Jan 7, 2013

What Men Read

The Ultimate of Men Reading: Teddy Roosevelt
The Man's Man of Readers:
Teddy Roosevelt
“Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market.”

There you go. Direct from NPR, confirmation that publishing executives are leaving money on the table. If only they could get men to be half of the fiction-loving market, they might be saved from Google Books, Amazon.com, self-publishing, video games, television, sports, the Internet and their own ineptitude in matching readers with the right writers.

Kirk Douglas, while being interviewed for the release of his first novel, has a man’s typically terse view on why most fiction does not lure men: “I get bored with descriptions of the sunlight going through the damask curtain and reflecting off the tabletop.”

So what kind of fictional construct will lure men?

Two women from The Guardian tried to isolate the major elements. “Men's reading choices tend to identify themselves with novels that include intellectual struggle. Personal vulnerability is represented as a more or less angst-ridden struggle against convention…” It is difficullt to read more because I can hear the basso “b” escaping from my friends’ lips. B is for Bullshit.

Here’s what my ficton-reading friends like. The ones that remind me of Churchill inevitably love Tom Clancy and all the derivative fiction that followed in his wake. Like Churchill, there is a side of them that wants nothing more than to wade into battle. If they cannot or do not want to do it in real life, then reading about it is as good or better.

The serious mood calls for something more than genre fiction and I often find all of Cormac McCarthy’s books on their shelves. There is something about a lonesome cowboy around the campfire, cleaning up his plate with a tortilla, that brings ‘em back every time. McCarthy is establishment-endorsed literary fiction on a high order and I’ve not met a single woman who recommends him first blush.

There is often a real dark side to men who are voracious readers. Think of William T. Vollman’s descriptions of sex. Or J. G. Ballard’s longer descriptions of sex and violence. Of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, one friend wrote, “you brace yourself for what’s about to come, and it exceeds your most horrific expectations.” He really liked it.

So do men want to read made-up stories about other men who love to ride into battle, make about $60 million dollars as a stockbroker and then become CIA analysts, like Clancy’s Jack Ryan? Or long-suffering tough cowboys? Or violently sexual stories? Or is it sexually violent stories?

The answer is yes, they partly do.

But men, despite what you read or how they are portrayed or how they portray themselves, are complicated creatures. On the one hand we are expected to be kind and sensitive and generous. On the other hand we are supposed to be tough as hell. When things get edgy, a woman always looks to a man with the expectation of confidently being armed and dangerous. How to reconcile such an emotional and intellectual drawing and quartering?

In fiction as in life, men want honor and self-esteem. They want the sense of self-made freedom that allows them to go after what they want. Make no mistake. This is a feeling that is cherished by both the lowliest mail clerk and those paragons of new technology fortunes. The difference between the two is often luck or fate or timing or some other sisyphean force. Most men believe they are trying their damndest.

Finally men cherish the agressiveness required to achieve these goals. Or as Clint Eastwood said, “My audience like to be in there vicariously with a winner. My characters have sensitivity and vulnerabilities, but they're still winners.” In the same breath Mr. Eastwood pointed out that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino play losers very well.