Wednesday, May 10, 2017

For whom, exactly, is that novel written?

Oh no, not this contentious issue again: Author Jodi Picoult objects to the idea that her fiction could be labeled “women’s fiction”:

Author Jodi Picoult laughs frequently when discussing her work, but she turns fierce about the label “women’s fiction. 
The author of “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Nineteen Minutes” and more than 20 other books notes that 48 percent of her fan mail comes from men. 
“There is absolutely nothing gendered in my writing,” she said. “Some books I think of as more male-centric than female-centric. Honestly, when most people talk about women’s fiction, they’re usually talking about a light-and-fluffy beach read. If anyone is describing my books as light and fluffy, you have serious issues,” she said, chortling.

As we dig into this question, allow me to put a personal spin on things: I’ve read two of Picoult’s novels: Salem Falls (2001), and Handle with Care (2009). 

The former was a suspenseful mystery novel that I enjoyed quite a bit. The second was the story of a young girl with an incurable illness, and the struggle that her entire family endured. 

While I’m sure it was a worthwhile story, I honestly didn't enjoy Handle with Care as much. (And to be really honest with you, I had a hard time finishing it.)

My experience (as a male reader) lends some credibility to Picoult's claim that some of her books will be more appealing to male readers than others. It probably won’t surprise anyone that a male reader (like yours truly) would be more drawn to a mystery/crime story than to a family drama.

I have a similar experience with many female authors. Kristin Hannah’s Home Front (2012), a novel about a U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, was a page-turner for me. On the other hand, Hannah also writes novels about the intricacies of female friendships. I’ve chosen to pass on those, which will probably surprise no one. 

I don’t have a problem with the basic premise that some books are more male-centric, while others are more female-centric. While there is some overlap along the continuum of tastes, it is also possible to make reasonable generalizations regarding what types of stories will appeal to which gender of reader. 

Men gravitate toward action-packed stories that are loaded with physical danger and conflict. Women like stories that explore relationships—especially romantic relationships. This is why Clive Cussler has more male readers than female readers. Likewise, Emily Giffin readily admits that most of her readers are female. 

I’m now waiting for someone from the American Nitpick Society or the International Contrarians Association to challenge me: “Are you trying to say that no women read Clive Cussler, and that no men read Emily Giffin?”  

Nope. That’s not what I’m saying. They’re called “generalizations” because they’re general. There are exceptions to every generalization—sometimes a lot of exceptions. 

This doesn't invalidate the legitimacy of the generalization, especially if you’re trying to sell a product or service in a crowded marketplace. 

This isn't sexism; it’s a recognition that markets for everything—including a specific work of fiction—tend to be segmented. Market segmentation often follows predictable lines of age, race, gender, and socioeconomic background. 

Yes, I know that’s not politically correct, strictly speaking. But it’s also true. I’m a 48-year-old man. My tastes in entertainment are going to differ significantly from those of say…a 15-year girl. Yes, there will be overlaps; but there will be many more divergences, from a marketing perspective. 

Where fiction is concerned, this is less an issue of the gender of the writer, than it is a question of what the writer chooses to focus on. Nicholas Sparks is a heterosexual man, just like me, and his cozy romance novels bore me to tears. I simply can’t get through his books. On the other hand, I ripped through Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train—both psychological thrillers written by women.