It’s Hard to Catch Up When You Start Out Behind (Gender in Fiction 3/4)

I’m still grappling with gender issues in fiction. You’ll have seen I hadn’t even thought about the fact that there was a gender divide until I discovered in a personal way that many men don’t read women authors … perhaps because of a perception that women authors write “women’s fiction,” which seems to mean different things to different people. It’s a many-tentacled beast, this topic.

It is also, shall we say, fraught. (Adjective: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension; uneasy.) It might be easy for some to shrug off the commentary … if it weren’t for that pesky VIDA Count, which annually highlights the literary gender imbalance in the top literary magazines:

The Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, Paris Review, and The Nation (2011 Count only) are widely recognized as prominent critical and/or commercial literary venues. Publication in these magazines and journals furthers the careers of writers by bolstering applications for grants, residencies, employment (academic and otherwise), graduate programs, awards, and more. Winning/earning/receiving these types of honors affords writers the time and resources needed to continue/advance their careers.

This is according to VIDA’s FAQs. Poke around the site and you’ll see the appalling numbers, year after year (here’s 2012).

Numbers don’t lie. And when a woman looks down the table of contents in the New York Review of Books—a list of book reviewers and critics—and sees twenty-six men and just one woman reviewer … what’s she supposed to think? Particularly when only one book written by a woman is reviewed by those twenty-six men. Author Jane Vandenburgh was outraged, and, frankly, so am I.

I mean, again, how can we expect male readers of literary fiction to even know female authors exist if they’re not being reviewed in the important literary outlets?

One might say, Well, no wonder …!

Then again, one might say, Dude, what the heck?

In spite of the fact that women buy more books than men in this country—you can check out Bowker’s Annual Review at the library, but I’ll reduce it to this: women represent 60 percent of book buyers, 65 percent of units (books) sold, and 58 percent of dollars spent on books in 2011, and those numbers are little changed in 2012 and ’13—Slate points out, “men still dominate the major outlets as tastemakers, reviewers, and authors whose works are deemed worthy of review.”

The UK book world also suffers from “a sharp divide along gender lines,” which you can see in this infographic. Speaking about male authors, the Guardian says,

At the [London Review of Books] last year 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed (58 out of 221); at the New York Review of Books 21% of 254 reviews were by women, 17 of 92 authors reviewed were female and 13% of 152 articles were by women. Of 1,163 reviews in the [Times Literary Supplement] in 2011, 30% were by women, and of 1,314 authors reviewed, 25% were women.

So even though women are buying more books, they’re being exposed to significantly more male authors than female authors.*

How does this happen? Women read more … but …

Hold that thought.

I’m an agnostic when it comes to gender in fiction, as you now know. I choose books by my interests; I read reviews from a broad range of sources (mine are a little more populist—I see Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Time, even People magazine regularly, though I do seek out reviews on the NYT as well), listen to recommendations from friends (both men and women), and choose what appeals to me. In recent years I’ve been blogging about my favorite book from all the titles I read in a given year, and back in January I announced my favorite for 2013 was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The previous year it was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It tends to work out pretty close to fifty-fifty, just by happenstance.

But I’m a woman, and it’s men we’re talking about. It seems some choose their fiction—consciously or unconsciously—based on the gender of the author, excluding female authors. Still, I’d be willing to wager there are plenty of men who read women authors—and, in fact, so would Slate magazine, in this sassy article from last year, which points out that Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were read by men in great numbers (Agatha Christie, too, for that matter), although I am tempted to say, you know, That was then, this is now. So let’s not get lost in the past—I think Gone Girl has been read by quite a few men. Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies), The Goldfinch. But this is a short list. Can you name other contemporary female-penned novels men have been reading? I have no data but I suspect that Goodnight Moon is as beloved by boys of a certain age as it is by girls. My editor friend from across the pond, Robert Doran, suggests there are plenty of boys who’ve read Enid Blyton, whose books for children are still best sellers, though they were written in the 1930s into the 1960s.

This was my thesis when I started out—sort of a surely-you’re-joking-guys reaction. But we’ve seen, now, that many men just won’t choose books by women. Why?

What if it’s just that many of the books that appeal to men’s interests just happen to be written by men? That would make sense, right? (But actually, it’s more than this. I’ve had several men—men I respect, love, think well of—tell me they don’t like “being in a woman’s head” in the case of female protagonists, and that male protagonists written by women don’t ring true to them. Which makes me feel a little stupid, since I can think of only once instance in which a woman written by a man felt “off” to me.)

So what if it’s more what society teaches little boys (and little girls) early in life, rather than boys per se? Doran thinks it runs pretty deep:

If society continues to see the female gender ‘role’ as weaker and desirable only insofar as it can be dominated and owned (strong terms, I know, but we certainly aren’t in a place where femininity is valued in the same way as masculinity, or seen to be as useful and productive), and if boys, naturally and through conditioning, want to be strong and powerful, why would they want to associate themselves with a female perspective? I think many men and boys unconsciously feel the weight of this societal influence even as they choose a book.

Some parents try very hard to avoid planting biases in their children, of course. There is even a discussion in the UK to move away from gender-specific children’s books, as reported by Publishing Perspectives:

A petition calling on children’s publishers to “stop labeling books, in the title or on the packaging, as for girls or for boys” because “telling children which stories and activities are ‘for them’ based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest,” has received more than 3,000 signatures.

