Herman Melville’s Bartleby is more than just a classic English-class story about a scrivener who would rather not work. It is a book that has a big impact on how I think about the development of masculinity in the United States. Bartleby is a story about people who eat a lot of different things. It’s set on Wall Street and has three characters who are named after the foods they eat: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby, the main character, is one of the first people in American literature to refuse to eat in public. After not eating for a long time, he dies. Though it would be a stretch to say that Bartleby is anorexic, Melville’s short story shows the hunger of a man who doesn’t have any religious or ideological beliefs. It was a big help to me when I came up with Dyson, a character in my book who has an eating disorder. Bartleby was a big help.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
bell hooks’s text from the mid-1990s gives a clear and detailed account of how masculine conditioning shapes and hurts men in a way that is hard to understand. In this book, the men who do bad things and appear in its pages aren’t made to look bad by this book. Pressure men put on themselves is shown in this way. At the same time, it makes room for men to talk about their traumas and heal, not only for themselves, but for everyone else in their lives. This book thinks of men as they really are: vulnerable and hurting, but also capable of becoming much better than they are right now.
The Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk is a master at turning self-important male monologues into desperate, blathering confessions of self-obsession that sound like they’re coming from a desperate person. The men in Cusk’s books are sad and childlike, and they don’t know how much of an impact they have on people’s lives. Cusk points out their mistakes and flaws as she lets them talk to her narrator without interruption. After reading a book like Outline, you can’t leave without seeing the deeply hurt core of every annoying man sitting next to you on a cross-country flight.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Andrea Lawlor’s book about bartender Paul Polydoris is sexy and stylish. It breaks down traditional ideas about gender, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando set in Iowa City’s gay bars. Paul is a chameleon poet and slacker who effortlessly moves between identities to form a complex whole. In this smart, queer adventure story, it’s a lot of fun to see Paul change his body and gender as he looks at the US. In this book, gender is conditional and not set in stone. It turns out that Paul’s masculinity is just a small part of a much bigger self. This vision of selfhood inspires an intoxicatingly sexy novel about performance and lust.
The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenting by Krys Malcolm Belc (out June 15)
Krys Malcolm Belc, a nonbinary, transmasculine parent, talks about how giving birth to his son, Samson, helped him figure out who he was. How does Belc’s memoir look at what it means to be a man? It also looks at what it means to become one’s truest self while dealing with the gendered bureaucracy of bringing a child into the world and caring for it. This book of photos and short stories about being a gay parent and having a family isn’t going to settle for anything easy.
Darryl by Jackie Ess
Jackie Ess’s first book is about Darryl Cook, a normal person in Oregon who likes to watch his wife have sex with other men. This is a brilliant and hilarious satire of selfhood and desire. It shows how hard it is to figure out who you are in a world full of definitions. To get to know Darryl, he surfs cuck message boards, watches basketball with the boys, and helps a trans woman pay for surgery. This is at the heart of the book. It’s hard to get a good picture of men who know too much about how to be men and men who are trying to figure it out, but Ess does a great job.
Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery
Daniel Lavery’s memoir in essays is a mix of different types of writing about the author’s gender transition. This book is both mysterious and honest. Lavery moves from imagining House Hunters to writing about how cis people who “grieve the loss” of their transitioning loved ones hurt. Transmasculinity is something Lavery talks about in his book. He lets his ambivalence and fear come out in his writing about the process. Even though he is sure that he needs to change, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have to worry about finding his true self.