Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Rose by Any Other Name

We hear all the time that there are legions of men out there who won't buy a book written by a woman. It's why Joanne Rowling published the Harry Potter series as "J.K."; she knew boys would be less inclined to pick up her books--even though they're about a boy wizard--if they had a female author's name on the cover. Ask your typical male for his favorite books, and he'll inevitably give you a list written by male authors. When there's a woman on the list, it's usually Harper Lee, and an astonishing number of those men who cite her don't realize that the ambiguously-named author of To Kill a Mockingbird is actually a woman.


For a long time, I thought this prejudice worked from the male side only, since despite the fact that a huge majority of both book readers and book buyers are women, books written by men still make up the vast majority of best sellers. Obviously, women are more willing to buy books written by men than men are to buy books written by women. The gender distribution on the bestseller list is changing, slowly. But readers still have a lot of expectations and prejudices when it comes to an author's gender, and it seems that female authors aren't the only victims.



I was surprised the other day when a good writer friend of mine mentioned off-handedly that she rarely read books written by male authors. "I find they don't usually delve into emotion and character interaction the way I like." Now, I knew this woman loves to read what she calls "girlfriend books" and books that focus on interactions within families; in other words, the kind of angsty, meandering, introspective books that have a tendency to send me running for the hills while screaming "Nooooo!" But I'd always assumed she chose her books by subject; I didn't realize that at some point she'd consciously come to the conclusion, "I don't like books written by men."

Now, this might strike many of you as one of those "Well, duh!" moments (I have a lot of those). But the fact is, while much has been written about MEN not reading books written by women, we don't hear so much about the reverse.

In thinking over my own reading history, I can honestly say that I read books written by both genders. Yet I refuse to buy a love story written by a man unless I know in advance it ends happily (no Bridges of Madison County, The Notebook, or Cold Mountain for me. Seriously; what is it with you guys? Afraid that if a couple live "happily ever after," critics will think you write like a girl?). And--the ultimate irony--I'm also leery of suspense and thrillers written by women, largely because I've found in the past that they generally don't give me what I'm looking for. That said, though, I'm always open minded. (Or at least, I try to be.)

Interestingly, my friend revealed her thoughts on male authors because she was in the middle of reading a book, written by a man, that was giving her all the emotion and character interaction she craved and normally assumed she wouldn't find in book with a male name on the cover.

So what about you? Do you find that you have expectations based on an author's gender? Does an author's gender influence your buying habits, and if so, in what way?

30 comments:

Courtney said...

Well, I probably am a little biased. I read a lot of different genres - mysteries (historical and contemporary), romance (contemporary and some historical), thrillers, traditional chick lit, and some women's fiction. I'll definitely read thrillers/mysteries by women (like you!), but I don't know that I would read a romance by a man. For example, I know Nicholas Sparks is uber successful in that genre, and I've never been tempted to pick up one of his books.

malita said...

THIS topic written specifically by you drips of irony, for me at least. For months maybe a year amazon kept throwing these C.S Harris books at me under reccommended reading, and I wouldn't do it because I thought you were a man. I do have some male authors I really like, but many crime/mystery authors, that are male, tend to be a bit dry and linear, the focus is often on the actions and happenings and not the development of character or story. There are obvious differences between male and female authors as well as specific authors.

cs harris said...

Courtney, I have NEVER understood why, after the hoopla over The Notebook, Sparks didn't disappear as quickly as whatshisname of Bridges of Madison County fame. Someone in publishing told me it was because he was young and considered cute, so they decided they could successfully keep pushing him, but I don't know if that's true.

Malita, that's funny! But it is why I was told to take initials rather than a man's name, which was first contemplated, because you're obviously not alone. I read mysteries by both men and women without any attention to gender, but after a string of female-written thrillers that disappointed for the same reasons, I've become leery, which is beyond ironic given that I'm a woman who writes thrillers. I've had women tell me to my face that my thrillers disappointed them because they wanted more character development and my thrillers were too action-oriented. (One needs a thick skin in this business!)

