Rude Remarks

Dystopia Lives!

September 04, 2014

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The old “€œmen don”€™t read fiction”€ saw is making the rounds of the publishing industry again. It’s more a self-fulfilling prophecy than a valid judgment against the nature of men, and rather rich, in fact: Isn”€™t it odd how, when you keep giving the next Bridget Jones a chance at print instead of the next Houllebecq, males lose interest? Some prefer to chalk it all up to masculine virtues: “€œOnly a childlike mind goes for made-up stories anyway.”€

But publishers”€™ inability to digest statistics aside”€”just because a minority of men read the stuff doesn”€™t mean that there aren”€™t millions of them doing so”€”great fiction is not beneath anyone’s notice, nor does it elude the grasp of any above-average intelligence.

It may not be my place, as a woman, to comment, and there are already some solid rebuttals on men’s sites. But as a reader, much of my favorite fiction is written by men”€”they tend more than women toward dark humor, my native element”€”so I have an interest in their continuing to read and thus learn to write it, unhampered by disdain or despair.

And no one’s mentioned a particular barrier to men in fiction that seems quite obvious to me.

When one complains about the industry gatekeepers, the cheerful will chirp: “€œThere’s always independent publishing!”€ But here’s the thing: independent publishing is no place for anyone who prefers writing to talking about his writing.

“The situation is fictional, but the feeling is familiar; perhaps your brain isn”€™t trapped inside a latex mask, but when was the last time you felt free to speak your mind in polite society?”€

In the old publishing-house days, both parties benefited from division of labor: a writer’s job was to produce, and his publisher’s job was to make sure the public knew he was out there producing.

Now even an author who’s backed by a major house is expected to shoulder the majority of promotional tasks. Self-cheerleading and social skills are more important to one’s career than the actual work of fiction writing. Women tend to be more socially “€œon”€ than men, as an habitual state; and if there’s any game in which thoughtful people of both genders are at a disadvantage, it’s in hawking the cult of personality.

As one blogger succinctly phrased it”€”in a listicle titled “€œ10 Soul-Crushing Things About Writing in 2014, should you care to gnaw on the dizzying absurdity for a bit”€””€œYou have to be one type of narcissist to write, but you have to be another type to sell your books.”€

Not that the writer-type of narcissist is a shrinking violet. It’s a question of preferences and time management. Most writers need a day job or side hustle. Add in self-promotion and the occasional nap, and there’s not a lot of time, as Charles Bukowski once growled, to itch one’s fundament. Something must take precedence. So we know more about the “€œwriters”€ who choose to spend a majority of their time sideshow barking.

This garbage-first filter sours readers”€™ perception of our own time; one hears a lot of “€œI don”€™t want to read anything after Dostoyevsky!”€ (and I”€™ll bet Dostoyevsky got tired of hearing that about Gogol). Discerning audiences are always fond of the tried and true classics, but never has the current culture been cast in so unflattering a light. I fear we may leave no record worth reading.

But there is good stuff out there. You already need, however, to care enough to go out and dig under rocks for it”€”no easy attitude to take, considering the apparent lay of the land. I”€™ll admit, I haven”€™t found the next Evelyn Waugh myself, but I”€™m not giving up. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of good solid fiction that, even at its least ambitious, beats the most desperately edgy TV for entertainment value and beyond.

Take Jeff Somers, for example. Somers”€™ claim to fame is … well, nothing so far, and he’s published about 10 novels and novellas since he began in the mid-1990s. He has been loosely affiliated with the refreshingly insane indie lit promoter Karl Wenclas“€”an even poorer man’s Svengali”€”and Somers”€™ self-promotion copy is as awkward as an ugly puppy, a poor advertisement for his unpretentious, skillful work. (I might have never heard of Somers if it weren”€™t for my own run-in with Karl Wenclas over a decade ago, but that’s a long story for another day.)

Although his best work is a science fiction series, Somers”€™ latest release is The Ruiner. It’s an agile, 72-page novella about wrecking people’s weddings, which Somers says fits loosely into the “€œuniverse”€ of his other barroom fiction stories. It’s a cute way to put it, since, if you think about it, the drunken smart-aleck genre does make its own reality in much the same way sci-fi does.

This barroom stuff reads a bit like Chandler with slightly less focus on crime”€”and, alas, without quite as much swagger. Although Somers is consciously unwilling to be cowed by PC, I”€™m afraid the art of describing attractive women has been crushed to near death in the general culture. In the opening scene of The Ruiner, the protagonist says of a cocktail waitress:

She had small but nice tits and really great legs. Her hair was up in a long ponytail.

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