This is part 1 in a discussion about differences between (in my personal and limited experiences) reading literary fiction written by men vs what’s written by women… specifically, with regards to pacing. As an avid reader of fantasy action, mythology, historical fiction, ghost stories and legal/detective stories, I’ve really noticed a big difference in pacing through action sequences and character development throughout the plot depending on the author’s gender.
One thing I’ve noticed is, men tend to do chapter after chapter of battle-scenes, or solving a puzzle, or going at something, driven by an overall journey towards the prize. Each chapter almost reads like a closed room in a videogame where the player has to do a set number of things given the tools he has in order to pass a level, or gain a lifepoint, and move on. Enemies are dead, places blown to bits, and then a new chapter opens somewhere else, where developments will ultimately lead to another mexican standoff.
This has to do with the motivation drivers of men, right. From the Martian point of view (if you subscribe to John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus propositions), men have a basic need to achieve and solve puzzles and overcome hurdles and hunt something down (food). Millions of years of evolution have (hard)wired them that way. So from the point of view of male protagonists, dopamine-fed stimulation comes from the hunt, the chase, the battles, etc. The reward system is all about nailing that prize. Testosterone shoots up, pupils dilate, and men feel good about themselves. They’ve just established their self-worth. Heroism by association. Hook, line, and sinker! They love it!! More! More!!
From a pacing point of view, you then have books that read like RA Salvatore’s The Companions, Dan Brown’s Dante’s Inferno, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Ultimatum, etc. etc. Very notable works of fiction that drive potentially lucrative transmedia franchises across the board. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to criticize what evidently translates into millions of sales revenues and loyal fans worldwide. These books are exciting and they totally keep me at the edge of my (tanning) chair. I think there is lots of value to fast-paced action sequences and scenes.
But — it does get tiring. I do not have as much testosterone flooding my brain as I do estrogen. A brainscan of my brain is going to show slightly different sized left and right brain hemispheres than those of an average guy’s my age. Biology and evolution dictates that our experiences of space and time is different. I’m reading these swordfights and explosions going, ‘oh god!’ (cower), ‘oh god!’ (cower), wait, he/she is dead (winces)? Already (shudders)? The guy is wounded, and has moved on (sniffles)? Already (blinks)?! Wait, they just killed a whole bunch of orcs (ever noticed how there are orcs everywhere, like hundreds and hundreds of them, in practically all fantasy action books — they come out of nowhere like indian chorus dancers in bollywood movies — it should be a trope!), aren’t they going to sit down and talk about it?! What? No? Not even for a couple of sentences? Packed their horses and moving on, already? Wait, only 1 paragraph of reminiscing all of that? Doesn’t the hero who slayed all those orcs need to look around for a place to nap or take a beer or go write a WhatsApp note to his folks or something? Seriously?
Now… in real life… if my best friend just found out he’d lost his job, or if my relative had just succumbed to stage 4 cancer, or my coworker finalizes her divorce… stress level up to 11, mind you… I would need a massive time out. I would suggest that we talk about it. Someone would inevitably pour their heart out, vent, have a good cry, before distracting themselves with chocolates and tequila. We’d say — go get through the work day, and come back and figure something out some more. People would want to listen. We’d go forwards a few recommended tactics and then circle back to see whether what we’ve done really solved the problem, and how does everyone feel, now? OK, and do we have a long-term plan to cope? Is everyone properly communicated with, does everyone feel they can move on?
A lot of the problem-solving, and recovery (getting back my ‘life points) have to do with an emotional recharge. And time. I sense time very keenly. Not taking the appropriate time to deal with huge problems of life-affecting import is a huge tactical error in my book. And it’s probably because I know that time is a huge resource, and secondarily, that my emotions will need time to get to a resourceful state of dealing with life’s problems. Sometimes it’s so hard to anchor to positive states, that I’d need a complete shift in environment (by going on holiday, or just leaving the office, or the apartment) in order to come back to it with a fresh perspective.
With women, the right frontal parietal lobe is all about personal transactions, right, ‘do I like you, do you like me, how do you like this, are we all in sync here? Do we all like the solutions presented, how do they fit with our values, etc.’ With men, the left side of the brain is all about impersonal transactions. ‘We killed 10,000 orcs! There are 20,000 more!’ Cold, hard, calculations about impersonal concepts without any attachment to whether killing orcs meshed with everyone’s core values or not.
In other words, there is a disconnect for me, reading my favorite male authors. It hasn’t stopped me from devouring all of their works, it’s just a thing to note that I really need to adjust to their pacing. I still have an incredibly high regard for my favorite male authors.
After about 3 solid chapters of back to back chasing and fight scenes I’m so emotionally drained I need to temporarily collapse on my bed, or switch to something less intense, like drinking hot tea or spacing out. I could intellectually just keep up and read the following fight scenes, but I just don’t want to. It’s variety, I know — different monsters, different video-game room. Levelling up and down the lifepoints. But honestly, to a girl, who’s keeping score anymore? Why? The emotional buildup and release reads the same to me. I don’t naturally seek it. (NB: I’m speaking for myself, not for 50% * 6 billion other women, or more…).
Ever read Lord of the Rings? I mean, read it, not watch the movie. It is a STRUGGLE (no offense meant to fans the world over of this franchise – the movie was awesome! The book, well, to each his own, right?). JRR Tolkien wrote it having experienced trench warfare in WW1. I mean, that’s why the hobbit’s constantly on the move and constantly suffering pangs after pangs of immovable heartache and doleful regret in long wordy pages. Phew! I’m really so not trench-warfare material. Not without break, that is. Even his endings, are like — “how many endings are there?” – Jack Nicholson’s question to Elijah Wood at the Academy Awards.
Maybe it is that being the average men and being generally expected by society to be naturally more independent [feminists, please don’t read too much into this statement], male authors expect me, as a reader, to find the space and time on my own to process and recuperate from all the high-intensity gore and blood they’ve made me experience … before flipping the page to the next chapter. Could be. Maybe that’s what “—-***—-” signifies at the end of each chapter, no? “We know that was some heavy stuff. Space out and chillax for a few hours before attempting the next scenes. Have a KitKat. Sneak into your woman cave and lick your wounds alone before coming out for another chapter.” Yikes!
Next, Part 2 will address the effects of pacing in works by female authors. Is there a sophisticated middle ground?