Friday, August 6, 2010

Women are Smarter Than Men, and Here's Why

The first workshop I took at RWA was "Sex Appeal" with Suzanne Brockman and Lee Child.  I haven't read a Suz Brockman book, or at least not so that I recall.  (I don't claim to remember every last bit of my reading in the 1980s...)  But Lee Child -- for me, he's one of those "I'll read it as soon as it comes out, yes, even in hardcover" authors.  In fact, there was a bit of a panic because last year my cousin & I shared the hardcover she bought, but this year she downloaded him onto her Kindle and no sharing could take place.  Here's where my poor & sparsely populated county's library system holds its own: I put it on reserve and got to read it within days.  #librariesFTW

The premise of the workshop was this: Men read Suz Brockman's books about Navy SEALs, and women read Lee Child's books about a former US Army M.P. named Jack Reacher.  So, how do we write our books so that both men & women want to read them?  In point of fact, the workshop was a bit more about Lee Child's books and their appeal -- which was silly as most of us in the room already knew what was so appealing about them.  I'd have loved to have heard sales figures for Brockman's books -- just how many men actually read them? -- but it's a sure bet that Child sells orders-of-magnitude more books than Brockman does.  (She was very gracious about this, by the way, or at least it was an issue she neither brought up nor ducked.)

Fast forward to yesterday morning, when I'm in the car listening to "Radio Times" a call-in show broadcast from Philadelphia and carried by XM/Sirius.  Marty Moss-Coane's guest was Jennifer Weiner, the popular novelist of such books as Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, and most recently Fly Away Home, in which a 57-year-old wife of a politician has to endure The Press Conference in which her husband confesses his infidelity and asks the electorate for whatever (forgiveness? another chance? I'll admit I haven't read this book yet).  Weiner explained that she was curious about the conversation between husband and wife before The Press Conference and in the car ride home, and that was the reason she wrote the book.  There are two grown daughters as well, and Weiner believes the book shows how all three women grow up in response to the politician/husband/dad's confession.

(Full disclosure: I've met Jennifer Weiner precisely once although she would have no reason to remember, and I know her husband rather better although I haven't seen him in ten years.  I'm not sure if that makes me biased in one direction or another, but I thought I should mention it.)

A year ago, I wrote about the cultural divide between the perception of romance novels/writers as compared to other writers & genres.  I made the point:
Let's say that Jennifer Crusie's books evolved from the classic contemporary romance novel -- where she got her start, as it happens -- and Jennifer Weiner's work evolved from smart, snappy journalism -- where she got her start, as it happens.  Different paths, but their books end up pretty close together if you're visualizing the respective family trees: funny, descriptive, nice story arcs and cheery characters.  I suspect you can be certain with a J.Cru book that there will be a heroine, a hero, some sex & lots of laughs; with a J.Wein book, I'd bet on a heroine, some trouble, but lots of laughs, and a life lesson or two.  Not really that far apart.  But look at how differently they're marketed.  I've not seen Jennifer Crusie's closet pictured in Entertainment Weekly, for example.  I'm just saying.

which translates to: Romance novels rank below "chick lit" or "women's fiction" in the marketing and media coverage of genre fiction.

When Marty Moss-Coane mentioned the label "chick lit," Weiner was only a little annoyed by the limitations of that pigeonhole.  She did point out, though, that a novel with a 57-year-old protagonist wasn't stereotypically "chick lit."  (And she's right -- that's stereotypically "women's fiction," another pigeonhole!)  But then she went on to note that the New York Times has never reviewed her books, apart from a fly-over in their "Great Beach Reads" type articles.  Carl Hiaasen gets reviewed in the Times, she noted.  He used to be a journalist.  She used to be a journalist.  He writes funny books.  She writes funny books.  Implicit was: What's up with that?

So Jennifer Crusie doesn't get coverage in Entertainment Weekly, but Jennifer Weiner does.  And Jennifer Weiner doesn't get reviewed in the Times, but Carl Hiaasen does.  (To be fair to Weiner, she admits that a review in the New York Times wouldn't jack her sales up much.)  And, for all we know, Hiaasen is never reviewed in the New York Review of Books, and that annoys him.  There's greener grass for everyone.

