Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is it Time for a Men's Liberation Movement?

By Andrew E. Kaufman

A while back, I sent a friend request to someone on Goodreads. Her response was polite, but it surprised me a little. No, wait. That's not exactly true. It suprised me a lot. She started out saying:

You do realize in my description, I don't read male authors, right?


Actually, I’d missed that. The only thing I’d really noticed was that she seemed to enjoy paranormal fiction, much like I do. Which was why I’d asked her to be my friend. She went on:

I'm still game to accept you as a friend if you are okay with the fact that I probably won't read your books . . . I might try it only because you asked to be a friend.

I hadn’t sent the request because I necessarily wanted her to read my book—although, in the current climate of frenzied author self-promotion, I certainly understood how she might have perceived it that way. But being an inquisitive type, I had to ask why she would limit herself to just same-sex authors (her genres of interest, by the way, were not particularly female-oriented).

I got two answers. First she said, semi-jokingly (I hope):

I'm a sexist, and my strong femi-nazi male hating phase isn't over, even though I married a truly wonderful man.

Then she gave a more logical explanation. It was detailed and lengthy, so I'll summarize: she said that her experience has been that most male authors tend to characterize women as being dumb and helpless, that they’re always waiting for a white knight—either that, or they’re injected into the story simply because it fits the formula. She also added that male authors often portray women as being shallow and two-dimensional.

Really? Most male authors do this?

Stieg Larson's Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) immediately came to mind (who, incidentally, was based on how he imagined Pippi Longstocking might have been as an adult; another uber-strong female literary character). Lisbeth is definitely not shallow, far from two-dimensional, and not dumb. Or helpless. And if she fits into a formula, I've never seen it.

That's just one example of a strong male-generated female character, but I'm sure I could go on listing others; we all know they exist.

This wasn't the first time I'd seen male authors—or males in general—being painted with the same brush, and it kind of bothered me. Not because I'm necessarily gender-proud, but because I've never seen the world as being that black and white. I'm more a shades-of-gray kind of guy.

Just recently, my esteemed colleague, Peg Brantley, brought up a similar topic here on Crime Fiction Collective. In one of their discussion threads, the Sisters in Crime group (incidentally, of which I happen to be a member) was debating author gender bias. What it boiled down to was this (she summarized):

Men, because they pretty much know they are dogs and capable of doing horrible things, write about a human who seeks redemption.

Women, on the other hand, consider themselves underdogs and write about a human who seeks affirmation and worthiness.

Capable of doing horrible things?

Now, since I’m the only male on this blog, and knowing that about 75-percent of my readers are female, I’m going to tread lightly here. Don’t want to upset either (Mamma didn't raise no fool). But I do have to ask:

Females: Does an author’s gender much matter to you? Do any of the above comments ring true?

And dudes: What’s your take on all this? Is it time for a Men’s Liberation Movement?

Sorry. Couldn't resist.


  1. Man up. We've run things for thousands of years, and Renaissances be damned, we've been in a state of constant atrocity. I'm not a self-loathing man, but power corrupts, and we have been granted, generally, a physical strength greater than women. That's why femme fatales remain a trope- they have a secret weapon that renders our muscles useless, and makes our most inflated and fickle muscle betray us.

    Even Lisbeth, strong as she is, fell for the Mary Sue of Larsson's protagonist, when it made absolutely no sense. In fact, he sleeps with every two-legged woman under 60 in the novel. I think it is unfair to stereotype either writer's gender. There are exceptions that prove the rule, tough writers like Christa Faust, and men who write deep and complex female characters. But let's face it, she's been bitten and is twice shy, and it is going to be difficult to change her mind. I don't blame her.

    Men don't need to be liberated. We need to man up and be aware of how our perceptions and actions affect women. Our rage is that of the entitled. We are confused. Our behavior is so inherent that we don't think we're doing anything wrong. We may have to take a few beatings we don't deserve, but in the long run, they'll be like losing a game played fairly. A character building exercise.

  2. First, Thomas . . . if I wasn't happily married (and old), I think I might just fall in love with you.

    More important, the gender of the author isn't important to me. (I'm currently reading a Brad Thor on the heels of a Lisa Scottoline.) But you will have to admit that as far as crime fiction is concerned, there aren't too many female authors who you could call household names.

    I feel sorry for the reader you found on Goodreads. She's limiting herself and in attempting to make one point, she's making quite another.

  3. Such a big subject! I have to point out that if women buy 75% of fiction, then bestselling male authors have a lot of female fans. I personally read mostly fiction by men. Why? I believe, in general, they focus more on story and less on relationships. They put less emotion on the page.

    I wouldn't characterize most of their work as sexist though. Nor do I believe most men are capable of "horrible things." My husband, for example, is more moral than I am. Which is why I write crime fiction and he builds trikes.

    Also, I'll admit to a little bias of my own. I don't buy books from authors with names like Tiffany. I know it's unfair, but I fear that the book will know...girlie. So the bias goes both ways. Reading is a completely subjective experience.

  4. I remember Peg's post and it's a good point to an extent. Of course, it's a stereotype and like most stereotypes, it's not a safe assumption nor is it completely wrong; there is a certain amount of truth in there. But I could make a list of great examples of where it is wrong. James Patterson writes female characters that aren't necessarily looking for affirmation and male characters that aren't looking for redemption, Chuck Palahniuk also writes strong female characters (Shannon McFarland in Invisible Monster) Lawrence Block writes great female characters etc...On the other hand, hemingway was often criticized as terrible at females, tho' I love his characters and the noir/hardboiled genre probably gave birth (or at least raised to adulthood) the stereotype.

