Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Male novels" vs. "female novels" (mailbag)

A reader asks:

“Ed, do you think there are any recognizable differences, in general terms, in novels written by male authors versus female authors? Do you agree that female authors tend to focus more on romantic relationships, while male authors focus more on action?"

In this era of rampant political correctness, I'm sure that this one is going to get me in trouble in some quarters. But I'm going to wade in, nevertheless. (I categorically reject, moreover, the notion that a simple acknowledgement of male and female differences automatically equals oppressive sexism.)

Yes, I think it's a fair generalization to say that female authors are more concerned with romantic relationships than their male counterparts.

We might regard this as a male author deficiency. Few male novelists specialize in writing books about male-female romantic interactions; and when they do, they usually do so for a female readership. (Think Nicholas Sparks.)

This isn't to say that male authors don't include romantic subplots in their novels. But that's the point: these are romantic subplots

Female authors far more often give the "love interest" a more central role in the story.

This, in itself, is not necessarily good or bad. (This difference in emphasis, however, does tend to impact the potential market for a given book, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.)

It is interesting to see how this difference in emphasis plays out in concrete terms when male and female novelists address the same subject matter. 

Let's consider one of the most written about topics of all time: the American Civil War.

A typical male-written novel about the Civil War is the well-known The Killer Angels by Michael Schaara. This novel provides an in-depth exploration of the battlefield events that took place at Gettysburg.

Michael Schaara, and later his son Jeff, have written numerous novels about the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. 

All of the Shaara novels have the same broad emphasis: generals directing troops, and/or men fighting it out in the trenches. 

There are certainly female characters in all of these novels; and yes, there are romantic subplots.

But all of the novels written by Jeff and Michael Schaara are primarily about the mechanics and trauma of war, and what war does to the people (mostly men) who fight it.

Margaret Mitchell also wrote a well-known novel about the American Civil War. You may have heard of it: It’s called Gone with the Wind.

I have no doubt that Margaret Mitchell knew her military history. The novel she wrote, however, has the military events of the conflict decidedly in the background. 

Gone with the Wind is mostly a novel about a young woman named Scarlet O'Hara, and the men she loves, and/or those who love her. (Scarlet O'Hara has her fair share of doormat suitors.)

Generals and soldiers do appear in Gone with the Wind, but they take a back seat to Scarlett’s various love interests.

Both Gone with the Wind and Gods and Generals are good novels. I’ve read them both, and enjoyed them both. But they are fundamentally different.

Although both novels are set in the American Civil War, they approach the subject of the war with different sets of priorities. (If you don’t believe me, read both novels; you’ll see.)

I should note in closing that it is perfectly possible for a male author to write a marketable romantic novel. (Once again, think Nicholas Sparks.) 

I should also note that a growing number of female authors are writing novels that have grittier, less relationship-focused subject matter. (Think Gillian Flynn, who writes thrillers that appeal to readers of both genders more or less equally.)

Nevertheless, there is an undeniable and observable broad trend for female novelists to focus on romantic relationships, and male novelists to focus on action and adventure.

And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it isn't a bad thing at all.

Diversity in fiction shouldn't mean that everyone writes the same novel. 

An author's choice of what to focus on will necessarily be impacted by many factors—not always (but sometimes) including gender.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Commercial fiction vs. literary fiction

One of my YouTube subscribers asked for an explanation of the differences between literary fiction and commercial fiction.

Let's start with commercial fiction.

Commercial fiction has a clearly defined plot that you could outline without too much difficulty. 

Lots of things "happen" in commercial fiction. There is plenty of conflict, and the protagonist is waging a battle against some external threat. 

The external threat might be a serial killer, a terrorist, the spy of some enemy nation, or a supernatural entity. 

The hero may rely on his wits, but he ultimately defeats the external threat by taking some action

He captures the serial killer. She kills the enemy spy. He exorcises the demon, or drives a stake through the heart of the vampire. She blasts the alien spaceship into smithereens.

Which brings us to another generalization about commercial fiction: Most, if not all, genre fiction is commercial fiction. Crime fiction, spy fiction, horror, westerns, and science fiction are all examples of commercial fiction.

