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On Men's Fiction

While I knew for quite some time that men provided most of the reading material I was forced to read throughout my school years (S.E. Hinton wasn't a man, but felt the cultural pressure to write as one, so I'll even count her among their numbers), it wasn't until I read Fight Club that I realized that there might be a place in the world of literature where my vagina was at least slightly unwelcome. 

Though I read the book, there were parts that maybe I couldn't read the way the author had intended for men to read. I didn't feel left out (*sniff*sniff*tear*), but I felt rather that I had gotten a fleeting glimpse into what it must be like to be a man—something my youth as a tomboy had left me to contemplate over the course of many awkward interactions and quiet midnights. Still, the concept of being a man and writing specifically for men was unaccessible to me on levels that I was both aware and unaware of. 

Later, as an adult, Hospital for Bad Poets by J.C. Hallman left me feeling unsatisfied in ways I hadn't expected. Beautifully written, each story had more to do with the state of being a suburban man than the last, and I found no truth within those pages that I could hold on to. A mystery, unintended. 

Cut to me coming across the Bull: Men's Fiction table at AWP, and feeling my blood boil. Men's fiction? I thought. More men than women get published every year. As if men need a journal to call their own. Who is the joker behind this bull? 

This joker is Jarrett Haley, a stay-at-home dad, who is very nice and very willing to talk about his mission because he is certainly not joking about creating a lit mag for men. In his own words, Haley explains: "The compulsion was to create what I wished existed already—a place that one could rely on for a reading experience that catered to male sensibilities, and explored and broadened male understanding. There was absolutely nothing like that out there. When I googled 'Men’s Fiction' and up came little more than gay erotica sites, I knew something was lacking. It was sad, really, and frustrating. But I figured I might quit whining and actually do something about it."

Truth: I wanted to write a very even-handed journalistic blog about this, but I just can't, because I don't think that this discussion can be presented in black and white.

When I first walked up to the Bull table and spoke with Haley, I was furious. "Men's fiction? What would you say to the idea that 80% of works published are written by men?" I asked. Haley looked at me, smiled a little and said, "Well, I don't know what I would say to that except that only 30-40% of readers are men...I want to get men off video games and reading again." Though this idea left me seething with rage—I can definitely serve as proof of the fact that playing video games and reading books are not mutually exclusive—over the past few weeks I have teetered back and forth between softening to the idea of publishing just for men and raging against the idea. 

On one hand, more men are published per year than women. And, while it's hazy on whether or not that is because more men submit work to publications than women, or that more editors accept work from men, it is also pretty clear that the market is dominated by women. Though (as NPR notes, if you follow that link) the difference in readership may have something to do with biology, perhaps it does have to do with cultural expectations, or something. (If you Google "Why men don't read" a lot of very interesting results turn up.) In those terms, more power to Bull

HOWEVER, I don't think it's fair to expect that one sex should read writings from the other, but not expect reciprocation. I feel similarly about the normalization of works by white (male) authors, while it becomes a cultural study to read works by any other ethnicity (or gender), thereby creating a culture where it is only under special circumstances that these valid stories be heard. 

I'm not really sure how to wrap this up. While I feel like men have enough in this world, and don't really need a special space carved out just for them anywhere, I can't argue too hard against something that's meant to get more people reading, even if those people aren't me. (This is weird because I don't hate programs that get kids reading even though I'm not a kid.) I guess that if I had to leave you with one takeaway here, I'd like to present all the women reading this with an idea: submit your work to Bull

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that they DO publish works by women (such as Sara Lippmann), but only if it will appeal to a male audience.

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