Essex said...

That is an interesting statistic about the gender discrimination in readers' selections. I do not think that I have ever decided that I would not read a book because of the sex of the author, especially since I read a wide selection of chick lit and "manly" books, as well as many different genres including historicals, mystery, romance, non-fiction, etc. There tend to be significant differences in style and viewpoint between male and female authors, and the ones I relate to better are what lead me to prefer a book over another, not the actual gender of the author. I have not noticed that I necessarily prefer a female viewpoint all the time, which sometimes surprises me since I have derived a significant pleasure in women's' increasing success on all levels ( go USA women in the Olympics!). That being said, I despise Nicholas Sparks (sorry to his fans!) , not because he is a man writing sappy romance, but because I cannot stand his trite and derivative writing. My opinion only - it just isn't my cup of tea although I have friends who would gouge my eyes out for saying that.
I love that you write action scenes. I would not read your books if you had Hero and Sebastian spending endless hours staring into each others eyes, crying all the time, or writing bad poetry. And I think that you have excellently drawn out characters too.

Liz said...

While I don't make initial reading decisions based on my perceived gender of an author, I've noticed that I have a preference for male authors who write well about relationships and feelings. For instance, I'm a huge fan of the mysteries of Dick Francis, Stuart Pawson, and Robert Parker, all male writers with a knack for delving into the complexity of human relationships (male/female, father/son, etc.) with great sensitivity.

Katie said...

I tend toward female authors a lot of the time, but it's never been because they're women. It's just that in the last couple of years I've been reading more romance and romantic suspense, and women seem to dominate those genres. I read a lot of mysteries, by both men and women. As far as thrillers go, I read you, John Sandford and Lisa Gardner, and that's really all for that genre. Action-oriented, but there's still strong characterization. I don't need a major character arc from a thriller, but I do need to get some sense of who they are, and what they think/feel.

I've never read Nicholas Sparks, so it wouldn't feel right to comment on his books. Have seen a few of the movies though, and frankly, I just don't do depressing fiction on purpose, so I won't be reading them.

Anonymous said...

Huh, I guess I've never thought about it. I'm with most though - why do I want to read something depressing? There is enough of real life in the real world. I try to avoid Nicolas Sparks at all costs. I'm probably one of the few that refuses to read or see The Notebook. Reading is an escape for me. I've noticed that I do tend to read more female authors than male. But I do love male ones as well. Folks like Mel Starr with his Hugh de Singlton series, Oliver Potsch's Hangman's Daughter series and Alan Bradley with Flavia de Luce. But female authors just do chick lit so much better I believe, and yes, (insert embarrased face here)I do read my fair share of chick lit. Sabena

Susan/DC said...

I don't choose my books based on gender of the author because I think that would be too limiting, and any generalization I would make would then be proven false as people came up with counterexamples. For example, I think female authors are better at creating relationships that develop and deepen through a series. I think of male authors as creating heroes who tend to be more of the "to love the hero is to guarantee a short life span" (Bond girls are the prime example) or "I'm a loner and I love 'em and leave'em" types (stopped reading Lee Child's Jack Reacher books for that reason). But Elizabeth George, in her Inspector Lynley books, seems incapable of creating characters capable of sustained happiness -- and even if they manage to grab some joy, there's always a counterbalancing sorrow (thinking of Simon and Deborah and her infertility). And Frank Tallis, in his Max Liebermann series, creates some very good familial and romantic relationships (but then maybe it's because Tallis is a psychotherapist so knows from relationships).

paz said...

Ha! I too was "approached" by Amazon with your book, did think you were a man, but didn't care.

