I've been corresponding with lit agent Nat Sobel, who writes:
"If you’ve read my interview in Poets and Writers (www.sobelweber.com/aboutus.html), you will notice I talk about how difficult the market is to sell upmarket male fiction. The editors in publishing (most of them women) keep telling me that 70% of the fiction sold is bought by women. The male fiction market is dominated by thrillers or crime fiction of one kind or another. I know, I’ve run up against this, too often."
Author John Guzlowski wrote early on our blog about this response from an agent:
"The novel is harrowing and convincing and well written but I can't sell it because no woman would want to buy it or read it. It's too brutal."
Make that: www.sobelweber.com/aboutus.html
This is interesting to me, because I've always had a very male-centric view of writing and literature. I say this as an outsider looking in, not necessarily a learned observer of the industry. It would seem that view alone proves that outsiderness, if what's said here is true (and I don't doubt it). I'd guess that this slant comes from the fact that the important figures in my concept of fiction and writing are for the most part, men.
Not to come off as a male chauvinist - I am a great fan of women writers and some of the identifiably "feminine" writing out there. But my influences here, beginning with my father, are predominantly male.
If men aren't reading good fiction, then what are we reading?
Or, better yet (if we've answered the "what"): Why aren't men reading things other than thrillers and crime novels?
If we want to bridge the gulf, then we have to figure out why it exists.
Do we blame the thrillers or crime novels? Some societal influenced male image that men aren't serious readers? The female dominated publishers?
The book racks at the local Food&Booze Mart's are stocked with crap, more than not. Admittedly, I got my copy of McCarthy's "The Road" off such a rack, but seeing honest lit in those aisles is rare in a world of Steven King, John Sandford and Dan Brown. But that's probably an indication of what sells and what doesn't, more than anything - So the question remains why that sells.
Maybe it's a lack of identifiably "male fiction"? We have womens interest fiction, western fiction, southern fiction - Do we as male writers need to make our voices more identifiable? Do we as male readers have to demand that niche exist, and encourage our sons and nephews to demand it as well?
I have no answers, just these questions.
This "reality" depresses the hell out of me. I have always heard it myself. When I am on the train to/from work every day, I'd say it's 10: 1 in terms of women novel readers to male readers. All these years riding the train, I have not seen a literary SS collection of any repute in the hands of man or woman. The "best" was Middlesex.
I sometimes forget this, being as wrapped up as I am with so many fucking great male editors/writers in short fiction world.
In terms of non-writer/non-editor guys that I work with, that live on my cul-de-sac, I see at the gym, on the train, on the street, they are interested in football, hunting, clubbing, working out, dieting, politics, music, TV, movies, getting laid, getting drunk, cheating on their wives, coaching their kids' teams, investing, sleeping, etc. They are not interested in reading fiction, particularly short fiction, unless they've been guilted/nudged by someone like me.
Via Facebook, I have reconnected with many, many old male friends going back 20 years to junior high, high school, college. I have also gotten many guy friends from work to read my flashes. Many of them have interesting perspectives on my stories, sometimes really making me even happier to have written/shared them. But, of course, unless they see my link, they ain't exactly surfing through these journals on their own. They're on Gawker, ESPN, Sherdog, MSNBC, HuffPo, Drudge, Abovethelaw, etc.
So, okay, this is rambly. But the bottom line is that I tend not to even think about the dearth of good male readers out there. But, yeah, I think it's accurate perception. That story involving John Guzlowski with the agent sucks. I do think the stuff Bull publishes interests my guy friends...they just spend their entertainment time watching tv and movies, not reading. I'm gonna keep guilting them, and hopefully some will begin reading stuff w/o first being sent the links. D
I wonder what these numbers, the percent read by men, would look like if we could track them for the web. With journals like BULL, and emerging social networks like Fictionaut, and (so on and so forth) online, are we still writing and publishing to primarily female readership? Or are we getting the men? It would be interesting to see, if we could.
Providing such data may be an area where the literary social network site could play a role, in the long term. It may just be matter of polling, and subscriber/member data for non-social network sites too. Or, on the gripping hand, a combination. That's if anyone is even taking such stock, or ever will.
I think if we've left men behind in traditional publishing, then it will be the non-traditional where the male voice and readership see's a resurgence. Eventually this model, online and electronic pub, will be the old guard – But right now its the new, and it should naturally begin to fill the gaps. Call it “social narrative”, the creative end of “social media”, or whatever you want, but the unheard and the unspoken to alike are far more empowered now to get what they want.
I just hope that men really do want to read, and we'll see a rise in the ranks of our thinking brothers, once we can, or do, start looking for those numbers.
As someone whose first two novels were about fathers and sons—the second of which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book (whatever that means) of 1992—it has been pretty frighteningly clear to me for a long time that the largest proportion of men don't read. Those who do read read stuff that's related to all of those things that David listed in his third graf.
