- Men don't read good fiction.
- Novels are dead.
These assertions aren't mine, they're things I've come across recently in different places recently.
The first is an issue raised by BULL: Mens Fiction, via Fictionaut. Men buy around 30% of the fiction sold, primarily thrillers and crime fiction. Which leaves literary fiction to the women. I hadn't given this any thought prior to hearing about it, but find it very disquieting.
I don't really mean to say that there is no “good” fiction in the thriller and crime fiction fields. I read a lot of drek, almost anything not religious or romantic, and actually enjoy plenty of that type of fiction. However, on those shelves remain the Dan Brown's and David Morrel's and countless other fairly bad writers. Writers who use one crutch and cliché after another, and who will never be a Steven King, much less a Maclean or a Hemingway.
If men aren't reading good fiction, then it stands to reason that men's fiction isn't getting published. We end up with a chicken, or egg, sort of question. Is it not being published because it won't be read, or is it not being read because it's not being published?
My view of writing and authors is very male centric. I like plenty of female writers, and their work, but the influences on my enjoyment of writing, and being a writer, are primarily male. My father who taught me about poetry. My fifth grade teacher who showed me that poetry was written by real people having real experiences, not recounting mad charges and death in far off lands. Writers I met as a kid, like Steve Bodio, and Joel Bernstein. Writers whose work motivated, changed, or challenged me in my audacious youth when I read far outside my age group, McCarthy, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, and even the baser Heinlein. And whose work does that today, Palahniuk, Frederick Busch, and the above as well. Writers whose work and experiences resonate with my own life, McMurtry in particular at this point. All these influences are masculine. It's something of a shocking wake-up to see that masculinity in good fiction may have suffered a downturn.
It raises a lot of questions. Primarily about the nature of male reading. Why do men read, or perhaps better, why don't men read anything worth a damn? In wondering at the why of this, I have to ask myself why I read. Am I a reader because I write? I've always thought I was a writer because I read, but maybe that's not correct. My own perspective is suspect here, as I'm not just part of the audience.
Part of it is entertainment. I read to be entertained, like I imagine most people do. Some will argue that reading for entertainment alone precludes reading for intellectual stimulation, but I disagree. I am entertained by mental calisthenics and deep thoughts and discoveries and seek it out in music, movies, television and writing of all types. I'm also pretty confident that I'm not unique in this, even among men. Women are not the only people on the planet who want to think deep thoughts and engage in mental stretching. On the opposite side of the coin, I also read as a form of mental escapism – I want to be involved in something very not my immediate life, and let my mind relax. This is where, for me, reading “garbage” comes in. But one type of writing is not exclusive to the other – I do both, and again am pretty sure I'm not alone in at least the right motivations and interests
So, why do men still primarily read non-challenging, unintellectual, formulaic and cliched garbage? The place I feel left to turn to in answer, is society at large. Somewhere the American culture has told men that its not okay to be literary. It's knitting and tatting, not logging and grilling, and just not something that men do. But why?
It's a damn shame. It convicts me even more of the importance of masculine voices in writing. I'd realized it was a needed element when I first found BULL, before I ever planned to submit anything even. There exists western, eastern, southern, GBLT, and woman's writing and writers, but who identifies as a “male writer” or a writer of “mens fiction”? No one who's selling, apparently. And even the distinctly masculine voices in contemporary literature are being co-opted by feminine movements. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, one of the most distinctly masculine novels I think I've read, was brought to the attention of America at large by being placed on Oprah's book list.
There's nothing wrong with women, southerners or GBLT folks, but there is something goddamned wrong with this.
The second among literary issues I missed is the supposed death of the novel. I read this on Tom Russell's blog, and actually called bullshit in the comments. I don't think the novel is dead. I'm seriously out of touch with current novels though, particularly anything highbrow. The most recent literature I've read has been The Road and a Palahniuk or two. I've been rather caught up in the literary past. But, I see a lot of novels that look good being published, and quite a few that I hear are good to read too. I can't really swallow the idea of the novel being dead.
However, the thought nags. Maybe it actually is. If I, as a reader, have been visiting the literary past of ghosts like Maclean, Cheever, Hemingway, and grand old men like McCarthy, for my diet of novels then what does that say about the current state of the things? Without a doubt, 80% of my literary fiction diet comes from short fiction journals, both online and in print. Perhaps a result of this, most of my writing is not on my novel, but on flash, short fiction and poetry. And I don't seem to be alone. I see a lot of good, fundamentally good, fiction being written in the form of flash and short stories. I am even seeing powerfully good poetry out there. It's accessible, it's at the tip of the finger, at the end of the hand placed on the mouse or touchpad.
I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with the shape and form of popular internet media and communications. The majority of America is online, and our creative engagement with words and communication in this medium is short. Blog posts are short. Facebook status updates are short. Tweets are short.
Twitter is the perfect example. One hundred and forty characters, to communicate effectively. And, really, we've gotten good at it. It's become entertaining, effective and, finally, important. Friends bitch and share and plan inside the limits of a Tweet. Businesses advertise, share updates and network. Revolutions, or the attempts there-of, are documented - The best information coming from Iran in recent troubles has been in one hundred and forty character bursts. That is what finally convinced me that Twitter had some actual value. And now, there are literary efforts, such as Nanoism, focused on extremely short fiction that will fit into a Tweet.
The modern face of textual communication is short. Why should anyone be surprised that written art would follow that? Even some of the more successful novels and memoirs of recent years have begun as blogs.
So, maybe I am wrong and the novel is dead. Or I'm half wrong, and the novel is elderly and graying. If that's the case though, it's not because culture is dead. It's not because we've lost something. Exactly the opposite in fact. We've found a way to retain our literary culture, our artistic use of language, in the modern era. There's been no death – Merely a refinement. If anything, it forces writers to be better.
Narrative Magazine recently had a small contest asking for people to contribute six word stories, in the tradition of the supposed original flash fiction piece by Hemingway. Hemingway's six word story, the product of a ten dollar bar bet, was the essence of succinct and powerful fiction: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
If the internet influenced literary culture is cultivating a standard of writers who can do as much with as little as Hemingway, then we'll be just fine. The novels will happen, and when they do, they'll be magnificent.
Now, if we can just make it okay for men to read them. Maybe the internet will help that as well. If the publishers, and their often female staff focusing on the female 70% of the market, aren't delivering then the internet will.
Let's not lament what's happened to fiction, its still here – Rather lets ask “What's Happening to Fiction”, and what can we as readers and writers contribute.