Robert Webb stays true to his comedic roots with How Not to be a Boy. In what is perhaps best described as a memoir-with-an-agenda, the book sees Webb look back on his life so far. He discusses his most important moments and how they have been shaped by the pressures of masculinity.
Throughout even the most serious events that Webb recalls, his comedic acumen is evident. No matter how serious the situation he is describing, he constantly invites the reader to laugh with him at his former self – and it is really funny! Comedy at its finest is relatable, and that’s something with which Webb engages entirely and successfully.
Webb doesn’t get it all right; there are times when he needs to be more careful about exercising his privilege – for example, his decision that it’s acceptable to use the ‘c’ word because three women he admires says it is acceptable. Irrespective of what side of the argument you fall on, I think we can all concede that it’s probably not up to Webb to decide.
Webb’s tone is slightly arrogant, particularly towards the beginning, and it’s easy to see how people who are not Webb’s biggest fans might struggle.
It is worth perservering with the book, however, as it shapes up to be a really important project. The most effective parts follow a rather uniform structure: claim; funny/ tragic/ self-deprecating anecdote to illustrate claim; overriding point about how this demonstrates the toxic, vacuous nature of masculinity. And that is what makes this project work so effectively.
Webb claims early on that, “you’re not going to find this book very ‘citey’”, which says it all. Not that Webb doesn’t have the ability to make this a ‘citey’ book; he’s a clever man, as already discussed, but this is not what the book is trying to do. To be ‘citey’, as Webb so affectionately terms it, would be to remove this book from what it actually is.
It is clear that Webb is not trying to say anything profound; rather, he is taking pre-existing notions about the damaging nature of masculinity and applying it to one man’s life. Webb is not claiming any special authoritative voice and, at several times, appeals to what he thinks must be a universal feeling.
Therefore, the beauty of this book lies with the fact that this, theoretically, could be recounting any man’s feelings, and the ways he has been encouraged to deal with them. Its success, though, is Webb’s alone – funny, honest, and a really difficult read at times, Webb flags up a simple truth: men’s mental health is at a crucial point, and this is something that urgently needs addressing.
This is not a profound tale, then, but one that needs to be told, and it’s great to see someone with as much influence as Webb putting it to use for once.
How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb