For several years now, I’ve been writing for Renaissance Magazine, a bi-monthly publication for people who enjoy Renaissance Faires. I write the occasional article–mostly lighthearted stuff such as “The Rise of the Codpiece: A Short History”–and reviews of books and CDs. It’s fun, and it gives me a chance to revisit my background in music and history. But recently my involvement with the magazine took a turn that’s closer to toward my day job: fantasy novels.
Renaissance Faires tend to be a blend of history and fantasy, so it makes sense that the editor wants to include reviews of fantasy novels, particularly those with pseudo-medieval and -Renaissance settings. I had to blink, though, when he referred to them as “boy books.”
In context, I know exactly what he means: something to balance the historical romance novels with elaborately gowned and inexplicably headless women on the cover. Something with dragons and swords and combat and adventure. I get it. But seriously, “boy books?”
When I started writing Forgotten Realms novels in the early 90’s, fantasy publisher TSR described their audience as “highly imaginative males aged 12-40.” Back then, the fantasy game convention Gen Con was one of those rare events where there was a line for the men’s room, but women could waltz right through. I’ve seen a huge shift in demographics over the past 20 years, and I suppose I’d assumed we were past the notion of fantasy as a men’s club. But every now and then, something happens to remind me that certain notions die hard–the recent online kerfuffle over the Nebula nominations, for example, which apparently included more women and insufficiently Angl0-Saxon males for some people’s peace of mind.
Back to RenMag and the review column. I have no problem with the notion of reading and reviewing books that appeal to men. How could I? I’ve written more than 20 books of my own, most of them for publishers whose demographic is skewed toward the Y chromosome. But I never assumed that fantasy adventure books, mine or anyone else’s, excluded either gender, and I don’t buy that asssumption now.
So I’ll be reviewing two books for each issue, and I’m going to select books with the editorial guidelines and the target audience in mind. My first selection, James Enge’s excellent book A Guile of Dragons, has a badass fighter on a gorgeous, grim cover. Testosterone for the win! But it also has links to Arthurian lore, a topic held in high regard by readers of both genders. And when I consider the very fine writing, complex characters, deft dry humor, and the wealth of incident and imagination, I have a hard time concluding that this book will be read by more men than women.
Here’s the thing: Women like a wide variety of books. We do not require love triangles, sexy vampires, snarky dialog, long descriptions of skanky wardrobe choices, and a play-by-play of softcore sex scenes. Sure, some female readers like some or all of these elements, at least some of the time. I like the Sookie Stackhouse books (not the TV series), but I also read mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, big dusty history tomes, and a wide variety of non-fiction. I’ve never thought of any of these as “boy books.” Just…books. And I have good reason to believe that I am not alone in this opinion.