The Aging Male Writer and his Vanishing Audience

This is a controversial subject. Let me make that clear at the outset. And I apologize in advance if I come across as that typecast “male, chauvinist p—”; that is certainly not my intention. But as I am one among this soon•to•be•extinct species, I thought I would get my thoughts on paper before the opportunity lapses.

Once upon a time, the majority of writers were men. Profligate and prodigious, they wrote on topics of adventure, war, espionage, crime, love and even ventured into poetry and literary fiction. This breed of writer was objectified as the epitome of the writing life. They made fortunes and squandered them. Women fell for their charms and got burned, but this only added to the writers’ mystique. And many of them died young, garnering permanent places in literary history. We still read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, and Miller. After WWII, the stereotypical male writer became a bit more disciplined, businesslike: Updike, Bellow, Irving and Roth come to mind, although a few renegades of the older gang still hovered, like Kerouac and Bolano. Why I picked these particular writers is because their subject matter was intended primarily for a male audience; their protagonists were men, often guys who had been shaped by two world wars, in search of their place in a changing world. Readers loved this stuff. These authors wrote for their “Me generation.” But their protagonists eventually started to age as the writers themselves got older, along with their male audiences.

And now the tide has definitely turned. Numerous surveys indicate that the majority of readers today are women. To the neutral observer and book lover, this is welcome relief because as male readers diminish, or get taken hostage by the Twitterverse or take up golf, the emergence of the new majority assures us of a continuing book reading public. As another aging male writer, Ian McEwan, wrote in The Guardian newspaper: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

The encroachment on the old boy’s writing club continues with pressure from readers and interest groups to publish more female authors and to include more female writers’ work in anthologies, magazines, literary awards and other bastions of recognition (and accompanying financial reward) where male writers held sway in the past. Again, an understandable shift as tastes and audiences change.

So where does that leave our aging male writer and his vanishing audience? Will he have to create female protagonists? Would male characters have to exhibit more of their dormant feminine sides in order to appeal to readers? Out with machismo and in with sensitivity? A tough job for an author who learned his chops in another camp; he will be like an immigrant trying to get a job in a new country, only it was once his country. Does he have to write under a female pseudonym, which I’m told happens regularly in the romance fiction genre? After all, George Eliot and one J.K. Rowling did it in reverse quite successfully.

Tempting options, all of them. But another side of me says that making this seismic level of a disguise will be a contrivance and will be untrue to the philosophy of the aging male writer. At the end of the day, it’s back to the essentials: (a) the quality of writing, and (b) having a message to say that resonates with the times—let the audience fall where it will. And if the aging male writer has to head off into extinction as a consequence, at least he will be contributing his spoor to the trail of evolution for future generations to study and appreciate.

I told you this was a difficult subject. Do I have any friends left, of either sex?

Less is More. Or is it?

I read a meritorious review of a novel in a national newspaper recently, which highlighted how in a single sentence the novelist describes a character’s worn trousers as containing “the urine he couldn’t cut off due to the cold, the semen from his last wet dream, cocoa spilled from the day before, snot he’d rubbed off, pus from his skin ulcers, blood from popped leeches, and homesick tears that he’d wiped away.”

Getting over my initial reaction, which was “Gross!” I pondered this passage at length, to figure out why the writer of today needs to provide so much detail, when we have been always prodded by the maxim of “less is more”.

I then tried to write the sentence the way Hemingway, that old master of the “clipped style” would have written it (and re•written it umpteen times, as he was known to do). Old Papa may have gone something like “and his soiled trousers were layered with the flotsam of life.” How would I have written it? Being a Hemingway acolyte, I may have tried, “His unwashed pants were full of crap.”

How much description does today’s average time•strapped reader with a diminishing attention span need? Does semen, pus, piss, blood and other bodily emissions shock us into paying attention? Do we need to be reminded of people we are not, in order to be curious enough to read on? Are we moving into a more sensory stage of literature, where not only dialogue, actions and narrative, but smells, sounds, discharges and other internal workings have to be turned inside out to engage us?

I was even more perplexed after reading that book review, and I tried to re•write some of my sentences in this new format. Here’s what I came up with as a sampler:
Original: “He wolfed down his breakfast and quickly exited the diner.”
Revised: “He stuffed pancakes into his cavernous mouth, syrup dripping down his lower lip; bacon bits crunched between his teeth and spewed on his neighbour as he tried talking at the same time. He choked on the last mouthful before spitting it back into his plate, where it sat in an unrecognizable gooey paste. He wiped his mouth with an already soiled napkin, smearing his face, threw his cutlery down with a loud clatter, belched into his hapless neighbour’s ear, and departed with a loud fart that filled the diner with the aroma of an undigested human mash•up of bacon, eggs, coffee, maple syrup, buckwheat, baked beans and strawberry yoghurt.”

Okay, I stopped at this point even though I could have waxed un•poetically on the description of that hurried meal, enough to fill a couple more pages, or until I had spewed out my own breakfast from being sickened by my own writing. Gross is addictive. For now, I think I am sticking to “less is more,” bland though my writing would be.

How would you have written that passage?