This includes most of the books that you're likely to see at the grocery store or Walmart: books by well-known authors like James Patterson, Stephen King, and Zane Grey.

A common criticism of commercial fiction is that it contains characters who are stereotypes, or thinly drawn.

This isn't necessarily accurate or fair. Many of the most memorable characters in literature are found in commercial fiction. As a contemporary example, I would cite Harry Bosch, the LAPD detective who appears in Michael Connelly's crime novels.

That said, it must be acknowledged that commercial fiction is primarily focused on plot.

What about literary fiction

Literary fiction is focused on character, and the characters' internal conflicts. Where is my life going? How do I recover from the loss of my husband? Are my relationships sufficiently fulfilling?

Author Stephen King once defined literary fiction as "extraordinary people in ordinary situations".

If a novel contains what seems like an excessive amount of inner monologue, and characters discussing the fine points of their relationships, then it's a good bet that you're reading a piece of literary fiction.

The most common criticism of literary fiction is that "nothing happens". This is true, strictly speaking, if you define "happening" in commercial fiction terms. Literary fiction contains few car chases, battles to the death, and strange creatures that slither up the basement stairs.

It isn't necessarily true to say, however, that all literary fiction is "boring". When well-written, literary fiction can be as compelling to read as commercial fiction. 

One of my favorite literary novels is Stuart O'Nan's Emily, Alone. This is a novel about an elderly woman who is adjusting to life without her recently deceased husband.

Boring, right? Especially for a male reader like me, who ordinarily reads crime fiction and spy fiction.

Actually, no. Stuart O'Nan is one of those literary writers who has a particular knack for transforming the ordinary and mundane into an interesting story. I enjoyed Emily, Alone a lot more than the last Dan Brown novel I read.

However, most literary fiction--including the good kind--adapts poorly to the screen. 

To cite just one example: Richard Yates's literary novel Revolutionary Road was a book that drew me in. 

The novel dealt with the internal conflicts of a restless young couple stranded in American suburbia during the postwar period. The young couple would rather live in Paris. They find post-WWII suburban life to be hyper-conformist and constraining.

I know: boring subject matter. But it wasn't boring, in the skilled hands of Richard Yates.

Revolutionary Road was also made into a film, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I watched the movie after reading the book, hoping that I would like the former as much as the latter.

To my surprise and disappointment, however, I found the film version of Revolutionary Road well...tedious

It wasn't because the actors did a poor job. Rather, it was because "nothing much seemed to happen".

This was because the "action" in the novel largely consisted of the characters musing about their internal conflicts, and discussing those conflicts. 

Would they stay in the suburbs, or haul stakes for Europe?

This was very difficult to translate into a film plot; and as a result, Revolutionary Road the movie was not as interesting as the novel it was based upon.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

James Michener and the "middlebrow" concept

A brief video on the novels of James Michener, and the concept of "middlebrow" literature:

Termination Man (novel serialization) Part 11

Below is the latest installment of the serialization of Termination Man. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or consider the option of obtaining the entire book from Amazon.)

View Termination Man on Amazon.com

Chapter 2 (continued)

“It wasn’t profitable enough for TP Automotive,” Kevin said.

“Is that the name of the conglomerate that bought out your employer?”

Kevin nodded and passed the joint to me. I held it without inhaling as I listened to him respond. I didn’t have to bother smoking it any further. Kevin wasn’t even looking at me: he was staring out into the steel-grey sky, in the direction of Lake Erie. We were only a few miles from the water, and its dampness permeated the air. Kevin shivered as he began to speak.

“They brought in a team of what they called ‘efficiency experts,’” Kevin began. “People who had never even worked in a factory before. They were from one of the big consulting firms like—McKinney and Company—or something like that.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that the correct name of the consulting firm was McKinsey & Company. Ben the Welder wouldn’t have that sort of knowledge at his mental fingertips.

“And what did the efficiency experts do?” I asked, prompting him to continue.