I guess I would say that my "discrimination"/preference is by nationality/region. There are certain national traditions of literature that appeal to me more than others, and I actively seek new writers/books associated with it. The Spanish, for example, write dense, deliciously morbid supernaturally-tinged mysteries like its nobody's business. I love Scandinavian crime fiction, because of the sense of intimacy the stories create. And because in these stories sexism and religious intolerance is clearly a sign of terrible moral turpitude that inevitably leads to other horrible failings and crimes ;-)

I of course read lots of fiction (and non-fiction) by American authors, and I tend to find those through Amazon, or the NYTimes Review of Books (though rarely the NYTimes best seller list -- its often a "ah, better avoid" list!)

Jan Power said...

No. And I think the most poignant, intuitive, moving scene ever written between two women was by a man, Tolstoy, when Natasha, by the strength of her life-force, tethers the Old Countess to life when they learn of Petya's death.

I break out in hives when I see someone reading Sparks. He is to writing what Thomas Kincaid was to "art."

Anonymous said...

I've often thought about this, and I've realised that I tend to read more female authors (or at least they're writer's using female names - they could really be men in disguise!) . I read a broad range of fiction, but I've got to admit that I really do love a go good love story. A love story - not a "sex story". I tend to prefer a thriller suspense with a bit of a love interest, so I land up reading more female writers as they have that more than the males that I have encountered. I like HEA's. I want the bad guy to rot in jail if he isn't dead, and for my hero/heroine to get his love at the end as well. I want them to have it all!

A male author that I really like who has a female lead is Jasper Fforde. Other male authors that I have read in the past and enjoyed are James Patterson, Andy McGarret, Nicholas Sparks (haven't read him for year, but he is a talented writer. He has gone the Jodi Picoult or what I associate as "depressing books" direction and so that's put me off), RObert Ludlum and Stephen Leather.


On the whole, I definitely read more book by females, but it's not on purpose. The main genres that I read are largely populated with female writers. The things that I like in books tend to be more common with female writers.So, I do read more books by females.

I came across a lady who realised that she mainly read female authors and she was so chuffed from a feminist point of view. For me, I just like a good story with interesting characters and an enthralling time.That can be a Nora ROberts or Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis or C.S. Harris!

--B

cs harris said...

Essex, I wish I could remember where I read an article on a British survey looking at how gender influences reading selections, but it was too long ago. I also suspect some people either wouldn't admit to a bias, or don't even recognize it in their selections.

Liz, I've never read Stuart Pawson; will have to look him up. Thanks!

Katie,I know what you mean. I recently read a thriller by a NYT bestselling male author in which the cast of characters was so thinly drawn I could not keep them straight. Since my husband reads him, I said, "How can you?" He said he reads them for plot and action. For some that's evidently enough; not for me!

cs harris said...

Sabena, I've noticed that the older I get, the less tolerance I have for sad. A book or movie's end needs to at least be uplifting even if it isn't all roses, or I don't want to go there. Has a guy ever even tried chick lit? I can't imagine it!

Susan, this whole discussion is making me realize that authors who write outside the stereotyped expectation for the genre could have trouble finding an audience. And I'm with you on the short lifespan of the hero's love interest; Burke's Dave Robicheaux is on his fourth wife!

Paz, I hadn' t even thought of national expectations! I've never read a Spanish mystery; are there any you particularly recommend?



cs harris said...

Jan, I obviously need to go back and read that scene; i think it's been--gasp--40 years since I read Tolstoy.

B, I haven't read Andy McGarret or Jasper Fforde. A male author with a female lead is interestingly rare. I thought Sparks had always had depressing endings, but I'm obviously wrong in that. The last one I read--Nights in Whatever--had such a gratuitously unhappy ending that it just pissed me off. I felt the same way about Cold Mountain; who writes a book that's supposed to be a Civil War-era retelling of the Odyssey and then has Odysseus get killed in the end???


paz said...

Ok, since you ask:
Arturo Perez Reverte, particularly "The Club Dumas"which was made into a horrible film with Johnny Depp, (if that is even possible; "The Spanish Communion"; and "The Painter of Battles."
Carlos Ruiz Zafon: "Shadow of the Wind" and "Angel's Game"


cs harris said...

Thanks, Paz; I'll have to look for them.

Anonymous said...

@C.S. Harris

Sparks tends to have sad or bittersweet endings. There's hope, but there is also the reader's interpretation of how his books end. If you're in a positive mood, then there was light at the end and if you're in a negative mood, then they all died. I know that he is popular in Christian circles because his books don't have a lot of controversial matter.

HIGHLY recommends The Shadow of the Wind. The third book, which is the sequel to The Shadow of the Wind has been released.

McGarett alternates between his two lead, one of which is a male. He writes action adventure. Fforde is an utter marvel to read and I am in awe of his imagination. I highly recommend him, but he is for a specific type of reader.

I'm SO relieved that you said that as you get older you can't read too many sad books.I have a lot of resect for you as a writer, and to have someone else say that makes me feel like I'm not alone. I've tried to like the literary books, the best sellers and all those "wondrously sad and enlightening" books, but I just can't read them. For someone who is addicted to books, they put me off reading.What's ironic, is that I adore the classics.

There's a quote by Julia Quinn, a wonderfully witty historical romance writer where she says that you'll always get more respect if you have a sad ending. I'm with her, where I like reading happy and I like being happy.I'll never be the reader that will impress the critics, but I'm happy with liking happy.

Deborah said...

I, too, must confess that I recently purchased your first St. Cyr book for my Kindle. Just last month, actually. I enjoyed it so much that I have now read all of them - at least all but your latest. I am waiting for your paperback release.

I do read good male fiction. Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy, is one of my favorites. I also enjoyed John Grisham, until he became boring. I do enjoy Dick Francis. I loved Hunt for Red October, and others, but could not get into World War III. I am into escape Fiction!

I refuse to read Nicholas Sparks for the same reason I stopped reading Danielle Steele - DEPRESSING!

I must admit that I definitely buy more books by women authors.

Please keep up the good work. I am going out to find the rest of your books, under all of your names.

Anonymous said...

I'm a sci-fi fan (in addition to other things) and went through a period where I read every female-authored sci-fi book I could find, mostly because the portrayals of women in sci-fi (by men) were so cardboard and shallow, or just male characters with the gender changed (for variety?). So, yes, I certainly chose sci-fi books by author gender then. It seems to hold less true in other genres, though I remember as a child being taught about identifying with characters in books and thinking, "What character would I want to be like? The girls are all so silly and I don't want to be a boy!". Hero is a great character that would never have been written by a man.

I no longer select by gender, but I often find I don't read a second book by a male author because of how women are portrayed - or in fact, whether they are portrayed at all!

cs harris said...

Deborah, thank you. Pat Conroy is one of my favorite authors, too. As the daughter of an Air Force colonel, I particularly enjoyed his The Great Santini, although i understand his own father didn't talk to him for years after the book was published!

Anon@11:25, that's interested about sci-fi; since I don't read it much, I didn't know that. I have to admit I've quit reading certain male mystery writers because their portrayals of every single female character in their books infuriated, and I finally came to the conclusion the author must have serious problems with the opposite sex. Interestingly, I've never heard a male reader complain about the portrayal of men in a female author's books, with the exception of romance, when they complain not about the men being unsympathetic but about them being men as women with they were, rather than as they actually are.

cs harris said...

Anon@ 5:04, perhaps I need to try another Sparks. it wasn't that I thought he was awful, I just never thought his books lived up to the hype or justified his sales.

The thing that infuriated me about Cold Mountain is that they made such a big thing about this being a retelling of The Odyssey--except that The Odyssey ends with Odysseus happily at home with Penelope! If a happy ending worked for Homer for 2,000, surely it can work today?

Judith said...

ff you've read one Nicholas Sparks, you've read them all.

Elizabeth George used to be one of my favorites, she is a wonderful writer, but once she killed off Helen, that was it for me. I can only take so much Tommy angst, sorrow, what ifs, and general sadness from and for him.

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