Monday, October 6, 2014

Read Any Good Women Writers Lately?

By Susan C Shea

I’m joining my Criminal Minds colleagues in the SinC blog hop this week, having been tagged by Paul D. Marks. (See his last post for the rules and the list of off-topic questions we can choose from.) I decided to take on what may well be the most controversial of the seven questions, so here goes:

If someone said, "Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men," how would you respond?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking: Who’s speaking? Gender, please? Can we agree it’s a fair bet this hypothetical voice was male, or intended to represent a reader of That Sex? Answering the question begs for generalities, and I intend to deliver them, along with a summation, so here goes.

Item: I am the mother of two sons and two grandsons (I also have two granddaughters, so I have a control group.) We tried limiting toys to building blocks, Legos, train sets, stuffed animals, card games, and the like. The boys found sticks, made swords, built collapsible building traps, staged fights with plush squirrels and bears before moving on to paintball and Star Wars computer games.

Item: My darling man, a gentle artist who loved women and paid them great personal and professional respect, read voraciously, mostly paperback thrillers with black and silver embossed covers, the kind you find at airport kiosks with blurbs like “rectum-tightening suspense!!!”

Item: Movie marketing aims at 18-25 year old males, which research has brought us summer after summer of blockbuster Iron Mans, Batmans, and Spider Mans, and whatever Tom Cruise is up to that involves flaming cars, burning cities, and massive explosions. In fact, if a sensitive actor or actress wants to make big bucks, the easiest way to do it, the entertainment industry says, is to do a high energy thriller in which you are bionic or at least brain-wrecked and can kill anyone within three seconds of sighting him or her at twenty paces.

What I’m getting at is there is a real, measurable embrace of pretend violence that is usually (here’s a generalization) stronger among males than females, that begins early in spite of our motherly efforts to temper it, and is nurtured unceasingly by those who want to sell entertainment.

But, those same marketers have figured out that females, even as little girls, are still being socialized to take care of…anything. They build Lego safe houses, comfort plush animals, play-cook for daddy, form little social pods – you do have to watch out for extreme verbal violence when they hit their teens, alas – and make up very few paintball teams. Title Nine and the access to real sports have made some inroads into the stereotyping of female lack of assertiveness, and allowing women to become soldiers has given them experiences that will influence their perspectives. But I still think (another generalization coming) that female readers approach entertainment, and in this case, crime fiction, with less appetite for blunt force trauma writing, for child-endangerment plots, for fist-fighting and car-torching scenes.

That said, there are fine women writers who write tough stuff, and male writers whose books bring empathy into the heart of the tale. A very personal couple of examples: Denise Mina’s memorable, bleakly noir series about a Glasgow journalist who gets sucked into terrifying crime situations; David Corbett’s stand-alones about the culture of violence, written with an empathy that makes us understand how people go bad. (Both were on my beloved’s bookshelves along with Walter Mosely, Robert B Parker, Val McDermid, Lee Child, James Lee Burke, and Harlan Coban.)

My shelves include the great Sara Paretsky, Barbara Neely (sadly not writing the Blanche series any more), Sue Grafton, Rex Stout (yup, a guy), Laurie King, Magdalen Nabb, Gar Anthony Haywood (another guy) and Donna Leon. The narrative voices I resonate most strongly with, be they female or male, are those that have at least a soupçon of the same socialization I grew up with, a tendency to want to fix problems without guns, correct wrongs without too much vengeance, and comfort victims rather than blow everyone up as a way of clearing the decks.

Summary: I do think gender is linked to readers’ preferences, and that it mirrors the miasma of media-driven socialization from the cradle to the grave. What I would argue is that we - as readers and writers -  owe it to the goal of defeating stereotypes to try something new once in a while, to vary the menu and the narrative voices we choose in the crime fiction genre. We can be happily, thrillingly, surprised when we read something out of our normal range.

Coda: My partner came to relish Paretsky and Leon, with their passion for social justice, among my other recommendations. I love his Walter Mosely collection because it’s full of unforgettable, darkly comic characters, even if I blanche when Mouse gets one of his bad ideas!

Feel free to push back – and pass along some recommendations to convert our hypothetical reader.


Paul D. Marks said...

Interesting take, Susan. But I have to disagree on Mouse -- love him...and (most of) his bad ideas :)

Susan C Shea said...

Don't get me wrong, Paul, I love Mouse. I just wish he'd take his meds!

Terry Shames said...

When I started publishing my Samuel Craddock series, I assumed I would mostly be read by women. To my surprise I have a lot of men fans. That said, I have a gender-neutral name and my protagonist is male, so I suspect this helps. But the fact is, Craddock is not "kick ass" in the traditional sense. I actually think that the men who like him would like to be like him--compassionate, smart, and fair.

I totally agree that women are more wide-ranging in their literary tastes. However, Susan, I know you were with me at a library read when a woman sternly informed me that she didn't read anything but female protagonists. Period. Gulp.

Susan C Shea said...

I wonder if men (or women, for that matter, read about heroes they'd like to be, or heroes who get their adrenalin pumping?!

Catriona McPherson said...

So fascinating. I could not in a million years have guessed the pal from the booklist.

Art Taylor said...

Interesting post, Susan--lots to think about here!

Makes me think of the kids book adage about little girls being willing to read books about boys, but little boys not being as willing to read books about girls. I don't think that's entirely true--not with Dash, at least not now--but it says something that it became a marketing mantra of sorts.