This is interesting, I think, because by the time those boys are in school, at least in the States, the attitude changes:

Recently, when the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus.”

It’s because by then it seems boys are starting to lose interest in reading fiction. So many other forms of entertainment compete for their attention. Publishing journalist Porter Anderson notes,

Every time you say “Oh, guys don’t read,” you can hear the books in boys’ hands snapping shut. These guys will fulfill your assumption if you even hint that reading may not be “manly.” Be careful what you say.

So perhaps the question isn’t why don’t boys/men read women, but why don’t they read, full stop. And how do we turn that around?

I believe the answer is the same as it always was: If your children see you reading a book, they will want to copy that behavior. If you make books available, they will pick them up, sooner or later. As I’ve noted in another post, although I read while I was nursing him and every moment I got after that, too, the Boy wasn’t interested in reading … until he was. And after he finished working his way through the Michael Crichton canon, he worked his way through Mary Stewart’s Merlin series.

Children whose parents modeled reading for them tend to grow up with a reading habit. Now if the stodgy ol’ literary establishment will admit to itself and to us readers that women write some damned fine books,** we’ll be at the races.

* There is another aspect of bringing books to the public’s attention that we might consider: the buyer—the person who decides which titles a store will stock. Unlike reviewers, buyers—often the store owners—do know who is buying books and are aware of her tastes. The buyer shapes store inventory. In an email conversation with me, Doran noted: “Buyers are considered industry tastemakers. They have the power to create presence and to react to or ignore review coverage and other publicity. They are much more focused on the woman with a dollar in her pocket than the reviewers are and ultimately their power is comparable.” The problem being, of course, that with fewer and fewer physical bookstore, there are fewer and fewer book buyers to wield influence.

 

** Some damned fine women authors (fiction) that men should read (this is just a start; I could go on):

Isabel Allende                                     Maile Meloy
Kate Atkinson                                     Alice Munro
Margaret Atwood                              Joyce Carol Oates
Emily and Charlotte Brontë             Flannery O’Connor
Geraldine Brooks                               Ann Patchett
A. S. Byatt                                           Louise Penny
Louise Erdrich                                    Marilynne Robinson
Kaye Gibbons                                       Lionel Shriver
Ellen Gilchrist                                   Lee Smith
Nadine Gordimer                                Muriel Spark
Barbara Kingsolver                           Donna Tartt
Jhumpa Lahiri                                     Anne Tyler
Doris Lessing                                      Eudora Welty
Hilary Mantel                                    Virginia Woolf
Alice McDermott                               Meg Wolitzer

 

Tweet: It’s Hard to Catch Up When You Start Out Behind (Gender in Fiction 3/4)
Tweet: Gender disparity in the literary world? See the VIDA Count. Numbers don’t lie.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Short Saturday: Jonathan Franzen and Oprah, in Retrospect

I’d completely misunderstood the brouhaha about The Corrections being selected for Oprah’s Book Club until I read this passage in The Shelf, by Phyllis Rose, and since we’ve been talking about this (and will continue to, next week), I thought I’d bring it to your attention:

In 2001 Jonathan Franzen published The Corrections, a great novel—great in every sense of the word, big and capacious—and, in what has become a notorious sequence of events, Oprah Winfrey, who was still doing her immensely powerful daily TV talk show, chose it for her book club. Selection by Oprah’s Book Club, with its coveted O logo on the cover of a jacket, meant an extra print run and possible sale of a half million copies. It offered, too, an appearance on her show and the chance to be interviewed by her gracious and intelligent self, a massive bookselling opportunity. Oprah was at that time the heroine of the publishing industry, its savior, some said, who used her own media time to sell books. How could you not love what she was doing? But she was selling literature to an audience almost exclusively of women. And that made Franzen nervous. He did not want to be identified as a writer of domestic fiction, a women’s writer. Although his novel concerned an American family and the tensions between the old-fashioned midwestern parents and their sophisticated yuppie children, classic matter for domestic fiction, he worried about being penned into the lesser category rather than vaulted into the greater one of serious literary fiction. … Understandably, Franzen didn’t want his book narrowed in its appeal. Women routinely anguish over the same thing, but there is little they can do about it. Every woman who writes, as Joyce Carol Oates has said, thinks of herself as a writer but is thought of by others as a woman writer.*

Honestly, I can’t say that I blame him, now that I’ve looked at it in this way. (Rose refers to an interview Franzen did with NPR’s Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air, in which he expresses his discomfort with the Oprah association. You can read an overview and listen to it here.)

You’ll notice also that Rose uses the term domestic fiction. The type of fiction she’s referring to is what I’ve recently identified as women’s fiction, but I like domestic fiction because it eliminates the confusion I referred to in my last post (“Is Women’s Fiction a Dirty Word?”).

So that’s it. Just a little more for you to chew on. I’ll see you next week for more on this subject. (Oh, one last thing: I loved loved loved The Corrections.)

* Transcribed from pages 104–105 of the hardcover first edition of The Shelf, published by Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2014.

 

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Is Women’s Fiction a Dirty Word? (Gender in Fiction 2/4)

It is to a lot of women writers, yes. Take that Meg Wolitzer article I directed you to in the previous post; she makes the suggestion that if Jeffrey Eugenides’s book The Marriage Plot (with its title, wedding ring on the cover, female protagonist, and relationship-heavy plot) had been written by a woman, it would have been labeled women’s fiction and promoted in an entirely different way.