There weren't a lot of callers in to the show, despite the fact that Weiner is a local Philly writer (the movie that Curtis Hanson made from In Her Shoes was filmed in Philadelphia, and Weiner was cast as "Smiling Woman in Italian Market").  But one guy -- an older man, maybe in his late 60s or 70s -- phoned in to demand of Weiner, "Why should I read your novel when there are no men in it?"  Three women and the only man, he said, was "an empty envelope."  (I'd have said the only male character was "a used condom," but maybe that would have been too raunchy for this show.)  The caller sounded really angry, and Moss-Coane (whom I learned later yesterday is married to a psychotherapist) used her best soothing voice to defuse the guy's hostility and thus protect Weiner.

Actually Weiner seemed willing to take the guy on.  She pointed out that maybe he'd like to read her books to find out how women think.  Well, as you might imagine, the caller was not appeased and that's not like to be another sale for Weiner.  I don't think she minds.

Here's what I think the guy was saying:  When a book focuses on three women and doesn't look at the man's point-of-view, why should a man read it?  (He might also have been thinking that Fly Away Home is not likely to be a book that spends a lot of time seeing the husband/politician as worthy of our attention, but he didn't say that, and it is likely not to be true.  I think Weiner's a better writer than that.)

Which brings us back to Lee Child's books.  Half of them are written from the first-person voice -- Reacher's voice -- and the other half are in the third-person, but still predominantly focused on what Jack Reacher is doing.  All guy, all the time.  And women read them.  Child said that women are the majority of his readers because they have time and money to spend on books.

What do I take from all this?  That women are SMARTER THAN MEN.  Yup.  We are.  We're smart enough to read a good book regardless of whether a man or a woman wrote it, and regardless of whether it features a man or a woman or both (or two men or a woman & a shapeshifter, etc., etc.).  How outrageously honest and arrogant was that caller to presume that because a book was focused on women, there would be nothing in it for him?  Oh, and narcissistic.  Because he only wants to read books that have guys in them, guys like him, presumably.

One of the women in the Child/Brockman workshop told Lee Child that what she -- a stay-at-home mom with pre-school kids -- most loved about Jack Reacher was his rootlessness.  He has assets & resources but he has no home; he just moves around the country until he finds a place that needs his particular brand of wits and activism.  For the mom, that seemed glorious -- not to shirk your responsibilities but simply not have any responsibilities that tie you down.  What a wonderful reason to love a character -- and it has nothing to do with gender.  Too bad our arrogant caller lacks the open mind, imagination & intelligence to think, "There may be something in this female character I can relate to, and even if there isn't, it's a great story."

Ah, but there's one last battle to report.  When I went looking for Lee Child's sales figures, I found this blog post about a vodcast of a panel of genre writers talking about the divide with literary fiction.  The blogger, an Australian woman, Kirstyn McDermott, has a bone to pick with Lee Child, who believes that he could write a Martin Amis-style literary novel in three weeks, and it would sell 3,000 copies like Amis's own novels sell.  But Martin Amis can't write a bestseller the way Bryce Courtenay does and make pots of money.  The way we know Amis can't is that if he could he would -- for the money alone.

McDermott is incensed that writers at that caliber can't all play nicely in the sandbox, but she overlooks the fact that the panel was set up specifically to look at the divide between literary and genre fiction writers.  As I see it, Child was just delivering the goods the producers wanted.

My disagreement with Child's position is the assumption that Martin Amis or Ian McEwan would want to write a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies if by doing so they were betraying their own unique style, voice & vision.  Instead, I suspect Amis & McEwan simply want their books -- their literarily acclaimed books -- to sell in the six- and seven-digits...  McDermott believes this as well, but still seems incensed at Child's presumption.  I was, I'll admit, startled by her vehemence.  And her belief that what he said in any way tells her (or us) what he's actually like as a person.  (She does go there, by the way: she accused him of being "well, childish.")

