Raven Smith: ‘Book writing is like sex. The itch comes back eventually’

Raven Smith | Soho House

Vest, Sunspel; shorts, Prada

After wreaking havoc at Soho Farmhouse, the raconteur sits down with Phoebe Luckhurst to discuss his latest work

Thursday 28 April 2022   By Phoebe Luckhurst   Photography by Toby Coulson   Styled by Warren Leech   Set design by Clarisse d’Arcimoles   Grooming by Rita Osei-Kusi

Raven Smith’s Men is a witty, knotty treatise on men and masculinity: men he’s known and men he’s ogled from the beach; good men, and many bad ones, and how they’ve all shaped his own masculinity in their own way. When he was writing the book in self-imposed exile in Berlin in late 2020, Smith read horror stories. ‘I was reading Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. I read a lot of Daphne du Maurier, I read The Birds.’ I suspect his therapist may have something to say about this. 
 
Today, Smith – who’s been ‘32 for several years’ – has plenty to say: he is a natural storyteller, fizzing with erudite ideas, shooting off on loquacious tangents. He laughs, a lot. We meet (virtually) the afternoon after his book launch at Rita’s in London’s Soho, where guests slurped jalapeno oysters and teeny Martinis garnished with mini gherkins and glace cherries. The man of the hour wore a Molly Goddard suit and Erdem Mary Janes, and behaved. ‘I had a very calm time; I wasn’t heavily drinking or dancing. It had that wedding energy where you talk to everyone, but for 45 seconds. Then you’re like, I’ve just got to go talk to someone else…’ He gave a (very) concise speech: ‘Read the book.’

Raven Smith | Soho House

But, do. Raven Smith’s Men is a story about men and masculinity. But the thing is, that sort of means it’s about everything, for – as Smith puts it – men and patriarchy are the ‘base code’ of everything; as he writes in the early chapters, men are ‘the “his” in “history”… adjusting the world behind the scenes’. It’s not hectoring, nor polemic – Smith loves men. ‘I don’t think cis white men should be afraid of who they are,’ he says. ‘I think they should be questioning it.’ So, the point of the book is to pose questions, rather than offer answers? ‘Is that naughty?’ He laughs.
 
Not at all: the questions are thought-provoking, sensitive to the dynamics and psychodramas of contemporary and evolving gender politics. ‘I was thinking the other day, if you were a woman and you wrote this book critiquing femininity, you’d get so much flak. That’s part of male privilege, isn’t it – that I can be like, “oh well, masculinity, quite flawed, huh?” You’d be seen as a traitor if a woman was writing about women. I feel that in my bones. I appreciate there’s a privilege in being able to talk about masculinity as a man.’

Raven Smith | Soho House

Above: boxer shorts, Sunspel; socks, Falke; shoes, G.H. Bass.                                    Above left: jacket, shirt, and trousers, all Gucci                          

Raven Smith | Soho House

Helmet, courtesy of Soho Farmhouse; jumper, Hermès; shorts, L.E.J.; socks, Falke; shoes, Manolo Blahnik

It’s the writer, raconteur and Vogue columnist’s second book – his first, Trivial Pursuits, an acerbic miscellany of essays and observations, was published in April 2020, when the UK hurtled into lockdown. The world was quiet; Smith’s mind was loud. ‘I’d been at home trapped with my thoughts, and I realised there was a common denominator, which is that they all involved men in some way.’ Weeks later, he was pitching it. His agent had advised a time out after the first book, ‘but I was sitting at home. It was quite an extreme time out.’ Besides, his mind was off and running with the idea now. ‘In the pitching of it, I became more aware of how much of my life has been a dance with masculinity and men.’
 
It is spicy, funny, full of those pin-sharp observations and mercurial turns of phrase that Smith has finessed to an art, but it’s also meditative, intense, and soul-searching. Essays about ghosting, dating and free-wheeling bacchanals in Manhattan sit between essays about his father, a former flatmate’s suicide, #MeToo, the cult of thin, and being a ‘raging non-eater’ in his twenties. He grapples with thorny issues; identity, honesty, the stories we tell ourselves. Inevitably, getting that balance of dark and light right was ‘really difficult’, he says. ‘What’s going to get you into this book for us to feel in a safe space where we can get into really deep stuff? [But also] so you know that this is a funny book?’ Some chapters felt like a gut punch. ‘It hit me really hard. Some of those accounts I’d write at night – and normally what I’d do at the beginning of the next day was some pruning of what I’d written the night before. But I’d be like, “I’m actually not going to read this again, ever.”’ 

