Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sexual Prose

A recent discussion over at Ray Banks' blog centered on why his list of favorite authors was so y-chromosome heavy. This prompted some great suggestions. Take a look at his post about getting in touch with his feminine side at http://thesaturdayboy.typepad.com/

As for living in a single sex ghetto, I'm as guilty as the next guy. I got ten books for Christmas and not one by a woman. Shame. But I've read the big names, you know who they are, and was disappointed. Next year I promise to try again, starting with Sara Gran.

In the discussion, I clumsily introduced something I've noticed but not seen discussed anywhere else, and that's Joe Konrath's non-specific gender marketing of his Jack Daniels series. Ray gave me the following holiday smack-down:

"Sorry, don't do marketing. Do writing. Don't care what gender the reader is, and I'm not about to start calling myself RS Banks to git the laydez."

Stung, I limped away, but I'm still curious if anyone else has talked about this and I'm just late to the party. I can't write with an audience in mind. Like Ray, I just try to write the best damn book I can write and hope it finds readers who will like what I've written. But this is a business, and craft aside, we have to sell books. It looks to me like Joe has consciously tried to attract the larger audience of female readers, partly by salting his serial killer mysteries with his heroine's relationship problems.

I'm not going to get into whether Joe is successful or not. You can make up your own mind and Joe's numbers are sure better than mine.

But I was reading The White Trilogy by Ken Bruen this weekend and in a particularly beautiful chapter he gets inside the head of one his characters, a woman cop named Falls, who knows better but can't help having a brief fling with a charming, poetry writing philanderer. Bruen is so honest and writes so beautifully about this character's hopes for this hopeless relationship, that it makes almost every other male writer (as well as most women writers, to be honest) seem ham-handed and stumbling when it comes to such universal human emotions.

It's unfair, I know, to compare anyone to Ken Bruen, an astonishing talent, but I think his novels must surely cross gender lines. He's too good not to.

As for the rest of us, struggling to write honestly and with some understanding of our fellow humans, why do women writers appeal mostly to women and men to men? What is it about our fiction that splits along these gender lines?

I know this is a large and potentially mine-filled topic, but I'd welcome your thoughts.


Olen Steinhauer said...

Interesting topic, David. I understand the logic behind the ambiguous sexual marketing of an abbreviated author's name, but it's not my bag. To me, it's beside the point. Men tend, unfairly, not to read women writers, but women--I think--don't have this prejudice. So for a male writer there's not so much upside. Konrath, as usual, is covering every last one of his bases to the extreme.

As for male writers getting into the heads of their female characters, it's completely fair to compare people to Bruen. Brilliant he is, but we should all be held up to those high standards. In college, without a doubt, my best stories were from female POVs, and people seemed surprised I could pull it off well. And I've gotten pleasantly surprised reactions from female readers of my novels too. There's no mystery to it. Writing is imagining, and each of us knows enough women to be able to imagine what it's like to grow up as a woman in society, and how it feels to be hurt--that doesn't change based on gender.

As writers, we should be about understanding the world. And if more than half the world is female, then it's necessary for us to scratch our feminine side.

Tribe said...

Ya know, I never, ever write with the intent of addressing any particular gender. It's just never crossed my mind. When I write I like mixing up the gender of the main protagonist (from story to story of course), but even then, aside from issues of physique and biology, I never assume that a character is going to act or think differently because of gender.

If more women were writing the stuff I like, I'd certainly read them. I'm currently on a P. Highsmith and D. Hughes kick...have Nicola Griffith, Matsuo Kirino, Stella Duffy on to be read pile...if they'd write 'em, I'd buy and read the goddamn things.

JD Rhoades said...

One of the things that I love about writing, in fact one of the main things that draws me back to the keyboard, is the fun of getting into the heads of my various characters. Some of them, of course, are female, and those are particularly fun characters to run with. In some ways they're like men, and in some they're utterly different. Fortunately, I have as one of my first readers my Lovely Bride, who is not shy about telling me "um, no, honey, she wouldn't do that."

