Thursday, May 15, 2008

Boy Books and Girl Books

Elizabeth Zelvin

Not long ago I heard an eminent editor admit that in his publishing house, people refer without irony to “boy books” and “girl books.” Since I became active in the mystery community, I have heard many discussions of the fact or belief that, by and large, men will not read books, or at least novels, by women. That’s why many female writers conceal their gender behind initials, although like the initials in phone book listing, the use of initials in authorship has become a signal that the person thus identified is probably a woman.

Men may object to this generalization, which oversimplifies as generalizations always do. It might be illuminating to ask what books by women they read. Are they “boy books” written by women? Are they crossover books? Noir is very fashionable these days, and women as well as men are writing noir. Megan Abbott comes to mind—a woman who had already written a scholarly examination of the tough guy in American fiction before her first novel was published. Or how about women whose prose style is “tough” and would have been called “masculine” before the women’s movement? I think of SJ Rozan, a writer I admire greatly, of whom I like to say (when I can get away with it) that her prose is built like a brick s***house. Not a wasted word, not a dangling clause, not an adverb. It doesn’t hang together—it grips.

A hundred years ago, when I was a college English major, there were two kinds of writer, or rather, two prose styles: Hemingway and Henry James. Hemingway’s the guy who put the kibosh on polysyllabic words of Latin derivation and made action verbs king of the sentence. Back then, it was possible to say, “I don’t warm up to that Hemingway style. I don’t know that I want to write that way.” I know, because I said it, and no one lynched me. Today, that choice has become an absolute. I heard the highly respected Stephen King tell an audience how to be a writer the year he was made a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America: “Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And lose the adverbs.”

I confess I have mixed feelings about abolishing a whole part of speech, maybe a quarter of the English language, by fiat. Actually, adverbs aren’t lost. They have migrated to the other side of the aisle, where the girl books sit. I learned this from a prolific and talented short story writer named Tom Sweeney. He’s been published in Ellery Queen and SF magazines and also in Woman’s World, which I’ve heard is a tough market to crack and pays well. Tom told me Woman’s World wants adverbial writing. When he writes for that particular market, he makes sure he puts those adverbs in.

Am I saying women don’t write nice tight sentences with action verbs? No, of course not. And I can delete an adverb with the best of them. I think it’s subject matter, focus, and sensibility, to use an old-fashioned word, rather than prose style that separate the boy books from the girl books.

I’ve written before about relational psychology—the theoretical approach that explains how and why men mature through separation and women through connection. Separation and autonomy—the tough-guy loner PI—boy books. Connection and relationship—mysteries, and not just cozies—girl books. Another psychological model uses the gender-related concepts of instrumental and expressive traits. Instrumentality is about how stuff works. Expressiveness is about how people feel. Instrumental—technothrillers—boy books. Expressive—romances, sure, but also character-driven mysteries—girl books.

Am I exaggerating? Still oversimplifying? Of course. But like the eminent editor, I’m making the point that there are boy books and girl books. Let’s tackle the distinction from another angle. Let’s look at the Great American Novel. Suppose we lived in a less patriarchal society. Suppose we had always acknowledged that there are boy books and girl books that have to be judged separately on their merits within their own categories, the same way there’s a male winner and a female winner in the New York Marathon. Here are my picks. Great American Novel, boy book division: Huckleberry Finn. Great American Novel, girl book division: Little Women.

How many men have read this wonderful book? Its author created characters so real that it’s still in print almost 140 years after publication, still read for pleasure—and with pleasure—by millions of readers, and still capable of moving readers to tears on an umpteenth rereading, as well as inspiring some of us to become writers like its protagonist. My husband has. I’m proud to say he’s read almost all of Louisa May Alcott, motivated by an interest in the vivid and accessible picture of life in 19th century New England in the context of Transcendentalism, whose theorists included Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father. He (my husband, not Bronson Alcott) also wanted to know what was in those battered books that I was crying over every time I read them. I’d like to hear from any other man who has.


Lonnie Cruse said...

Sigh, I received my usual critique from my group yesterday and one member pointed out about a zillion adverbs. I am the queen of adverbs. And commas. Another member pointed those out. I've never met an adverb I didn't love. Or a comma.

Like you, I don't have a problem reading adverbs, but I'd love to write tighter. Excellent post about boy and girl books, Liz.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think so many male writers are using female protagonists these days because they want women to buy their books. Everyone in the business seems to agree that women buy more books than men do. Maybe we'll reach the point where each bookstore has a tiny section in a back corner labeled "Men's Books" and the rest of the store will be for women. :-)

Marlyn said...

As a librarian, I find this concept interesting. But I have noticed that girls tend to read "boy" books rather more than vice versa.

Sandra Parshall said...

About adverbs -- Plenty of quite successful writers use adverbs as needed, and among them are some "literary" writers who are praised as stylists. This is just one more little thing that people in critique groups love to beat each other over the head with, when they should be concentrating on story and character development.