Toughest Question from my Copperfield’s Reading
A few minutes after 7 pm, when my reading at Copperfields was scheduled to start, people were still streaming in, and the store manager was unfolding more chairs to accommodate them. After an event a few weeks ago when there were too many empty seats, this was a promising sign. Of course, the front row was mostly empty, but that’s to be expected.
Copperfields did an excellent job promoting the reading — signs, inclusion in newsletter, Facebook page, events listings in the Pacific Sun and elsewhere. Even so, most of the 25 to 30 people who came were people I knew and invited. Nagged even. And everyone who said they’d come did come, which is not usually the case.
I opened by talking about how I came to write the book, and then read the first chapter. I had a second reading prepared, but didn’t get to it, as there were plenty of intriguing questions.
There was one I did not have a great answer for, which was: Men don’t read books, so how does that impact what you write? From a man I know who does not read much fiction.
Obviously, that’s a generalization, but it is true that women make up the majority of readers, especially of fiction. A decade ago, English novelist Ian McEwan and his son waded into a London park at lunchtime and gave away books, including some of his own. Nearly all the takers were women and most men reacted with suspicion. HIs conclusion: When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.
This is backed by statistics. According to one study, women account up to 80 percent of the fiction market. Other studies show a similar gender gap.
There are various theories about why this is the case, including that women tend to be more empathetic and emotional than men, which makes fiction more appealing to them.
My response to the question was forgettable, which is why I am writing about it here. A second chance to come up with something better.
I did say that I am sensitive to not wanting to offend women readers. Because my wife is my most important and thorough editor, I don’t believe I could get away with that.
In Wasted, my protagonist is a Berkeley man who thinks he’s somewhat enlightened in regards to women, but he’s immature and insecure and engages in some clumsy blunders in his pursuit of women. But perfect characters and political correctness are the enemies of strong stories. Flawed people are much more interesting and dramatic.
Flawed or otherwise, I think that the most important consideration for women readers is that the female characters are three-dimensional. I’ve read more than a few books by male authors where the women were fantasies. Projections. I’m careful not to do that — I want all my characters to be realistic, not be caricatures. The main female character in Wasted, Barb, is pretty damn complicated — she’s a smart and impressive woman who acts more confident than she feels, to the point that others think she bleed like everyone else. (Not so uncommon, if my experience is any barometer.)
I recently learned about the Bechdel Test, named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
I don’t have a lot of that in Wasted, mainly because it’s written in first person with a male protagonist. There’s some.
In Bones in the Wash, which I wrote second, but published first, I follow two protagonists, one a precocious young woman who’s running the Democracy Project campaign for Barack Obama in New Mexico in 2008. I’m happy to report that there are dozens of scenes that pass the Bechdel Test.