Monday, December 1, 2014

Another one from the vaults: what men's a/a was and how I happened to write some

Note: this used to appear as a short article in an online store I had, to explain my six men's a/a titles. (Men's action/adventure, as you will discover by reading on.) I closed that store -- I now do sales direct, details of which you can find in the catalog listed among the links to your right.  But this text was kind of useful for explaining those books, and besides, in a recent edition of the newsletter I'm referring to a page that used to link to this description, so .... here you are. For those of you who have bought books from me online, it may all be a rerun; for those who didn't, and have always wondered where all the manly books went, well, here's where.

What Men's A/A was

Sometimes genres vanish all but totally, leaving behind a few books, series, or authors; at various times Westerns, some kinds of horror, and some kinds of detective novels have done that for periods of decades.  Sometimes they vanish so completely that it's hard to imagine their ever reviving:  Gothic romances, nurse novels, or men's action/adventure. 

Somewhere in Daybreak Zero, by the way, I embedded the passing prediction that the chick-fic of today would be one such vanishing or generational genre, and that by the 2020s would be conventionalized the way English manor house murder mysteries ("Lord Blithering-Twit is dead on the priceless Tea-Carpet, a bloody mashie-niblick in hand!") or 1940s LA-noir hardboileds ("she was trouble in the shape of a dame, but I needed an income in the shape of cash, so I put the .45 in my pocket and the Packard in gear") are.

Anyway,  men's action/adventure flourished from the 1950s through the early 80s, and has disappeared except for a vestige in the Mack Bolan books and maybe the Deathlands series (heavily interbred there with postapocalyptic).  One of the main publishers for many years was the Gold Eagle division of Harlequin, and I did two men's a/a series launches for them during the years when they still thought they might be able to revive the genre.

Fundamentally, a men's a/a novel involves a hero who beats the absolute living snot out of a bunch of bad guys, preferably lots of them, until they are all gone,  which makes the world better till the next book.  It was widely believed in the industry that the readers were mostly blue-collar men in their thirties and forties, in some job that bored them and gave them time to read; the guy behind the counter at the auto-parts store or the plumbing dispatcher.  

Based on my fan mail, which is of course not representative at all, the readership was mostly high school boys who really wanted to leave home and join the Army, servicemen stuck on remote bases, and urban guys with dull jobs who took the bus to work.  Interestingly, too, the editors generally made a point of telling me that these guys just wanted stuff to blow up, daring escapes, and some not-very-repressed sadism, but the mail I got from readers of Dan Samson (which was marketed as men's a/a) actually talked very little about the violence, but quite a lot about the character of Samson, his moral dilemmas, and various points of history (more about facts than theory).  It is my guess that the thing that may have killed the genre was the dumbing down brought on by editorial contempt for the audience.

The basic plot of  a men's a/a is that one way or another the hero, who is highly competent with weapons and has unshakeable self-confidence, is quickly thrown into a situation where the bad guys are trying to kill him and he's mostly on his own.  He then fights his way through escalating battles till he confronts and beats the main bad guy for the book.  On the way through he acquires friends, sidekicks, and lovers, most of whom pass out of his life at the end, either because he does the equivalent of riding off into the sunset or  because in some earlier chapter they were  messily slaughtered to motivate him. 

All that was required was that super-simple ping-pong plot (bad pings, good pongs, bad pings harder, eventually on a desperation falling-over shot good pongs so hard it wins the game), which a lot of people could write, and quite a few writers learned craft turning out men's a/a, because if you wanted to put anything else in there, they didn't care as long as it still went ping-pong-ping-pong-ping-pong-PING-PONG and so on.  You could pretty much put in anything else you liked – anti-imperialist politics, New Age reincarnationism,  historical curiosities (as I did with Dan Samson); keen-o sci fi gadgets, a Marxist vision that capitalism is a temporary historical aberration, literary history, PTSD issues (as I did with Mark Strang).  And in fairness, nobody really said not to do that; it was just that the stock advice from every corner was "just have enough stuff blow up and be sure your guy is manly.")

Anyway, such were the glories of men's a/a, where I had a great deal of fun and made some survival money.  As it turned out, the first series launch (Dan Samson) was dead before publishing; they just ran out the copies to make some of the money spent on it back, because new management had already decided they didn't like the idea of launching new cross-genre men's a/a; and the second one (Mark Strang) not only suffered a similar fate, but went it one worse:  they decided not to print them and just write the money off.  Those books ended up at another publisher, and not published as men's a/a, mildly baffling some of the science fiction fans who picked them up.

A few astute readers with good memories will say "Isn't there a character named Dan Samson in the Daybreak books?"

Uh, well, yeah, there is. He even fits the physical description of the Dan Samson in the Timeraiders. 

And very conveniently, he could have been born right at the moment that that Dan Samson was killed in book 1 (it's a rule in the Timeraider universe: you are reincarnated at the moment of your death).  And since the new Dan Samson might very well be carrying out the cosmic mission of the old one, in a new life that leads into Daybreak .... when I realized what I'd done in the first draft, I laughed, shrugged, and left his name the same in the rest of the drafts. If any crazed fan ever starts to evolve a theory of how the whole Barnesiverse ties together, at least they'll have something to work with.

Would I ever write men's a/a  again?  I really don't know; probably if the money was good, and even more likely if I thought the marketing was being researched and handled well.  I really liked the Dan Samson audience and wouldn't mind working for them again.