Tag Archives: John D. MacDonald

Genre Stereotypes and Gender Double-Standards

I’ll preface this post by stating that I’m well aware, as with everything else in life, there are exceptions to what I’m about to discuss, and those exceptions are a good thing. But a stereotype, by definition, is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified concept of a particular type of person or thing. And when that thing is a book, when it comes to reading, a majority of readers will make choices based upon some basic, commonly accepted conventions of plot and formula for a specific genre. For example, whether tame or steamy, romances revolve primarily around two people who initially can’t see eye-to-eye but ultimately discover their romantic love for one another, and the story will end on a happy, optimistic note. Fantasy novels usually occur somewhere imaginary, and while they often include subplots ranging from mysterious to romantic, magic of some sort or another is a key element. Readers turn to erotica primarily to be turned on. They pick up cozies, expecting a light, even humorous mystery with bloodless, off-screen murders, minimal sex and violence, featuring an amateur, often female sleuth in a small-town setting where she can turn to family, friends and authorities, though often she’s dismissed as being ‘nosy and meddlesome.’ Hobbies such as knitting, baking, and scrapbooking are popular themes. Thrillers, memoirs, science fiction – the list goes on and each of these genres carries with it certain accepted guidelines.

And then there’s hard-boiled. Lean, unsentimental, gritty. A genre where the protagonist goes head-to-head with the ugly realities of a dangerous world, and they frequently go it alone. Faced with a darker side of life and forced to survive, they fight violence with violence, often far from the assistance or the eyes of the authorities. It’s a bloody, vicious world of “be tough or be killed.” And for decades, this world has been the domain of the American tough guy. Donald Westlake’s Parker and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee are superb characters and perfect examples: physically and emotionally scarred, square-jawed, hard-hitting, hard-drinking and hard-loving men of action, cynical, calculating, and capable. The “shoot first, ask later” types who operate outside the law and follow their own moral compasses. And in these tales, the majority of the female characters fall into certain specific roles. They’re either a love interest, a victim in need of rescue and/or avenging, a femme fatale, or all of the above.  And often, they have a low survival rate.

Again, I know exceptions exist, but what I’m discussing here is the stereotype of the traditional hard-boiled mystery. The stereotype that leads some readers to see the word ‘Hardboiled’ in a description and go into a book with certain gender-specific expectations. And conversely, for readers who see the protagonist’s age and gender, then expect a cozier story.  The first lines of the description should make it clear that isn’t the case. Nice young ladies really shouldn’t be dumping bodies at sea. Then again, that isn’t stopping Hazel Moran, and she can’t figure where anyone got the idea she was nice to begin with.

Despite the fact that she’s faced with a threat, even as she has been left no choice and it’s a case of kill or be killed, even as Hazel does whatever it takes to survive, protect herself and her family, refusing to be a victim, some readers have stated both in reviews and letters to me that they were shocked by the violence from this “young girl.” It seems ironic that within the setting of a more traditional hard-boiled with a more traditional (male) protagonist, these same actions wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. In fact, they’d be expected and approved. Apparently, stepping outside the traditional, more accepted genre and gender formulas established generations earlier makes some readers uncomfortable, and double standards continue, even to this day.

The Old Dude and the Dinghy…

Hemingway’s Pilar – fishing, done right.

I’ll admit it right here: aside from his choice in boats, I’d never been much of a Hemingway fan. I know, as a writer, Hemingway is considered legendary, and I suppose it might be in my best interests to understand why – or at least make an attempt. But the truth of the matter is the trauma of high school assigned reading still haunts me, and the mere whisper of such things as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea still conjure up unpleasant memories of incomplete book reports and the stern glares of frustrated teachers who tried to instill in me a love of all things literary. It wasn’t that I didn’t love reading – it was a rare day when I didn’t have some dog-eared old hard-boiled detective novel nestled between the pages of my textbooks – but why did it seem that class assignments always centered around the most painfully tedious tomes wrought with hidden symbolism and utterly miserable characters.  Ethan Frome? Seriously?  Too much angst. And The Old Man and the Sea…well, I went into that one with higher expectations, after all there was one thing I did know about Hemingway. He had a boat. Not just any boat, but Pilar, a graceful 38’ Wheeler Playmate, one of the most beautiful sportfishing boats ever created, and he was an avid fisherman.  I spent some of the best years of my childhood aboard a 38’ Wheeler, and I loved to fish. This book was inspired by his time fishing aboard that boat. Boats, fishing.  That sounded promising. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. But there wasn’t any Wheeler to be found motoring along within those pages, or any real plot that I could recall. It was a beaten down old guy in a rowboat, and he never truly lands the fish, at least not in one piece. A dude in a dinghy, along with some deep and profound hidden message that held little significance to me at that point in life. Epic battle?  Epic yawn. All that kept running through my head was, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  The sharks chowed down on his prize, my eyes glazed over and my interest switched back to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, sipping gin and calling the shots as he righted wrongs, cruised aboard his houseboat, the Busted Flush, and rumbled along in Miss Agnes, his electric blue Rolls Royce pickup. No matter that my teachers declared those paperbacks worthless trash; Travis was way more interesting than Santiago. If there was something moving about Hemingway’s story, I just wasn’t getting it, and I’ve never had the desire to revisit that tale to figure out what, if anything I missed in the first place. But recently I read something that surprised me about Hemingway, and that got me to thinking about the legend that surrounds him. Apparently, Hemingway was actually rather introverted. It stands to reason: he was reportedly intensely private, intuitive and introspective, and I suppose as writers go, those are useful qualities. Introverts by nature are more content to listen and observe than to talk about themselves, which serves us well for building characters and plots. We’re not shy, we’re just reserved, and we’d much rather hear what others have to say. We’re listening and we’re thinking. True, Hemingway was known for his bravery and adventurous personality, but he also valued his solitary time, as evidenced by his prolific body of work. Looking through black and white photos of Hemingway, I notice he’s most often alone or with one or two others, and he seems to carry an expression of intense thoughtfulness. So what is it behind the legend? Was he actually the most interesting man in the world…or the most interested one?

