Readers care more about gender than I realized. Recent mystery forum discussions revealed some startling proclivities: Some women read only male writers. Other women often avoid female writers and protagonists because they fear they’ll fit into certain stereotypes. As a novelist, all of this concerns me. Especially considering four of the top five current fiction authors on the New York Times bestseller list are men, and that Oprah has picked 17 male authors and 2 female authors for her book club selections. I understand why men would read only male authors, but why do women make this choice? Do they believe men are intrinsically better writers? (My father did. That’s why I’ve always been published under L.J., even as a young journalist.)
One thoughtful poster said, “I do consider gender when choosing books. I’m not a fan of chick-lit, cozies, or romancy ‘women’s’ fiction. Nor am I a fan of crime fiction centered around feisty female protags with male-sounding names, bouncy red/ /blond/whatever hair, flashing green/blue /whatever eyes, and… well, you get the picture. Since all of the above are usually written by female authors, I find myself hesitating and investigating those authors (by visiting their website or reading more reviews, etc.) before committing to their books, while I tend to more readily give a male author’s books a try without the vetting process.”
This honest viewpoint led me to examine my own preferences and book buying habits. I don’t read chick-lit or cozies either, and I too avoid female characters who are bitter, overly smartass, or trying to prove themselves. As hard as this is to admit, I also think I unconsciously avoid new authors with feminine-sounding names (Stephanie, Ashley, Bethany). Now that I’m aware of it and why, I hope names and gender won’t affect my future book buying decisions.
Does this make you wonder if that’s why I write a series about a male detective? The answer is no. In the first book—which didn’t start out to be a series, it was just a story I had to tell—I had two main characters. The Planned Parenthood nurse had to be a woman, so I thought the detective needed to be a guy for balance. I also decided to write a cop I really liked in case I needed to bring him back in future books. I admit now that I’m writing the series, I’m often glad Detective Jackson is a man. It would be harder for me to separate myself from a female protagonist. Difficult to let a female character do things outside my comfort zone. It would nearly impossible for me to let a female protagonist make a mistake.
I’d be much more comfortable writing a female anti-hero, a character who starts out seriously flawed and develops over the course of a single, standalone story. Antagonists are a whole different scenario. Writing from their POV is like putting on a costume for a few hours at a time, with no long-term emotional association.
Readers: Do you make buying decisions based on the author or protagonist’s gender? Writers: Do you write only about protagonists of one gender? Is one or the other easier?
As male reader, I don’t buy a book based on gender. I do find myself reading science fiction written by women authors more than male authors. I grew up during the 1970s and 80s when science fiction was almost all male authors or women writing under a pen name. Then it was the bland leading the bland. With women authors writing science fiction, I’m seeing a lot of tough female characters and new ideas that are quite different from what a male author would write about. Some of the better science fiction is being written outside of the United States.
As for my short stories, nearly all are written from a male POV character. Except for one which made sense to write with a female POV. I found writing female first person to be a bizarre experience.
My first novel that I’m working on right now has alternating POV characters, a 30-year-old male and a 18-year-old female. The male side was easier to write because he’s a reflection of me. The female POV was more challenging since I had a lot more stuff to think about to avoid taking anything for granted.
My next novel will have a female POV character since the story I want to tell has a strong emotional element. As a guy, I have lived through that particular emotional element and could probably represent it well from a male POV. However, for this particular story, a female POV made more sense.
As I’ve made the shift from the fashion/business world back to the field of education and literature, I find myself reading the old classics. I feel a bit behind and have buried myself in piles of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thackary, and Shakespeare and while I appreciate what Austen was in her day, I find her writing redundant and that only the names of her characters and locations change in her stories. I’ve found that male authors, at least in the books I’ve been working through, have been able to create stronger female characters (i.e. Rebecca Sharp in Vanity Fair and Shakespeare’s Katherine).
Along with my reading, I’ve been experimenting with writing. One manuscript features a female protagonist in addition to two other male narrators. This was the first novel I attempted to write and I found myself over-sympathizing with my female narrator, making her chapters much longer and more embellished than in the case of the male narrators. Then I felt as though I was wandering down the same path as Jane Austen, putting my female in a difficult position and needing a man to save her, so I went over it with some male writer friends and got a better grasp on it.
