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?