I’m tabling at the Albany Book Festival when a woman walks by my display and picks up a copy of In Flight.
She immediately flips the book to glance at the back cover copy. Two seconds later she puts the book down. She says in a tone that can only be heard as snarky, “Why would I want to read about a man’s midlife crisis?”
“It doesn’t say midlife crisis,” I tell her. “It says midlife transitions.”
She walks away. Gives a little humph as she turns.
Maybe not my best rebuttal, but her words stung. And now I’ve got a few things to say.
First, technically, I’m right. The first line of the back cover marketing copy says, “On the surface, Robert is a successful, happily married man, skillfully navigating midlife transitions.” See? Not midlife crisis—midlife transitions! But, of course, crisis awaits.
Second, about her not wanting to read about a man’s midlife crisis: I get it. I do. For a long time, publishing—and novels—gave favor to male writers, although now the pendulum has swung so far the other way that diversity and youth rule the fiction publishing industry.
This woman wants to read about her own kind—which from her appearance seems to be women in midlife. So why should she want to discover more about a man’s midlife journey? Unless she is married to such a man. Or the sister of such a man. Or the friend of one. Also, she might even come across a woman or two (Sasha, Nadine) in In Flight also undergoing midlife transitions.
Personally, I love reading novels that feature women characters, characters of color, characters from different cultures, characters rich and poor, characters young and old. One of the great reasons to read novels is that we get inside the hearts and minds of people who are not like us, who we might never otherwise know. We can experience the other. We can see what they see, feel what they feel. And when we do that, we can gain greater empathy for others.
But my guess is that this middle-aged woman who picked up and quickly put down my book thinks she already knows everything she needs or wants to know about a middle-aged male in America. She’s not interested in us. And that’s fine. She’s not my reader, obviously. There a plenty of books for her.
The third thing I have to mention is her distaste for reading about a crisis. Here’s an insider’s tip: there is no story without crisis. The first dictionary definition of crisis: a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.
The turning point that determines the future—it’s the most important part of any story. There is everything leading up to it, there is the moment of crisis, there is the character’s response to the crisis, and then there is a changed character, for better or worse. In a nutshell, that is story.
The next person who came by and browsed my books was a lot more interested. I told him a bit about each one: Stash, Clean Break, The Culling, In Flight. He asked questions. But he didn’t buy. Such is the life of a novel writer: a long, challenging, step-by-step sideways, backward, and forward journey, with plenty of crises to keep the story moving.