Stephen King: Chick lit vs. 'Manfiction'
EW's pop-culture columnist takes a Beretta and blowtorch to the idea that men don't read
Stephen King: Chick lit vs. ‘Manfiction’
If you catch publishing types in a ”don’t quote me” mood, they’ll tell you the male audience for fiction is disappearing. Agents and editors are constantly on the lookout for the next hot female writer, and why not? At the end of August, 7 of the 10 New York Times hardcover fiction bestsellers were by women, and that doesn’t even include Stephenie Meyer’s mega-selling Breaking Dawn (which the Times considers kid lit, thus not meriting a place on the adult list).
But, to misquote Mark Twain, reports of the male reader’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Women have chick lit; guys have what my son Joe (as in Joe Hill) calls ”manfiction.” And publishers sell it by the ton. Here’s a concept so simple it’s easy to miss: What men want from an Elmore Leonard novel is exactly what women want from a Nora Roberts novel — escape and entertainment. And while it’s true that manfiction can be guilty of objectifying women, chick lit often does the same thing to men. Reading Sandra Brown or Jodi Picoult, I’m sometimes reminded of an old Julie Brown song, ”I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid.” One memorable couplet goes, ”My father’s out of Harvard, my brother’s out of Yale/Well, the guy I took home last night just got out of jail.”
Is this a bad thing? From an entertainment standpoint, I’d say not. Women like stories in which a gal meets a handsome (and possibly dangerous) hunk on a tropic isle; men like to imagine going to war against an army of bad guys with a Beretta, a blowtorch, and a submachine gun (grenades hung on the belt optional).
And current manfiction certainly gives women a better deal than they got in the pulps of yesteryear, when most were presented as barracuda debs in frilly negligees. Robert B. Parker, who chronicles the hard-bitten exploits of that manfiction avatar Spenser (no first name), is also the creator of Sunny Randall, a PI who has had her own hard-bitten exploits. And while it’s easy to become exasperated with Spenser’s longtime partner, Susan Silverman, sooner or later Spenser and his pal Hawk always spring into action. Often with a .38 or a .12-gauge shotgun.
Alex Delaware, Jonathan Kellerman’s entry in the manfiction sweeps, also has a longtime female companion. Robin Castagna is less annoying than the navel-gazing Ms. Silverman, but both need rescuing from time to time, and saving the damsel in distress has been a satisfying part of good manfiction since the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair went without their underwear. Also, Alex has a gay sidekick, Milo Sturgis. If that doesn’t make him a 21st-century dude, what does?
NEXT: The founding fathers — and sons — of manfiction
The fathers of modern manfiction would be Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and John D. MacDonald, creator of the world’s first boat-bum PI. MacDonald’s Travis McGee ruled the best-seller lists during the years when reading Playboy was still cool, and may have been the first continuing male character to see women as people rather than just as potential bed partners. Not that Travis was any slouch in bed; he specialized in a form of sexual healing mortal men (such as your faithful correspondent) could only admire. In the 21 McGee novels, the guy must have sexually healed over 200 women. Take that, Dr. Laura!
The best current manfiction writers? I’d say Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Richard Stark, and Lee Child. Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a dogged cop who takes on the LAPD power structure as often as the bad guys. His current girlfriend, a very liberated woman, is an FBI agent. Crais’ creations — Elvis Cole and Joe Pike — are as tough as the combat boots they used to wear. Richard Stark’s Parker (also no other name) is refreshingly amoral, a thief who always gets away with the swag. In the series’ most recent books he has gained a little warmth thanks to Claire, his own longtime companion.
I saved the best for last. Lee Child’s tough but humane Jack Reacher is the coolest continuing series character now on offer. Reacher has also rescued his share of damsels in distress. He wanders the U.S., sometimes hitchhiking, more often riding buses. He dresses in cheap workingman’s duds bought in chain stores, pays cash, and (this is the part I really love) he used to carry only a toothbrush for luggage. He satisfies the most elemental male daydream, which is at bottom quite sweet: to ramble around and help out when help is needed. Possibly with a Beretta, a blowtorch, and a submachine gun.