Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More thoughts on male-centric fiction

"My Childhood in One Picture" Credit: MuelleX on Imgur
I recently started a thread in the Books and Writers group at LinkedIn by asking the question "Is there a male-centered alternative to chick lit?" And I cross-posted some of my musings about boychik lit, my self-imposed genre for the Rollo Hemphill series of humorous misadventures. South African writer Dave Baker commented, "Of course, Gerald. Westerns!" At first, I thought Dave was way off the mark, and I told him so. He came back and apologized that perhaps he'd fired off his response without thinking. After all, chick lit is mostly about relationships. Westerns are about community. The hero of a western is defending the community or is on a mission to help build the community. In this way, a western is like ancient mythology in which the hero battles a succession of enemies on his quest for some prize that will save his world.
And chick lit is all about man-problems. Those might manifest as career problems, but men are usually at fault. (In the case of The Devil Wears Prada, it's a woman boss who in busting through the glass ceiling has learned to be as mean and ruthless as any man.)
Then I thought again about relationships in westerns, and I began to think Dave shouldn't have been so quick to take it back. In those stories, the hero seems to value  protection of the community - as well as his standing among his male comrades - above his personal relationship with a wife or sweetheart. That's a battlefield mentality, and it says a lot about the mindset of the hero as his leaves has family behind and sets off toward his rendezvous with destiny.
I was beginning to think Dave was onto something. Two other big fiction genres with men are spy thrillers and crime stories. In both of those, the hero is also acting on behalf of his community (country or metropolis). And even though some dame may slink in and set him on the path, he's not acting mainly out of romantic self-interest. His goal is not primarily to get the girl. In fact, James Bond's women are literally disposable. Travis McGee's relationships might incite the drama but never last, and often end badly. And poor Philip Marlowe retains a cynical fascination with women, even though he rarely gets close to one. As in the western, the spy or the detective must set his personal feelings aside while he's on the mission. Romantic relationships recede into the background. Think about it: James Bond orders every sumptuous meal as though it were his last. And in his more thoughtful moments, he guesses he won't live long enough to collect his pension.
Thinking back on chick lit, I wonder if the heroine's obsession with finding Mr. Right can be generalized as a preoccupation with family - nest building. And then the male's focus, however much he may want a family or cherish his family, is primarily on his responsibility for ensuring the welfare of his community.
In Farnsworth's Revenge (forthcoming April 1), Rollo has to flee the country because he fears he'll  be framed for an international fraud. Not only does he leave his wife Felicia behind, but he also deliberately hides details of his alleged misdeeds from her, on the presumption that the less she knows the more likely the Feds will see her as a victim rather than an accomplice. After that, it's all about saving his community (the world banking system), but I've said too much already. 

This line of speculation about gender and genre may seem sexist - but remember we're talking about traditional fictional role models, not individuals in contemporary society. Women read all these genres enthusiastically, and so do men. I know I do.

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