To make another broad generalization, those who do read tend to read business books, and other books of a self-help or how-to nature. This is not something that's exclusive to men, though. In this country (USA), there's an astonishing thing about books: because (I think) of the way we were educated, we tend to think of books as something that's going to educate us. Culturally, we don't think of fiction as something that will 'educate" us, making it therefore not worth our time, unless of course it happens to have recipes (or something like that).
Some of us learned from an early age that fiction could be a wondrous thing, and found books and the transport to be found in them something to be savored. Most of us (men) though tend to think of books as something educational, and therefore one that isn't serves mostly to wrinkle foreheads.
When I was at Bread Loaf as a fellow many years ago, a poet there said about my first novel that suddenly it explained to her so much about her husband and sons. My aunt (now gone) said to me, ever the supportive, loving and honest person she was, I can see that it's well written, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to read it. She kindly suggested that for my next book I might think of writing an inspirational and uplifting story of a cripple. Not her exact words. Not long ago, my agent told me that the climate in publishing was so bad that she wasn't sure she could even sell my second novel.
Which isn't to say that I didn't have thoughtful women readers. It's mostly to say that Nat Sobel is right—most editors are women. And it is likely that 70% of fiction is bought by women. But I think you have to then look at other things. Like most fiction in that 70% is somehow related to shopping and fucking, which is to say upmarket and downmarket romance. Which, to a lot of women, is educational. I remember reading Sex and the City when it was originally published in the New York Observer, and thinking it was fun and clever and well written. And it wasn't fiction. And then, after repeated urging from my daughters, I watched the show and found that it bore almost no relation to what I'd remembered reading. It was fictional, aspirational shopping and fucking. Not all that far removed from Harlequin romance.
Which is the source of my comment that fictional shopping and fucking is educational for (some) women.
I remember when the Hunt for Red October came out and my father went nuts for it. It was a novel about hardware, and not only that, it was hardware that he knew a little bit about, from his days at the Pentagon.
When I asked my daughter about shoes, she said to me, Think of them like hardware, dad. And then I got it. A new planer or table saw or whatever is aspirational. Despite the fact that for me what usually comes out the other end is sawdust, I can imagine some beautiful piece of curly maple or walnut furniture with dovetailed drawers, and of course myself as a craftsman. Same thing with shoes, according to my daughter, just different aspirations. Ogling a pair of totally awesome shoes is to imagine some shining different version of yourself.
I hope that Morgan is right that we will see a resurgence of men reading. Maybe it takes gateway books, upmarket Tom Clancys, that will suck more men into reading literary fiction. But I think the other thing we need is more male editors. They're coming, I think. Mostly at smaller presses, but that's a good thing.
"My aunt (now gone) said to me, ever the supportive, loving and honest person she was, I can see that it's well written, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to read it. She kindly suggested that for my next book I might think of writing an inspirational and uplifting story of a cripple."
Hands down, you are my favorite poster in this place, Stephen. That line and the upmarket/downmarket killed me this morning. Well played. More importantly, great posts here and in the Matchbook threads.
I do see more and more men at the smaller presses. Indeed that is a good thing. Viva la revolution!
steve et. al: regarding the inspiration cripple, don't we have mitch albom (or whatever his name is) doing that?
ha, albom has created a world where everyone is like morrie. in the erlewine abode, it's mondays with morrie.
didn't albom get dinged for pretending to be at a game for his detroit paper...when he didn't even show up (he literally phoned it in, ha ha)? i hope he didn't pretend to go visit morrie in the hospital all those times. well, you can't write harrowing, inspirational books like that if you're phoning it in. ha ha
The five people Mitch Albom will meet in heaven:
But not necessarily in that order.
But seriously. Thanks, David. There's no accounting for taste.
I'd bet that more than 70% of Albom's readers are/were women, like my late aunt.
Someone loaned me Morrie, and I couldn't get past the first couple of pages. It made my teeth hurt.
I've found the same thing in the writing world. My previous lit agent told me she would have an easier time selling my novel if it had a female protagonist. I guess I can't blame her, if that 70% number is indeed true. The publishing world is out there to make money, and if 70% of book buyers are women, then they're going to cater to that. That doesn't mean that literary male voices are going to suffer, necessarily. Instead, we just won't be the ones that sell the most books. Selling books is fun, but it's not the reason you write. I don't think anyone in this group would subject themselve to writing the next Twilight series just to garner a big advance.
That's what I love about Fictionaut. It's out there for lovers of great writing, not lovers of writing that (necessarily) sells well.
Just came across this thread and feel like I've found a home. Very insightful thoughts about the growth of women's fiction and what feels like a decline in men's fiction. Thanks!
Good to have you, Jim. I don't quite know what we're doing here on Fictionaut just yet but be sure to check out our site and blog, where things happen weekly.