The Last Word
Are you hard-wired to choose the books you choose?
Is there such a thing as a boy book or a girl book? Google the subject and any number of blogs and essays on the topic pop up, lamenting the fact that it isn't so much that books for children are gendered, but the fact that girls will read anything, and boys won't read books with female protagonists. I have no way of knowing if this supposition is true or merely supported by the empirical evidence of generations of teachers. If one thinks in terms of genre books, a/k/a category books, and leaving out erotica for the moment, it seems as though the hypothesis holds true long into adulthood. For example, women as well as men read (and write) police procedurals and thrillers, e.g. Patricia Cornwall, Linda Fairstein, Tom Clancy, John Le Carré. On the other hand, I'm not sure many men pick up Sandra Brown, Linda Lael, or Barbara Taylor Bradford. Perhaps there is something hard-coded in those people who come with a Y chromosome that determines certain genres just don't interest them.
The good news is that as adults we get to choose authors because the subject or the style of writing appeals to us, not because the hero is a man or a woman. Good fiction transcends gender. As I read as many good, male writers as I do female - Frederick Busch, Roland Merullo, and Tobias Wolff as well as Sena Jeter Naslund and Meg Wolitzer - I make no apology when I'm dipping into froth. Sometimes I just want girlie books; girlie meaning stories that celebrate the empowered woman, heroines doing what women are supposed to enjoy (shopping or chocolate); women overcoming the odds. It's kind of like reading Desperate Housewives - harmless, entertaining and, with all due respect to male readers/viewers, aimed at women. Or I pick up those stories that touch on topics that preoccupy women - loneliness, survival, love. The Bad Girl Creek series, the gentle stories of Sarah-Kate Lynch, and the spiky "novice contends with evil boss" stories fall into the girlie category for me. I just don't expect my husband to read them.
It is true that publishers have determined what catches the eye of target readers, so that without seeing a title, the reader is going to know by its cover that a book is directed at toward a romance reader (assumed to be a woman) or a spy aficionado (assumed to be a man). Sub-genres that have evolved that include chick-lit, the light single-girl-in-the-big-city stories are the grown-up version of the Sweet Valley High series with nicer clothes. Recently, a new phenomenon has appeared, called mommy-lit. The single girls have become mothers, and the heroines of these stories bop along with baby in tow. Instead of describing Manolos, they describe what's hot in baby gear. Babies, in case you've been living in Patagonia, are all the rage in the tabloids and, now, in romance novels.
Now, I'm a writer of what's known in the trade as "women's fiction," and yet I have a lot of male readers. I particularly appreciate the ones who say that they were "surprised" they liked the book because, after all, it's women's fiction. Tut tut. Even my Connecticut brother-in-law claims to like my books because, and dear God, he actually said this, he's in touch with his feminine side. As if a man needs an excuse to enjoy a story that doesn't draw blood or have its protagonist being shot at while hanging from a steel girder. Is this a cultural remnant from junior high school days, when it wasn't cool to read books featuring a heroine?
Now I'm sure that there are a few men out there secretly turning pages of bodice rippers, but let's face it, it's not likely they went out and bought the books themselves. Can you picture some sweaty bricklayer standing in line at the Stop and Shop with a Sweet Carnal Desire tucked in between the milk and the Milky Way bar? No. No way. He's accidentally pulled the book out of the pile beside his wife's side of the bed and is reading it under the covers with a flashlight, while his bride is deep into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.