To his nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram, Raven Smith speaks in what might be termed “gay internet”: dry, lusty, disaffected celebrity pictures make up much of his feed. His captions read like cries of ironic despair, citing the universality buried in the pop culture camp. “Christmas shopping on a budget,” he writes alongside a picture of Winona Ryder shoplifting. “SUNDAYS” appears next to a slide by Trinny Woodall in a cloud of cigarette smoke. There’s Victoria Beckham in a lab coat. Cassie in euphoria looks broken. The bored it girl who fell out the window Sex and the City. Princess Diana. Princess Diana. Princess Diana.
Smith is one too Fashion Columnist, Red Carpet Fixture and bestselling author – his book 2020 Trivial Pursuits analyzed the small, ludicrous traumas of modern life. And now his latest collection of essays takes a look at the most ubiquitous mammal that isn’t really talked about much: humans. Who are you? Why are you? Where did we find her? Raven Smith’s men is about the men who came to rule his life. There are stories of dads, boyfriends, perverts, and Ken dolls; Porn, steroids, sports teams and boys. It is as wise as it is bold; the chain smoking baby by Eve Babitz and Kim Cattrall. Tonally, it feels like a sly, elevated version of Smith’s Instagram feed, something he was hoping for.
“When you’re online all day making fun of what I am,” he says with a wink, “you feel like you’re being misunderstood. When I was at school, people didn’t take me seriously because I was funny. I hated it so I got more and more serious for a while. It seemed like the only way I could prove I was smart.” A few days ago he had a chat with his husband about why men had come about. “Did I write this whole book to prove I’m not just kidding? But he’s like… “The book is weird, though.’”
We meet at an art gallery cafe in south London, where Smith – who, according to his biography, has been 32 for “several years” – is road testing a new ensemble ahead of an upcoming holiday. He has a process. He wears a pair of sartorial standards – white tube socks, tailored pants and always the same brand of navy blue sneakers – alongside a shock of something new. Photos of different looks are taken and juxtaposed, like a lo-fi version of Alicia Silverstone’s virtual wardrobe software clueless. He ponders his pistachio-colored t-shirt. “It’s a little younger than I would normally wear it,” he explains. “But I think if I wore it with a pearl would it be quite nice during the day or some kind of beach hotel?” He taps it thoughtfully.
I ask him why men are usually so messy. “A lot of traditional masculinity is that mix of power and dominance,” he suggests. “You’re only allowed to show aggression, and that conditioning is hard to break.” He says this navigation of our lower instincts applies to all men at one level or another. “I’m a smart, intelligent being, but also like a chimpanzee full of testosterone.”
men came Smith like a crime novel. He wanted to unravel the mystery of manhood. “The most important people in my life are women, but I don’t lie awake at night wondering why women are the way they are. I suspect it’s genetic narcissism. How do I become a man? Am I not doing it right? It’s like men are a club I was born into that I still don’t understand.” Also, he could barely write Raven Smith’s wives. “That sounds a lot like Peter Stringfellow, doesn’t it?”
Something men is not a trauma memory. Smith grew up in Brighton, the only child of a white mother and black father who separated shortly after his birth. He writes that his childhood was “okay,” and that his psychological tablecloth was “pretty mess-free.” His teenage years of pretending to be straight were more anthropologically intriguing than scarring: “Horny and fierce,” he says of his straight male friends at the time. “Such a simple dick analogy chat.” He feels similarly distant from other mini-traumas that happened afterward. Yes, he’s “a little estranged” from his father, who once described him as a disappointment, and he sometimes drank to excess in his 20s, and his roommate committed suicide. But personally and in his book there is little finality, no clear-cut summary of what are very complex situations. Things happen. twitch emoji “Nobody ever puts a nice bow on it,” he explains. “Accepting that makes me happy.”
How did he come to describe himself as “a little too confident”? He says it’s all about balance. “What makes me happy is not pretending I’m not sad. Sad things have happened to me, but they are not who I am. You are just a part of me. People sometimes ask me why I’m so confident. I think it’s just acceptance. Early on, people questioned my identity. At school I was brown and all my classmates were white. Being a gay man is like being an outsider to both masculinity and femininity and yet inhabiting the traits of both. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m not like other boys. I just accept that now. We are all those moments.”
For a minute I feel like I’m talking to Oprah, or the final boss of total clarity and confidence. But something keeps nagging at me – surely that must annoy him? “Oh yes,” he replies. “I have archenemies. And no one gets under my skin like another gay man.” Let’s analyze that, I interject. He lets out a delightful cackle. “I don’t have that kind of relationship with women. I can argue with a woman and make up quickly. It’s not the same when I argue with gay men in terms of how I feel about myself.” He can tell I’m curious. “Yes, it’s cloudy.” That laughter again. “My relationship with gay men has always had an edge.” Is it competition? Or envy? “It’s not that easy. But also…” He sighs. “When I was 21, all my gay friends slept together all the time. But none of them slept with me. So I thought to myself… wait a minute. It’s not like me sought sleeping with them, but I felt like an outsider.”
In men, there’s a brief climaxing remark in which Smith admits to always having “this underlying feeling that I’m not pretty, not in a conventional way.” We know that beauty is subjective, that capitalism is so “wired” that we all feel like gremlins, but that — deep down, in our quietest, most pathetic moments — some of us wish we could spend a day like this as he writes, “Catalog hot”. It seemed to me a rare acknowledgment from men who actually consider their own sexual desire, or lack thereof. And a level of vulnerability unusual for a book climate that seems to have decided that manhood begins and ends with men’s rights bogeyman Jordan Peterson eating from meat troughs. It’s less immediately funny than when Smith writes about faking an orgasm when he’s messing around with a boy for the first time, but it’s also truer, messier, and certainly scarier to ever admit it.
Smith circles his empty coffee cup with a spoon. He reiterates that these kinds of things overwhelm him now. “All those things that should feel bad don’t feel bad to me anymore. What I’m most proud of is not quite fitting into a box. I am not traditionally male or traditionally female. I’m not white like half my family and I’m not black like the other half of my family. These are the things I like most about myself, even if they scared me the most when I was young. I don’t wear these things now like I’m not enough.”
I’m still not entirely convinced, but later I ponder why I tried so hard to unravel the Raven Smith mystery, despite what felt like his total openness. And if in a way I had repeated his thesis. If you identify as a man, maybe you’re just trying to unravel the mystery of being a man. How you do it, how others do it and how hard it is to just accept ourselves for who we are. It’s as if the patriarchy gave us all the obvious tools we need but no instructions on how to use them. And thank God someone came to make us not feel so alone.
Raven Smith’s Men is available now through 4th Estate Books
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/raven-smith-interview-men-book-b2068338.html Interview with Raven Smith: “Men are a club I was born into that I still don’t understand”