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.