I Am Not a Target Market: Robert Wiersema VS. Steven Beattie

OK and we're back with another installment in my mini-series that looks at the habits of the modern male reader. I put the word out on Twitter asking for participants and both Robert Wiersema and Steven W. Beattie gamely answered my call. Rob and Steven are both well-known in the Canadian literary scene - the former is an author, critic and bookseller and the latter a critic and staffer at the industry mag Quill and Quire. They both also have excellent taste in TV shows.

With this sort of opportunity on my hands I just couldn't resist submitting the same questions to them both so I could stack up their answers. Below are Rob's answers and Steven's will follow tomorrow (I think, he hasn't submitted them yet so I hope he's not reading this. Doesn't make the process exactly scientific but what the hey, we're not splicing genes here).

Over the past two weeks we're heard from bookseller Eric Rountree and avid reader Mike Astbury. Both are big sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts but they also professed to love books that may not have been intended for them (such as The Gargoyleand The Time Traveler's Wife) and they didn't feel particularly attracted to fiction "by guys for guys." Here I take a look at how the reading habits of two men formed and evolved over time and the place of books in their lives:

B: Tell us about yourself!

I'm Robert J. Wiersema. I'm a writer and reviewer, author of Before I Wake and The World More Full of Weeping and an untamed, sort-of unnamed tome due out this fall with Random House. I also run the author events series and do the PR for Bolen Books in Victoria. I don't have much in the way of hobbies, (the perils of having three jobs), and my obsessions are best left... um, yeah. Best left.

In my downtime, I hang with my wife and my son, Xander, who, at age ten, is working his way again through the Dr Who canon, having already mastered Buffy and Angel.

B: You're a bit of a fixture in the Canadian literary community so I'm guessing that you were an early and avid reader. What got you reading and what sort of books appealed to you as a boy?

I started off, IIRC, with non-fiction books. When I was a wee lad, I devoured books about dinosaurs. A couple of years, I grew pumpkins in my grandmother's garden and sold them before Halloween to be able to afford dinosaur books that I saw at the L&J department store. From there, I got into the usual stuff -- the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift. Then to Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, a series which I'm pretty sure you had to be under ten in the late 70's to even recall.

B: What was the first book that really stuck with you when you were younger and why?

Well, not single books, perhaps, but two series. First off, John Bellairs' novels featuring Lewis & Rose Rita: The House With the Clock in Its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch and the Ring. These books scared the shit out of me, and they featured, in Lewis, a pudgy ten-year-old bookworm as their hero. I could relate.

Second were Madeleine L'Engle's novels which later became The Time Quartet, but were only a trilogy when I read them: A Wrinkle in Time, The Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I think those appealed because anything could happen. And did.

Actually, looking at Bellairs and L'Engle it strikes me: my earliest permanent reading revolved around domestic situations into which the fantastic intrudes... that might explain a lot about my own work.

B: How have your reading habits evolved over the years? You obviously have to read a lot for work but what else dictates your choices?

I've gone through stages with my reading. When I was in university, I fell in with a bad crowd - deconstructionists - but I pulled myself out before I was consumed. Since then, I've been liberated, governed only by whimsy. When I'm not being paid to read something, or not reading for research, I tend to go with what suits my mood. Sometimes non-fiction, sometimes fiction - there's really no single answer.

That being said, one of the great things about being a freelance reviewer is that my life is made up of a lot pitching. And those pitches are generally to review books that I'm interested in reading. On a good day, like today, I get the opportunity to have my cake and eat it, too.

B: Do any of your philosophies on life come from the books you've read? If so, do the books tend to be fiction or non-fiction?

I've never actually framed it that way, but I suppose that's the case, yeah. As I look down at my forearms, I see two of my philosophies tattooed there, permanent reminders. The first, on my left inner forearm, is from John Crowley's Little, Big: The things that make us happy make us wise. And on my right inner forearm is a bit of Latin -- Omnia mutantur, nihil interit - Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost - Ovid, by way of Neil Gaiman's The Absolute Sandman, Volume 1. [Note from B: these are fiction titles and both could be classified as fantasy].

