Author Joyce Carol Oates (full disclosure: while I have never met her, my [now late] uncle was a friend) tweeted the other day of how she has been told by an agent that young white men are unable to catch a break lately in writing fiction:
Unsurprisingly that tweet set off a by now standard Twitter “pile on.” Thousands seized upon those few words and bombarded (and are still doing so) her for being… uh, old and white and she should delete that and who the hell is she anyway she has been irrelevant for 40 years and she is defending men who are finally getting what they deserve and here is my “ten” tweets in reply detailing the history of patriarchal publishing, etc., and so, and so on. You know the Twitter drill by now: all the sorts of stuff that makes Twitter such a useful place for “discussion.”
Reading some of those negative tweets, I could only also laugh that for anyone seriously to feel Oates is somehow a “conservative” shows how infected by extremism our politics – and, especially, how deranged a place Twitter – has by now become. I do wonder too how many of those “incensed” tweeters have ever read anything she has published? Or indeed how many of them have even barely or even never heard of her before seeing that tweet?
That said, tweeting just about any opinion could get you run over on Twitter. Its entire setup – a few words pushed out that may be “retweeted” over and over and over and over without additional context easily at a click – is practically made for “machine-gunning” users who end up in the line of #hashtag fire, which is great for money-making for Twitter in that such keeps users tweeting and that is exactly what Twitter as a company wants users to do because users are then also seeing ads. All regardless of the damage it may wrought. While such possible damage is of little consequence for a long-established personality like Oates, I do not recommend new authors (or indeed anyone, really) use Twitter, and especially not under your real name. It is far more potentially dangerous to your career than potentially helpful.
Some far less known users, though, have risked asserting they believe she is to some extent speaking reasonably, such as this “white male writer”:
Twitter fury aside, interestingly many in the actual publishing business have sensed for some time there may be an “issue” here. For there is certainly something to women dominating fiction reading… and now increasingly writing, too. This Guardian piece from 2021 told us:
Its woman writer points out here in these excerpts:
…do men, or at least male readers, actually want a look-in? Whenever I speak to men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most tell me they couldn’t give a toss about fiction, especially literary fiction. They have video games, YouTube, nonfiction, podcasts, magazines, Netflix. Megan Nolan, whose debut novel, Acts of Desperation, is one of this year’s biggest literary hits, says: “The only men I know who actively seek out and read fiction work in that field. I don’t think many men I know would read more than one novel every two years.”…
…There is clearly a hegemony emerging in the publishing world, one that [Sharmaine] Lovegrove [the founder of Dialogue Books, an imprint she created to spotlight writers from marginalised communities who were being excluded from mainstream publishing] refers to as “white feminism”, which threatens to make fiction stale and predictable, as well as alienating potential young male readers. It’s both amusing and dismaying that the publishing insiders I speak to all seem to identify their archetypal reader as a 28-year-old white woman who grew up in Buckinghamshire or Oxfordshire. The Jamaican novelist Marlon James said something similar in 2015 when he won the Booker prize – only for James that “archetype of a white woman” was a long-suffering, middle-aged suburban reader. He argued that because these kind of women made up the vast majority of the fiction-buying market, authors of colour were being made to “pander” to them.
But I think we should be wary of shaming the women whose enthusiasm, passion and investment keeps the whole industry afloat. And there is also the question of whether for all their visibility, women are yet afforded the same cultural respect as the male novelist. There’s a danger that the novel gets dismissed as a feminised form, especially since the history of the novel, from its 18th-century origins, was rooted in the idea of it as frivolous literature for leisured women who didn’t receive a formal education in science or politics. It was male writers such as Samuel Richardson, as well as a generation of male critics, who were seen to professionalise fiction writing…
Aside from this being “the present day,” nothing is really all that new in that. If women are most of today’s novel readers, women have indeed been most novel readers since 1800; in comparison, men have never been nearly as interested in novel-reading. Male novelists even a century ago knew that women were their primary readers: Scott Fitzgerald, for one, was well aware most of his readers for The Great Gatsby were women.
What has happened in recent years is women are now deservedly getting published in greater numbers than ever before. As a result are some male (and white) writers finding “the door locked” to them? Sure. But that is so because what they write is not something publishers believe enough readers want to read.
From my little corner here of the authoring universe, you may be surprised to learn here that I cannot get all worked up about this sort of thing. But I will say that as with many things in life, follow the money. Publishing is not a charity or a social experiment and never has been.
If publishers here in Britain believe the bulk of their readers are predominantly “28-year-old white women who grew up in Buckinghamshire or Oxfordshire,” of course they will publish authors and books they believe will sell to that readership. I don’t think publishers really give a darn if male authors will sell books or female authors will sell books… or about an author’s race or anything else. They just want to sell books.
I cannot do anything about my race, (ever-increasing) age, or that I am a male, heterosexual, white, and American (although I suppose I could indeed change that last easily; but I would never be able to change having been born in the U.S.), and writing from here in England. However advantaged or disadvantaged I may be by any of that, what I do know for sure by now is broadly speaking most of my readers are women and most of those women are not Americans. So in being read by those women I suppose I must be doing something right as an – even (increasingly) “old,” white, male, and American – author.
And if I am honest, I am pleased the mass of my readers are not dunderheaded men. LOL!
Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂
Whichever side of this particular Twitter war one happens to be on, studies show that women read more for pleasure than men do—present company excluded, of course—and in the final analysis, as you pointed out, “Publishing is not a charity or a social experiment and never has been . . . I don’t think publishers really give a darn if male authors will sell books or female authors will sell books… or about an author’s race or anything else. They just want to sell books.” Ah, Twitter . . . Sigh . . .
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As someone else correctly said, write on Twitter, “I don’t like apples…” and watch the lunatic pile on you commence for having the temerity to have such an opinion… DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT!
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