Beta Testing

Women’s fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers… There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to men.


My brother-in-law is retired from a high-powered executive career, and with new time on his hands but the continued need for full strategic investment, he’s been forwarding news bits from the New York Times and the Washington Post and and Politico and HuffPost. Mostly, I let the rain fall without comment, but I occasionally click on a link.

The good news is that, like browsing in a library, I almost always see something in the adjacent sidebar that’s much more interesting than what I came to find.

A couple of days ago, that was this article by Andrew Reiner, called “It’s Not Only Women who Want More Intimacy in Relationships.” In this article (a preview of a coming book) he talks about the ways in which all of us, men and women alike, are trained to understand what men should do, and should want, and should merely endure. The cultural fetish for competition and stoicism and command are taught to us, repeatedly: by entertainment media, for sure, but more importantly by teachers and parents who themselves learned it as simply right and true.

Reiner talks about a common moment in a relationship:

it goes well for these men the first time they make themselves vulnerable. After that, though, the warm reception cools. They’re often met with such responses as ‘You’re much needier than I thought you were’… Another common reaction from female partners is one they have long endured from men: “They’re told that they shouldn’t get so worked up and emotional about things.”

I once described my body of fiction to a thirty-year agent who’d made much of her career and her livelihood representing women’s book-club fiction. As I talked about the goal of writing books in which men could experience the construction of a more satisfying self, she said, “You’re asking men to think about their emotions. They don’t want to do that.”

She has no empirical evidence for that statement. It’s merely learned mythology, just as masculinity itself is a learned mythology. And just as encompassing.

Real alphas don’t let women tell them what to do, whether those women are women’s libbers or debate moderators or the governor of a major state. Real alphas see the world only in competitive terms: attack and defend. They’re governed by a binary switch, their responses toggled between two positions.

I already know, if the Reddit-bro community ever read my novels, what they’d call them. They’d be cuckbooks. A clever wordplay that indicated how unsuitable they were for real alphas. (Sorry, boys, I already made this one up. Find your own.)

Real alphas know what women should do with their bodies, what they should do in the workplace, what they should do at home. We’ve always known that alpha-ness is threatening to women’s autonomy. But it’s threatening to men’s autonomy as well, and the only acceptable way to resolve that threat is to adhere to the rules of the game as played. As Susan Faludi wrote over twenty years ago, the level of cultural messaging about appropriate manhood aimed directly at men is profound. “And men respond profoundly—with acquiescence.”

Beta life is unacceptable. To men and to women. And that’s why it’s brave.

You know why the first public semi-release of new software is called a beta test? Because the alpha test was shoddy and misshapen and not worth showing anyone. The alpha test is the first draft, the sketch, the things we’d be embarrassed to have out in the world. Let’s create a beta masculinity. As our lead Alpha has often said, “What do you have to lose?”

But damn, it’s gonna be an uphill trek. It’s like clearing out the house in an estate sale, there’s just a LOT of debris to go through. Some of it can be reclaimed, but a lot of it will have to be discarded. Like this. And this. And this. We breathe this air every single minute, men and women both.

And like anyone on the forward edge of a cultural change, we’ll be labeled. We’ll be deviants. We’ll be unnatural, working against inherent traits of sexual evolution. We’ll certainly be opposed by masculinist constructions of religions in which women are to be subordinate “protected,” and men are to be assholes “leaders.” We’ll be repellent to readers of fiction in which men take charge, and women are swept into the whirlwind of romance. Or fiction in which men take command, and women are protected from evil.

We’ll have to clean ourselves of the debris as well. It’ll be too easy, too comfortable, too right to just fall back into the rules we’ve learned so thoroughly. And we will, sometimes. We’ll lose our vigilance, drop back into the channels that have been dug for us. They’re deep and pervasive, awaiting every weary moment. They invite us back to the reassurance of understanding our place.

Real strength isn’t compliance. Real strength is embarking on a path that we consciously choose, knowing that we might never reach a destination but that the trip itself is worthy, and that others might follow the rough trail we’ve begun. (Or not. Autonomy is no guarantee of success; it’s merely the opportunity to live as we see fit.) We have the right—and the responsibility—to define ourselves as we see best. We only get one self, right? We should make it ours, not a shadow of someone else’s.

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