She’s not the only one who notices this. In her interview at Slate, Elizabeth Gilbert notes, “It has not escaped my attention that when I wrote about a man’s emotional journey they gave me the National Book Award nomination, but when I wrote about a woman’s emotional journey, they shunted me into the ‘chick lit’ dungeon.” I could give you one example after another of women authors who feel this way.

Yes, I’m still talking about what publishing industry observer Porter Anderson calls “Madison Avenue’s obsession with gender.” That Madison Avenue thing is key, so hold onto that idea while I play over here in my sidebar.

Here’s the thing. In my work as an editor, my colleagues and I have a category we quite happily and with no sense of shame call women’s fiction. It’s different from romance, but it’s clearly aimed at a female audience. As a woman, it doesn’t bother me that it is fiction women readers, primarily, will read. I consider it a genre. (And I don’t think genre is a dirty word either.)

Guys won’t read the women’s fiction to which I refer. And neither I (as a woman) nor the authors penning these books are bothered by that. Again, it’s just a genre choice, in the way that thrillers or Westerns or science fiction is a genre choice. My editor friend Robert Doran says,

Even though I read a lot of women, I wouldn’t for a moment be seduced into reading romance or chick lit* for pleasure. But these books are so blatantly directed at women, both in content and in their marketing that, frankly, they exclude a male audience from the outset. … [But] in my staple reading, I don’t think of Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith, Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters as being any different from Ian McEwan or Philip Roth or Hanif Kureshi.

I don’t either, as we’ve discussed. Even Meg Wolitzer makes this distinction, although she comes at it from the other side:

When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women.

“But some people,” she says, “especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.”

So this is where the problem lies. There is an industry term that serves a very real function. A marketing, Madison Avenue function. And then there is the confusing term, this mythical, snipe-hunt-like concept that assumes anything written by a woman is a priori women’s fiction. Again, Wolitzer: “Exploring Amazon, I came across a category called ‘Women’s Fiction’ where I am listed, along with Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, Kathryn Stockett, Toni Morrison, Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott.”

Who in his right mind lumps together Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott? After noting the top three spots on the New York Times Best Sellers list at the time, Kate Harding, writing for Salon, notes,

Are you seeing the obvious commonalities among [Nicholas] Sparks’, [Jodi] Picoult’s and [Kathryn] Stockett’s books? Me neither. And are you seeing why Nora Roberts doesn’t count as an author of “women’s fiction,” despite the fact that her audience contains just as many vaginas? Me neither.

There it is again: marketing. The folks at the publishing company are trying to sell books. And since women buy more books than men (we have the data), can you blame them?

Well, yes, you can, if you’ve written a book that any human might enjoy. Think about this:

If I’m not mistaken, are there not many books written by men and marketed to all genders that include abuse, poverty, divorce, familial breakdown, and other social struggles? Philip Roth, John Updike, Jonathan Tropper, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Pat Conroy, and Wally Lamb—to name a few. The prejudice is clear, but there is also a practical problem here. If ‘women’s fiction’ is a marketing device, it’s confusing as thus. Label a novel ‘women’s fiction’—is the message ‘not for men’? By carving and dicing books into thin-as-lox slices, women writers lose readership. With ‘women’s fiction’ are half the potential readers in the world blocked off before the books hit the shelves? (Emphasis mine.)

Still with me? I suspect this confusion arises because the people who click the boxes on the forms—whether they work for the publishing house or Amazon or Barnes & Noble—aren’t smart enough (and yes, I mean that) to discern the difference between true women’s fiction (which, after all, is, on occasion, written by men: hello, Nicholas Sparks) and fiction written by women.

And it’s not just those boxes to tick. It’s covers. Wolitzer herself famously wrestled her publisher to the ground over the cover of The Interestings (which I think is spectacularly ugly … but to each her own). Women authors’ covers can be subtly feminine (the egalitarian Doran says, “I’ve wanted to read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? for a while, but the girly cover really puts me off”); I’ve seen repeated mentions of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, with the implication that thisall font and no art—is a cover men will pick up. So why do we still have non–women’s fiction books by women authors with, you know, rain boots on the cover? Or bicycles? You won’t find anyone at Amazon ticking the women’s fiction box for The Art of Fielding. (Nor will you find a category called men’s fiction.)

So women writers resort to various … well, subterfuges. When J. K. Rowling chose a clearly male pseudonym (Robert Galbraith) to write a genre mystery (popular with men), she was pilloried for the “deception,” among other things. One of my friends in the industry, a woman, noted that the brouhaha only highlighted weaknesses in the publishing industry, including the difficulty of finding readership for a new author, the way established authors are pigeonholed and prejudged, and gender prejudice on the part of both publishers and readers. Yet at the same time, one of my men friends who enjoys fiction commented he was unlikely to pick up any book with the word cuckoo in the title. Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling can’t win for losing.

