One thing that I’ve realized as I’ve done more writing over the past several years, probably very obvious to others, is how fiction writing styles can vary as much as paintings. Some are abstract, stylized, bearing little resemblance to what we recognize as real life (though I would argue that the characters need to be recognizable to us for us as readers to engage with the novel), while on the other extreme are novels so realistic they resemble those paintings which we keep approaching, coming closer and closer until we can distinguish the brush strokes, so much do they resemble photographs.
I’m glad I see this now, because it helps me recognize and accept my own writing style. I’m NOT one of those hyper-realistic authors. I’m somewhere in the middle. I hope my characters speak to my readers, but I’m not strictly presenting “life,” and maybe I never will, and that’s probably okay, because I hope I’ll have readers out there who want to read my type of fiction, with the gloss I put on it.
This knowledge has also tweaked my experience as a reader. Case in point: I’ve just finished a book, by a very highly-regarded author, and it’s probably a book I should have put down partway through. And here’s why: I didn’t relate to his main female character. On the surface she seems well-rounded, but underneath? As I kept progressing from page to page, I tried to pinpoint what was “wrong.” It was sort of what she focused on, what she decided to tell, whom she did, and did not, associate with. And, ultimately, it was her fate. What rankled was the fact that this author’s name and “realism” have been coupled by book reviewers. Not that this is really his fault. And then I recalled a book I read earlier this year, by another literary giant, which left me feeling the same way, worse even. The female characters in both of these books seem to revel in being apologetic, focus a good deal on the sexual prowess of their men, are quite beautiful, and, ultimately, are dumped, duped, or (worse) absolved by their lovers. These are women I might recognize in bits and pieces, but these are not women I relate to in the end. Because I didn’t buy the characters, I didn’t end up caring much about the plots either. I started feeling that everything was rather cardboard, despite the admittedly lovely writing.
In no way do I want to imply this is my usual response to novels by men. Earlier this week I finished Canada by Richard Ford. He can make you believe that the individuals in his books could walk up and meet you at any time, male or female. He is a master of characterization and description. Truly a phenomenal writer. I will read anything he writes and bet I’ll never have a reaction such as the one I described above.
It all comes down to this, then. I write mainly for women, and I think this is probably good. Women will most likely identify with my male characters, because they’ll recognize the men. Men maybe not so much, because I’m not a man and I’m not Richard Ford. The difference is, I’m not going to pretend I know all about being a man and have portrayed him exactly, when in actuality he’s a veiled stereotype.
This also means I’ll be more astute when I choose books, or feel comfortable with the idea of not finishing something that doesn’t sit right with me. I now know there’s a (perhaps small) sub-genre of literary fiction that I want to stay away from, that will masquerade as something I’d want to read, but that will leave me disappointed and unengaged. The female characters in these books did not speak to me, are not truly meant for me. It was my mistake to believe they would be more than they turned out to be.