Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Can Women Write Thrillers?

Sandra Parshall

“A testosterone-fueled thriller!”

How many times have you seen those words in a book review or ad?

And how many times have you seen a book described as “an estrogen-fueled thriller”?

Female authors who are accepted as thriller writers are still relatively rare. One reason may be that publishers, knowing a lot of men won’t read women authors, try to direct marketing of those authors’ work toward female readers. If a man writes an action-packed crime novel with sex in it, the book is called a testosterone-fueled thriller. If a woman writes an action-packed crime novel with sex in it, the book is likely to be labeled romantic suspense, guaranteeing that the majority of male readers won’t touch it with a barge pole.

I have no hard data to support this claim, but I’m going to say it anyway because I’ve seen it happen often enough to make me believe it’s true: agents, editors, and readers apply different standards to men’s and women’s books. A friend of mine wrote a thriller that was filled with action, murder, and plot twists. The protagonist was a strong female who knew how to protect herself and take out a bad guy when she needed to. Agents who read the manuscript either didn’t find the character’s actions believable or felt the book should be more interior, with bigger doses of the protagonist’s feelings. You know, more of a woman’s book. “I’ve considered rewriting to make her a man,” my friend says, “but then what would I do with the cute priest who’s the love interest? Make him a nun?”

Does a real difference exist between thrillers written by women and those produced by men? If you put a male name on a book, as some women writers do when they opt to use pseudonyms or their initials, will anybody be able to guess the author’s gender from the text? Do women overload their books with romance and family life? Do they use a softer tone and eschew graphic violence? Do their books focus only on female characters and their peculiarly female concerns?

If you think the answer is yes to all of the above, I have only this to say to you: P.J. Tracy. That’s a pseudonym for not just one woman but two, a mother-daughter writing team. I see a lot of similarities, beyond the Minnesota setting, between the Tracy novels and John Sandford’s Prey series, but I’m willing to bet that some male Sandford fans won’t read “Tracy” because they know the authors are a mother and a daughter.

While I’m naming names, consider Tess Gerritsen. True, her cop (Jane Rizzoli) and medical examiner (Maura Isles) are women, but Gerritsen also includes the viewpoint of Rizzoli’s husband, FBI agent Gabriel Dean, and her two women are as tough and businesslike as any male characters you’ll ever encounter. She doesn’t shy away from violence either. I wonder, though, how many men have never tried Gerritsen’s books because a woman’s name is on the covers and the two main characters are female. The fans she already has are enough to put her books on bestseller lists for a while. But the thrillers that make it onto the lists and stay there week after week, sometimes month after month, tend to be those written by men. The thrillers that get the most review attention are, with few exceptions, the “testosterone-fueled” kind.

Is this a holdover from the time when men ran the world and women were expected to smile and bake cookies? Or does something basic in human nature resist the idea of women writing about the darkest side of life? Why is it that some men simply cannot be entertained by a book if they know it was written by a woman?

I recently confessed that I avoid reading crime novels from foreign countries. I vowed to make more of an effort, because I realize I’m missing a lot of entertaining books. Men who won’t read thrillers by women are also missing some good stuff. If I thought any of those men were reading this blog, I would encourage them to be adventurous and give female thriller writers a try. The danger of estrogen contamination has been greatly exaggerated.


Steve Allan said...

I read women writers all the time. Are they any different from male writers? Not really.

As for the “an estrogen-fueled thriller" - I'd use that to describe certain times around my household. :)

Deb Baker said...

Great post. I've wondered about that myself. I read both, but if I wanted to write a thrill myself (and I do someday!) I'd really worry about those darn men who wouldn't read me. Any more comments from the male species.

William Spear said...

Funny post, which may not be the response you're looking for.

I have no answer for your premise - "Can Women Write Thrillers". My suspicion is that women are no more or less capable of writing a thriller or any other genre than is a man.

However, by merely raising the topic, the corollary (sp?) becomes an equally valid question: "Can Men Write Romances"?

Your quote: "Is this a holdover from the time when men ran the world and women were expected to smile and bake cookies?" is humorous. In my house, I bake the cookies.

Thanks for asking a tough question,

# 30 #

Sandra Parshall said...

Actually, Bill, I think some men do write romances -- under female pseudonyms. Women readers might not buy the books with male authors' names on them, so the bias is present on both sides.