David Terrenoire said...

It's not so much writing female characters that I'm wondering about, it's writing books that women enjoy reading. I've had good luck with Panamanian Moon. Some women like it a lot. Others tell me it's "not the kind of book I usually read."

No, I wonder what makes a mystery tend female and what makes it tend male. Is it, as one of my agents described it, "the running and jumping and guns and bombs and things" kind of plot? Is it the introduction of romance? Is it a female protagonist?

For example, I know what I don't like about Sue Grafton, and that's the intrusive domesticity and the lack of "running and jumping."

So, no, I trust male writers can write female characters and vice versa, but what makes a book a man's book and what makes it a woman's book?

I know there are writers who cross over gender lines, but they're rare. Who makes the crossover successfully and why?

Olen Steinhauer said...

Speaking as a boy, David, I think what draws in a female reader is psychological conflict & depth. Boys (very generally) can be satisfied with the wham/bang of a fast plot and not ask much more of the story. Girls want to know "why" X does Y and have a reason to give a damn. That can work just fine within a "guns & bombs" sort of story, though if a woman reads the back flap, she may assume it's not gonna be her thing. That's my take.

Jenny D said...

I do rather think, though, this question needs to be approached from the opposite point of view. We write what we write, after all, and I don't think that opportunistic re-tooling usually works (not that it hurts to pay attention to these things, just that I can't imagine that a given [male] writer is going to get great results by saying "Wait, everything I've written up to this point appeals only to men, I'm suddenly going to have a female protagonist and lots of relationship stuff..." Hard to do this without condescending to the reader).

Two things. First, there are a lot of books by women that men would like but don't find themselves reading; the unfairness about the way the demographic breaks down is that women read men and women but many men read almost entirely men. Second, in my opinion it's character above all that makes the difference. Let's assume for a minute that I'm a representative female reader. I don't read Tom Clancy, I just can't get serious about hardware and the military-industrial complex; I do read 'thrillers' by Kevin Wignall and Peter Temple because of the really excellent character development and voice. So it doesn't take a female protagonist per se, and it certainly doesn't take a romance plot, but it does take some really good version of character development. Of course, in my opinion ALL good fiction has this; Bruen's a good example, I think, and so is Iain Banks. (Or Dick Francis--unless you believe the novels were secretly written by his wife--is a different kind of good example, male writer and male protagonists and fairly public-world-related i.e. non-family-type plots, and yet surely because of that strong and appealing first-person voice--and also, presumably, the fact that his jockey characters are always worrying about their weight and getting beaten up--his readership has been overwhelmingly female.) So perhaps the point is "Write as well as you can, and you will enlarge your female readership along with your male."

David Terrenoire said...


That was great. Good advice, cogent thought and you made me laugh.

Character, huh? Hell, I can do character. And here I thought there was a secret I wasn't getting.

Karen Olson said...

This is an interesting topic, and one that's been revisited so many times because I'm not sure there's really an answer. I think women readers are much more likely to read books written by men, but probably because they read more, statistically. I'm finding it interesting that I've gotten criticism about my protagonist, a tough, salty tongued woman journalist, from women but not from men. Men seem to embrace her use of the f-word and her mongoose-like qualities. Women ask me why she "talks like that."

I think there are more books written by men that will appeal to both sexes than books written by women that appeal to both. Even my friend Roberta Isleib's golfing mysteries appeal primarily to women, despite the male golf obession. But it could be the way they're marketed. It is irritating that any writer who wants to cross gender lines seems to be using initials in his name, like that's going to fool anyone.

David Terrenoire said...

Most of the characters in Panamanian Moon are soldiers, or former soldiers, and their language is appropriate for men who endure long days without hot meals or showers.

My mother read it and, as proud as she was, said, "But, David, the language."

She said the same thing to my sister, a woman who'd just retired from the army, and my sister said, "What language?"

