Book Review: Straight White Male

We live in a referential era, that is to say an era in which it appears all the good ideas have already been done. Why? Because once upon a time, you’d have a good idea, let it settle, incubate it until it hatched into something new and fully formed. It had time to become your idea.

These days you just google it, find out someone’s already done something similar, and you either copy the idea and hope you improve on it, or else you simply give up.

In other words, the internet has made it more or less acceptable to pinch an idea in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

John Niven’s Straight White Male is, by Niven’s own admission, something of a homage to Martin Amis — specifically Money, to an extent The Information and also, in having its central character, a successful, wealthy and arrogant author, give altogether unenthusiastic lectures in Creative Writing at an unspecified northern university (the University desperate for his ‘brand name’ recognition to boost admission), a thinly veiled homage to Martin Amis himself.

Exhibit A: Niven himself has admitted that Money is his one of his favourite novels. Exhibit B, both novels are about chain-smoking, hard drinking, ‘loveable’ working-class rogues mixed up in the film industry (leading to inevitable set-pieces with young, arrogant, entitled and inevitably dumb hollywood actors and aged, arrogant, caricatured movie moguls). And exhibit C, should you need a smoking gun, a few stylistic flourishes: Compare Amis in his first chapter —

“Yeah,” I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.

to Niven in his second —

‘Braden Childs, long-suffering manager to Kennedy Marr (and now might be a good time to clear this up: anyone involved with Kennedy Marr in a professional capacity… thoroughly deserved the prefix ‘long-suffering’…’

or even his third —

‘In retrospect this gratuitous, deeply unnecessary cigarette (as opposed to the other fifty-nine or so non-gratutious, deeply necessary cigarettes he smoked during the course of the day) was a mistake…’

You get the point. Straight White Male is a straight up homage to Amis, Money, and his most famous creation — John Self. That’s not a bad thing.

And it’s a good novel, too. I laughed out loud, a lot. Niven tells a good yarn, tells a better joke, has a knack for sarcasm and knows how to string a sentence together. More importantly he has the knack of stringing those sentences into perfectly woven chapters, creating an incredibly tight and readable novel. If you’d never read Money, you’d probably think Straight White Male was one of the best books of the year.

But you can’t help but feel that where Amis was groundbreaking, forceful, kinetic — describing John Self in such a way as you felt you were trapped with him on a rollercoaster you had no way of knowing where it was ending, Straight White Male is a much more paint-by-numbers, formulaic affair. It’s a good novel. It’s a page turner. But while Money is still as fresh today as it was nearly thirty years ago, you can’t imagine anyone reading Straight White Male in 30 years time.

Niven is great at what he does and you won’t regret spending a tenner on his book, especially if you liked Money or The Information. Kennedy Marr, the fictional novelist of Niven’s creation, clearly speaks for Niven himself when he says that novelists write to entertain and to make money rather than to create great works of art — because that’s what this is — entertainment, not art. Read it to be entertained, but if you’re looking for groundbreaking literature, go read Money instead. Better yet, go read Money and then read this. You’ll enjoy it all the more.

Niven is a great writer. But after reading Straight White Male (and Kill Your Friends, which borrowed heavily from Bret Easton Ellis in places), I’d love to know just how good he could be if he could put down his influences and be himself.

Kennedy Marr wouldn’t approve, but Niven might just start creating art instead of entertainment.

Alastaire Allday

2 Comments

  1. Tim says:

    So keen to batter home the Amis comparison you didn’t even notice that Deeping University is in the Midlands (Warwick?) not an “unspecified northern university”. Makes me wonder if you actually read the novel properly in your rush to damn with faint praise. On the other hand I suppose you could be from London and Warwickshire is the unspecified north to you.

  2. Features Editor says:

    “Deeping” is a fictional university and the whole plot device is a painfully obvious nod to Amis’ tenure at Manchester.

    However, the reviewer would like to point out that perhaps you should read the whole review rather than just skim it — I actually liked this book and enjoyed it greatly, even if it did feel like a homage to the author’s favourite author.