Implicit in McDermott's post is the assumption that genre writers need to "sell" their books to the fans and aficionados of literary fiction.  Oh, puhleeze.  There are too many books for everyone to read all of them, and clearly Lee Child's books -- like Jennifer Weiner's -- are finding their audience: WOMEN.

Just think of all the books men are missing because they're too stupid to read outside some arbitrary and narrow construct.  And now think how much better women authors' sales might be if their books were judged on merit and not on gender -- the way women readers judge the books they read.  I'm not incensed about Lee Child's attitudes about Martin Amis -- I'm incensed at men's attitudes toward books in general.

9 comments:

  1. And it starts so early, those discriminating boys. It's the reason JK Rowling is known as JK and not Joanne. The publishers knew/feared that boys wouldn't read the books if there was a female author listed, at least when the books first came out. Perhaps her incredible success has broadened the minds of this generation of boys.

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  2. Interesting...and yes, I think even men who are generally open-minded about many things seem unable/unwilling to put themselves in the shoes of female characters. I find it frustrating as a reader. I would also be very curious to see a journal such as JPRS cover it because I would be interested to see a more comprehensive study on the subject beyond just what I see in everyday observation.

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  3. I think one reason why women are more open to reading male-authored books with male protagonists is because we are very much conditioned to live in a male's world. Reading is by and large, an emotional journey. Now, I don't believe the whole "men don't believe in emotions" pseudo-psychology, but based not only on the radio caller's hostility, and the offhand remarks made by my own male relatives, reading a book written by a woman, and "worse", focusing on a female character, is "feminine."

    I am a big fan of urban fantasy and when I visit Amazon to read up on the latest UF releases, you can tell which review is written by a man and which is written by a woman. A few male readers are a teensy bit hostile to the UF genre because it's so woman-centric. And yet, you don't see female readers of UF huffy about the small, but growing number of male-led UF. It just annoys me and makes me laugh because even in fiction we can't escape sexism.

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  4. Picking up on Evangeline's point about women being "very much conditioned to live in a male's world," I wonder if privilege makes people feel they can be picky, makes them expect to read about protagonists who are like them, written by people like them. Other people, with less privilege, are expected to be able to adapt to reading books by and about people who are different from themselves.

    It makes me wonder if the reason some men don't want to read books by/about women are at all similar to the reasons why some white people don't seem to want to read books by/about people who aren't white. Not that the situations are entirely similar, but it's interesting that women's books are often colour-coded, labelled and/or shelved in ways which clearly target them at women. Similarly, there are African-American sections for books about AA protagonists.

    Publishers seem to think that they need to "whitewash" the covers of stories about non-white protagonists in order to get white readers to buy them. That's not totally dissimilar to female authors having to use their initials in order not to put off male readers.

    ---
    Lynn, I'm sure JPRS would publish a paper about male readers of romantic fiction (or the lack of them) if someone submitted an article to JPRS on that topic and it was good enough for publication.

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  5. I love you even if you stole *cough* some of the points I wanted to make about this workshop.

    And may I repeat how wonderful it was to meet you in person!

    (and congrats on the successful pitch, woman!)

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  6. Here's the part of this story that seems odd and out of place: the caller was really angry at Jennifer Weiner for writing a book with no men in it. What's his anger about?

    If he's a creature of privilege, and so has been brought up on male writers and male protagonists, is he annoyed now that women writers like Weiner even exist? Or that they get air time on shows like "Radio Times"? Or that they dare presume to buck what I'll call the "Margaret Mitchell Rule" -- namely if you write a book with a strong heroine, there had better be a strong hero as well . . . and no one will lynch you if the hero is maybe just a shade more sympathetic than the heroine. (No slam on Mitchell or "Gone With The Wind," incidentally. I probably could have picked "Peyton Place" or something else.)