    Now, I think it would be safer to say that good authors are great at creating both kinds of characters in either sex and that "not-so-good" authors aren't. If you are good at your craft as an author I think you have to be capable of creating characters that mimic real life and that means you females have to be real, not JUST seeking affirmation and the same with your male characters. You also have to be comfortable creating characters from other races, cultures, etc...

    Now that said, I do avoid certain female writers that, at least to me, write to a mostly female audience ( I once, only half jokingly characterized these types of writers as sleek blonds with author photos on the jacket that feature Irish Sitters, Golden Retrievers and Cockerspaniels)But I read and rave about a lot of female authors, Tess Gerritsen, Jan Burke, Alafair Burke just to mention a few just as I avoid male writers who can't write anything but stereotypical male characters. I think that if you 'avoid' an author because of his sex (or race or place of origin or religion), you are missing a lot and as Peg says above, that reader is severely limiting herself.

  5. Well first of all, had the roles been reversed and it had been a man that said he didn't read female authors, there would have been a thousand women over here crying fowl.

    And maybe I've just lucked out, but I've rarely read books by male authors where the women were Mrs. Cleaver and the men were domineering egotists. One of my favorite books EVER (Sorry Andrew) was written by a man named Bob Ottum and was about a very strong female who took on the dregs of society in New York City, one at a time. She wasn't portrayed as a weakling or an idiot.

    I don't think a book should be judged based on the gender of the author anymore than by its cover. A book should stand on its own merits alone, period.

  6. This is a fascinating topic, Drew. We could go on for a long time on this one. I must admit that I will choose a woman author over a man, in many cases, because women tend to give female characters more depth. Of course, there are huge exceptions. I was half way through She's Come Undone before I realized it was written by a man, Wally Lamb. I once asked him how, as a man, he wrote such convincing female characters. He said he has many sisters. On the other hand, women sometimes write male characters with few dimensions than female. Jodi Piccoult comes to mind here.
    I don't think it's a bias against one gender or the other, it's just a rule of thumb that helps in book-buying decisions.

    And it goes beyond gender. One complaint about The Help is that Katheryn Stockett, a young white woman, did not accurately capture the voice of older black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964. Is that true? I don't know.

    That said, because I know you, I buy your books, because I like your voice, even though the timbre is lower than mine.

  7. Peg: I agree, and that was kind of my point. Any reader who, as a rule, narrows her scope to authors of only one gender is doing herself a disservice, not to mention, missing out. Now, having said that, nothing wrong with having a preference. That's different, and that's as normal as liking vanilla over chocolate. But a hard-and-fast rule, as my Goodreads friend had, it just seems a bit on the short-sighted side.

  8. Robert, I think you make a great point. A good author is able to write from both gender perspectives. It's the ones who can't that give gender bias a bad name, the ones who don't access both their masculine and feminine sides (Sorry, Thomas, I just manned-down some more, but I think it's true). We as authors must throw ourselves into our characters completely, whoever they may be; male, female, canine, fish, or fowl.

  9. I've heard this sort of thing discussed on many blogs and groups. "Men can't write romance." "Don't read women authors; they can't write mystery." "Men can't write believable women." "Women can't write believeble men."

    Sometimes I wonder if I should take my profile picture off my website and let people judge my writing by reading my books.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. Christine, I was almost kinda sorta gonna say that, about what the reaction would have been if a male had made a similar comment, but like I said, I tread carefully in those parts. Thanks for saying it for me ;)

    Terry--so true, and the exact reason why people use pen names--to remove the mental stigma some readers apparently have.

    Judith--I think your method is a healthy one. You use gender to help guide your decisions on what to read--not as a wall to isolate yourself.

    LJ. Somewhere out there, an author named Tiffany has just changed her name to Sam.

  11. I totally reject intransigence. So there. Ain't never gonna be intransigent. Ever.

  12. If men want to be recognized as portraying worthwhile female human characters (which I certainly try to do), the best way to do that is to portray worthwhile female human characters, not create an activist organization.

  13. This reminds of when Spike Lee said that only a black man could direct a movie like Malcolm X. It was a ridiculous statement, especially because The Color Purple won tons of awards and was directed by Steven Spielberg. When he said that, no one said anything because race relations are so controversial. Race or gender doesn't matter, its the story that counts.

  14. It's an interesting idea. As a fairly new male writer, I've been accused (by my wife) of creating stories around male characters; the female characters I portray are just window dressing. And she has a point.

    My series character changed gender and sexuality through this. So instead of a wise-cracking, all round good guy cop, I now have a gay female cop, struggling with sexism in the police force. I'm thinking Greggs in The Wire. Only based in the UK.

    I've also seen feisty replies to reviews that state "another guy who can't deal with a strong female lead" - never mind that the reviewer, quite rightly, criticised the writing, not the characters.

    So Andrew, a lot of what you say is correct. Gender stereotyping is alive and well, and as writers we need to treat our characters as characters in their own right, not as gender-types.

    There's some mileage in using an androgynous pen name.

  15. Coming in on this discussion late (and tired - just got back from Thrillerfest in NYC), I'd have to say that the gender of the author is irrelevant to me. I used to read a lot of books by female authors primarily aimed at women (not romances, but authors like Barbara Delinsky, Susan Isaacs, Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope) but for the past few years I've almost exclusively been reading thrillers and romantic suspense, and my favorite authors are about equally divided between the two genders: Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Nora Roberts, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Michael Connelly, Lisa Scottoline, and the list goes on.

    Frankly, I shake my head in pity at someone who limits themselves as this woman seems to. How does she know how men portray women in fiction if she doesn't read male authors? Weird!

    On the other side of the coin, I do know some men (and boys) who, it seems, don't want to be caught reading a novel by a female author...? Their loss, too, I'd say.


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