Men’s Fiction is Killing the Womens

 Jonathan Franzen, Steve Weddle, women's fiction  Comments Off on Men’s Fiction is Killing the Womens
May 232012

By Steve Weddle

Men’s magazine Esquire is marketing and pushing some fiction for men. For some reason, this has upset people who are not men.

First, the news, from the LA Times:

On Monday, Esquire announced that it will launch a new line of fiction ebooks with the help of e-publisher Open Road Media. The ebook series will be titled, plainly, “Fiction for Men.” Editor-in-Chief David Granger tells the New York Times that men’s fiction is “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another.”

That definition elicited groans on Twitter. “Oh good. Because lady readers & lady writers HATE exciting fiction when ‘one thing happens after another,'” tweeted editor Reagan Arthur, who has her own imprint at Little, Brown. “Someone needs to tell Ian McKewan he’s been writing women’s fiction,” wrote author Nichole Bernier. “Finally, men’s fiction is getting its due. FINALLY,” Maura Johnston, an editor at the Village Voice, tweeted. “So glad to see this neglected niche recognized,”  wrote Jennifer Weiner, whose work is often characterized as women’s fiction.

Just to be clear:

This isn’t the complaint from women writers that their covers aren’t serious.

This isn’t the complaint from women writers that their books are labelled as “chick lit.”

This isn’t the complaint from women that the New York Times Book Review only covers male authors.

This isn’t the complaint that Johnathan Franzen’s glasses get more media coverage than the latest trillion-seller by Jodi Picoult.

The complaint here is that, in marketing its fiction to men, men’s magazine Esquire is telling women that their reading and writing aren’t welcome.

I can see their point. Much like a girls’ magazine telling boys that their writing isn’t welcome:

SEVENTEEN is marketed to tweenage and early-teenage girls. Makes perfect sense that they want stories from their audience. But will they not allow a 14-year-old boy to submit a story? Is it because of all the outlets 14-year-old boys have for their fiction that SEVENTEEN wants to exclude boys? 
ESQUIRE is a men’s magazine. I subscribe to ESQUIRE, have for years. They’ll have an article about the “Four Scotches You’ve Never Heard Of — But Should” a few pages from a hilarious sexxx column from Stacey Grenrock-Woods. Online, they’ll have pictures of pantified Alison Haislip in her home, apparently on laundry day. Then, tucked away near the back, they’ll have a Daniel Woodrell story.
And here’s where the trouble starts.
If you take that Daniel Woodrell story and put it in an anthology of southern writers, you’re fine. No one complains about that. But if you put that same story in an anthology for southern readers, some yankees are going to get their hipster glasses all foggy with teh angerz, spilling their PBRs onto their clever sweaters.
One is where the story is coming from, while the other is where the story is aimed.
I think what you run into here is the matter of targeting, of marketing.
We have a men’s magazine targeting fiction to men — this in a world in which female readers far outnumber male readers.
Men are allowed to have their own style tips for dress shoes in the summer, but not their own selection of fiction? 

I think most of us agree that when ESQUIRE’s Editor-in-Chief David Granger said men’s fiction is “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another” he was marketing the collection. That’s just a damned silly thing to say, isn’t it?

Is women’s fiction not exciting? Doesn’t Jodi Picoult use plots? Wait, what is “women’s fiction,” again?

I don’t see any reason to create divisions in fiction.

But, then again, I’m not marketing fiction. I’m not trying to carve out an audience of fiction readers from my magazine’s audience. I’m not trying to convince the audience of a men’s magazine that they should purchase an e-book I’m putting together.

Let’s be honest — I’m not limited by what ESQUIRE puts in a collection anymore than I’m limited by what won the latest Orange Prize For Women Writers. It’s just one more option in a stack of books, one more marketing attempt.

Fellow DSDers Sandra Ruttan or Joelle Charbonneau probably won’t be in the ESQUIRE collection, but guess what? I probably won’t either. Does that make the selection elitist? The ivy-league-educated, best-selling authors complaining from their MacBook Airs would say so.

A men’s magazine is marketing its collection of men’s fiction. And they’re telling their audience that the stories will be full of action. ESQUIRE is aiming its comments at its audience, it readers, the men who watch Alison Haislip lean across desks, the men who read a 2,400-word essay about how to cook a steak. This is marketing, more sizzle than steak.

But when women snark that “finally” men are being read, this strikes me as not quite right. When authors who write for major newspapers or authors who sell millions of books sit in their Manhattan offices and complain to their enormous audiences about how this Man’s World is so unfair to them, I’m reminded of the way in which FOX News plays its victim card to its great benefit.

FOX News is watched by more people than any news channel in America. Millions and millions of people tune in. And what do they see? They see a television screen full of people from FOX News complaining about how marginalized their point of view is by the mainstream media. You have the most popular television news folks whining that it’s someone else’s world and that we should join them because, by gosh, they’re just victims here fighting to be heard.

