Not just for chicks: `It's strange to think men have abandoned fiction'

Even the greatest blessing can be a bit of a curse.

Ask Jennifer Weiner, author of the best-selling "The Guy Not Taken" and "Good in Bed," and Laura Moriarty, who wrote "The Center of Everything" and "The Rest of Her Life." Everywhere they go, they're faced with enthusiastic audiences of ... women.

Or mostly women.

"I've had to get over it," Moriarty said. "I think I resisted being typed as a `woman author.' But if I write something and thousands and thousands of people read it, who cares?"

"I do feel lucky at this point," Weiner said. "Publishers are very smart in realizing they have this audience and that they have to give this audience what it wants."

But you can hear the "Yes, but ..." in their voices. Yes, it's great to be successful. Weiner has 6 million books in print worldwide, including 2.5 million copies of "Good in Bed," and writes to positive reviews more often than not. (Publishers Weekly called "Good in Bed" "a must-read for any woman who struggles with body image or for anyone who cares about someone who does.")

Moriarty's audience is smaller yet significant; "The Center of Everything" has sold more than 60,000 copies in paperback.

But both believe that female authors remain marginalized. And that they've made compromises, not in their writing but as part of marketing decisions.

"At some point it became very clear there was going to be a flower on the cover of `The Center of Everything,'" Moriarty said with a good-natured laugh. "There are times I have to remember, `We're all on the same team.'"

Weiner, who lives in Philadelphia, long ago accepted that there were concessions she'd have to make. "Good in Bed" flaunts a pair of shapely female legs perched on a beach towel. "Goodnight Nobody" features a pair of shapely female legs in a pink dress. "Little Earthquakes" sports a tawny-haired woman holding her left hand to her shapely lips ...

Meanwhile, Don DeLillo's novel of 9/11, "Falling Man" is graced with a haunting skyscape. Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" has a rather abstract cover that incorporates buildings, a skull and a revolver.

It's easy to see what a semiotician would conclude here: Male fiction is sold according to the book's concept. Female fiction is sold on the concept that it's ... female fiction.

Those males who are reading, Moriarty said, have gravitated more to history and other nonfiction. Think of the male support for David McCullough's "John Adams" or Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air."

"Certainly what I'm seeing at fiction readings, and not just mine, are audiences made up almost entirely of women," Weiner said. "I'm really grateful from a purely personal point of view. But it is strange to think men have abandoned fiction and women have ceded the rest of the culture."

At her readings for "The Center of Everything," Moriarty was met with audiences that were 75 percent female. Furthermore, she said, the book industry has become something of a woman's world.

"My publisher is female. My editor is female. My agent is female. Even the independent booksellers tend to be women."

Yes, but ...

"When I go into a bookstore," Moriarty said, "and I want to find my book, it's usually with women's fiction. Why is that? When `Lord of the Flies' isn't filed as men's fiction? Or `Moby- Dick'? I enjoy reading about men. I read `Heart of Darkness.' But is there a ghetto of women's fiction? You start to think ... there's a big conspiracy of marketing."

"The Center of Everything" is a coming-of-age story involving a Kansas girl. Moriarty's follow-up also features strong female characters. The author lives in Lawrence, Kan., and has gotten used to being amused not only at how her industry labels her using gender but also her status as a Midwesterner.

Though "The Rest of Her Life," due out in August, is not a farm novel, the first cover featured a wheat field. The revised cover features a tawny-haired girl looking out at a wheat field.

"But there is a freedom in flying under the radar," Weiner said, "which is that we can use the canvas we've been given to deal with real issues in a way that's truly entertaining."

Fiction is the realm where writers deal with human interaction. Weiner thinks it's only natural that women would be good at it.

"We run the families. We make the relationships work. Every time I turn on Dr. Phil, there's some poor man who's obviously been dragged there by his wife or his mom. It seems to be our job to talk about communication, about what's working and what's not working, in relationships."

Then there's the book club trend. Some men participate in them, but many are exclusively populated by women. Moriarty appreciates them but also is tickled by some of her experiences.

"In one of them, the women were so drunk. That became clear in the first five minutes. I've been to others where they keep a ledger, and there are formal questions they ask - and if their members don't read the books, they kick them out."

There's one commonality, Moriarty says: "The food's always amazing."

There's a commonality of effect, too: They provide a ready market for books.

"Book clubs are a huge phenomenon in publishing now, and publishers are tailoring their market toward them," Moriarty says.

Moriarty and Weiner both say they will never let the marketplace, kind as it has been to them, dictate what they'll do in their writing.

Moriarty's "The Rest of Everything" will feature a father-son subplot. Weiner is "hard at work on a novel, the sequel to my first novel, `Good in Bed.' It's called `Certain Girls,' and it picks up the story of `Good in Bed' 13 years later. One character is getting a sex change; there's a girl we think is going to work better as a boy. I'm sure writing it is easier than doing it in real life."

While most of Weiner's books have been from a female perspective, whether written in first person or third-person limited, she does not rule out writing a tale from a man's viewpoint, even in a man's voice. If she does so ...

"I've done the work in terms of readings, book tours ... And I hope my readers would follow me. I think I'm always going to give them a style, a voice and a subject matter that's going to interest them.

"Even if it's wearing pants."