“They created a spreadsheet that told them how many workers should be at each station, and how much production should flow through each workstation in a shift. Then they proceeded to cut our manpower and increase our production quotas.”


“And then we started having all sorts of quality problems. Some of us who had been around for a while complained to the new management team. We knew damn well that this would never have happened under Joe Mentzel. But they wouldn’t listen. One of the new suits asked me point-blank if I had an MBA. And I said of course I didn’t—would I be working on a production line if I had some fancy degree? But I also pointed out that the hot-shot MBA who recalculated our manpower and our production quotas had probably never spent a single hour working on a production line.”

“Sounds like a productive conversation,” I said, smiling at my impromptu pun in spite of myself.

Kevin looked at me. “You get the picture, right? I walked out of that office of theirs, seeing that they weren’t even remotely interested in listening to reason.”

“What did you do then?”

Kevin shrugged. “I went back to the production line. What else could I do?”

“And you think they want to fire you just because of that?”

“No,” he said. “Not just because to that. Things changed again, after Eileen Cosgrove—one of my coworkers—got hurt.”

*       *       *
Serial to be continued. Visit the Serials page for links to more of Termination Man, or purchase the entire book from Amazon.com.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Millennial malaise and the vicissitudes of history

The above article is more or less a laundry list of all the challenges that today’s young people face.

No, my purpose here is not to dismiss the entire story as the whining of an entitled, mollycoddled generation. To be sure, today’s young people do face economic challenges.

But that has quite often been the case.

Consider the challenges that young people faced at the following junctures during the past 100 years:

  • 1917-18: Young men could be drafted for service in WWI
  • 1929-39: Young people enjoyed very few employment opportunities during the Great Depression.
  • 1941-1945: If you were a young man, you were probably at war (WWII) during most of this period.
  • 1951-3: Young men were drafted for service during the Korean War
  • 1965-1973: Young men were drafted for service during the Vietnam War
  • 1972-1984: More than a decade of very anemic economic growth: recession, oil crises, stagflation. The unemployment rate in 1982 was 9.7%.
  • 1990-1992: The post-Gulf War recession. (I was a college graduate during this period. It was not a good time to be looking for a job.)

Now for the other side of the coin: Has there ever been a particularly promising time to be a young person starting out in the world?

Sure. If you graduated from college between 1995 and 2005, you enjoyed far more opportunities than the cohorts who graduated before or after this period.

The boom of the mid- to late-1980s was an auspicious time to be in the job market as a young person.

There were also many economic opportunities for the young during the 1950s—especially if you were a (probably male) veteran who had managed to survive World War II with your body and mind intact.

But as you can see, where you happen to show up in history is (and always has been) the luck of the draw.

Today’s young people certainly face a poor job market. But if you talk to fiftysomethings who graduated during the 1970s or very early 1980s, they will tell you a similar story.

What happens today has usually happened before, in one form or another.

For writers: why you hate the bestsellers

Are you a writer (aspiring or otherwise) who claims to "hate" the bestsellers? Do you feel nothing but contempt for the likes of James Patterson and Stephen King? Do you wonder why the rest of the world fails to share your refined literary tastes?

Perhaps I can explain. And since I'm a writer myself, I'm going to do that by telling you a story – – a true one from my own past.

When I was a callow lad of fifteen, I decided that I was going to become a rock 'n' roll guitarist. So I did what all suburban kids with such pipe dreams do: I took guitar lessons.

This was 1983, and AC/DC's album, Back in Black, had just gone quadruple platinum, or something like that. I was a big fan of AC/DC myself. (Yes, I was quite predictable. But I was fifteen, I'll remind you again.)

I expected that my guitar instructor would share my enthusiasm for AC/DC. After all, he was a long-haired, chain-smoking guitarist who would have looked right at home on the cover of an AC/DC album.

But when I asked my guitar instructor what he thought of the Australian heavy metal band, his answer nearly shocked my 15-year-old soul:

"I probably hate AC/DC more than any other popular rock band right now," he said simply. 

Then, apparently having decided that some explanation was in order, he elaborated. "The problem is that AC/DC songs are ridiculously simplistic." 

