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Photo: Denise Winton

Tim Winton says he didn’t set out to write his latest book about masculinity. Whether you believe that or not — aren’t all his books about masculinity? — he certainly couldn’t have predicted his first novel in five years would arrive hot on the heels of the #metoo moment.

And yet, on Friday night he stood in front of a packed crowd at Melbourne Convention Centre — part of a national promo tour, seats $50 a pop — and delivered an hour-long sermon on Australian men. 

“This is fraught stuff for a bloke to talk about,” Winton told the crowd. Especially for, as he terms himself, “a glorified tradie in a culture caper”. But it’s arguably because of this perception that Winton seems to be hitting the right notes — and it can’t be bad for book sales either.

Women have asked men to step up, and Tim Winton has arisen in his baggy jeans and best faded T-shirt.

The novelist’s talk, “Tender Hearts, Sons of Brutes: Tim Winton on Lost Boys and Toxic Masculinity”, is a contemplative address in which he surveys the path to modern Australian manhood and counts the cracks in the concrete that can mess them up along the way. He reflects on this — with extracts and analysis — through the protagonist in his new novel, The Shepherd’s Hut. Jaxie Clackton is a “prickly boy” from rural WA: an abrasive and violent kid who, after enduring domestic violence at the hands of his dad, sets out on a path of his own.

“You may pity him a bit, in your progressive way,” Winton said, speaking of Jaxie and all boys like him. “But mostly you despise him.”

Winton urged the audience — middle-aged and younger intellectual types — to look beyond their “bourgeois protections” and face the ugliness of boys like Jaxie, and men like Jaxie’s father. Though the author describes himself as “comfortably middle class”, he said these are the majority of men in his everyday orbit, and in most rural areas.

Tim Winton has, after all, built his art on the “battler”. He stands on stage, long hair loose like he’s fresh out of the surf, at the local pub, and throws in a gag about vegans in Brunswick. He likely did the same for Newtown in Sydney, and different suburbs in South Australia and Brisbane too.

“I write about these folks because I’m worried about them, fascinated by them,” he said. “[Jaxie] is a wild colonial boy … and what a terror these wild colonial boys have been. To Indigenous people, to women, to immigrants, to gays and lesbians … Everything he’s learned about being a man is dangerously poisoned and corrupt.”

Winton says Australia is under siege by a culture of hyper-masculinity that hurts boys as well as those around them. “This is the terror we don’t get worried about. More Australians live in fear of male violence than any other threat.” He compares the extensive coverage from the Bali bombings — 88 Australians dead — to the ongoing silence about intimate partner violence. “Add up the figures since 2012 and tell me ‘terror’ is the wrong word to use.”

Winton lists men and boys whose lives have been “marinated in violence”, like his young character: Dylan Voller, Adrian Bayley, Luke Batty. Though the effects of violence manifested in different ways in these cases, Winton doesn’t break it down. “Boys get the tenderness squeezed out of them — as if there’s only one way to be a bloke,” he said. 

In his view, it’s up to “good men” to “stick their necks out and make an effort”; to show boys a different type of masculinity. “Change is hard and taking is easy — it’s giving that takes the most energy.”

So what is Winton giving with this book? Is his neck on the line?

He claims he “doesn’t write stories to prosecute a case”, and has no intention of “mansplaining patriarchy”. But this book, and his corresponding promo tour, at the very least puts forward an argument few other high-profile men are making with such gusto: Australian masculinity is broken.

This will sell books. Not just because it comes during “the #MeToo moment”, but simply because it’s Winton. He’s a blockbuster of Australian literature; his work equally likely to be found in classrooms, award shortlists, adapted into films, or on the shelves of your local Kmart. And that’s exactly why he has cultural influence too.

Whether you connect with Winton’s lyrical extracts about red dirt and colonial boys, or relate to his passages about “yakking on ya Vans” (yep, this phrase makes it into the new book), it’s undeniable that the author has an uncanny ability to transcend bubbles of Australian taste and class. When people like this talk, Australia listens.

On Friday night, it was something simple that resonated the loudest, provoking laughs and cheers from both women and men. Quoting Jaxie, Winton said, “you gotta be hard, but no one wants to be a deadset cunt”. He paused, before suggesting a hashtag that may help all men: “#dontbeacunt”.

It’s not revolutionary but, as Winton said, “maybe it’ll catch on”.

Peter Fray

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