You see, it can get very complicated, this book-selling business. And selling books is what everyone involved—authors both male and female, their agents, publishers, retailers—wants, right? Thus the proliferation of articles accusing the book industry of sexism, when readers are as much to blame. At least this article from the Guardian attempts to defend the industry:

It’s clearly a marketing decision, I thought, so I asked Cathy Rentzenbrink, the associate editor of the Bookseller, if she could explain. “As a person, a feminist and a reader, I completely understand and feel the frustration, but practically, I also know there are vast amounts of real people who want guidance towards the sort of book they will enjoy, and that is what publishers and retailers are trying to provide,” she told me. “Even the dreaded ‘chick lit’* term is useful in that the reader who wants that type of book knows what they are getting. It’s a bit similar to the genre debate. I always enjoy lofty cries of ‘There should be no genre, there should only be books’, but those of us who understand the coalface of bookselling know that a large building with no categorisation other than ‘Books A–Z’ would be very difficult to navigate.”

Think about that. What if we just let authors—with help from their agents, say—choose their own categories? And anyone who ticks the women’s fiction box without written approval will be shot at dawn. That would solve it, no?

Honestly? I don’t like to get drawn into the discussion about “women’s fiction,” because I make no such distinction in my own reading. I’ve organized my Kindle into files: fiction, nonfiction, YA/middle grade, books I’ve finished, books related to the publishing industry (there’s quite a few of those). But fiction … nonfiction … that’s as far as I need to go. Nonetheless, I agree the term women’s fiction is currently not useful at best and destructive at worst—even if at the heart of the matter it’s just miscommunication, misunderstanding.

When I’m editing, I tell my authors a plot point based on a misunderstanding isn’t truly a conflict, that we need a more substantial setback, one that seems insurmountable. How can we turn this plot around? The industry—and readers—has gotten sloppy; we’ve turned “women’s fiction” into a dirty word.

* Chick lit also has a very specific meaning for me; for younger adults, with emphasis on fashion (and brands in general) and the single life. These days the term chick lit is out of fashion, though.

 

Tweet: There’s a difference between true women’s fiction & fiction written by women.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Women, Men, Readers, Me (Gender in Fiction 1/4)

I was exposed to the gender politics of reading when I first entered publishing; I worked in the kids’ division. “Girls will read stories about girls or boys,” my boss said. “Boys won’t read stories about girls.” Full stop.

It’s a publishing truism.

Oh. That’s interesting, but … wow. As a girl, I guess I’m an example of this theorem: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read—anything and everything. It was always about the story (and later, too, the writing) for me. I didn’t really think about whether the protagonist was male or female—I loved Daniel Martin as much as Kate Vaiden.*

The grownup version of this truism, interestingly, is that men don’t read books written by women. I have to pause and take a breath, so astonishing do I find that statement. (I know: apparently this is well known in my industry. Where have I been? How did I miss it?) Because I have never, ever cared whether the author of a book I’d decided to read was male or female; it just doesn’t register with me. (Cormac McCarthy? Kaye Gibbons? I read them both.)

So imagine my surprise when the Irishman told me he’d never read a book by a woman until he met me. (It shook me to my foundation, friends. The Irishman is the least sexist man I know—though I’m not saying this is sexism. Or that it isn’t.) How does this happen? (The Irishman is a little at a loss to explain it.) An article decrying the ratio of female to male authors on Barack Obama’s 2011 summer reading list is just the tip of that iceberg.

Meg Wolitzer, an author I admire, makes many excellent points about the perception of women authors who are writing literary fiction in this article in the New York Times. That is, they’re perceived (by men) to be less important writers.

If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women …), are prominently displayed and admired.

That literary fiction is an important distinction. Some popular fiction is written knowing it will appeal to a primarily female—or male—audience, and no one is denigrating them for that, a point made by Wolitzer later in the article.

There are several layers of this discussion. Are women writers of literary fiction perceived as less capable of writing important fiction than men are? Are men inherently better writers than women? (No, of course not; I’m just listing the questions. But V. S. Naipaul, idiot that he is, thinks so.) Do publishing executives—consciously or subconsciously—“girlify” the covers of women’s books, even if the books are intended for the literary (supposedly gender-neutral) market? And is the cover what makes men look away—or is it a feminine name?

Do women have an equal place at the table when it comes to publishing? After all, in the Bad Old Days, women writers had to pretend to be men, so to speak, in order to get published and to gain a readership: George Eliot was really Mary Ann Evans, Louisa May Alcott wrote as A. M. Barnard, Karen Blixen wrote as Isak Dinesen, and the Brontë sisters did it too. Even Joanne Rowling—no middle name a’tall, a’tall—adopted initials at the suggestion of her publisher, since there were concerns that boys wouldn’t read a fantasy novel by a woman—even if it featured a very charming boy. The questions are many and varied (and I’ll come back to them, because this is a big subject).

My “awakening” came a while back, specifically when I was writing this post about recommending compelling novels to folks who didn’t read fiction but might, if they found the right book. I wanted to create my own list of recommendable, magic titles.

When someone I know well asks for a book recommendation, there are many factors, including his or her leisure activities and life circumstances, which might play into what I’d recommend. But since I couldn’t hand-pick a book for people I didn’t know, I thought maybe I’d start with gender—because I do believe there are certain types of stories that might be more appealing to a man (The Hunt for Red October, say) or to a woman (for argument’s sake, let’s say The Time Traveler’s Wife) who isn’t predisposed to be a fiction reader. (This list might contain popular or literary fiction.) But to my surprise, I found I’d ended up with male authors on the men’s list and female authors on the women’s list … and that wasn’t a message I wanted to send. So I didn’t send it; I mixed the lists.