Raven Smith | Soho House

Custom hat, McKinloch Studio; jumper and shorts, both S.S. Daley 

‘I don’t think cis white men should be afraid of who they are. I think they should be questioning it’

Raven Smith | Soho House

From cosy Piglets to large Cabins, there’s room for everyone.

His first book, he thinks, was ‘more stand-up-y.’ A swift caveat. ‘That’s not a negative.’ He suggests that much of the scattergun, rapid-fire quips were about ‘getting people to like me’, using humour to reel people in (let’s face it, it worked). But after Trivial Pursuits came out, he broke the first rule of writing a book and read his own Amazon reviews. ‘It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. One of those reviews said, “this is like being on acid. This is like a drunk man rambling.”’ 

Still, he thinks that something in that critique helped to evolve his writing – that, and writing a long essay about his relationship with his father, published in The Observer. ‘People were like, “f**king hell, this is brilliant!” – and I was like, “oh my God, I don’t have to do jokes for you to feel like I’ve communicated well”; I grew in confidence.’ As a result, this book is a little richer, the stories deeper. He has dialled down ‘the tap dance, the dazzle’ just a little, and tempered that impulse to make people laugh. ‘My editor told me I can’t badmouth my first book.’ A mischievous smile. ‘And writing it was amazing.’ So, would he write another after this one? ‘Maybe. I assume book writing is like sex. The itch comes back eventually.’ 

Raven Smith | Soho House

Originally from Brighton, where he grew up with his mother, Smith now lives in London with his husband Richard (they’ve been together for 10 years, and married six). Richard gets a chapter in Raven Smith’s Men, of course: it is tender and astute on the richness, quotidian passion and occasional tedium of long-term love. Writing work always starts at 1pm; Smith works on projects like his weekly Vogue column from a ‘writer’s room’ in Soho – ‘we’re calling it that because it sounds chic. It’s a white box above a strip club’ – and in his downtime, he listens voraciously to audiobooks, a habit that started in his twenties during a bout of insomnia. There’s a slightly bunker mentality when he’s working. ‘I’m terrible to be around when I’m writing. I find it really difficult to do anything else. I’m an extrovert, but I have to do my writing in an incredibly introverted way.’

Raven Smith | Soho House

Above: shirt, Nanushka; shorts, JW Anderson; socks, stylist’s own; shoes, Gucci                                                        

Speaking of extroversion, there is also the not so insignificant matter of his hypebeast Instagram account, @raven__smith, which has 159k followers and regularly breaks the internet with absurdist, screamingly funny memes that get swapped with fervour in WhatsApp groups across the land (Rihanna, the glorious poster girl of ‘don’t give a f**k’ makes a lot of appearances). So, can we talk about the Instagram account? Smith insists there’s no secret to it. ‘The only criteria is that I am laughing. That for me at its simplest level is what it’s all about. If I think something is really funny, I’ll post it.’ (You’ve either got it or you don’t.)

Raven Smith | Soho House

Jacket, shirt and trousers, all Paul Smith; socks, Falke; shoes, G.H. Bass

Raven Smith | Soho House

Hat, stylist’s own; vest, S.S. Daley; trousers, Hermès; socks, Falke

What next? A ‘wee’ book tour then hopefully a holiday, perhaps to his parents’ house in France (‘The number of times I’ve gone there and just slept for like a day and a half, catatonic’). Smith cheerfully judges his relationship with his career to ‘toxic work culture at its finest’; I can relate, I say. ‘I like working hard. If things are too easy, I feel a bit uneasy. I feel good about being busy.’ He pauses. ‘I don’t know if book writing has to be gruelling, but that is how I’ve decided to write books for now. Maybe it doesn’t have to be punishing. That is definitely something my therapist would say: “maybe it doesn’t have to be a punishment.”’ Yet more laughter. ‘But of all the things that are hard work and difficult, it’s a privilege to get to do a lot of the stuff that I get to do. Doing this interview for Soho House… What have you got to complain about, really?’
 
The book is out today, and it will be surreal to see it out in the world. ‘Those tiny things I remember – everyone will have [them] now. They won’t just be something that happened to me.’ So, are there any of Raven Smith’s men who might have something to say about it? Is he expecting any uncomfortable WhatsApps? ‘The only men that have asked about being in the book, haven’t made it in. Which I think is quite funny.’
 
Raven Smith’s Men is out now

Raven Smith | Soho House

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