Dusty Rhoades, Jeff Shelby, Jack Bludis and I shared a panel at Cape Fear this year called PIs and Tough Guys. The subject of language came up and I said that I'd been pulled out of Norman Mailer's first book because his GIs used the word "friggin.'" That prompted Jack Bludis to tell a story about Dorothy Parker meeting Mailer. Parker shook his hand and said, "Oh, you're the young man who can't spell fuck."

Now, see why we go to these conferences?

Jenny D said...

Yes, and the novels of Chester Himes rely heavily on the sort-of-a-euphemism "motherraper"--I really don't understand why his publishers were happier about including the bizarre and still vaguely pornographic and never-heard-in-life motherraper in preference to motherfucker....

Ray said...

Yeah, I know which one I'd rather be called. At least "motherfucker" implies a touch of consent on the mother's part.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I (a male) am currently working on a novel with a female first-person POV narrator. The biggest problem I think I've had so far? Knowing when and how to reference her purse.

Jenny D said...

Well, as possibly the only double-X-chromosome poster in this thread, let me say that I HATE the word purse and would never use it to describe anything I carry. ("Messenger bag" being the current accessory/term of choice. And why it should be the case that if my male friend were to be carrying the bag, nobody would ever in a million years call it a purse, as soon as it's over my shoulders you hear "purse" left and right, I will never know...) When I last interviewed for jobs at the massive annual MLA convention, in which university departments set up in hotel rooms and you skulk around getting grilled by them, one of my tests of the manners of the interviewers was whether or not they used the term "purse" (i.e. "Can I take your coat and purse for you?") to allude to my obviously briefcase-like-thing. "Purse" usage will depend on girliness, regional origin, age and all sorts of other things, but I would say on the whole it's a word that is rapidly becoming obsolescent among 20- and 30-something American urbanites.

All of which is to say that I think you'd better get the full manuscript vetted once you've written the whole thing, don't worry about it in the meantime but I know I do quite often read something (either first- or third-person) and say to myself, "You know, that female character would never have ordered that meal in that restaurant," or something like that. It's a cliche, but you know the kind of thing I'm talking about: like where you think "really she would be popping open a Diet Coke not a ginger ale."

David Terrenoire said...


It's always polite to ask first and remember to say please.

As for the purse, Steve, ask Ray. At Bouchercon this year, he was carrying a fetching Prada bag that matched his eyes. Very nice.

David Terrenoire said...


Good point on the bag versus purse. Yes, I hear purse and think something tiny on the arm of my grandma, certainly not a messenger bag.

Before I sent off the ms for MAN DOWN, I Googled a bunch of things to check for spelling, etc. Among the list were brands of women's shoes, bags, and suits as well as the names of several serial killers, Semtex, Browning automatics, DARPA, the location of the Hoover Building, the flight path out of Reagan airport, the Park Service, and the Russian equivalent of the Stinger missile.

Oh, yeah, I'm sure I made the NSA list that day.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Thanks so much for the "bag" tip.

Ted Baker said...

A few weeks ago Sue Monk Kidd wrote an article about this in the Washington Post Book World. I read her book The Secret Life of Bees and was curious as to what she thought.


Within the last few years, I realized that there were piles of books on my shelves going unread, and even more books that I still wanted. The problem: when am I going to find the time to read everything I want?

I've spent the last two years desperately trying to catch up. And while I'm averaging over a book a week, I'm still far from making a serious dent in my list. Not to mention the books that are recommended to me...

I don't quite understand limiting yourself. For example, what if you decided never to watch any black and white films? You'd miss out on Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Manhattan, Casablanca, A Touch of Evil...

Ray said...

Precisely, it was a Prada BAG. And being a Brit, it had my PURSE in it.

As well as some lippy and a compact.

Jerry said...

While the crime/mystery novel has been bent, twisted and torn into a 1000 pieces and put back together again in recent years, it still is essentially a boys adventure story. It's not really going to change all that quickly. A lot of men have been writing books with strong female leads. Dennis LeHane, Joe R. Lansdale's "Sunset & Sawdust," James Lee Burke"s "White Doves In The Morning," Carl Hiasson... I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's done all the time.