Devan Sipher Defies Publishing Sexism with a Romantic Comedy about A Nice Guy
"The Wedding Beat," a new novel by New York Times wedding writer Devan Sipher, encountered one big bump in its road into print: the publishing industry doesn't think much of female readers.
An engaging and entertaining romantic comedy, "The Wedding Beat" is narrated by a man, Gavin Greene, who falls for a woman he meets at a party and spends the rest of the book trying to find and win her. That was a problem for numerous agents and editors. Sipher was told that it is women who read romantic comedies and that they do not want male main characters. "It was pointed out numerous times that men don't write women's fiction, and women's fiction doesn't have male protagonists," he recalls.
Not only is Gavin male, he is a nice guy, and in the eyes of the literary professionals this made matters even worse. Sipher was told, in essence, that the male romantic interest must be a jerk. "There is a history (going back to Jane Austen) of the male romantic lead being distant, unattainable and/or loutish. But due to the love of a good woman, he changes and becomes a better person (or only loutish to others)," Sipher acknowledges. "As far as the male character goes, the more strong and silent the better."
He was told repeatedly about women's self-destructive taste in fantasy lovers: "Supposedly, women don't want to read about sensitive romantic men. They want to read about sensitive romantic women, and the cads they fall for."
Insulting as it is, this is in fact the formula the publishing industry follows. Romantic comedies tend to feature women as the main characters – one prominent example is "Bridget Jones's Diary" by Helen Fielding; other successes include "I Heart New York" by Lindsey Kelk and "Call Me Irresistible" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And the men that the fictional women entangle with in romantic comedies do things that, in real life, would prompt a well-adjusted woman to run for a taxi and change her phone number.
Sipher points to Nick Hornby's books as an example, and he's right: if I got involved with Will Freeman of Hornby's "About A Boy" and discovered that he had lied about having a child so he could attend single-parent groups to pick up women, I would get uninvolved very fast.
Sipher is challenging the insulting dogma that this formula is the only one that interests women by publishing a book about a sensitive romantic man. "Wedding Beat's" hero, Gavin, is a nice guy, and so is Sipher. A self-described romantic, he looks like a sweetheart, with a magnetic smile and ebullient manner. It's hard to imagine him writing a first-person book about a jerk, and apparently he couldn't – he persevered with Gavin's story despite the discouragement. Doing so not only produced a great read, it also improved Sipher's own love life. "I think writing the book actually made me better at relationships. I think I was a healthier dater, I dated healthier people, and I think I treated them better. I think I'm in touch with everybody I dated while I was writing the book."
Sipher has covered more than 1,000 weddings for The New York Times, and turned down even more couples who wanted him to write about their nuptials. He has a theory about why so many people want to publicize their weddings: to hold themselves publicly accountable for their new and voluntary obligation.
Sipher takes a social evolutionary view of marriage. "It is a touchstone of our society, a touchstone of our culture going back at least a couple thousand years, and the whole point of marriage is that it's a very public act."
He believes that marriage originated to protect communities from having to take responsibility for the care of "bastard children," holding their fathers responsible instead. Marriage, Sipher says, "does keep the peace [and] does keep the order that is important [in] a society."
His perspective makes marriage seem like the perfect subject for newspaper coverage. Marriage "is a declaration in front of society. It's in the public sphere, because we're going to hold you responsible in public."
But since "people don't like obligations," we now look at marriage as "an uplifting thing, a sanctified thing, because it is beautiful," he believes.
That seems like a remarkably romantic view for someone who has covered over 1,000 weddings – it would be understandable if his job had turned him into a cynic. Yet he has only one cynical thing to say on the subject, and that's his advice to engaged couples: "Elope." Failing that, he urges people planning their weddings to keep sight of the big picture – their lifetime together--and not "let the details of the wedding be what's important."
For those who want their nuptials written up in the newspaper of record, the secret is to be interesting. Sipher is drawn to stories that "stick out" and that readers will be interested in. Having a story that is different is more important than being charming or forthcoming; he doesn't mind if his subjects are difficult to interview: "I take it as a challenge."
Sipher has spent up to 100 hours covering a single wedding, and never less than 40. "There's a lot of time and energy invested in doing that." So challenging or not, "I have to believe these are people I will enjoy doing that with."
Buy this book and show publishing professionals that women have broader tastes and more self-esteem than they think we do. You can get a preview of the book at Sipher's readings: currently scheduled are one in New York City at Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway, on April 19 at 7 p.m., and another in Los Angeles at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on May 1 at 7 p.m.