This led me to more research, which led me to this discussion about whether or not men read books by or about women at all, which led me to ask the Irishman, and shock and dismay. When I threw the question up on Facebook, the answer was the same, man after man (with a couple exceptions) acknowledging they don’t read fiction written by women. I guess this is why we end up even today with women authors using initials (J. K. Rowling, S. E. Hinton, A. S. Byatt, P. D. James) instead of gender-identifiable names—to eliminate any perceived biases. There’s evidence—both data and anecdotal—to suggest it’s true. We’ll come back to that in the next posts.

I choose books by my interests; I read reviews from a broad range of sources, listen to recommendations from friends, and choose stories that appeal to me. I genuinely believe my reading is gender neutral. But as we’ve discussed, reading fiction helps us understand human concerns. A friend of mine—an editor, a reader, and a man—suggests this is the key. “Men and women are very different,” he says. “I think women are a lot more interested in understanding men than men are in understanding women—or people in general, for that matter.”

That’s a neat answer, don’t you think? Men and women are very different, and this does show up in their reading preferences and habits. It suggests that men, as readers, are more interested in human activity than in analyzing it, perhaps—and that women writers are more interested in what humans think after all that activity and interaction has occurred. (V. S. Naipaul says women fail to write about the kinds of things that concern men—all those messy feelings!—and you can almost see him shudder. But you already know what I think of his opinion.)

It’s an interesting theory. What do you think? (Stay tuned: we’ll come back to this subject in three more posts.)

*Though it should be noted that Daniel Martin and Kate Vaiden were both penned by men.

 

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Short Saturday: Story Ideas

I am always interested in interviews with authors, especially when they’re as interesting as this one at the Harper’s Magazine blog is. It’s a chat with Christopher Beha and concerns, mostly, his second novel, Arts and Entertainment.

We’ve talked a lot about story ideas in this spot, and I love what comes up here when Beha is asked where he got his idea:

What I’m aware of is hitting upon a decision that a person might be faced with and working out the consequences of that decision. In the case of Arts & Entertainments, this decision came from a short story by Edith Wharton called “That Good May Come,” which is about a failed poet, unable to sell any of his poems, who is given an opportunity to sell instead a piece of gossip about a married woman. It’s a great example of Whartonian melodrama, and it inspired me to start writing my own short story, about a failed actor who is given a chance to sell a sex tape. (This seemed to me the obvious contemporary analog to the predicament Wharton describes.) Probably I wouldn’t have been interested in updating the story if it hadn’t already seemed to speak in interesting ways about all sorts of cultural phenomena that we think of as particular to our time but that have been with us forever. That said, it wasn’t until I really got into the writing of the thing that I understood what a great vehicle a sex tape provided for talking about issues that are of great importance to me. At that point I realized the short story I’d started was going to be a novel.

I love his comment that a story written by Edith Wharton in 1894 features “cultural phenomena that we think of as particular to our time but that have been with us forever” (emphasis mine).

There are other topics here of interest to writers, notably POV, theme, including religion in fiction, and the difficulty of writing a good novel. It’s a good read, and not long. Enjoy!

Tweet: I am always interested in interviews with authors. Here’s a good one from Harpers.
Tweet: Where do you get your story ideas? Here’s an idea from author Christopher Beha.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Authors & Other Writers | Tagged as: , , , , ,

The Book Selling Biz (The Last Update*)

Perhaps it’s because Amazon is refusing to sell certain traditionally published books and those authors are feeling the pinch, or perhaps it’s just a lot of self-published authors truly realizing how much work it is to market a book—but the air seems full of interesting commentary on selling books. No matter which route to publication you’re pursuing, these articles should be of interest.

✱ First thing, write a good book.

Sometimes that means getting feedback from other writers. I discussed writers’ groups, critique partners, and mentors in “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” but what if you don’t know where to find a community of other writers? Guesting at Jane Friedman’s blog, author Nathaniel Kressen has some concrete suggestions in “How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community.”

You’ll want to consider frequency, group size, structure, and feedback first, Kressen says. Once you’ve found some like-minded writers to participate, you’ll need to address:

• How big will the group be allowed to get and how will you add new members?
• Will you charge fees to join?
• Who will oversee the circulation of manuscripts and related critique materials?

This is a fascinating article with lots of good detail to help you start a writers’ group or improve the one you’re already in.

✱ Then, sell your manuscript.

And that includes writing a good synopsis and a good query letter. A year ago I told you the difference between a real synopsis (needed by an editor or agent) and marketing copy in “No, Actually, That’s Marketing Copy.” At Writer Unboxed, author Keith Cronin expands on this theme in “Query Detox, Part 1.”

One of the most common problems I’ve seen is writers resorting to what I call “movie trailer language.” You know, that profound-sounding narration full of powerful-sounding words, which you can usually imagine being spoken by the incredibly deep voice of that guy who does all the movie trailers: “In a world where robot weasels rule…”

Writers often use this sort of language in their queries in an effort to A) be brief, and B) sound dramatic. For example, they might summarize their story like this: “When two worlds collide, one woman has to face her own demons, or pay the ultimate price.”

Sounds great, and you can just imagine the really-deep-voiced guy saying it. But what does it mean?

