Thursday, February 14, 2013

What Do Women Want?

And I mean in a novel.

We have been to several author talks here-all of them save one by women authors and successful ones-- and almost universally attended by women. And what these large groups of women seem to want are novels that 1) instruct us in life 2) offer multiple opportunities to cry 3) confront a topical issue 4) work well for book groups 5) skip any fancy prose and instead tell a straight forward story 6) have the sort of humor I find too cliched to be funny. The words I heard over and over again:  I cried.

It was depressing to see how far these audiences drifted from any notion of a well-written novel. Or one that was not didactic and obvious. The sad thing is since women do most of the reading, the demand by publishers to give them what they want will only grow.

What do you want from a novel? Do you want to be taught something about life? Is that the job of a novelist? Do you want to confront life issues such as assisted suicide, school bullying, children with physical troubles in every novel you read? When did this trend begin?

22 comments:

Thomas Pluck said...

"I cried"
To me this means emotional engagement. Plots, hackneyed storylines, stylized prose... they matter, of course. But without emotional engagement a twisty plot or perfect lines become mere showing off.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

I like Thomas's generous reading of the situation.

I would hesitate to make it a generalization about women readers overall, Patti; perhaps the readers attracted to these particular talks had a specific list of requirements, but that may not be a broader truth.

Although, alas, I think readers of both sexes/all genders are less and less capable of appreciating, and thus desiring, nuance and suggestion and open-endedness and lyricism. Is it like the last bestseller? No? Then forget it.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

P.S. - I like that photo!

Dave Zeltserman said...

One of the biggest blockbusters this past year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which has no life lessons, not a formulaic story, and I doubt it generates much, if any, outlets for emotional crying. So Patti, don't get too depressed from that talk!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Phil took hundreds with his smart phone. What times we live in.
Yeah, GONE GIRL was an exception but if you look at the reviews of it on amazon an amazing number of them chide her for not doing these things.
I think it is all too easy to emotionally engage middle aged women. We cry at Hallmark Cards.
And you are right, Olivia. I have to stop generalizing about things like that.

F.T. Bradley said...

I think it's a segment of women, this book club you're talking about. Dave is right: the bestsellers don't represent this type of book. Thank goodness...

I'm a woman, and I don't want to be educated about bullying and stuff :-)

Anonymous said...

No. Hell no. I do not want any of that, but then I don't think all women want that either. Yes, a sizeable chunk of the audience obviously does - how else to explain the success of Nicholas Sparks? - but I guess we're supposed to say "not that there's anything wrong with that"?

I want entertainment, I want mystery, I want humor where it is appropriate, sometimes I want a new place and to learn something but that isn't necessary.

Jeff M.

John said...

Based on those criteria it sounds to me like the women are using novels as a cheap form of therapy. Better to read a $15 paperback for few days than spend $80 an hour every week for a good cry, a little chuckle, and some life lessons learned.

Whatever happened to reading as a solitary private pleasure? The emphasis on reading -- especially reading fiction -- as a group experience is baffling to me.

The popularity and marketing of book clubs I think has changed the way publishers view buying and selling fiction. There were always book clubs, but they weren't a global phenomenon. When they became trendy and the big O stepped up to tell us what books were worth reading then everything about the fiction market changed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A book that emotionally engaged me without being didactic last year was Evison's THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING. You knew there was a serious medical issue involved but the author knew putting it out there was enough. Instead, he ignored it for most of the book, allowing the character with it to ignore it as much as possible too. To me, that was great writing.

George said...

I want to be transported to another world whether it's Southern Florida with Travis McGee or into the future with Jack Vance. Too many contemporary novels follow the same template instead of telling a compelling story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, that is kind of despressing. I don't want a book to "instruct" me in life. I may like it to give me different perspectives on life. I want emotional connection, but not multiple opportunities to cry. I absolutely do want fresh and interesting language and not the mundane.

Deb said...

John's comment--

Whatever happened to reading as a solitary private pleasure? The emphasis on reading -- especially reading fiction -- as a group experience is baffling to me.

--was absolutely on-target for me. I've received any number of odd looks from people in various social circles of my life (work, church, mothers groups) when I gently but firmly rebuff their efforts to get me to join a book club. I almost feel as if women (because, by and large, women make up the bulk of book club memberships) use clubs as a bonding mechanism. I'd much rather go out to dinner and a movie with a group of friends than sit around discussing, oh, The Da Vinci Code. The odd thing is, I don't mind discussing books on the internet--it's just the sitting around in a group that gets on my wick, as the English would say.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I will have to defend my book group here-they try very hard to balance the books they read. They are especially drawn to books like THE KITE RUNNER and READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN but also read books like MADAME BOVARY, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, books of poems, short stories and plays. We have read EAST OF EDEN, ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF SOLITUDE and several Barbara Kingsolver books. Ten years worth. Not too much crime fiction but truthfully reading crime fiction is perhaps a solitary pleasure.

Todd Mason said...

"6) have the sort of humor I find too cliched to be funny."

--My problem with the likes of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES or David Sedaris's work.

Reading crime fiction is no more solitary than reading other things, I suspect...but the membership of book groups is self-selecting, after all (until someone forces Deb at weapons-point).

