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"Men's Fiction" vs. "Mommy Porn"

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Starting in June, Esquire magazine, in conjunction with Open Road Media, will publish e-books of what it is calling "Fiction for Men." According to The New York Times:

David Granger, the editor in chief of Esquire, said he has lamented the loss of space that magazines devoted to publishing fiction. ... His definition of men's fiction? Work that is "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another," he said. "And also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man's life that seem common."

The scorn that greeted his definition of "men's fiction" on my Twitter and Facebook feeds reminded me of the vitriol leveled against King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. The LA Times blog Jacket Copy recorded some of the more memorably stinging responses:

"Oh good. Because lady readers & lady writers HATE exciting fiction when 'one thing happens after another,'" tweeted editor Reagan Arthur, who has her own imprint at Little, Brown. "Someone needs to tell Ian McKewan he's been writing women's fiction," wrote author Nichole Bernier. "Finally, men's fiction is getting its due. FINALLY," Maura Johnston, an editor at the Village Voice, tweeted. "So glad to see this neglected niche recognized,"  wrote Jennifer Weiner, whose work is often characterized as women's fiction.

Granger's definition is sloppy and patronizing, and he seems entirely unprepared for an outcry that should have been easy to anticipate. Anger at systematic unfairness in the literary world has been boiling now for several years. (Remember Franzenfreude?) Female authors are published less, recognized less, and championed less than their male counterparts even today. In 2011, the Atlantic Monthly employed 18 male fiction reviewers and eight female ones; unsurprisingly, those critics chose to review works by 24 male authors and 12 female ones. Harper's was even worse, with a slamming 23 male book reviewers to 10 female ones, and 52 male authors reviewed to only 19 females.  These statistics and tons more, all equally damning, come from VIDA, which does the grunt work of tracking all the major literary outlets, including the Big Daddy, The New York Review of Books.

The publishing world is just as lopsided: "The Guardian contacted a number of the UK's largest publishing houses and found that 2011 non-fiction releases for Penguin, Atlantic Books, Random House and Simon & Schuster all painted a similar picture, with 74%, 73%, 69% and 64% per cent of all titles male authored respectively."

So it's legitimate to wonder: Why in this environment do the fellas need a leg up in the form of an e-book imprint geared toward their special needs -- especially when those needs take the form of stories that are "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another"? That's like saying men want tall politicians with bouncy hair and bright smiles. Everyone wants tall politicians with bouncy hair and bright smiles; we're wired that way (unfortunately, it often turns out). And everyone likes a good story. You think Fifty Shades of Grey is a wild, galloping success because the book is a methodical, subtle, character-driven masterpiece? No, that would be James Joyce's Ulyssesor Proust's Remembrance of Things Past You know, total chick lit.

The truth is, a good 75 percent of what's published today, and throughout history, could qualify one way or another as "men's fiction." According to Olivia Johnson of xmediaonline:

From its conception, men have always dominated literature. Until women authors began to emerge as an authoritative force in popular fiction in the 20th century, men were the target audience for most books. It's difficult to find a bookstore, which has a specific section promoting men's fiction, like WHSmith had for women, but the stereotype of the male genre still prevails. A website, "The Art of Manliness", has a list of 100 Must-Read Books - "The Essential Man's Library". Titles include F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It's not quite clear what defines these books as comprising male fiction in particular, as opposed to just fiction.

Essentially, "men's fiction" is a dog whistle. It's a roundabout way of saying literature -- specifically, literature that doesn't demand that a reader consider a woman's view on feminine subjects like home, love, and family. (Men's takes on such subjects are permissible: Does fiction get more romantic, sentimental, and tragic than Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and The Great Gatsby, three classics written by and for men?)

When literary gatekeepers do let women publish their fiction, the authors are often undermined by frivolous-looking covers given to even serious books, like so:

The book is "about parental loss and anxiety," and yet it looks like something a dedicated reader would buy in an airport if s/he were faced with a long layover and no alternatives. Even then, I would probably balk and choose to reread Pride and Prejudice on my iPhone again instead.

Gender distinctions in literature are arbitrary and often ass-backwards. Can women, for example, write "men's fiction"? Why not? Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel seems to (though her most recent work is not exempt from the rule of Terrible Covers for Ladies); so does Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson. Fifty Shades of Grey, which is viewed as "women's fiction" in such an extreme way that it inspired the ludicrous term "mommy porn," is nothing but plot. In Open City, the acclaimed, meditative novel by Teju Cole that was one of the most buzzed-about books of last year, by contrast, very little happens at all -- yet it's still clearly "men's fiction." There is nothing consistent or clear about Granger's sloppy definition because there isn't a consistent or clear -- or, frankly, fair -- way to separate out "men's fiction" from Fiction in general.

David Granger is trying to create a market for a product that already exists by changing not its form but its packaging, the same way soft-drink makers came up with Coke Zero, Pepsi One, and Pepsi Max to lure straight men into buying diet soda by calling it something more masculine. His efforts are redundant. Like it or not, literature remains mostly a boy's game where the girls sometimes get to play. If the boys want their own club house with a "No Girls Allowed" sign on top of owning the stadium, the league, and the home team, well, that's their choice. But they should be ready to be hissed at like King Joffrey, and rightly so.