Tuesday, 6 September 2011


I have a confession. A portion of my reading diet comprises what I dub 'Man-Fiction'. A Man-Fiction book will: be heavily plot-driven; be vast in scope; involve people either in or aspiring to high office; rely heavily on battle and/or intrigue; have little or no character development in its expansive cast; be subject to accusations of misogyny; have bland prose driving on its sprawling plot. Done well, Man-Fiction is tremendously entertaining to read, even though probing examinations of the human soul may be subordinated to weapon statistics.

This post is a response to mockery I have read, and received personally, of such works. As such, all books of this nature are often assumed to be artless, worthless genre-fiction churned out by third-rate authors for a quick buck. I don't deny that this is often the case, and don't presume to defend it all. Equally, it doesn't all deserve to be tarred by the same brush.

Before refuting that, though, let us state that there is nothing wrong with reading artless genre fiction, and not dieting solely on what Jeeves called 'improving books'. What a reader chooses to enjoy between the covers is his own business, improving or not. I try to eat 'improving' food, but I'm not above the odd guilty pleasure, though like any self-respecting foodie I at least stick to good-quality treats where possible. Likewise, better good Man-Fiction than bad.

As for misogyny, my term of 'Man-Fiction' stereotypes its readers as being men, or at least male. In my experience this is overwhelmingly the case, but this is descriptive rather than proscriptive. Provided people don't look down on people because of their choice of anatomy, it's fine for men and women to want to do whatever they like; perhaps they will tend to like and to do different things, and that's fine. Man-Fiction itself is criticised for its abundance of male characters, and either paucity or ill-treatment of its female characters. Given that it's almost invariably set either in history or in the military (often both), this is hardly surprising, and generally realistic. It seems churlish to expect that the gender values of some modern societies should be grafted anachronistically into historical settings, however one may agree with those values - some reviewers appear to disagree.

Anyway, back to art. Not all Man-Fiction is artless, and if you dismiss as worthless anything with bland prose, thin characters, and expansive plot, then you get in trouble.

Der Ring Des Nibelugen.

I don't suggest a gender imbalance in its appreciation, but it certainly fulfils the above criteria for Man-Fiction. It's not above criticism, but describing it convincingly as 'not art' is going to require some powerful arguments. Sure, there's an appealing profusion of phenomenal music and musicianship in the Ring, but separate that from the libretto and you miss the whole point of Wagner's drama. The Ring is art, and it is Man-Fiction, therefore some Man-Fiction is art, therefore not all of it is worthless.

By all means mock Tolkien, or Robert Harris, or even George R.R. Martin if it's not your thing, but don't dismiss it as being devoid of merit. I for one regard a well-constructed, intricate, and epic plot to be an art in itself. I'll happily tear apart literary fiction for shallow characters or lifeless prose, but if prose and characters are your currency then you must spend them wisely. Man-Fiction trades on other assets.

I'm off to indulge in a little fantasy - not in the sense of goblins and dragons, but in the sense of dreaming. Dreaming of times and places where men fight for themselves and for what they believe in, and have the chance to be honourable, valourous, chivalrous, gallant, heroic. Virtues indeed. In my life I aspire to these things in my own small way, but it cannot be denied that a software engineer has fewer chances for valour than a knight, or an SAS trooper - and in this fiction, art or not, the basic urge for such virtues gains what vicarious satisfaction it can hope for. Is that so wrong?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite right. Easy to dismiss things because they're not sufficiently highbrow. Mere snobbery. And I bet Jeeves wasn't above a bit of cheap fiction when he thought nobody was looking.
I am now off to curl up with some Spinoza.