I recently completed the third draft of another novel in which I have both a male and a female narrator. Once again, at first I was relating too much to the female narrator, but as I continued writing, I developed an amazing relationship with my male narrator. As my focus group members have gone through the story, I’ve found that both males and females have been able to relate more to my male protagonist.
Perhaps in some cases men are able to create stronger female characters because they are writing about what they’d like to see in females. They can already relate to other males, and so their female characters end up being the embodiment of all that they’d like to see in a counterpart. I know in my case, that is how my male protagonist got to be such a relatable and admirable member of my story.
Thanks, L.J., for giving me a fabulous reason to wake my brain up and put it to use on this dreary autumn day!
Thank you both for such thoughtful responses.
This is an interesting question, especially in light of the seismic shift in mystery/thriller readership. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was overwhelmingly male, with most female readers drawn to the cozier end of the spectrum, books often written by women. And then, beginning in the 1970s, everything changed. More and more women were writing in the genre, and they were writing tougher and tougher books. The female audience expanded at the same time, although not necessarily as a result — it might have been the other way around, which is to say there were more female writers because there were more female readers who decided they could write the genre. These days, male readers only account for about 45% of the mystery.thriller audience. The numbers make me doubt that the phenomenon of women readers avoiding women writers is widespread. Some men, presented by a book written by a woman and a book written by a man, will usually choose the one written by a man, and some women will usually choose a book written by a woman. I think if you were to do a statistical survey of the books read and reported on by the members of DorothyL and ForMysteryAddicts, you’d find that most people read books by both sexes but marginally prefer books by their own. There are a few people of each sex who only or overwhelmingly read books written by members of their sex, but I’d say it’s no more than, oh, 20%.
Be interesting to have someone do that over a six-month period someday.
Well, I love pretty much all genres, including well-written chick-lit, cozies, and mysteries with spunky heroines with smart mouths. I’ve always mixed it up in terms of gender of authors – when I was a kid, I’d read anything you put in front of me, but then shied away from male authors in the mystery genre until a few years ago. Now I’m pretty much equal opportunity. If the author has a compelling or interesting or funny (or combo) voice, I’ll read his/her work.
I read everything and base most of my choices on synopsis and cover art. I am a pushover for a great book cover, even though that makes no sense. I can’t ever remember rejecting a book because of the gender of the author.
I honestly don’t care, altho I do care that this comment block is showing my words in grey, which is really hard to see so if I have any typos, it’s because I’m typing blind.
But I digress…
I have a confession to make: until 3 years ago, I was Hooked on Classics, so to speak. If the book wasn’t at least 50 years old, I wasn’t interested in reading it. My favorite authors were Dumas, Hugo, Steinbeck, C.S. Forester, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
So now I’m playing catch-up with all of these great mystery authors, and I can’t read the full series of anybody until I’ve read a little of everybody. Male, female, whatever – bring ’em on.
I’ve always said that I will read anything, including the ingredient list on cereal boxes when I get hard up enough. But since you asked, I have to say that I PREFER female writers and protagonists. It’s just easier for me to identify with them. No, I don’t like chick lit much (I had to look up what a Manola Blahnik is–still unsure of spelling) and I’m not fond of the hobby type cozy. I’m also not into the PI novel whether the PI is male or female. So the problem really is identifying with the protagonist for me. He/She has to be someone who lives on my street–or at least drives down it without mowing me down..
I don’t identify with books about rich folks, alcoholics, or idiots who go walking out into a cold damp night knowing the murderer is out there. Shrug.
I don’t now and have never cared about whether the author of the book or the protagonist in the story was male or female. The story premise must be interesting to me. When I was in junior high and high school, I had a tendency to read every book an author had written and then move on to the next author, never going back to read something new by an author I had already “finished.” The genres varied widely: Walter Farley, Judy Blume, V.C Andrews, Joseph Wambaugh, John Saul, Jackie Collins.