I think I’ve actually had somebody send me the “when two worlds collide” synopsis. :)

Seriously, though, there’s some good stuff here, and in Cronin’s follow-up (Part 2). Check it out and then banish these errors from your promotional material.

✱ After that, sell the book.

I’ve talked a little bit about marketing in this post—“How to Love an Author”—but you can get consistently good marketing advice over at the MacGregor Literary blog. In this post—“Ten ideas for book marketing you (maybe) haven’t thought of”—Chip MacGregor is challenged to come up with new ideas. Here’s one:

2. Insert ads into the back of your current backlisted ebooks, promoting your new, soon-to-release title. It’s called “cross-selling,” and you need to be thinking about it. Sticking an ad for you new book into the back of your current one helps get the word out to people who are already reading you, and build interest in your title as it launches. Most authors won’t do this because it’s a pain, sticking in a new page in the back of all their old books. But it works—it helps you sell books.

Have a look; it could spark more ideas.

✱ It’s not over ’til …

I’ve recently read some smart people declare unequivocally that Twitter does not sell books. But if you’ve read “My Very Last Twitter Post,” you know there’s an important distinction a lot of folks miss. Twitter is about community, it’s about interaction. And this inspirational story about a disastrous book launch (originally called “Social Media Success Story”) might make a believer out of you. From being dead in the water to being number one in the Kindle nonfiction charts, Ben Hatch has a great story and five tips for success with social media.

Are We Nearly There Yet? was released in August 2011. Publicity was embargoed for three weeks to allow the Daily Express to serialise it. It all looked good. The day it was due to appear the summer riots started. The story of how my wife, two kids and I had visited every town and city in the country, been attacked by bats, snakes and had had run-ins with ghosts, Nazis and thieving monkeys, had been due to run across a couple of centre pages. Understandably, after the events that night, The Express shelved it. It was due to appear the following day then the next. Eventually, as the riots spread, it was pulled altogether. The book, apart from anything else, now seemed —who wanted to read about a family touring the UK when that country was on fire and looting its sports shops?

With the book out a month it had now missed its review window. Newspaper book pages were on to new releases. It was the same at my publisher. The PR department had new titles to work on. The book began to die. My publisher never quite put it like this but its Amazon ranking dropped into the hundreds of thousands. No-one was buying it. No-one knew it was out. That’s when I took to Twitter. I had no real hopes it would make any difference. But at least I could tell my 50 or so followers about it without it being subject to some greater and supposedly wiser authority deciding it was too late or they were too busy to do this for me.

Can you imagine how sick you’d be if this happened to you? The guy had a quote from John Cleese, for heaven’s sake! (And yes—I’d already read the book before I happened on this article.)

* And this is the last update post—hope you’ve enjoyed reviewing my archives this summer!

Tweet: It’s not over ’til … Read this inspirational story about a disastrous book launch.
Tweet: The air seems full of interesting commentary on selling books these days: have a look.
Tweet: The Book Selling Biz—new insights to keep you in the game.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , ,

You’re Mine Now: It’s All About the Relationship

I was out running errands last month, listening to NPR, which had an interview with Tony La Russa, the storied Major League Baseball manager (Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, and St. Louis Cardinals). La Russa has guided teams to three World Series titles, six league championships, and twelve division titles in thirty-three seasons, and he’s just been inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The interviewer asked about his management style, and La Russa said it was all relationship-driven: “[You have to be] very hands-on, [earn] respect and trust, and [show] players you care for ’em.”

It sounds a lot like editing.

I’d read a little about the legendary editors—Maxwell Perkins the obvious choice—but until I started doing this work myself, I had no idea, really, how tender the relationship would become. Perkins, for example, was noted not only for his editorial skill but for courtesy, kindness … and the fact that he became friends—close—with his authors.

To be frank, I don’t now know how it can be otherwise. It’s an intimacy, this work, one in which an author must lay bare his artistic effort, knowing his partner the editor will function first and most importantly as a critic. Relationship is what makes it work.

Look at this exchange between Perkins (who famously acquired F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alan Paton, and others) and Fitzgerald, just twenty-eight years old when he sends the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to his editor. “The novel is a wonder,” Perkins tells him. After his second read, Perkins calls the book “extraordinary,” then offers some constructive criticism in a friendly tone. Fitzgerald is thrilled:

Your wire & your letters made me feel like a million dollars … Your criticisms were excellent & most helpful. … Anyhow thanks & thanks & thanks for your letters. I’d rather have you and Bunny like it than anyone I know. And I’d rather have you like it than Bunny.*

Undoubtedly there was more back-and-forth before the manuscript went to press, but this exchange reveals a hands-on relationship that clearly has respect and trust and affection on both sides.

Ninety years later, Michael Pietsch (now CEO at Hachette, Pietsch’s career in New York publishing started at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1979 and in 1991 moved to Little, Brown, where he rose to publisher a decade later) is arguably one of the most sought-after editors today—for the same reasons as Perkins: his strong advocacy for authors as individuals and the relationships he forges with them. Even as a publisher Pietsch was editing works such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but he’s worked with James Patterson, David Foster Wallace, Alice Sebold, Walter Mosley, Martin Amis, Chad Harbach, John Feinstein, Anita Shreve, Rick Moody, and many, many others.

