Male & Female Reading
Despite the new century’s welcome seismic shift in sexual equality, we all know there are gender divisions in reading. Or as my father once put it; ‘Romantic novels are for middle-aged women who hate their husbands.’ I’ve met few men who profess to having read ‘Jane Eyre’, a novel I find turgid and deeply peculiar, or for that matter ‘Pride and Prejudice’, although a few have read the one with zombies in it. And when it comes to genre reading there is often a gender split.
In the last few years it has become popular to gender-neutralise author names by switching to initials, so that we have SJ Bolton, NJ Cooper, JK Rowling and so on. This is not new. In the past writers sometimes used their husbands’ names (‘Clifford Mills’, ‘Mrs Henry Wood’) in order to find readership.
I ran into trouble selling my novel ‘Plastic’ because I wrote it in first person female form at a time when most publishers’ readers were female, and my notes from them reveal a surprising level of reverse sexism. If I had submitted the book as CR Fowler would they have put comments like ‘I was put off this manuscript knowing he was writing in a female voice’?
Equally, some female crime writers invest too much emotion in their male characters. Men still don’t go to the doctor when they feel ill or talk about their feelings as much as women, so why would a taciturn old-school male cop do so? This is where great crime writers like Val McDermid, Mo Hayder and Ann Cleeves get it so right, balancing their male and female characters so that their books don’t have a divided readership.
A good writer can write with strongly identifiable female traits and still draw male readers. I like Kate Atkinson’s books because her prose is so powerful. Do women read Lee Child, I wonder, even though he writes his terrific Jack Reacher novels with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek?
In Hollywood films you find insulting, solipsistic tosh like ‘Eat Pray Love’ on one side and Tarantino’s unpleasantly misogynistic ‘The Hateful Eight’ on the other. I’m thrilled that the category of domestic suspense is back, as I love these books, primarily written by women. It’s interesting to look through your reading list and see if you can divide out what you read by the gender of the author. Anyone care to share?