Now that I’m considerably older, I read mostly literary or mainstream fiction, never genre fiction. But when I write, my voice is naturally chick-lit-ish which is strange because I don’t like that genre and I don’t read it. I do find myself writing from the female POV in fiction (and, obviously, memoir)–and with my snarky chick-lit voice. My screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, and short stories have been both female and male protagonists, but the gender ratio is 5 female to 1 male. The gender doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all about who wants/needs to tell the story.
This is an especially relevant question for me, because I have recently started writing in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, after spending years in historical fiction. My husband and father-in-law both tend to steer clear of female protagonists and female writers, saying that women focus too much on the romance and not enough on the action.
That said, I have written novels -without even thinking about it- from the male POV. Nonetheless, I have decided to go with a gender neutral nom de plume (like you, LJ) for my fantasy novel, because I am nervous about alienating readers or getting pigeon-holed.
I am particularly interested in recommendations, by the way, of any male writers who have excellently written female protagonists in the fantasy genre. I find decent female fantasy characters are a little hard to come by. I would love to see what kind of woman a man creates in that world. Suggestions?
I wish I could help you out, but I haven’t read much fantasy. I’ve heard that Memoirs of a Geisha, written by Arthur Golden, is a terrific example of a female character written by a man.
I’ve never consciously considered the gender of the author in deciding whether to read a book. It’s entirely about the jacket copy and the first few paragraphs, maybe a few more from inside… HOWEVER, I do find after the fact that most of my favorite authors have tended to be men. I have no idea why, probably just because I haven’t read the right women… I mostly read genre fiction and classics, so I can’t really speak about chick lit (I don’t know what a “cozy” is!). But as far as main characters go, again I don’t much care as long as he/she is cool or intriguing in the right way…
As for my own writing, I must admit that I tend to gravitate toward male protagonists, and I’m not really sure why. The joke answer is that if I’m going to spend as much time w/a person as it takes to write a novel about him/her, well, I like men a lot. But it’s not like I never write about female characters; it’s just that so far they’re not the ones that really grab me and force their stories to come out… They’re all me, I guess, or aspects of me… and often the men I write about are my idea of interesting guys (not necessarily the take home to mama kind), so maybe if I was a little more self-absorbed I’d be writing first-person chick-lit?
I definitely read more female writers, and I tend to write almost exclusively about female protagonists. Their stories are the ones that interest me, and the only sense I’d ever feel ‘obliged’ to write about male protagonists would be as a way of challenging myself creatively rather than for the sake of any particular audience. There are enough books about male characters – and enough books with uninteresting purely-to-serve-the-plot female characters – out there without adding more. 🙂
I don’t think I choose books by gender. At least I hope not. My favorite authors are a mixed bag of men and women. I’ve only written one book so far, and it was a memoir, so the character is female (that’s me). My first novel will have a female protagonist because she came to me and asked me to tell her story. If she had been a he, it wouldn’t have mattered. But it’s interesting to me that Oprah, such a champion for women, would have such a gender-bias in her book club choices. Hmmm.
I like to read both, especially now I am expanding my reading material. I am determined to vary my books and writers. During this process I have found I do not like Cowboy books written by men. If written by a woman, who knows I might see it from a different angle. I will have to look out for one.
Interesting post, thanks.
Interesting! I read more books written by women than men. Most of the books I read are non-fiction and I feel I can learn more from a woman. When I look at fiction, it is about the subject matter. I even read the first page to see if it grabs me and sometimes I have no idea who wrote the book until I get it home.
I’ve struggled with this issue in my own series. I’m writing under my own (female) name with a female protagonist in a small setting (a small zoo). (First in the series is Night Kill, Poisoned Pen Press.) Some people assume that this is a cozy for women and young adults. It’s likely that some readers are put off by the somewhat harder edge they find inside the cover. For example, animals die in real zoos and they die in my fictional zoo. They get old, accidents happen, etc. Nothing gory, nothing gratuitous, but there it is and some people are likely to be dismayed. So that stereotype may work both for and against me. It’s interesting to try to figure out readers’ expectations and reactions and gender plays a huge role in that. I’ve enjoyed the comments above.