In a 2011 interview about David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Pietsch said,

Editing with a writer is a joyous collaboration—not even a collaboration, but a conversation, a colloquy, a back-and-forth. The editor makes suggestions and proposes and points things out and acts as a sort of super-reader for the author—and the author chooses what if any of that advice he or she wants to take. That interplay with David was one of the most joyous I’ve had in my life as an editor.

I know that joy of which he speaks. I’ve found long-term editorial relationships are particularly rewarding, because author and editor know each other’s hearts, develop a shorthand way of communicating. In a Book Business interview, Pietsch noted,

I’ve worked on more books with James Patterson than with any other writer and have learned enormously from the experience the importance of frequent and honest communication. It has been made plain to me over the years that for most writers, publication is mostly long and confusing stretches of silence. Constant communication about both the broad arc of publishing goals and the immediate specifics is the best counter to the alienation that can grow in those silences.

“It’s an intimate process, and an extraordinary trust to be allowed to see a writer’s work before it goes out into the world,” Pietsch has said.

That’s exactly how I feel about it.

Whether I am hired by a publisher or an author, the expectation is that I am going to improve the manuscript—“coaching” the author with suggestions, catching issues with plot or characterization, perhaps teaching the author something about the writing craft he or she had never before considered.

When we start, I’m a friendly stranger. But I have always made friends easily (I had to: I was an air force brat), and this helps. Still, I’m careful and professional with my communication because it’s all written—and it’s so easy to be misunderstood when there’s no tone of voice, no facial expression, no body language, no twinkle in the eye. In person, these signals add a layer of communication missing from email. (Or from a fourteen-page Word doc of editorial notes.)

And let’s face it, I do bring the heat. :)

But twinkle alone won’t make an author feel better when he or she is braced for criticism that no doubt feels like a ninety mph fastball. (I’ve written about this process here and here, and there’s a good list of more commentary here.) It takes careful, gentle, friendly back-and-forth. It takes vulnerability and openness. It takes a few good belly laughs.

When we’re done, I hope we’re friends. That’s what I mean when I call you “my” author. Yes, there are “long and confusing stretches of silence” in the publishing business, but this editor tries to stay in touch, even though her most immediate concern in the manuscript in front of her. Facebook certainly helps in this regard, but that’s not what I mean. As I write this, I’m excitedly planning dinner with an author friend who will be in town for a meeting with her agent. I’ve just had an author friend houseguest; she travels quite a bit and always spends a night here on her to or from journey. I have lunch or dinner—sometimes breakfast!—with my authors who live nearby, and if you’re going to be in the area, I definitely want to hear from you.

Does Tony La Russa stay in touch with his former players? I’m betting he does, because relationship doesn’t stop when the work ends. I don’t let go of my friends easily.

* Bunny, here, is Edmund Wilson Jr.

Thanks to Ramona Richards—with whom I have a wonderful friendship—for this topic.

 

Tweet: Until I started editing, I had no idea, really, how tender the relationship would become.
Tweet: In baseball, it’s all about the relationship. Sounds a lot like editing.
Tweet: Twinkle alone won’t make an author feel better when he or she is braced for criticism.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , ,

Short Saturday: Long Live the Book

We’ve been talking about e-books, most recently this week in “Book Marketing in the Digital Age” (but also here and here, for starters) … but to my mind they’re still just books. Words. Reading.

This article from the New York Times points out that some folks had other, bigger ideas for e-books:

Social Books, which let users leave public comments on particular passages and comment on passages selected by others, became Rethink Books and then faltered. Push Pop Press, whose avowed aim was to reimagine the book by mixing text, images, audio, video and interactive graphics, was acquired by Facebook in 2011 and heard from no more. Copia, another highly publicized social reading platform, changed its business model to become a classroom learning tool.

The latest to stumble is Small Demons, which explores the interrelationship among books. Users who were struck by the Ziegfeld Follies in “The Great Gatsby,” for instance, could follow a link to the dancers’ appearance in 67 other books. Small Demons said it would close this month without a new investor.

“A lot of these solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need,” said Peter Meyers, author of “Breaking the Page,” a forthcoming look at the digital transformation of books. “We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.”

Me, I’m not really interested in the comments of people I don’t know on particular passages; I disabled the function on my Kindle that showed what other readers had highlighted in books I was just then reading. The Times and other online magazines have pursued the text/image/audio/video interactivity on long-form articles—and I find those articles fascinating—but the idea of working my way though a novel like that exhausts me. I like reading, just plain reading. No one needs to jazz it up for me. I’ve got my imagination for that.

That said, there’s a whole lot more in this article—“Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind”—about the function of story and what happens to it as it migrates from print to the web. You might find it interesting.

Tweet: I like reading, just plain reading. No one needs to jazz it up for me. My mind does that.
Tweet: E-books: to my mind they’re still just books. Words. Reading. I like it that way.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Arts & Media, The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Recycling Is Nothing New (An Update*)

Mine has been an actively recycling household for at least twenty years, and I don’t just mean turning in soda bottles for cash. (I know that reference dates me; it can’t be helped.)

I’ve understood the concept a lot longer than that, of course. I listened to stories of what my parents’ parents saved and reused during the Depression, I read in novels about folks who patched holes in shoes with old newspapers and, in fact, insulated log cabins with old newspapers. I walked through an antebellum mansion last year in which the horse-hair insulation had been supplemented with pages from postwar magazines in one of its many remodels. And although my fave dictionary tells me the word recycle was coined in 1925, the concept of reuse is much, much older.

