Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, December 1, 2007

"Guy books" and "gal books"

I started reading a new book yesterday. Well, actually, I tried to read another one yesterday, having checked both of these books out of the library. The one I tried to read was so ridiculous I put it down after about a page. It's going back to the library as soon as I can get there, weather permitting(it half snowed and half rained today, and it's supposed to rain, rain, raing tomorrow through Wednesday). It was something about Templars and troubadours and Cathars and Tarot cards or something like that.

But the book I'm reading is different. It's by Christopher Forrest who is a lawyer by profession. The name of it is The Genesis Code. And from the first page, it's very obvious that it's what I call a "guy book". There are "gal books" too, but I'll get to that shortly.

Anyway, "guy books", as one might guess, are pretty much written by and for men. No, I'm not tal;king about porn, or "erotic", which can be written by anyone of either sex. I've never read that stuff anyway and don't intend to now. "Guy books" are quite different. They are relatively short, written in a "punchy" style of the sort that was first introduced or popularized by Ernest Hemingway, and "read" quickly. They're full of action, and often, but not always, any female characters are basically a peripheral part of the story. The female characters are frequently not very well characterized. Since I just started this book, I can't say very much about it, but the premise looks interesting as long as you don't take it seriously as science. In other words, a kind of "fun read" on a long airplane trip, unless you're using your laptop for some purpose. Or reading one of the Harry Potter books, as I did on a trip to Los Angeles.

I am well aware that my statements above are generalizations, based on the "guy books" I"ve read(yes, women read these things too, from time to time). There are male writers of fiction who characterize very well, who have plots that while decidedly "fictional", have a believable premise, and don't just jump from "action" to "action". Stephen King and Terry Brooks come to mind. I mention these two writers because I rather like what they do, but many people don't like fantasy and horror. But these writers don't really write "guy books".

On the other hand, another writer who does write "guy books" is Bernard Cornwell. Almost all of his output is relatively short, punchy, "adventurous", with lots of attention paid to the battles the hero participates in. And his characters(the male ones I've come across, at least), tend to be all the same character, in different interesting situations. His female characters tend to be, well, forgettable. One thing in his favor, he does do a lot of research in writing his "historical action" books. And he does write very well. For this reason, I"ve kept up with his two medieval series, both the "Uhtred" one and the earlier one about the 100 Years' War(can't remember the series title at the moment). But nevertheless, I would have to characterize these books as "guy books". I haven't read any of his other output in this vein; stories about naval battles just don't interest me very much. And his output is fairly typical of "guy book" writing.

But we can't leave the female half out of this. Because there are "gal books" too. These are (mostly) romances, but also include a lot of what is commonly characterized as "women's fiction" and some historical fiction written by women as well. The latter category varies tremendously in quality: some is very easily accessible and well-written, some verges on the "literary" and there are a few which I would categorize as rather "soulless" or even "pretentious", but I won't go into that at this point. Some of these writers, including a few romance writers, are actually quite good; Mary Jo Putney comes to mind. So does the late Anya Seton, who, in writing Katherine, inspired me(eventually) to write a book set in medieval England, which I'm now doing. I'm doing something quite different, since my effort is unabashedly science fiction as well as history, but it doesn't matter. And I hope I"m not writing a "gal book" only.

Because a lot of "gal books" aren't all that interesting, either. Most romances are about as bad, in their way, as the more stereotypical "guy books" I mentioned earlier. It's just that their badness, so to speak, is of a different kind. Things like interchangeable cities, emphasis on dress and appearance, "fluffy" names for both male and female characters, plotlines that probably came out of a "how to" on romance writing or "women's fiction". For these reasons, I don't often read such "gal books", though I'm beginning to find exceptions in some romances. On the other hand, some of these women writers make a nice living writing "gal books". The romance market continues quite strong, and a lot of romances get churned out every month, most of them highly forgettable. And, on still another hand, there are readers who actually like to read this kind of material, and at least one woman I know of, who doesn't read anything but romances.

Which brings me to another point here: A lot of women evidently have more tolerance for "fairy tale" fantasy than men evidently do. If men --- especially the writers of "guy books" --- "do" fantasy, they tend to make it seem more "realistic". Is this good or bad? I don't know.

But push comes to shove, I wonder why, in this day and age, there still have to be "guy books" and "gal books"? Does this mean that women writers are still taken less seriously than men writers? I wonder, because I can't imagine most men bothering to read a romance, and a lot of women won't, either. Some women go the opposite route and try to read little but "literary" stuff. How many women besides me read some of the "guy books" I've mentioned? There seems to be a broad audience of both sexes for the Cornwell fiction. Shouldn't that tell publishers something? How many women write "adventure" novels? Not very many, as far as I know. I heard of one author who recently wrote a "thriller", which heretofore had seemed to be exclusively a "men's club". But then, the kind of "guy books" that John Le Carre writes are much better characterized than, say Cornwell's output. But again, they're different writers, doing different things. How would a woman approach a thriller? How would a man write a romance, if he could bring himself to do this? I don't have any answers to these questions, because the "how" lies in the pen and imagination of each individual writer. Still, I wonder if some of the demand for "guy" and "gal" literature comes in part from a perception by publishers that "only" certain kinds of writers can write these things(e.g. "only" a man can "really" write adventure stories, and "only" a woman can "really" write fiction that revolves more around relationships and feelings). And I wonder if there really isn't an audience out there, who would be willing to look much more broadly at fiction written by "nonstereotypical" writers.
Anne G

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