Have you read Charlotte’s Web? It’s a children’s book written in the Fifties about an unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider and it will f*ck you up.
At least it will if you’re a kid. It will have you running downstairs to your mum, shoulders shaking, tears falling on to your pyjamas. She will try to reassure you, but whatever she says will not work because you now know that eventually those closest to you will be ripped from this world.
I was eight, I think, when this incendiary material was made available to me by (what madness) my school. This was my first experience of feeling new, intense emotion through fiction. It continues to happen – much less frequently and usually actual water doesn’t come out of my face – but sometimes it does. It’s vital to have a key twisted in the lock of those dark cellars of feeling and access the girl who left you, the bully who made you eat mud, Slipper the rabbit decapitated by a fox, the inevitability of death, and so forth.
Most men avoid these encounters with their own weepy vulnerability once they’re old enough to submerge their emotions in Jason Statham movies, but I say force yourself back to the books that open you up. Live in the vivid colour of literary-induced emotion, feel the buzz of a bookish emotional base-jump.
Brilliantly constructed fiction is the absolute, total, unchallenged boss when it comes to reaching these important stores of darkness.
The posher end of literature is one of the least-compromised art forms. No one starts writing that book about a thwarted college lecturer or a sexually confused teenager thinking it’ll buy them a Porsche 918 and a jet-ski. (I’m nodding here to Stoner and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, both essential tear-inducers).
Literature is the work of a single person, it’s their heart and their head on the page and you, the reader, are in charge of budgets, lighting, CGI, etc. It’s pure human experience.
The books that make me the best sad – deep, man-weepy sad – are those that move life’s underlying tragedies from theory to emotional reality. Donal Ryan’s From A Low And Quiet Sea is partly about a man who along with his family, flees the war in Syria. What it teaches you is when the reporter does her bit to camera from the war zone on the telly, it’s only partially true. The conventions of news dictate that she remains calm, gives you the casualty figures, reports the position of all sides.
She doesn’t make you have dinner with a family who are trying keep normal alive for their child; she doesn’t wail at the staggering bastards who do horrible things to innocent people. So the news is about 25 per cent true. Donal Ryan, by making everything up, finds the reality. It has to make you cry. Has to.
Hang on, don’t run. Don’t reach for another sports autobiography. These are good tears. Reach instead for Roddy Doyle’s Smile. It comes at you all handshakes and winning jokes and then takes you down to the mat before you even start to put your guard up.
It deals with a man who is living with something horrible in his past. I could cry thinking back to it now. Doyle doesn’t describe his character’s mind, he shows you what the man does to live: the distortions humans build to accommodate their wounds. Read it, it’ll tear you apart. In a good way.
Just to be clear, the act of breaking through your manly exterior via books isn’t depressing.
I abandoned both George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo and Phone by Will Self on the basis they were bringing me down, too close to events in my life. Not advocating plunging into gloom, I’m saying books are the best way to feel, and to feel intensely about the right stuff is to be alive.
Buy all these, including Charlotte’s Web, and let our parks, cafés and trains reverberate to the sound of heavy, masculine tears plopping on to the page.