    Here's the picture I can't quite get to gel in my head. This guy reads books (well, maybe he doesn't, but let's accord him that much respect). He gets those books from one of four places I can think of: His library, a bricks-and-mortar store, the Internet, or from another reader. I can't imagine the library or a B&M store forcing him to come face to face with romances, chick lit, women's fiction, or any of the other color-coded-for-easy-recognition gynocentric genres.

    And we know the Internet gets it "wrong" precisely one time: the first time you click through a website to find your Tom Clancys or Robert Ludlums. After that the Internet "knows" stochastically what you like and makes sure you're offered more of the same.

    Which leaves books from another reader. What do you figure -- his wife reads "girly" books and he's annoyed about that? Because the only other explanation I can come up with for his rage involves a lack of fiber in his diet.

    So in the entire history of fiction -- going all the way back to Beowulf -- men predominate as authors & characters. Did that change at some point? Because if it didn't, what's this guy's problem? And even if it did, the "guy books" are still out there. Can it really be the case this particular reader has run out of "guy books"? Or does he believe that the shelf space taken up with Jennifer Weiner's books somehow choke out the next crappy ersatz-Tom Clancy novelist?

    I could understand it better if the caller had been smug & condescending ("Well, little lady, I notice you can't be bothered to present the male point-of-view...and you call yourself a novelist..."), even if that would have been no more pleasant. But his rage really mystifies me.

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  7. If he's a creature of privilege, and so has been brought up on male writers and male protagonists, is he annoyed now that women writers like Weiner even exist? Or that they get air time on shows like "Radio Times"?

    I don't know him, and I have no special insight into his personality or thoughts, but it seems that in his opinion, Jennifer Weiner's excluding men and/or not presenting them the way he wants them to be presented, and it sounds like he's angry about that. It also seems plausible that he might be angry that such books should be discussed on radio (perhaps because he thinks only books he'd be interested in should be discussed).

    I think some newspapers still have "women's sections." I imagine some men's opinion is that women's stuff (i.e. anything that isn't expected to be of interest to men) should be tucked away discreetly in those sections and not forced on men's attention.

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  8. That in no way makes women smarter...it's just like how Americans don't read so much literature that's non-western, or how white people are less likely to consume media focused on black people. They have more trouble connecting because they never really had too.

    No need to pat yourself on the back, or generalize.

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  9. Nope -- Well, at the risk of seeming self-serving, I'm going to disagree.

    I get the point you're making: groups of privilege (whites, Western, rich, men) often limit themselves to reading about their own tribe; everyone else is Different and therefore less interesting. And rarely does someone make us read stuff outside out privileged tribe.

    So, morally we have two choices here: we can say that because groups of privilege routinely do this, it's okay to do. Or we can say that because some people don't do that isn't any reason to jump up and down and congratulate themselves.

    Well, aesthetic choices are often deeply personal, so I have a hard time insisting that everyone who isn't reading Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, is narrow-minded and stupid. And people who do read a wide range of genres by a wide range of writers set in a wide range of cultures . . . aren't better (morally, at least) than the rest of us.

    But no matter what the culture, socio-economic bracket, race or religion -- you are always going to have men and women. And I find it very doubtful there is a culture out there in which men are reading books by and about women, but women aren't reading books by and about men.

    So, no, I don't think this is the same as the inclination of readers to read about their own tribe. Because if it was, then men would read about men and women would read about women. Instead, what you see is men reading about men, and women reading about men AND women.

    By your analysis, men are in a tribe by themselves and women are in a tribe with men and women.

    Now, you could be right about one thing: maybe women read books about men because we had to. Certainly the reading lists from high school through graduate school are littered with the titles of books written by men and about men. But a lot of women are self-taught as fiction readers and as such may never have been handed Dickens or Steinbeck. They -- we (I got handed Dickens but I can't say I actually read it!) -- ended up picking books to read that we liked. I read Dumas's The Three Musketeers on entirely that basis: I liked it.

    Sorry, but I'll continue to pat myself on the back. And both you and I will (I feel sure) continue to generalize.

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