Then he added: "If I wasn't a guitar player myself, I would probably like a lot more bands than I currently do."

I never became much of a guitarist, but I learned enough of the nuts and bolts to gain an appreciation for what my instructor was saying.
Musically speaking, there isn't much to an AC/DC song. Most AC/DC songs rely on a small number of chords, and their solos are not particularly complex.

But that is missing the point. Few rock bands write songs for other rock musicians (or aspiring rock musicians). And if they do, they seldom  achieve megastar status.

When I asked my guitar instructor which music he did like, he informed me that his favorite rock act was Jeff Beck. 

That doesn't surprise me, in retrospect. A lot of guitar players like Jeff Beck. (This was especially true during the early 1980s.) Jeff Beck is to guitar playing what Saul Bellow is to the literary world.

The analogies between Beck and Bellow don't end there. Both men have strong followings among their fellow artists.

Saul Bellow's novels are mostly read by other writers, and readers with extremely refined literary tastes. Stephen King writes for the masses. Saul Bellow wrote for the literati. (When I was a freshman in college, I asked my English Lit professor who his favorite writer was. He predictably replied: "Saul Bellow".)

So what is the takeaway here? Am I saying that you should deliberately "dumb down" your writing? 

No, I'm not saying that. 

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that all artists, be they guitarists or writers, can fall prey to the pernicious habit of navel-gazing. 

Artists also fall into the trap of trying too hard to impress other artists in their field. (This is probably an even bigger problem.)

Art should, in the final analysis, be produced to appeal to the wider masses, not to claustrophobic and self-referential artistic communities.

When you sit down to write a story, you would do well to write for your non-writer friends, rather than your writer friends.

You may still decide that you simply can't bring yourself to like James Patterson or Stephen King. (I doubt that my guitar instructor ever learned to appreciate AC/DC.) 

But you will take an important step toward finding a wider readership. 

As a writer, you should be a storyteller first, and an "artist" second.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

12 Hours of Halloween (novel serialization) Part 11

Below is another installment of the online serialization of 12 Hours of Halloween. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or get the entire book from Amazon nowIt's dirt cheap!)

Chapter 3

At 3:10 p.m. I met up with Leah and Bobby at the western edge of the school grounds, where Shayton Road bisected Ohio Pike. The latter road would, if followed west, take the traveler into the posh old-money eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, and after that, into the city itself.

Shayton Road was a two-lane highway that cut through farmland, pockets of residential housing, and endless acres of woods. This was the route that the three of us followed home everyday.

And more recently, Shayton Road had become the road of the ghost boy, if that was indeed what he was.

On the way to our rendezvous point, I spied Matt Stefano smoking cigarettes in a distant copse of trees past St. Patrick’s all-purpose athletic field and baseball diamond. I didn't believe that he had seen me. At any rate, he was otherwise occupied and I seemed to be off the hook for now.

When I arrived at the edge of Shayton Road, Bobby and Leah were already waiting for me. Before they saw me, I watched them interact: Bobby said something funny or sarcastic (which I could not hear), and Leah playfully punched him on the shoulder.

This sort of interaction between them would have passed unnoticed by me two years earlier. But things were different now, and I felt a little pang of jealousy, followed by stabbing feelings of guilt. Bobby was my friend, right? Right—of course he was. But I nevertheless wished that he had gone on by himself, and left me alone with Leah.  

“Hey, Schaeffer!” Bobby called out, having seen me. I hoped that he wouldn't mention my earlier humiliation at the hands of Matt Stefano. Not with Leah around.

“Yo,” I said perfunctorily.

“You look kind of down in the dumps,” Leah said, beaming. How had it gone unnoticed by me all those years when we were just kids, playing kickball and riding bikes around our neighborhood—how vivacious and lovely Leah would become?

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Jeff had a rough day,” Bobby began, until I cut him off with a sharp glance.

“What?” Leah inquired.

“Nothing,” Bobby said quickly, understanding dawning on his face.

“That’s right,” I said. “Nothing.”