B: What male protagonists, if any, do you identify with? Female protagonists?

I tend to identify, assuming the writer has done a decent job, with the protagonist of whatever I'm reading, regardless of gender. As for longer lasting identifications, they're both male: TS Garp from John Irving's The World According to Garp, and Smoky Barnable from Little, Big.

B: Do you tend to read books by male or female authors or does the author's gender matter to you?

I tend to not really notice, to be perfectly honest.

B: Really? You've cited mostly male authors above

I suspect I DO read more books by male authors, but that's not by choice. Rather, the areas that I tend to read in tend to be more male dominated. Sure, there are female sci-fi/fantasy authors, and I do read some, but there are more male writers in that field. Ditto comics and mystery/crime fiction. I don't read romance, so there's no opportunity to redress the balance that way. And I don't tend to read books about shopping, so that area's out too. As far as making a choice, though, it doesn't make any difference to me whatsoever, and it's not a factor in my choosing.

B: What do you think of this distinction: books written for men/women versus books written about men/women?

I think it's a crucial distinction, and one that gets overlooked. And that's putting aside the whole marketing issue.
And one that I can speak to, personally.

My forthcoming novel is very male -- it focuses on a male protagonist, at once deeply in love with and at odds with his estranged wife, trying to be a good father, trying to be a good man. And then, as one might expect from my books, weird shit starts to happen, but that masculinity is at the core of the book. That's what it's about.

HOWEVER, it was written with an awareness of women, if not directed at them, necessarily. It wasn't written for women, but there was definitely an awareness, as I was working on it, that it would be read, as most books are, BY women, in the main. It was a bit of a balancing act.

Thanks Rob! Could there be a better character name than Smoky Barnable? And could someone please send me a coherent definition of deconstructionism? Tomorrow (I hope, stay tuned to Twitter) we have Steven W. Beattie at the bat.


lisamedia said...

Deconstruction: What we experience is all about social context, so we need to understand the context before understanding the experience!

Great interview. And Rob, despite your "bad crowd" at uni, one of the reasons you appeal to women through your male characters is that you have an intrinsic ability to write post-structurally. We understand the fundamental why of each character, whether or not you wanted Foucault's interference.

B.Kienapple said...

Post-structuralism (from Wikipedia): Post-structuralists hold that the concept of "self" as a separate, singular, and coherent entity is a fictional construct. Instead, an individual comprises tensions between conflicting knowledge claims (e.g. gender, race, class, profession, etc.). Therefore, to properly study a text a reader must understand how the work is related to his or her own personal concept of self.
It's been too long since that English major.

Hamlet2007 said...

Deconstruction: most often associated with the work of Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, deconstruction derives from the work of Martin Heidegger, who uses the term de-structure to grasp the idea of comprehending an experience and reducing it to its essence. Famously for the Greens, Heidegger talked about seeing a forest but seeing instead "standing reserve" -- that is lumber in an earlier form. Heidegger wanted us to bracket out instrumental reason and get back to the essence of things. For Derrida, deconstruction is a pragmatic method for grasping a fundamental aspect of something so that you can see how it enables "play" within the structure of reason: the lingering question remains how much utility such slides of meaning enable. Paul DeMan's use of the term differs, as these terms do with all serious thinkers. Post-Structuralism is really a period term used now to describe the theoretical conversation circa 1968 and the lingering influence that moment has on current discussions. But actually all I wanted to say is I found the interviews on male reading habits interesting!

B.Kienapple said...

Hamlet2007 - I thought it was a long time since my English degree but even longer since those meager philosophy courses I took in uni. Heidegger used to be a favorite of mine, though - he walks this fine line between being practical and mystical.


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