By PD Martin
A fortnight ago I looked at some gender stats when it came to Aussie awards and book reviews in the US and Aussie media. And then I posed two questions:
- Do you prefer reading male or female authors (or don’t care)?
- Do you prefer reading about a male or female protagonist (or don’t care)?
It’s often suggested that men don’t like reading books by female authors, and I wondered if it was more about the protagonist than the gender of the actual author. Is it easier for a reader to identify with a protagonist if they’re the same gender? I like reading both genders (authors and protagonists) but if push came to shove and I was choosing between two books that appeared ‘equal’ in other respects, I’d probably choose the book with a female heroine. But that’s just me…let’s check out the overall results…
Of 54 votes, 77.78% don’t care if the author is male or female, 12.96% prefer male authors and 9.26% prefer female authors.
Of 51 votes, 74.51% don’t care if the protagonist is male of female, 19.61% prefer reading about male protagonists, and 5.88% prefer reading books with female protagonists.
Of the 162 voters, 76.54% don’t care if the author is male or female, 20.99% prefer reading females and 2.47% prefer reading books written by men.
Of the 157 voters, 72.61% don’t care if the protagonist is male or female, 22.93% prefer reading stories with a female protagonist, and 4.46% prefer reading male protagonists.
As you can see, the results are actually pretty similar for the males and females who voted in my poll. Although, it’s actually the females who are more ‘sexist’ when it comes to the gender of the authors, with 20.99% preferring female authors versus 12.96% of males preferring male authors.
When it comes to the protagonists, the stats are even more equivalent between men and women. So there goes my theory out the window!!!
You’ll notice we had a lot more females voting (three times as many) than men, but that’s probably in line with the fact that more females read crime fiction (and therefore probably this blog).
Differences in male and female brains
I guess gender differences have always interested me, but they’ve been especially on my radar recently because I’ve been helping out a colleague who’s working on a non-fiction book – and it includes some fascinating info on gender differences.
One study the author found looked at risk. It was a 1999 study published in the Psychological Bulletin, by James Byrnes, David Miller and William Schafer, and it looked at general risk-taking differences between men and women. The study found that men took more risks even if it was quite obviously a bad idea, whereas women avoided risks, even when it was clearly beneficial. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes towards risk.
So could attitude towards risk relate to how authors write male and female protagonists? Are male protagonists more likely to take risks, which draw the readers in and add to a novel’s excitement? Risk, certainly in thriller novels, is an essential element of creating an edge-of-the-seat experience for readers. Having said that, while protagonists do have to take some risks, they also have to be believable. So are risks taken by male characters generally more believable, perhaps because we know at some level that it’s less likely for a woman to take risks. To charge off after the bad guy. To walk down that dark alley to see if she really did hear someone scream? Is that cool risky behaviour, or stupidity if it’s a woman doing it?
Given my poll showed that most of the Murderati readers like reading both male and female authors and characters, maybe gender differences and risk simply aren’t in the equation for you. I’m kind of going off on a tangent, but this research has got me thinking that maybe risk is another spin to the age-old claim that men prefer reading male authors…do they simply like reading about males taking risks? For me, personally, I don’t think risk-taking attitudes come into it, because I love reading about a kick-ass female character who’s going to jump off buildings and get invovled in shoot-outs to get the bad guy.
What about you? Have you ever thought about a character’s risk-taking activities, believability and gender?
PS I think this is a fairly analytical and intense post for me…bloody David Corbett must be rubbing off on me. And I don’t even follow him in the Murderati line-up any more.
Very interesting piece on gender stats. As a man, I would have to say that this year I have mainly been reading crime written by great authors such as Alafair Burke, Tess Gerritsen and Cheslea Cain. That's not to take anything away from the likes of Harlan Coben and Jonathan Kellerman. Just that maybe the pace of novels from women seem to run more smoothly, with devilish plots and an awful lot of gore thrown into the mix.
Gender doesn't factor in much when I judge a character's risk-taking as believable. It's far more a matter of motivation and personality.
Though the believability of that character to successfully carry out a physically risky activity (or not, if it's supposed to be a doomed effort) is grounded in his or her physical abilities, gender still doesn't place as much importance as the writer effectively showing the reader that this character can (or can't) do it. At least for me.
I'm not sure I would have said this twenty years ago . . .
Wow, what a thought-provoking post–thank you!
I've been thinking a lot about risk as I get used to my new neighborhood in New York City… it feels pretty safe, but I don't know it yet at all hours of the day, and want to make sure my danger radar is still intact.
And I want to write my next book about a historic woman who was a hell of a risk-taker. I think that's why she interests me so much.
So this was lovely to read… yea!!
Okay, I fit into the category of men who take more risks even if it is quite obviously a bad idea. This, in fact, defines my every action in life.
As far as reading male or female writers – I'm reading "In a Lonely Place" right now, by Dorothy B. Hughes. Fantastic writing. If the rest of her books are as good as this I'll read everything she's done.
The interesting stat for me was that you had more than twice as many female voters as male voters.
In my second manuscript, I had a weak female protagonist I kept trying to take risks, a male character appeared and was quite strong and I wonder how much my subconsious was coming to the rescue of the female protag? I think that's why I set that book down for a while and am now working on one where the female protagonist is very risky and doesn't need help from anyone. We have stuff in our heads that rationally we would never admit to, stuff they told us as girls or we read or somehow got stuck in our subconscious but it's there and will seep out in our writing. The analysis helps explain some of this phenomena.
I think bloody Corbett is rubbing off on all of us.