But what I'm looking for in fiction is something interesting, and that's about all I'm going to demand (what's interesting? that shifts). When did novels become instructive? From the beginning. Some moreso than others, whether we refer to Richard Bach or to Dickens or to Bunyan.

pattinase (abbott) said...

But I do think book groups--and their power in a diminishing market--are leading more writers to write instructive books. Or ones that tackle topics. Look at the career of Jodi Piccoult or Anna Quindlen. They take on topics in almost every book. The story doesn't arise from character but from character's malady. Or her child's malady. This generates discussion and that is what many book groups look for in a book. Again I exclude mine which tries hard not to fall into this.

Dyer Wilk said...

Personally, I like a novel that can challenge me on a moral level, that can give me characters who are human for better or worse. I want to read about people with realistic flaws. Often, I find characters in popular novels too perfect with a flaw or two only tossed in for good measure or because the author wants a Byronic hero. These flaws are always fairly acceptable, things that can ultimately be forgiven by the reader. I suppose this is done because publishers (and a disturbingly high number of authors) think that the readers will tune out if the characters aren’t likeable enough.

I think that notion is a bit shortsighted. Society has proven that we can follow the exploits of less-than-likeable people, even despicable people. Case in point, our obsession with so-called “reality” TV stars––who often exemplify some of the worst qualities mankind has to offer. Dysfunction sells just fine. Characters don’t have to triumph over adversity and they don’t have to grow for the better. So many people never do. There doesn’t have to be some underlying message of hope to justify their suffering. There doesn’t even have to be a resolution that leaves us knowing that all these fictional entities will be okay once we close the book.

Theodore Sturgeon addresses this at the end of his book “Some of Your Blood.” He speaks directly to the audience and reminds them that it is just a book and the characters are fictional, but he offers up the possibility that a character was successfully rehabilitated and two more fell in love and got married, telling the reader that they can believe this if it will help them rest more easily.

A few books that I feel don’t coddle the reader are “Off Season” by Jack Ketchum, “Cujo” by Stephen King, and “Wonder Boys” by Michael Chabon. They are filled with characters who aren’t written to be universally likeable, and often the likeable characters get what they don’t deserve. As wild and improbable as some of the events in these books are, they keep the characters grounded in a reality where the mind and body can only take so much and happenstance can alter the path of one’s life irrevocably.

That kind of humanity is what I find most engaging emotionally. It’s what might actually make me cry or laugh or get angry. Fiction is an exercise in creating empathy, and I most easily empathize with characters who act realistically human.

So that pretty much discounts most bestsellers for me.

Fred Zackel said...

"Darling, I missed you!" she cried and fired again. But I digress. And reading what (these) women want, I cry ... or at least get into a deep funk.

Fred Zackel said...

Sorry for the lapse. Folks might want to check out the NY Times from December 31, 2012, "Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K." By SUSAN SHAPIRO, wherein she writes, "I found that those who cried while reading their piece aloud often later saw it in print. I believe that’s because they were coming from the right place — not the hip, but the heart." She urges writers creating their own "humiliation" writing. As she says, "Drama, conflict and tension are more compelling, especially when the piece starts with your “I” narrator about to fall off a cliff (metaphorically, of course). It’s counterintuitive, but qualities that make you likable and popular in real life — good looks, wild success, happy marriage, lovely home, healthy confidence — will make a reader despise you. The more of a wreck you are from the start, the more the audience is hooked." Incredible reading ...



RkR said...

Maybe what many women want is to read the type of thing Danielle Steele wrote/writes, I don't know. But all those Shades of Grey books sold, mostly to women. Did they cry? Do women want to cry at the end of a sit-com? I just don't, honestly get it, but it sure sold a lot of copies of that Bridge in Madison County (or whatever it was) book. I guess it's a love story with a sad ending they want. I doubt many of those attendees read science fiction or fantasy, and I wonder how many ever read mysteries?

Anonymous said...

Patti, if you enjoy your book club you don't have to apologize to us or anyone else. (I must say, I don't think I've ever heard of a book club that hasn't read THE KITE RUNNER and Isabel Allende and Garcia Marquez, but maybe that's just my own prejudice talking.)

I agree with Deb too - reading is (and is meant to be) a solitary pursuit. I like to talk about books with friends but I don't want to be constrained in what to read but what the book club demands I read. But maybe that has to do with being more of a solitary person in general.

I know people celebrate Oprah's book club because she sold a lot of books, but what books! I think there is a 100% correlation between books Oprah chose and books I would never, ever read.



Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

Todd, I like Sedaris when he is writing about his family. I also liked CONFEDERACY, for what that's worth.

Rick, I cannot tell you the number of women who have tried to press 50 SHADES on Jackie and can get rather touchy when she makes it clear she's not interested. She tried one Danielle Steel book and felt the same way about it that Bill Crider felt about TWILIGHT.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

Most people do seem to like CONFEDERACY, and since it's the literary equivalent of a Jerry Lewis movie, I've never quite understood the appeal (in either case).

Sedaris always seems to me to be full of easy hostility and resentment, the literary equivalent of a stand-up comedian's "Airplane food...ami I right?". It might well be earned (I wouldn't trade families), but it ain't funny to me.