PEACE ON EARTH, BUT PLEASE, NOT IN FICTION
By Henry (Hank) Brown
To hear people talk, whether at the United Nations or the Miss Universe Pageant, everybody wants world peace. Maybe most of us really do—I haven’t conducted that poll. But with the exception of the My Dinner With Andre fans out there, nobody finds peace very entertaining.
Let’s face it: peace is boring! When you watch a movie or read a book, you’ll tune out if you go too long without some form of conflict. It’s conflict that keeps us turning pages. It’s confrontation, and tension, and anticipation of the showdown that inspires us to hold our bladders until the next commercial break.
As any would-be creative writing teacher will quickly tell you, there are many forms of conflict. You can find a lot of these in the movie Rocky III: Internal; external; physical; emotional; psychological. The conflict pickings are a little slimmer in Gerry. What’s that? You’ve never heard of Gus Van Sant’s cinematic masterpiece, Gerry? Yeah, there’s a reason for that.
Here’s a rule you can apply generally to fiction: the more literary a novel is, the more internal and psychological the conflict. In chick-lit, for instance, the conflict may never get much more intense than a protagonist forced to choose between visiting her dying mother with Alzheimer’s, commiserating with her recently-divorced BFF, or taking her present romantic relationship to the next level.
The more that critics turn their noses up at a given genre, the more overt the conflict. Take bodice-rippers and Harlequin romances: the conflict is either romantic or sexual…or both, but there’s nothing subtle about it. They are the embarrassing crazy aunt of the publishing world. No, make that the embarrassing crazy cash cow. On the other side of the chromosome fence are the male counterparts: westerns; military fiction; heroic fantasy; hard-boiled…all of which either became extinct, or changed so drastically that they might as well be extinct.
Untold millions of men turned to videogames or sports and gave up reading altogether in the 1990s. And it shows—peruse any social network for more than a minute and you’ll find that most males of Generation X and younger are incapable of writing, or comprehending, a coherent sentence. Punctuation? Conjugation? Spelling? Forget it. Vocabulary is shrinking. Contestants on Jeopardy look like geniuses because they are not intimidated by words with more than two syllables. Reading is for weirdoes. Why look up a something in the dictionary when you can just wait for the movie to come out? In fact, reading a book quietly is suspicious behavior (but I’m sure it can be treated with therapy and medication).
No doubt traditional publishers would claim they were just “putting out the trash.” Okay: to be honest, some of it was trash. Maybe even some of the stuff I loved, and remember fondly. But some of it was well-written, tightly plotted, thought-provoking, and defied formulaic constraints. Is it still to be looked down upon because it’s escapist in nature?
Hey, I need to escape, and on a regular basis.
Every bean counter in traditional publishing should be forced to watch Sullivan’s Travels at least once. In that Depression-era classic, a self-important film director who fancies himself a champion of the downtrodden masses learns via misadventure that the downtrodden masses don’t need to go to the movies to experience suffering. Nor do they want to. There’s more than enough suffering in real everyday life, thank you very much. At least for those of us who are not film directors or publishing moguls.
At roughly the same time I became a published author, I became a sort of crusader, as well. A knight-errant on a quest to restore the glory days of the forgotten genres listed above. An armchair Indiana Jones—that’s me: Henry Brown and the Lost Audience. I spanned the globe (or at least the Web), cherry-picking what few literary nuggets there were that could help us relive the glory days. When my searches proved fruitless, I turned to my private library, blew the dust off some of my old fond memories and gave them what publicity I could. I began adding one-liners to some of my own promotional copy like: “men’s adventure is coming back!” Lo and behold, some of my fellow revivalists began espousing variations on that theme.
I wanted to overcome the stigma associated with labels such as “men’s adventure” and “men’s fiction.” When people heard those terms, they conjured images of alcoholic hack writers banging out uninspired, poorly-written, chauvinistic pap full of pointless violence and purple-prose graphic sex. Or is it purple-prose graphic violence and pointless sex? No matter. The point is, there were some guys riding Don Pendleton’s coat tails who fit that description, more or less, and everyone writing men’s adventure suffered guilt by association.
I came up with an alternate name for the umbrella all those resurrected genres could fit under: dude-lit. My intention was that the term would become household, used for fiction rife with overt, physical conflict, but well-written and devoid of those stigmatic stereotypes.
I began using the term. So did maybe a couple other uppity new authors I met and conversed with. I routinely checked Bing and Google to track how the term was catching on. That’s how I learned “dude-lit” had been coopted. Evidently it is now being used to describe fiction with male characters in which the conflict may never get much more intense than a protagonist forced to choose between visiting his dying mother with Alzheimer’s, commiserating with his recently-divorced BFF, or taking his present romantic relationship to the next level. Chick-lit that pees standing up, in other words.
I should have trademarked it.
So “men’s adventure” it is, and to blazes with the stigma.
My new novel, Tier Zero, is full of overt, physical conflict—chases, martial arts, firefights—but there’s a helping of internal conflict too. There’s even a dash of sexual tension, to give the reader that warm, squishy feeling in between dollops of brutal violence. In that respect it’s a lot like my other published fiction.
But my books and I are far from alone. Take just the “military fiction” piece of the current men’s adventure pie: there are great reads out there coming from Jack Silkstone, Jack Murphy, D.R. Tharp, Peter Nealen, Jack Badelaire…look these guys up, and see if one of their books tickles your fancy. Their heroes are warriors with a sense of justice. Their villains are drug lords, terrorists, pirates, shadowy power brokers…the all-too-real individuals who dwell on the earth, preying on those without the ability to defend against them. The stakes are high, always. It goes with the literary territory.
The authors named above are not hacks. They take pride in their work, get the details right, and respect the intelligence of their readers. Even the big online stores are taking notice that men’s adventure is back; and readers are loving it.
True peace is a goal deserving of universality; but that doesn’t make it reality. Peace has to be won, then protected, or what you wind up with is not peace at all—just something labeled as such. It’s an age-old truth, and it makes for great fiction.
Reality sucks. There are too many wrongs and injustices to document, and society’s solutions to them are usually inept at best. At the core of most decent men is the hope that one man, or group of men, could act to change some aspect of the world for the better. Men’s adventure is an expression of that.
With that in mind, I predict there will always be a demand for such books, as long as there are men who know how to read.
Henry Brown is the author of Hell and Gone and Tier Zero, as well as virtual proprietor of Virtual Pulp Press, and the Two-Fisted Blogger.