Updating the playlist…

In fiction, I suppose it’s inevitable that a certain degree of the author’s personal reality will weave its way into the stories. A passage requires an old car or a small boat, and it’s only natural that the writer will resurrect some long gone clunker or a favorite little fishing boat. As a writer, we’re building this particular world, and we build from our imagination, combined with own experiences. I’ve often wondered about the story behind Travis McGee’s Miss Agnes, the electric blue Rolls Royce pickup. Last Exit In New Jersey is loaded with fragments of my personal history. Joe’s blue Buick. Kindling. Gary’s Dodge. RoadKill’s numerous quirks — all drawn together from countless beaters I’d owned over the years. Even my own boat sneaks in for a brief cameo. And the music mentioned throughout the story comes directly from my own personal collection –including the Shooter Jennings CD permanently looping on the radio in RoadKill’s cab. But last night, Shooter Jennings was playing somewhere else – right across the river in New York City – at Hill Country over on West 26th Street.

The food alone is enough to lure me in, but combine the most mouth-watering barbeque with exceptional live music, and you have one first rate destination. We’d been at Hill Country only days earlier with a group of friends to see a portion of the Randy Rogers Band, who put on a great show and played till around one in the morning. But last night was the record release show for Shooter’s new album, Family Man, out on March 13th. Needless to say, I was there. Quite early, in fact. I’d allowed for transit delays, but every train and subway transfer flowed seamlessly, and I met up with my husband in Queens and from there we arrived in no time. But this gave us plenty of time to eat and then settle downstairs… right in front of the stage. It was really early and the room was still fairly vacant, but among the few other bodies was Mr. Jennings himself.

And that’s when the nerves hit. You see, I’d brought along a copy of Last Exit in New Jersey, with full intention of presenting it to him.  I’d even bookmarked the pages with his name and music, (though I’d forgotten to grab post-its, and instead used coupons for a complimentary Lone Star Beer.) But now… what would I say? It was the perfect time: quiet, not many people around, everyone relaxing.  But still, I felt strangely self-conscious. I kept stalling – until my husband pointed out that Shooter was standing alone, right behind me. It was time to nut-up or shut-up. So I introduced myself, explained how I was a long-time fan, (and felt silly – of course I am, or why would I be there, well before the show, no less,) and how my husband had taken me to one of his father’s concerts back when we were first dating, (translation: many years ago.) Then I picked up the book, explaining how I’d mentioned his music in the story. And that’s when I learned I had something unexpected in common with Stephen King: mine was the second book to include mention of Shooter Jennings. It made my day when he asked if I’d sign on the first page where his name appears! My only regret, I wish I’d gotten the nerve to get a picture with him.  Maybe next time!

And finally the  room began to fill. This was everyone sitting behind me. In front of me… the stage. Sorry for the dark pics — my camera was being a bit cranky. But the night was only getting started, opening with a very talented trio known as Poundcake.

You could see they were having fun, which was infectious. They did some amazing covers and got the now-packed room going, and were even joined by Shooter’s pedal steel player. And yes, I added one of their CDs to my collection.

Then Shooter and his band came up and they put on one first-rate show. They moved between some of their more known material and played some tunes from his upcoming album(s) as well. Watching the performance, I was fascinated by the mechanics of creating such a range of sound from instruments, including the keyboard and steel guitar, which gave the music such variety and depth. (Boats, I know. Engines, I know. Music and instruments amaze and baffle me.) I had to smile when Shooter paused between songs to inform “the owner of the blue Buick, your car has been towed, and they found the body in the trunk.”  (Had he peeked into the pages of Last Exit?) Satisfying from start to finish, Shooter demonstrated impressive versatility, shifting from raw and gritting to soulful and introspective in a way that has me looking forward to his upcoming releases. Oh, and then in the encore he treated us all to Fourth of July — the very song playing in RoadKill’s cab in the start of Last Exit, and again at the end.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better night to celebrate my own little personal launch, and it looks as though I’ll be adding a few new albums to RoadKill’s playlist.