Thursday, 11 August 2005

Gabriele encouraged me to comment on Doug Hoffman's thoughts on Romantic Fiction for men. I left a comment there, but I have been thinking further on the subject.

Doug's question is "why is there no body of romantic fiction for men?" which I take to mean books that focus on relationships, and whose primary point of view is male.

I think that there are a few authors who fit this particular bill, of which Nick Hornby is easily the most obvious. One could argue that David Lodge writes romantic fiction too - after all, Nice Work is a reworking of North and South by Mrs Gaskell that has also been redone as a Mills & Boon historical, The Iron Master by Rachel Ford (I will leave out the rather sad story that brought this book to my attention a decade ago). I could probably fit a number of other works usually identified as Literary Fiction into Doug's category but his basic point holds true. There is no great chunk of mass-market men's fiction to match women's middle-market fiction, even allowing for different levels of book-buying by men and women.

I am not going to try and answer Doug's question fully right here, but I have a first hypothesis to float.

Georgette Heyer did not write specifically for women. Indeed her first novel, The Black Moth, was written for a man - her brother who was ill at the time. Heyer's books are not all written primarily from a female point of view. Some are, some are written primarily from a male point of view, and some are written with a fairly balanced combination of the two. However I am pretty certain that Heyer is read these days overwhelmingly by women. If we can understand why this is, we might have the beginnings of an answer to Doug's question.

So why is Heyer read so little by men? I think that it is primarily because most men know nothing about her writing. So many women say that they started reading Heyer in their teenage years, after (female) friends raved about her. Others seem to have been initiated by their mothers or other female relatives. Her popularity seems to have spread genuinely by word of mouth and by personal recommendation, but through a network - teenage girls, mothers and daughters - that is almost entirely invisible to most men (and boys).

All Heyer's historical novels have recently been reissued in paperback by Arrow, and they are selling very well. But I haven't seen much of an advertising campaign for them. The cover designs are very attractive - Regency paintings mostly - but it must be said that they are not aimed at attracting male readers. This suggests that Arrow are not particularly anxious to try to tap a potential male market, although one of Heyer's books, An Infamous Army contains a description of the Battle of Waterloo allegedly used to educate army officers.

Those very few men that I know who have ventured inside a Heyer novel have enjoyed them immensly. The covers are usually seen as a bit of a barrier - I suspect that the Heinemann Uniform Edition covers might have been easier to push - but the main problem is that this is a new author to most of them, of whom they have only heard, if at all, in connection with female readers. They simply don't believe that the books are for them.

So the brilliant Georgette Heyer struggles to find a male readership because of lack of word of mouth networking. Does this contribute to answering Doug's question - well, possibly. More on this tomorrow.


Douglas Hoffman said...

You're saying it's a marketing problem? I think you're correct. This may indeed be a big part of it.

As I see it, it's a Catch 22. No market, so publishers would be unlikely to pick up such an oddball story. If such novels aren't published, they can't create a market for more.

We may be talking about a unicorn: a cute idea, but it can't exist in the real world. But I don't think the novel I described is a mythical beast. There may be a market for it, and an explosive one at that.

Thanks for writing about this, Stephen.

Stephen said...

It is certainly in part (indeed in major part) a marketing problem. But I think that there may be another important factor involved which I will talk about later today.

Alexandra said...

I wonder if, in your comments about the lack of romantic fiction for men, you are overlooking the western. When I was a teenager, my sisters and I bought Harlequin (Mills & Boon) novels, while my brother bought westerns. We then traded and read each other's genres. Although not all authors wrote in a strong love element, authors such as Luke Short and Louis L'Amour were, in my opinion, the masculine equivalent of Harlequin's Mary Burchell and Anne Weale: very good writers writing variations on a primarily romantic theme. The two genres have always seemed to me very similar. There was more action and macho proving in the western novels, more feminine introspection in the romances, but they mostly were based on the bedrock of a love theme.
In the 1980s Harlequin in Canada did attempt to create a fiction series for men with the same kind of addictive quality as romance, and developed a series with the creator of the Mack Bolan Executioner books. I don't think those novels had a romance element, they were based on the warrior theme.
I always thought Harlequin should have looked more closely at the western romantic formula in that brave bid to spread the reading addiction to men. It seems to be a truism that men do not share the romantic dream with women, but still it is odd that the great purveyor of women's romance never made the experiment of bringing romance to men. There seems to be a cultural blindspot operating here.