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May 02, 2008

Razib and Tyler on Lit and Guys

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Razib asks a lot of good questions about guys and contemporary fiction. Tyler Cowen picks up the thread. Many commenters run with it. Yours truly contributes this little bit:

A couple of additional things y'all may get a kick out of chewing on:

  • When you're talking about contempo fiction, most of you seem to be thinking about contempo "literary fiction." Literary fiction generally sucks. It's wimpy, depressive, and fussy. It's also an artificial construct. Literary fiction as we currently know it is an invention of the '60s and '70s, something in arts terms akin to the Great Society programs of the era. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O'Hara ... There were higher and lower forms of fiction being written in those days, but it was all part of a continuum. They wrote for popular magazines, after all; they had bestsellers. More about this here.

  • One of the reasons contempo fiction seems weak to many people is that ... well, to be frank, book publishing is one of the most feminized industries around. Back in, say, 1970, the editorial side of book publishing was probably 80% male, and many of them were hetero. These days, the editorial side of book publishing is probably 75% female, and many of the guys are gay. Good for them, of course, and they bring many virtues. Unfortunately, the ol' rampaging-male-stallion energy is not one of them. Book publishing is a bit like Vassar or Smith these days. Guys sense this, and they avoid the field -- red-blooded yet arty types tend to go into music, or TV, or movies instead. Same holds for creative types. The more outgoing, dynamic creative guys are writing TV these days, or creating webseries, not trying to put their thing across in book publishing.

  • Despite all this, there's some awfully good new and newish fiction out there, even for the tastes of people who prefer action to contemplation. The reason you may not know this is that you're being ill-served by the reviewers and the press. They're anxious, striving, Ivy wimps, generally, eager to impress each other with their fussy taste. (Or, worse, wannabes. Imagine that: wuss wannabes.) A couple of suggestions: try more crime and western fiction -- Westlake, Richard S. Wheeler, Leonard, Gorman, Hillerman, Crais and many more in America ... Ruth Rendell, Peter Dickinson in England ... And have any of you read Steven Pressman's "Gates of Fire," about the Spartans' defence at Thermopylae? That's a really amazing, stirring novel. This is high-quality fiction. But a lot of it is flying under the radar.



posted by Michael at May 2, 2008


As you may have noted, I've briefly commented in the same topic with:
As a former book editor for Houghton Mifflin, I can support your basic theory.

One of the reasons book publishing loves a new book by authors like Tom Clancy is that releases of those books actually bring men into bookstores.

Posted by: vanderleun on May 2, 2008 4:15 PM

I wrote WAY too much about this subject a few years ago, but sorta from the other direction; that is, what novels will people still be reading (that is, "canonically") 50 years from now. I do manage to tear apart a lot of avant garde lit, but I guess it's still a snobbish post, inasmuch as I don't really discuss "genre" books. (Which I put in quotes because of the absurdity of the label, not to derogate those books.)

Posted by: Virtual Memories on May 2, 2008 4:53 PM

Vanderleun -- It's fun that people with some real experience of book publishing are beginning to spill some of their knowledge and secrets, isn't it? Maybe the pretence level in the general discussion of books is finally going to go down a bit. But maybe I'm a dreamer...

Gil -- That's a good piece, thanks. Didn't strike me as snobbish at all. Refreshing, actually. You've had a lot more patience with contempo lit-fict than I ever managed. Eager to read more about your Kindle too. And the greyhound.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2008 5:06 PM

Thanks! I worry that my default is snobbery.

I plan on writing more about the Kindle this weekend, but here's a neat piece by my wife on how Rufus handled his first greyhound meet-n-greet since we adopted him 2 months ago. WARNING: Plenty of cute dog pix.

Posted by: Virtual Memories on May 2, 2008 5:56 PM

I'd put Daniel Woodrell and James Sallis on the list also.

Posted by: Judith Sears on May 2, 2008 9:00 PM

I've noticed the same thing happening in the newspaper and magazine industry.

Also, is it me or did fiction penned by men appeal to both genders while most new fiction written by women tends to be directed only at women? I have a hard time imagining what guy could relate to anything about "Eat Pray Love."

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on May 3, 2008 12:00 AM

Hmm... I write historicals (but they are sent on the American frontier so they get called Westerns!)Although I intended to write them for a general audience and pretty well split my cast down the middle genderwise, of the people who have read and extravagantly loved "To Truckee's Trail" (for an example) more than 3/4ths of them are guys.

I can't quite figure out how this happened. There are elements of that book (and in the Adelsverein Trilogy) taken up with female concerns - as my father says "all that birthing babies stuff and housekeeping stuff!" which I thought sure would have killed any male interest. But one of my big local fans owns the local hardware, and he claims it is "a very guy-friendly book'.

It appears I managed to put in enough of the male-interest element - physical adventure, honor, duty to comrades, etc to hold male readers. Still can't figure out how that happened, though. I just thought I was writing about people.

Posted by: Sgt. Mom on May 3, 2008 2:11 PM

Sci fi?

Posted by: Robert Nagle on May 5, 2008 5:02 AM

Michael: the answer occurred to me in the middle of the night. It takes the form of a question:

How many bawdy novels by women can you think of? How many bawdy novels by men can you think of? Broaden the definition somewhat: how many comic/satirical novels by men can you think of? how many comic/satirical novels by women can you think of? Why?

Posted by: Robert Nagle on May 5, 2008 2:26 PM

Don't men like George Eliot? The Brontes and Austen less, right? Well, maybe not Austen. I seem to know guys who like Austen, but hate Austen-o-philia.

Where I am going with this is: is it feminization, or feminization plus multi-culti pc overeducated MFA blandness? Can you imagine a George Eliot today? Is there one I don't know about?

Please don't say Zadie Smith (Okay, I've only skimmed one novel of hers. I just wasn't interested. I wanted to include her because she got compared to Dickens).

Looking through women's magazines makes me feel like such an atypical woman. I don't get that world. I went to med school just when women started to be a big group and spent my formative years, workwise, working mostly with men. I have no problem working with men or women, I'm just used to men at work. I tend to hang out with the boys in blog world, although I am marginally a girly girl (er, woman) in real life.

I dunno - I skip the contempo lit stuff. The good thing about being poorly educated is I have a lot of classics to read that most of you lot have read already!

Posted by: MD on May 8, 2008 6:34 PM

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