Esquire Magazine has announced this morning a foray into publishing Fiction for Men. For starters, it will be an ebook series of short stories with some run in the magazine itself as well. Already this is sending everyone into screaming fits and fair enough, but on the whole, this seems like good news to me.
This article reporting the move begins, "That creaky label 'women's fiction' tends to conjure up images of novels about family, career or relationships. But men's fiction?" Jess Walter is one of the three authors in the inaugural collection. His biggest, most lauded book, The Financial Lives of Poets, is so entirely about "family, career, [and] relationships," that it's not about anything else. If you read the book and were asked afterwards what it was about, you'd say, "family, career, and relationships." You would. No question.
So what is men's fiction about? According to the Editor-in-Chief of Esquire, in the same article, it's writing that is "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another. And also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man's life that seem common." Now a) Think of the chic-iest chic lit you can imagine -- whatever else you want to say about it, it's going to be plot-driven. But mostly b) pray tell, are families, careers, and relationships not common to men's lives?
Of course really the question is not what is men's fiction about. Really, the question is this: why are some books about family, career, and relationships "women's fiction" and some books about family, career, and relationships about the human condition, the American spirit, a metaphor for our life and times, and an example of great art? And to an alarming extent, the answer to that question is this: it depends who wrote it. If the person who wrote it is female, it is a book about family, career, and relationships for women which needn't be taken seriously by reviewers or readers and which needn't be read by men.
Last summer, for their 75th anniversary, Esquire ran a list of the 75 books every man should read. One of the books on it -- one -- was written by a woman. One. And that's the rub. Women readers seem to think that male authored books about family, career, and relationships are worth their time and attention. Male readers seem to think that female authored books about the same are not. I refuse to detail why that might be a problem.
That said, let me add this: Magazines running more fiction? Yes please! Again from that article: "David Granger, the editor in chief of Esquire, said he has lamented the loss of space that magazines devoted to publishing fiction....'It's a struggle, because especially during the recession, we lost so many pages,' he said. 'Fiction begins to feel a little bit of a luxury.'" It has always struck me how much more serious of a magazine Esquire is than comparable "women's magazines." Does Cosmo run lists of 75 important books women should read? And is that list mostly literary heavy-hitters and complex, difficult texts? Esquire is mostly about politics and culture. Women's mags are mostly about weight loss. And we all need more literature, more fiction, more pop culture that's also smart, beautiful, and challenging.
The other point there is that with magazines it seems easier. I'm pretty clear on (and not offended by) which magazines are women's magazines and which are men's magazines. I like the idea of men's fiction because it un-ghettoizes women's fiction. Right now the label "women's fiction" seems to mean "unimportant, frivolous book men and serious readers needn't bother reading or even considering." It also means "book written by a woman which THEREFORE makes it an unimportant, frivolous book men and serious readers needn't bother reading or even considering." The intro of men's fiction might make both terms more descriptive, more useful, and more apt. Show me someone who doesn't need accurate, informative labels to help guide their reading choices, and I'll show you someone who still has a good, small, independent bookstore in their community. Alas, that number is ever dwindling. More sometime soon on why that's even more of a problem than you think it is.
This appeared late last week in my Twitter feed from HuffPost Books:
QOTD: "If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking." --Haruki Murakami
I a) love this and b) agree with it, and c) the next book, whenever I find time to write it, comes at least in part from a similar sentiment. The whole online echo chamber theory, well, it echoes for me. And it's scary. The argument is that as we get more and more of our news and ideas and philosophies and opinions and information and life approaches and narratives -- stories -- from Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites where we choose our friends and choose who to follow, the range of said ideas and stories gets narrower and narrower. We are friends with people who think like we do. They are friends with people who think like they/we do. We and they are all passing back and forth the same tidbits of information, liking and retweeting and sharing the same articles and notes and opinions and stories. Plus every time we say anything, everyone we know "likes" it and tells us how lovely and clever we are, not just because they're friends but because they actually agree. Not enough new ideas can muscle in through all that familiarity.
Maybe they should call it the Narcissus Chamber. Which one of these kids looks most pleased with their own opinions and ideas?
This versus, say, you used to read the newspaper that was your town or city's paper. I grew up between Baltimore and DC and so read the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post. They got delivered to my door. In theory, the news they delivered was broad, unbiased, wide-reaching, multi-opinioned, and multi-perspectived. It was also, importantly, researched, vetted, double-checked, edited, proofread, and held to standards of truth. This is not, of course, true of my Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Social media and the internet generally are sold to us as great levelers of playing fields and democratizers of ideas and access. Once, you had to own a newspaper to get your voice and ideas heard. Now, all you need is access to a computer and an internet connection. As receivers of information though, in a lot of ways, we were doing better before. I hear more voices now, but they're all saying the same thing.
You see why that's dangerous and problematic. And disappointing given the freedom and possibilities presented by the web. And insidious given our impression that it's the opposite of what it in fact is.
And yet...last week, when President Obama came out and said he did indeed think same-sex marriage ought to be legal, my Twitter feed did a little dance, my Facebook had a party, the links my people passed on were all laudatory and celebratory and smart from a pro civil rights, pro gay marriage perspective. That's all I wanted to read, and that's all that came across my radar. Was Fox News as thrilled as my social media peeps? Was the Republican Party? I don't know. Because their opinions never crossed my computer screen. My Facebook friends are not anti-gay. My Twitter feed is liberal and loving. It was awesome.
So the question you have to ask yourself is this: is it important for me to seek out dissenting opinions? Important for my education or for being a whole person in the world? A responsible decision maker? Haven't I something to learn from the fifty percent of people in this country who seem to disagree with me about all sorts of political issues? Given that I believe that if only the gay-marriage haters would listen to something other than hate-spewing media, they'd realize the error of their ways, shouldn't I also try to break out of my online echo chamber? Or is it permissible for me and my lower blood pressure to bubble and cocoon and ignore the haters? There's enough broken, enough hate, enough that doesn't go my way in politics, enough that makes me crazy, don't my Twitter feed and I deserve to high five then go out for margaritas and celebrate the ones we win?
One of the first things I learned in graduate school for literature (this was in the late 90s) was this: the author is dead. One of the first things I learned about being a published novelist was this: the author is, frankly, more important than the text. The author is what's valuable, marketable, and for sale. What the author thinks -- about everything -- is everything. These are opposites.
So I ask you: is this one of those cases where the academic literary theory and the actual literary life do not match up, or is the author new born or resurrected or somehow undead?
Because of my the-author-is-dead indoctrination, and for quite a few other reasons, the commitment to social media is new for me, and its effect at the moment is this: First I have an idea. Next I have a decision to make. Is that idea very pithy (a tweet), slightly less pithy but still bite-sized (a Facebook post), full and wider reaching but kind of random (a blog post), full and wider reaching but connected and content driven (my website), or simply giant (you know, a book). That last one, of course, is kind of the point.
I've always thought interviews with actors is something of a strange thing to make up such a large percentage of talk shows and late night tv. These are people who get paid to say things other people think and write, to become people who they aren't. The better they are at doing so, the more successful they are at the profession for which they are so lauded. So asking them about themselves, who they are, and what they think seems like it's kind of missing the point.
Here too. Good novelists are good at the long form -- slowly developing characters and long narrative arcs and careful descriptions and fully explored themes and ideas. So pretty much the opposite of the tweet. It's not that twitter isn't fun; it just seems like I'm not the right person to do it.
Not so, of course, and for the same reason. Actors are interesting, pretty, dynamic people who perform well in all kinds of ways (i.e. they also make good talk show guests) and who learn much that's useful to us all from embodying so many different characters. And good writers are good writers with smart, interesting things to say...across a variety of mediums.
I've been thinking too that fifteen years ago when I was in grad school, the output of writers was pretty much limited to their writing. Dead was kind of the only available option. Enjoy a book? Want to read other things that author has written? From the dawn of recorded text up until about a decade ago, you could go buy another book by that author. You might have been able to hunt down an article by or about as well by watching your newspaper/magazines when the book released and/or by going to the library and doing a little research. This was true too if you just wanted to know more about the author or book -- if you missed the reviews that ran on release, you were pretty much SOL. Maybe the author was only ever dead because there wasn't another option. As soon as there was, authors made a stunning realization: not dead yet.
And, you know, it's nice to be in touch with readers. It's nice to have thoughts that go nowhere much. It's nice to write in a way that feels ephemeral (even though it's not), to write small things in small ways. It's nice that when I read about a book, I can find out more about it and its author basically instantly.
All that said, does reading everything else an author produces (his/her blog and FB page and twitter feed and random articles here and there) take time away from my reading other things I'd enjoy more? Almost certainly. And does knowing more about an author enhance my enjoyment of a book? I'm not sure it does actually.
So I ask you...Authors: dead or alive? Not which they are, but what's your preference?
About The Author
Laurie Frankel writes novels (reads novels, teaches other people to write novels, raises a small person who reads and would like someday to write novels) in Seattle, Washington where she lives on a nearly vertical hill from which she can watch three different bridges while she's staring out her windows between words. She's originally from Maryland and makes good soup.