Wednesday, March 20, 2013
When Men Write for Women
By Sandra Parshall
Women buy more books than men do. Women read more than men do. Those are facts, supported by market studies. At least some male writers of crime fiction are paying attention and consciously tailoring their work for a female audience.
I’ve interviewed male thriller writers who freely admitted that they’ve started writing female protagonists because they want to appeal to the people who buy and read the most books. The move may not be necessary – while a lot of men won’t read books about women written by women, female readers are more than willing to read novels by men and about men – but those writers believe the switch to women protagonists will increase their chances of success. “I’m writing to the market,” one author told me, “and the market is women.”
The cover copy on Andrew Gross’s new thriller, No Way Back (out April 2), doesn’t leave any doubt about the audience he and his publisher are seeking. The story description mentions common thriller ingredients: a deadly secret... driven into hiding... a dangerous odyssey to find the truth...a desperate hunt... a nefarious web of treachery, lies, and deception. The same general description could be used on countless thriller jackets. But from the first sentence, the summary is aimed at women: “Wendy Gould is an attractive, happy suburban mom, and an experienced ex-cop.” (Some men won’t get past the first eight words of that sentence before putting the book back on the shelf.) It concludes with, “A breathtaking tale featuring two strong, sympathetic women who must rely on each other to take down powerful, lethal forces.”
I read a lot of thrillers with female protagonists, and I’ve concluded that the inclusion of a child or children is fast becoming obligatory. Female writers understand that children are a powerful presence in most women’s lives. Having children changes a woman, and it certainly alters her priorities. A man who gets that will earn the loyalty of female readers.
Women relying on each other is also an appealing theme for female readers, but only a few male writers have caught on so far. Typically, the female protagonist will be assisted by a man. In some cases, the author allows the unforgivable to happen: the man has to rescue the woman from harm. And then they kiss. Two women working together to beat the bad guys sounds fresh and different.
But do male writers always create believable women characters? I think Gross does, but certain other male authors make me cringe when they try to write from a woman’s point of view. “Write what you know” would be good advice for them. They obviously know nothing about women (except, perhaps, their book-buying habits). In the worst cases, the female characters come across as men in women’s bodies, especially if the characters are cops: hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, inclined to fall into bed with strangers, and utterly insensitive to the feelings of others. Do real women like that exist? Of course. But they are seldom appealing, or even interesting, in fiction, and I hear a lot of female readers complain about them. The alcoholic, boorish cop has become a cliche in crime fiction, and my general sense is that readers are tired of such characters. Changing the gender makes matters worse, not better. If a child is involved, a female character like that becomes cringe-worthy – a mother we want to report to Child Services, not read about.
All authors who want to write from the opposite sex’s point of view would do well to keep up with ongoing research into the differences between the sexes.
In the early days of the feminist movement, leaders such as Gloria Steinem heatedly denounced the idea that men and women are inherently different. They blamed nurture, not nature, for any perceived variance in abilities and interests. Now neuroscientists are discovering, with both brain scans and simple tests, that the genders are indeed wired differently. Each sex has its strengths and its weaknesses. The division isn’t uniform – some women have “male” traits and abilities, and vice versa – but it is common enough to be acknowledged as the norm.
One neuroscientist has demonstrated that the visual centers of male and female brains don’t work the same way. We look at the same things but don’t see the same things. For example, men and women perceive colors in different ways, which probably explains why couples have so much trouble agreeing on how to paint the living room walls. Women are better able to distinguish shades of colors. Men have their talents too: greater sensitivity to fine detail and rapidly moving stimuli. Differences in male and female emotions have been documented with scans that show which parts of the brain “light up” in response to stimuli.
In the next few years we will learn more than we’ve ever dreamed of about the human brain (including why it stays awake and dreams while the body rests). If they’re paying attention, even the most stubborn writers will have to realize that a “strong” woman isn’t merely a man in a skirt.
But here’s the big question for writers: Will realistic portrayals of women drive more male readers away from books written by and/or about women? Are writers who want to reach a male audience better off sticking with the cliches and the man-in-a-skirt version of a strong woman?
Which male writers do you think are good at creating believable women characters? What are your pet peeves about the way men portray women? Or the way women portray men?