On the back of the paperback edition of Lantern Lectures, a collection of short stories by Adam Mars-Jones, Martin Amis describes them as 'funny, elegant and wonderfully clever'. One is tempted to dismiss this as another instance of that endless back-scratching which typifies the faintly masonic world of English letters, but in this case it isn't reciprocated. In Venus Envy, the latest of Chatto's Counterblasts, Mars-Jones takes Amis to task for posing as a New Man while harbouring a distinctly old conception of manhood.
Mars-Jones's argument is that the stress placed on fatherhood by post-feminist men, far from being an attempt to relieve women of the burden of childrearing, is actually a defence of traditional sexual roles. By redefining masculinity in terms of responsibility rather than aggression, men have successfully accommodated the feminist critique within a patriarchal framework. Don't be fooled by all those men pushing prams, he seems to be saying. Babies are just the latest weapons in the battle of the sexes.
To illustrate this thesis he homes in on two works of contemporary literature: Martin Amis's Einstein's Monsters and Ian McEwan's The Child in Time. According to Mars-Jones, by combining a benign portrait of masculinity with a near hysterical attack on nuclear weapons, Amis is reacting to the feminist argument that the bomb is a wholly male phenomenon (a view Mars-Jones appears to share). This explains why Amis represents nuclear weapons as a visitation, a hostile virus, rather than an indigenous aspect of modern (patriarchal) culture. The subtext of Einstein's Monsters is that we can purge the world of its destructiveness without upsetting the sexual status quo; put more simply, the anti-nuclear rhetoric of the Greenham Common Women was a load of loony feminist nonsense.
The Child in Time, while a much more thoughtful book, is, if anything, even more reactionary. By having his hero, Stephen Lewis, deliver his own child, McEwan is attempting to usurp the privileges of female reproduction (the 'Venus Envy' of the title). According to Mars-Jones, in his effort to compensate for the marginal role of men in the reality of creation, McEwan comes perilously close to excluding women from the process altogether.
This is very persuasively argued, but it's not clear that the author is entirely without the vice of which he accuses Amis and McEwan. At one point he asks: 'if writers of this quality can't engage with the major issues of life without including a disabling amount of propaganda on behalf of their gender, how much can be expected of anyone else?' If one substitutes 'sexual identity' for 'gender' the same could be said of this writer.
Adam Mars-Jones has never made any bones about the fact that he's a homosexual: he has edited an anthology of lesbian and gay fiction and written about the death of his partner from AIDS in The Independent. He even sports a moustache. Just as Amis and McEwan's defence of heterosexual masculinity is undermined by their vested interest, Mars-Jones's attack on them is undermined by a similarly vested interest. He writes: 'It's odd that fatherhood, potential or real, should be regarded as the pre-condition for human feeling, as if there was no other possible basis for emotion as a man'. Can't one simply respond by saying, as he does to them: well you would say that wouldn't you?
There is something faintly jarring about a homosexual criticising a pair of authors for not negotiating the moral pitfalls of heterosexuality with sufficient dexterity. Because he will never have to face these dilemmas himself, he writes from a position of moral privilege which he doesn't hesitate to exploit. The impression he gives is like that of an aristocrat criticising a Gorblimey broker for being too mercenary.
Having said this, of the Counterblast pamphlets that have appeared so far, this is easily the best. Apart from the sheer intelligence of the writing, it engages because gender is one of the few topics on which the Left has something new to say. Paul Foot on Ireland? Christopher Hitchens on the Monarchy? You're more likely to find 'New Perspectives, Fresh Ideas And Differences Of Opinion' at the Church's General Synod. But a feminist critique of New Manism written by a male homosexual - now that's sexy.