Saturday, September 25, 2010

Boys and girls and books. Emperors with no clothes. How long should your book be?

It's a sunny day here in Seattle, perhaps one of the last of the year, so I'm going to get away from the keyboard and make the most of it. But I wouldn't dream of abandoning you without something to keep you occupied for a while.

Women and girls buy and read most fiction. Publishing professionals fret about this. Maureen Johnson isn't having any of it.

For several millennia, women read the works of men. Millennia. That’s thousands of years for those of you who don’t speak French.* Every once in a while we see a burst of staggering genius in the person of, say, an Emily Dickinson. Or maybe a Jane Austen, who covered up her work as she wrote. Then we see a huge break in the early 20th century, a flux of brilliant women. Women start to climb into the bestseller charts, but not so much into the reading lists. The automatic response from many will be that for school people read a survey of literature from the ages, which, as we know, was predominately male . . . and current literature is still worming its way in, because things often need to develop a patina before people register them as Quality and Important . . . so obviously you’re going to find a lot of men in there. But that really doesn’t explain the last hundred years, which, considering that the concept of the novel itself is only three to four hundred years old—with much of the body of work being written in the last two hundred years.

So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.
(via @synaesthete)

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed A Reader's Manifesto, B.R. Myer's controversial broadside to American literary giants. The Emperors, he suggested, wore no clothes. Now he's engaged with Jonathan Franzen in the pages of The Atlantic. Here's his opening salvo against Franzen:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality … was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.
(Via Prospero.)

And, finally, over at Sterling Editing we have our usual weekly round up of links for writers. Perhaps the most useful for beginners is Colleen Lindsay's post about publishers' preferred word counts for various genres. This stuff is changing all the time, so don't assume you already know.

And now, sun...

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