W e’d eat navy beans and rice with ketchup once a week when I was a kid, but somehow there was always money in the budget for my sister and I to take a trip to the bookstore. My parents wanted me to read. And it caught on, sort of. After we moved to Texas in my seventh grade year, we discovered the joy of secondhand book buying. In the Half Price Books store downtown was a treasure of awesome titles.
The only problem was that I didn’t know how to find most of them.
For years, my Dad would take my sister and I to a bookstore, promptly disappear for an hour, then emerge with a war history or procedural novel. I’d wander through the children’s section (too young) or the adult fiction section (too boring), looking for a good story to read. I got very familiar with all of the books on pro football. Sometimes I even snuck into the photography section (wink, wink). Young adult fiction didn’t really exist yet, except for Judy Blume, and no self respecting boy would be caught dead with one of those. But I had no idea how to find a book I liked.
Eventually I started reading Stephen King novels. I wasn’t particularly a fan of horror, but I was thrilled at the allure of swear words, lots of violence, and occasional sex. I couldn’t believe my parents let me get away with it. Horror quickly became the genre with which I had the most familiarity, so for a junior English class short story assignment I wrote a short story called “Hourglass,” about a guy who dreams that he’s in a world of sand. My heavy symbolism didn’t make much sense, then or now, but my teacher apparently thought I could craft a sentence well. She helped me submit it to a national student literary magazine called Merlyn’s Pen. A few weeks later I was shocked to discover they’d accepted it. My more literary minded classmates were appalled that I had become the only published author in school. The irony was I thought they wrote better than me, and had more worthy subjects.
This victory against stodgy prose propelled me toward a career in writing. I wanted to try reading other styles of books, but it seemed the only two kinds I could find were schlock or what seemed to be a dense thicket of high literate prolixity. I gave up Stephen King as too juvenile, but struggled to find a replacement go-to author.
I needed help navigating the aisles.
I’m a more seasoned reader now, and can easily checkout with six or eight books. But to this day I struggle to find a favorite writer: one who employs a healthy vocabulary yet isn’t purple, one who enjoys plot but not to the detriment of character, and one who eschews tired genres to write about a topic that actually has relevance.
A lot of contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan and Richard Ford suffer from postmodern vacuity. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a powerful elegy on marriage but I couldn’t wade completely through his earlier book, The Corrections. I enjoy Pat Conroy but he sometimes needs a more rigorous editor. Individual titles from genre writers, such as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, have caught my attention (though not the sequel). Cormac McCarthy is good, though dark. Often I end up with a reflection on faith, biography, or memoir in my hand, such as the biography on Steve Jobs, something from Don Miller, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken or, currently, Lauren Winner’s Still. I have an equally hard time with industry-specific titles, for example communication or church leadership, as they’re often poorly written rehash of concepts that never seem to create traction.
I don’t want my kids to suffer from the same struggle, a reader who has a hard time finding a great author. Today I mimicked my father’s practice and took my kids to a nearby used bookstore (praise Jesus for Bookmiser), except I scanned the shelves with them, suggesting titles. At checkout, we’d selected $50 worth of new books. My son Christian picked up Harry Potter for the first time (I’ve been waiting on the books and films so I can experience them together with my kids). I am excited about a now more clearly defined young adult target market, though perhaps with less of the ghoulish undead, and have hopes he won’t struggle like a have.
Do other guys have the same issues? I venture to say yes. While in publishing I learned that 85% of book buyers are women. What’s the chicken (or the egg) here? Maybe most buyers are women because publisher notions of the male book reader are so limited. What do you do if you’re a male reader perpetually searching for something between the poles of Sparks and Spillane?
Any recommendations for a favorite author? Any thoughts on other adult male readers? Am I in the minority, or are men actually a massive, untapped market?