Monday, August 28, 2006

Marcus Sakey's bookshelf

I already know the title of the first novel of 2007 that I'll read: it's The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey.

Why this book? Just check out some of the advance praise it's received:
"Excellent. Like vintage Elmore Leonard crossed with classic Dennis Lehane."
- Lee Child, author of One Shot

"A rocket--taut, involving, and memorable. An authentic, original new voice."
- George Pelecanos, author of Drama City

"Superb. The pace of Tarantino and the elegance of Ellroy."
- Ken Bruen, author of The Guards
That sounds like my kind of book. And there's more where that came from.

I learned about Marcus's book from "The Outfit," a blog he shares with six other Chicago-area crime writers. Clicking a few links, I found his online bio; and then...

I was struck by how many of the authors he name-checked on his site that are also among my favorites: Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Lehane, Palahniuk, Cormac McCarthy, Pete Dexter, Ian McEwan, etc etc.

These are not only writers I like--these are writers I've read every novel they've written (OK, maybe two or three have slipped by my radar), some three or four times.

Something else caught my attention: only one woman writer made Marcus's list--and the one book of hers that I read didn't really strike a chord with me.

Now, I don't expect most people who love Ellroy to love Penelope Fitzgerald--in fact, I once posted an item saying just that. But when I think about a fine genre-busting novel like Mystic River, I also think of (say) Patricia Highsmith's great The Talented Mr. Ripley. When I think of Pelecanos' Washington DC, I'm reminded of Laura Lippman just up the highway in Baltimore.

When I think of McEwan--I've posted on the blog my belief that Atonement may be the best novel I've read that was written in the last quarter-century--I'm reminded that I liked Kate Atkinson's Case Histories better than McEwan's Saturday (which I did like).

I imparted no significance to Sakey's choices or omissions: I strongly suspected he simply listed only a few of his favorite authors.

Then again, maybe his choices fit somewhere in my vague hypothesis about "boy books" and "girl books."

So I put the issue to him. Here's his reply:
[In] answer to your question: You're correct in your assessment that the list on my web site is by no means inclusive. There are plenty of other authors, male and female, whose work thrills and guides me.

That said, your question forced me to take a long look at my bookshelf, and I was surprised at the result. While there are plenty of female novelists represented, they're outnumbered about ten to one. It's a ratio I find a little disconcerting, as it wasn't rooted in a conscious decision-- rather, it just seems to have turned out that way.

However, when it comes down to it, I do believe that men and women write differently. We also make love differently and view death differently. Neither good or bad. But distinct.

When people discover something they enjoy, they want more like it. Thus Dennis Lehane leads to George Pelecanos, or David Foster Wallace leads to David Mitchell. And because there are stylistic differences in the way the genders write, it's easy to end up with an imbalanced shelf.

I guess I'm forced to admit that by and large, I prefer the way men write. Topically, my tastes span the gamut, from Pynchon's meandering post-modernism to Cormac McCarthy's testosterone-drenched fatalism, but with me, the odds favor male writers.

However, there are plenty of female authors whose work amazes me. I think Tess Gerritsen is one of the finest thriller novelists working today, a master of tension and pace who writes like the devil. Laura Lippman's books are possessed of a subtle understanding of emotional architecture that leaves me breathless. Reading Zadie Smith is like lighting off bottle rockets from your couch. My friend Tasha Alexander crafts luminous prose that charms and enchants. I powered through Ann Patchett's Bel Canto in one long session, begrudging every bathroom break. While men may have the statistical advantage, they by no means own the game.

An interesting observation, Marshal, and I appreciate the opportunity to explore it. I'm curious, what about those of you tuning in? Does your taste split on gender lines? Before you answer, be sure to look at your bookcase....
What a wonderful answer: not only does it solve my mini-mystery and say something interesting about the way we read and write, but there are some great recommendations for reading there.

Also, there's an invitation to others to let us know if
your literary taste splits on gender lines. You can contact me at bolling dot binx at gmail dot com or visit Marcus at "The Outfit" or his home site. He happens to have some very helpful advice for writers at both places.

Many thanks to Marcus for the input. The Blade Itself is due in January 2007: read an excerpt here.

--Marshal Zeringue