“Hey,” Bobby added. “Every day at school is a rough day for Schaeffer here because he’s not exactly the smartest kid in the school, you know?”

Leah made a face at him. “Look who’s talking. Okay. Fine—whatever. I have the feeling that there’s something the two of you aren’t telling me; but if you want to have boy secrets, be my guest. Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”

“Only you, Leah Carter, would rush home to do your homework,” Bobby teased.

*      *      *

Serial be continued....

To read more, visit the Serials page, or get the complete book at Amazon.com.

*       *      *

Want even more horror fiction? Check out my highly rated novel, Eleven Miles of Night.

Ashley Madison and the gullibility of horny men

Setting aside the moral conundrum of adultery, we have more evidence that the male members of Ashley Madison fell into what can only be described as an epic scam. 

As more data about the dating site's membership demographics emerges, it becomes increasingly clear that these men were purchasing fantasies more than anything else.

I make no defense here of the men who were actively seeking to cheat on their wives. 

I will, however, note the tie-in of this evolving news story to my recently published novel Lilith.

Book description:

"Someone is murdering Ohio men who use dating websites. The men are found in their homes, killed by a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Such is the work of the serial killer codenamed 'Lilith'. But who is Lilith? Is Lilith a 'she'? A 'he'? Or more than one person?

These are the questions that Alan Grooms must answer. Grooms is a detective in the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI).

Together with his partners, Dave Hennessy and Maribel Flynn, Grooms will enter the anonymous world of Internet dating to set a trap of his own.

This will eventually pit him against a homicidal young couple who kill men for profit, a couple who will kill anyone who stands in their way."

Einstein and Zionism

Einstein was committed to the notion of a Jewish nation as a cultural construct.

At the same time, however, Einstein was both a pacifist and an internationalist.

He therefore was at odds with the concept of a more militaristic, nationalistic Zionism that emerged following World War II.

In 1952 Israel's President Wiseman died. The prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, offered the now vacant office of the presidency to Einstein.

Einstein, however, declined the offer, citing his philosophical differences regarding the nature of the new Jewish state.

Einstein is of course today remembered for his work in physics. Few people realize that he might also have been remembered as a former president of the state of Israel.

Would Trump start a "trade war"?

(Ah, the "analysts" have spoken. That's all we need. End of discussion.) 

But what about the question of free trade?

Let us begin by properly framing the discussion. 

Free trade should not be regarded as a binary, black-and-white proposition. Rather, the question of free trade should be evaluated in terms of its trade-offs.

On the plus side, free trade generally lowers costs for consumers. Free trade also minimizes one of the primary downsides of labor unions: Unions impose artificially high costs on consumers (or taxpayers, in the case of public-sector unions).

On the other hand, two decades of virtually unrestricted free trade has hollowed out the manufacturing sector of the United States. It has reduced wage mobility among the United States working class. It has strengthened China. (This cost has also been borne directly by taxpayers, in the form of higher defense costs to offset improvements in China's military capabilities.)

Our elected leaders in both parties have also lost sight of the fact that their first economic duty is to manage the U.S. economy-- not the "global economy". (There have been times in the past when China's economy was barely at the sustenance level, while the US economy was thriving.)

The problem is not that we have trade with other countries, including China. The problem is that free trade has become enshrined as a secular religion the fields of business and economics. 

It is no longer possible to mention the downsides of free trade in a serious venue without some economist or business consultant deriding the speaker as an isolationist or xenophobe. 

In other words, the discussion about free-trade long ago ceased to be a rational, give-and-take discussion about trade-offs. Among our business and political elites, what should be a discussion has become a simple, one-sided encomium to free trade.

So would Donald Trump start a trade war? This is not a trivial or irrelevant question. 

But it is also worth asking: What are the long-term effects of continuing to regard free-trade as a secular religion? How have two decades of unrestricted free trade impacted America's middle class, manufacturing base, and economic independence? Does a rational country deliberately enrich one of its primary geopolitical competitors?

These questions, I would submit, are at least as worthwhile as the question of whether or not a hypothetical President Trump would commence a trade war.