But they are being heard — by millions. They’re making good livings. Many of them are making outrageously good livings. Yet, they’re still trying to say to their audience: “Support us. We’re the victims here.” They create a brand for themselves: Us against Them. And the “Them” has all the power. We’re just little old us. We just happen to be the most popular, best-selling brand out there.

Look at us. We’re up against the MAINSTREAM. We’re the underdogs. Root for us. Support us.

The “chick lit” authors (and I’m not even sure what that means (Is Nicholas Sparks “chick lit”?)) who are good writers have tons of support from their millions of readers. And they damn well should. In fact, being marketed as “chick lit” has made those author stacks of cash, allowing them to focus on their writing. This is great. This is the way it is supposed to work. The marketing department of your publisher pushes you as “chick lit” or “sci-fi noir” or whatever and readers find you because they enjoy that genre. You’ve benefited immensely from the work the marketing department has done.

But these days, being a victim has somehow become a new type of marketing. And it seems to be working, which is great for the authors using it. But it’s still marketing, just like ESQUIRE’s Fiction for Men is a marketing tool.

Perhaps Ian McEwan should market himself better. Julian Barnes. Graham Swift. Perhaps they should take to the Twitters and the Facebooks and the TV shows proclaiming how it’s a woman’s world because “Chick Lit” far outsells the novels they write. Because they can’t break onto the best-seller lists. Because their print runs are 10,000 instead of 100,000.

They could start a campaign. Online petitions.

RT @IanMcEwan: ChickLit author signs 5-book, 2-movie deal. FINALLY a chicklit author able to make a dollar.

RT @J_Barnes: ChickLit MegaDeal? So glad to see this neglected niche recognized.

Sure, they win the Man Booker Prize or get reviewed on page seven of the New York Times Book Review, but they don’t top the charts as so many of the “Chick Lit” authors do. You won’t see FLAUBERT’S PARROT on the list of Great Beach Reads in Cosmo.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a “Chick Lit” vs literary fiction argument. Lee Child famously baited Martin Amis and others not that long ago.

See, Lee Child and thriller writers and “Chick Lit” writers have already succeeded in reaching millions of readers, in selling millions of books, in making stacks of cash, in reaching those millions and millions of readers.

They’re on Oprah. They’re on billboards. They’re on the radio. They’re in the New York Times Book Review complaining about how they can’t get into the New York Times Book Review.

When you do all that and then claim you’re a victim of book covers and labels and being excluded from a men’s magazine and the book reviews of a newspaper, well, I don’t know what to make of that. I guess it gives you something to talk about with your millions of fans.

“Chick Lit” writers work hard to get where they are. So do literary fiction authors. So do thriller writers. So does most every writer I know.

I guess I just don’t see how you can cash substantial royalty checks each quarter can then complain how you have it so tough because ESQUIRE is putting out an ebook and didn’t invite you.

If ESQUIRE wants to target a collection to men, they’re missing a fantastic audience. But that’s their choice. And if SEVENTEEN wants to forbid boys from entering a writing competition, I guess they can do that, too.

Last Night by James Salter

 Ann Beattie, James Salter, Literary, Steve Weddle, women's fiction  Comments Off on Last Night by James Salter
Apr 112012

By Steve Weddle

I’m going to do you all a big favor today–I’m going to get out of the way. You’re welcome.

First, though, let me point you over to the new CD from Chris LaTray. His band, American Falcon, has new tunes out, which you can snag right here. I’ve been listening to the songs for the past week, and I guess you could describe them as a mix between Urge Overkill and The Cult. You’ll want to listen for yourself, of course.

Now, please allow me to point you to some additional awesomeness. I was reading an article in TheRumpus called “Beyond The Measure of Men,” about the alleged war of women’s fiction vs literary fiction I mentioned last week.

Vying with works from Bonnie Jo Campbell and Alan Heathcock and a couple others, one of my favorite collections of literary fiction this past year has been THE NEW YORKER STORIES from Ann Beattie. A remarkable collection. The story called “Coping Stones,” in particular, is amazing in its ability to exist as both crime fiction and literary fiction. Well, those New Yorker kids have done it again.

The Women V. Literature article at TheRumpus mentioned a James Salter collection called LAST NIGHT. This one could be my new favorite.

In another story, a group of friends catches up on their lives and at the end, we learn that one of them is dying, doesn’t know how to share that news, and so she tells a stranger, her cab driver, who in the wake of her confession, frankly assesses her appearance.

That sounds like my kind of story–sad, awkward, with a glimpse of beauty. So I read “Last Night,” as it was available at The New Yorker online. The story is soul-wrenching and can be found here.

And as if that weren’t enough, Thomas McGuane picked that James Salter story to read and talk about in a New Yorker podcast here. So if you’d rather hear Mr. McGuane read it and discuss it with Deborah Treisman, there you go.

By the way, The Paris Review recently celebrated Salter’s writing here, including this interview.