The Pop of King

Stephen King: Who Says Real Men Don't Read?

EW's pop-culture columnist takes a Beretta and blowtorch to the idea that men don't read

Nothing to Lose | LEE CHILD Stephen King calls his Jack Reacher the coolest continuing series character now on offer, a prime example of ''manfiction''
LEE CHILD Stephen King calls his Jack Reacher the coolest continuing series character now on offer, a prime example of ''manfiction''

Stephen King: Chick lit vs. 'Manfiction'

If you catch publishing types in a ''don't quote me'' mood, they'll tell you the male audience for fiction is disappearing. Agents and editors are constantly on the lookout for the next hot female writer, and why not? At the end of August, 7 of the 10 New York Times hardcover fiction bestsellers were by women, and that doesn't even include Stephenie Meyer's mega-selling Breaking Dawn (which the Times considers kid lit, thus not meriting a place on the adult list).

But, to misquote Mark Twain, reports of the male reader's death have been greatly exaggerated. Women have chick lit; guys have what my son Joe (as in Joe Hill) calls ''manfiction.'' And publishers sell it by the ton. Here's a concept so simple it's easy to miss: What men want from an Elmore Leonard novel is exactly what women want from a Nora Roberts novel — escape and entertainment. And while it's true that manfiction can be guilty of objectifying women, chick lit often does the same thing to men. Reading Sandra Brown or Jodi Picoult, I'm sometimes reminded of an old Julie Brown song, ''I Like 'Em Big and Stupid.'' One memorable couplet goes, ''My father's out of Harvard, my brother's out of Yale/Well, the guy I took home last night just got out of jail.''

Is this a bad thing? From an entertainment standpoint, I'd say not. Women like stories in which a gal meets a handsome (and possibly dangerous) hunk on a tropic isle; men like to imagine going to war against an army of bad guys with a Beretta, a blowtorch, and a submachine gun (grenades hung on the belt optional).

And current manfiction certainly gives women a better deal than they got in the pulps of yesteryear, when most were presented as barracuda debs in frilly negligees. Robert B. Parker, who chronicles the hard-bitten exploits of that manfiction avatar Spenser (no first name), is also the creator of Sunny Randall, a PI who has had her own hard-bitten exploits. And while it's easy to become exasperated with Spenser's longtime partner, Susan Silverman, sooner or later Spenser and his pal Hawk always spring into action. Often with a .38 or a .12-gauge shotgun.

Alex Delaware, Jonathan Kellerman's entry in the manfiction sweeps, also has a longtime female companion. Robin Castagna is less annoying than the navel-gazing Ms. Silverman, but both need rescuing from time to time, and saving the damsel in distress has been a satisfying part of good manfiction since the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair went without their underwear. Also, Alex has a gay sidekick, Milo Sturgis. If that doesn't make him a 21st-century dude, what does?

NEXT: The founding fathers — and sons — of manfiction

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