Review of Andrea Ochsner, Lad Trouble: Masculinity and Identity in the British Male Confessional Novel of the 1990s
The 1990s in Britain were an era in which role models for both men and women seemed to have been in crisis for so long that no one really knew what was going on anymore. The sensitive New Man of the 1980s, who was in touch with his feelings and supported feminism, was replaced—or rather complemented—by the New Lad, a young urban male who behaved badly, was interested in girls, fast cars and sports and who was often associated with a reactionary or even antifeminist attitude. This seemed to imply a need for a new and assertive masculinity that finally returned to "real men" and their images of "real women." However, the emergence of the New Lad did not stop gender confusion. It rather added yet another model for male behavior to the multiplicity of choices already offered.
Andrea Ochsner's study, which is based on her dissertation, addresses this crisis and multiplication of masculinities in the 1990s in the context of eight popular male confessional novels. She argues that the 1990s were marked by a change in the quantity and quality of uncertainty about gender roles at the end of a century that "probably had seen more changes than any preceding one in terms of technology, entertainment and lifestyle proliferation" (p. 43). Ochsner assesses masculinity and its former powerful invisibility, and her book can be placed among the fast-growing body of texts about the social construction and function of male identities and their literary representation.
The main thesis of the book is that the crisis of masculinity and the emergence of the New Lad in British literature and culture should be interpreted in terms of a crisis of identity that is not only connected to gendered identities but to processes of identification and self-formation in general. Masculinity is thus defined as "an unstable and ongoing identity project" (p. 24). In this context of increasingly fluid identities, the New Lad is neither seen as the radical antithesis to the New Man, nor is the phenomenon entirely interpreted as an antifeminist backlash. Ochsner rather evaluates the New Lad as yet another symptom of a deep insecurity at the heart of contemporary gender discourses that touch upon questions of social privilege and power. The eight male confessional novels are accordingly interpreted as an oscillation between the model of the sensitive New Man and the cynical New Lad.
After an introduction entitled "The Structure of Feeling in the 1990s" the study comprises two major parts. Part one introduces theory and contexts and is divided into three subchapters. The first is concerned with the socio-historic background of British culture and literature of the 1990s and shortly introduces the concepts of masculinity and identity crisis underlying the study. The second is concerned with questions of genre. It defines the male confessional novel and connects genre criticism with questions of gender. The third subchapter is then [page 27] concerned with aspects of popular culture and its relevance and status for the cultural studies. Here, Ochsner claims that we need to subvert the dichotomy of high culture vs. low culture and accordingly introduces the term "middlebrow" (p. 143). Part two then uses the eight novels to substantiate the three main claims derived from the theories and assumptions presented in part one: firstly that the increase in choices and options available at the end of the 20th century is seen as liberation, potential change and insecurity at the same time; secondly that the novels are representative examples of the crisis and renegotiation of masculinity in the 1990s as a symptom of a larger crisis of identity; and thirdly that the novels are representative of real life experiences of young men and women in the 1990s and of the way literature is used to create meaning and deal with the ambiguities of contemporary society.
While the theoretical explanations of part one could be considered a challenge to the non-academic audience that the study allegedly aims for, the interpretations of part two are highly readable and yield interesting insights into the novels' relevance for questions of masculinity and identity in the 1990s. The interpretations of the eight male confessional novels are divided into three subchapters whose titles are analogies to Raymond Williams' concept of the "structure of feeling" that forms the basis for Ochsner's argumentation. In the first subchapter entitled "Structures of Obsession" the first novel under scrutiny is Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (1995), which Ochsner sees as the founding text of the male confessional novel. This is then followed by an interpretation of Mike Gayle's My Legendary Girlfriend (1998) and David Baddiel's Time for Bed (1997). The second subchapter entitled "Structures of Non-Commitments" focuses on Tim Lott's White City Blues (1999) and Mike Gayle's Mr Commitment (1999). The third and final subchapter entitled "Structures of Prolonged Adolescence" deals with Nick Hornby's About a Boy (1998), Tony Parson's Man and Boy (1999) and John O'Farrell's The Best a Man Can Get (2000). A short conclusion and two appendices with information on The Lad Lit Project, a performance by the Sheffield-based group "Third Angel," and with the full text of an interview with Nick Hornby conducted by Ochsner in 2005 round off the book.
One of the major merits of the study is that Ochsner not only draws attention to the importance of literature and popular culture in academia. She also insists on literature and popular culture providing "the space where the laughter of the less affluent resounds at the expense of the powerful" (p. 133). She thus makes a strong statement in favor of popular culture as a space of invention and freedom. This shift from a passive recipient to an active producer ties in with current research on Web communities and Web 2.0 and has gained in currency in recent years.
Another merit of the book is that the theoretical framework of the study draws from a large number of theories and disciplines such as cultural history and historiography, feminism, deconstruction and discourse analysis, sociology, cultural materialism and Marxism, genre theory or media studies. Ochsner herself locates her approach in a cultural studies that is understood as interdisciplinary and relevant not only to academic readers but also to what the author terms "non-academic readership" (p. 17) or "'ordinary' readers" (p. 72). Accordingly, she claims to bridge two gaps: firstly, the gap between academic writing about masculinity in the male confessional novel and the novels' popular reception, and secondly the gap between [page 28] the social sciences and the humanities. In order to do both, Ochsner not only uses theories from the social sciences and the humanities, but supplements the interpretation of the novels by empirical data: reader reviews from amazon.co.uk, a questionnaire designed by Ochsner, the interview with Hornby and the information on the Lad Lit Project. As interesting as the inclusion of such material is in a study that focuses on reader activity and the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, it is problematic that methodological issues are not addressed. The reader reviews and the questionnaire seem to provide only anecdotal evidence, and methodological problems induced by the self-selectivity of respondents and the question whether the data allows for a generalization to the assumed target population should have been discussed at least shortly. Additionally, basic documentation required in the social sciences to assess such data quality issues is missing.
The eclectic theoretical framework of the study has drawbacks as well. Several central notions introduced by the study are only vaguely or not defined. For example, the repeated claim that the male confessional novels of the 1990s are marked by a return to realism (pp. 49, 104) is not substantiated by a description of how the author actually defines the notion of realism. In the same vein, a self-conscious subjectivity modeled on active reader responses is presented as a way out of postmodern aporias (p. 67). However, this new form of the subject is neither defined nor is an explanation given why such a definition might be difficult or impossible. And finally, a study focusing on the important question of the role and power of the reader would have gained from an inclusion of reader-response criticism. Last but not least, a more careful copy-editing would have been necessary and the academic use value of the book is often reduced by citations that refer to titles that cannot be found in the bibliography.
In spite of these critical remarks, Ochsner's book is an interesting study on masculinities in one of the most popular British genres of the 1990s that uses central approaches of cultural studies and that yields many useful insights for students and fans alike.