I particularly enjoyed reading this article at Open Culture about old (thirteenth century, say) manuscripts used to line—and stiffen—a bishop’s mitre and clothing on religious statues in a convent.

Apparently, it’s a rich tradition, putting old pages to good use, once they start feeling like they’ve outlived their intended purpose. The bishop likely didn’t know the specifics on the material that made his hat stand up. I’ll bet the sisters of the German Cistercian convent where the dress above originated were more concerned with the outward appearance of the garments they were stitching for their wooden statues than the not-for-display lining.

You might be a little bit horrified at the idea of an ancient hand-lettered parchment manuscript being cut up and reused, but scholar Erik Kwakkel (his Twitter feed is a delight) tells us in this article at his blog MedievalFragments,

When Gutenberg invented moving type, handwritten books became old-fashioned overnight. All over Europe they subsequently became the victims of recycling …

Moreover, as I learned in this article from the Conveyor, the research blog of the special collections at the Bodleian Libraries,

Book recycling was common in the late fifteenth century … Because this was a period of religious reform, liturgical texts became outdated particularly quickly, accounting for their use as dress lining.

This becomes an Update* post when I remind you that even today books are recycled into other forms of art; I’ve written about this before in “This Old Thing?” and “Are Books Sacred Objects?” and “Thought for Food” and “Books and Art.” Before their words become books, writers recycle: a scene or a character cut from one manuscript might find its way into another.

I’m fortunate that I can choose to recycle not out of necessity but because I was raised by frugal parents who couldn’t give up the old ways in a time of prosperity, in spite of the fact that such frugality might have been ridiculed. Now I live in a time in which recycling has taken on a cachet of hipness (something I’ve never been) … but having said that, I’ll just note it would take a dire situation for me to tear up my books. Just sayin’. :)

* Because it’s summer and because I am slammed with work (not a bad thing) and because slammed with work means less time to write the kind of thoughtful blog posts I want to write, I’m writing a series of updates to reconnect you with my archives. But summer’s almost over, friends.

 

Tweet: My dictionary tells me the word recycle was coined in 1925, but the concept of reuse is much older.
Tweet: Book recycling was common in the late 15th century, even though that seems shocking now.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Miscellany | Tagged as: , ,

Book Marketing in the Digital Age

The other day my friend Christy O’Flaherty posted a link to a roundtable discussion about print books versus e-books and started one of her own. As you know, I’ve given up the debate: I like my e-reader for certain very specific activities—traveling, waiting in lines, walking on the treadmill—and pretty much only for fiction. I have a tendency to mark my nonfiction books, to save passages, and I find that easier in a book with paper pages.

Christy, a dedicated reader who also works for a publisher, is a self-professed e-book convert. But even she notes that using an e-reader is a different reading experience than reading from a physical book:

One thing I’ve noticed that concerns me as a reader and a member of the publishing community is that I occasionally read an entire book and fail to imprint the author’s name, or sometimes even the book title, because I’m not looking at the cover on my nightstand for weeks. I just finished A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and couldn’t tell you the name of the author. I’m currently reading a book on Scientology and couldn’t tell you the title or author. I also wouldn’t recognize either from its cover art. This will surely have an impact on the way books and authors are promoted in the age of ebooks.*

I’d never even thought about this, but holy marketing, Batman! She’s right! (Further, on my second generation Kindle, screen size limits how much of the title/author’s name I see without specifically highlighting it.)

There’s a reason publishers spend thousands of dollars on book covers. In a retail environment (that is, a bookstore … and probably even at online retailers), the cover is the first and possibly most important marketing element to attract a browsing customer. We bookies have been known to fall in love with a book based on the cover art alone. :)

There’s a very strong visual component to book-buying and -reading, and it’s not just about covers. An article in the November 2013 Scientific American (“The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens”), we learn about textual landscapes:

Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but some researchers think they are similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of indoor physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular passage in a book, they often remember where in the text it appeared. Much as we might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of a hiking trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennet at a dance on the bottom left corner of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than on-screen text. An open paper book presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left- and right-hand pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. You can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing awareness of the whole text. You can even feel the thickness of the pages you have read in one hand and the pages you have yet to read in the other. Turning the page of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on a trail—there is a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled.**

Not to mention the visual convenience of page numbers. :)

Having read some about the development of the Kindle interface, I’m surprised this—the lack of a visual reinforcement in the form of a cover image—slipped by the R&D team at Amazon. (I’d be curious if they had any publishing people on that team, though.) Maybe they should hire Christy. She’s already got a solution:

You should be able to pull up the cover art at will; or the cover should come up first before you go to the page you were on. Instead of the ads the Kindle defaults to in rest mode, they should show the cover of the book you are reading, if you have one open.

Problem solved!

* Anthony Marra wrote A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (I’ve reviewed it here.) The other book Christy mentions is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright.

** There’s more on this subject in this article from Time (“Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?”).

 

Tweet: There’s a strong visual component to book-buying & -reading, & it’s not just about covers.
Tweet: Who wrote that book you’re reading? If you can’t remember, blame your e-reader.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , ,