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.
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.