This IS thought-provoking. I'm one of the women who read women more often than men, although I am equally passionate about my favorite male authors.
For me it's more than I can trust more women to portray violence more responsibly. For example, I absolutely don't want to read a man writing about rape (unless it's male on male rape; that's more honest to me) but I will read Karin Slaughter or Mo Hayder or Tess in that arena because I know there's not going to be an iota of exploitation.
Andy – nice compliment for us female authors 🙂 Thanks!
Sarah – yes, I think making the character's physical abilities real is very important in books. Perhaps less so in movies…no one's as tough as Bruce Willis.
Cornelia – Glad you liked the post. Assessing risk in a new neighbourhood is certainly a must-do. Glad to hear yours is looking good so far! And it sounds like the subject of your next book is fascinating.
Stephen – taking risks when it's a bad idea defines your life. Wow! You must lead a scary life. Then again, risks in writing can be good 🙂 I haven't read Dorothy B Hughes but I'll add her to my outlandish to-be-read pile.
Allison – Yes, the main protagonist, whether male or female, has to be strong. They are your leading lady/man. And I agree with you about all the subconscious stuff, particularly when it comes to gender issues. Sometimes it can also be about the reality of a situation – a man taking a short-cut through a park late at night is a less risky activity than a female doing the same thing.
Alex – Yup, bloody Corbett. Wonder if his ears are burning. I think a lot of females would echo your thoughts on the way a woman portrays a sexually violent scene or crime. At the same time, these scenes are probably harder for men to write, because they're aware they have to tread carefully.
Fascinating analysis. Please go off on tangents ANY time you want! One of the things I'm realizing is that so much of our work as writers is simply learning more about the world and then trying to understand it through our writing, our fiction and otherwise.
I don't know if I think of characters in terms of risk . . . I mean, I know I don't like stupid risk (entering a building alone with a flashlight — and before backup arrives — and so forth) but taking big gambles? I'm not sure that's a clencher for me. I think what I'm more interested in is emotional risk . . .
Hmmmmm a lot to think about.
Thanks, Pari! And emotional risk…you're absolutely right. I'm sure we could all write a whole blog or more on characters' emotional risks!
Well, I'm flattered by your compliment, though I think you're being charitable.
I was one of those who admitted he prefers male authors, but I have no preference as to protagonists. And my preference for male authors is nothing deliberate — I just looked at my book shelf, did an inventory of which books I've read and enjoyed, and somewhat sheepishly had to admit I read and enjoy more male writers than female writers.
Now, why. I have no clue, but I don't think it has anything to do with risk. I think it has to do with voice. The writers I enjoy all have strong voices, male or female, and when I survey the writers of either gender who don't quite ring my bell, there's something about the voice that leaves me indifferent.
And women writers who have captured me that way include my fellow Murderatis and Martha Gelhorn, Joan Didion, Laura Kasischke, Denise Mina, Aime Liu, Marlyn Robinson, Natsuo Kirino, Cara Black, Rebecca Goldstein (now she's analytical and intense) and Zoë Ferraris, with whom I'll be posting a dialog here on Murderati this coming Tuesday.
I find I have a tendency to select women authors. I find the crime/mystery/thriller genre to have a bit of a split in the way the story is told, and the men I read now are showing a tendency to lean it up a bit too much for my taste. While I think the writing concept of tightness is very beneficial to the telling of the story, there is a lot more to my enjoyment than just the basic story.
I lean toward depth of character and setting and dimensions that might include history or culture and time. The women I've been reading tend to do more of that, so that quality attracts me to them. I do get bored with excess description and lately I find more of that in books written by women.
These days when I find an author I enjoy it is usually a woman with a woman protagonist that I find myself identifying with if only in some small way. I need a connection to enjoy. This may explain why I show a tendency to gender preference in this regard.
This is a very absorbing blog. It would interest me if you were to follow this with a few more questions that might include some regarding stability of preference and change over time or variability of same-time selection.
The higher number of your women respondents actually tells you a lot about your question, as it possibly relates to you and your gender and books you've written. These, I suspect, are attracted by those factors. A multiple regression analysis of such factors would be hugely fascinating.
As a slight aside on gender issues in reading and writing, it seems that there have been some women authors on Murderati who wrote gorgeous blogs that no, or very few, men commented on. Superficially it did not appear to relate in a proportionally equal sort of way. Dunno. I'm really not much into stats.
David – glad you're flattered by the compliment! And It is true 🙂 I'm also glad my poll 'made' you take an inventory and I agree, a strong voice is essential.
Reine – I actually think it's really hard to hit on the right level of detail/description. And the reason I say that is because when I handed in my first draft of Body Count one of the overall editorial notes was 'more description needed' and then a few friends said they thought it was too much! Such a personal thing, I think. And as for the multiple regression analysis…hey, I said David Corbett was rubbing off on me, not that I WAS him 🙂 Although I wonder if he's as lost as me with the multiple regression analysis 🙂
Hi PD, it's just a way of analyzing your stats by taking different factors into account to see if there might be something relevant to your research question that you might not have taken into account. Some such factors in your question might be age; culture; city dweller/suburbanite/low population area; educational level — like that. Then you might write a SAS program to determine how each of these variables are alike or not. I hate doing it, but love the info you can get. But it's more important I wonder what you would actually do with the information, because knowing you a little tells me it won't much change your writing but the marketing. And how much control do you have with that? Maybe a lot? I haven't had the pleasure! xo and sorry didn't mean to carry on so. Is just interesting.
Phillipa, my intellect doesn't come anywhere close to David's. It really doesn't. I just pick these things up on the way to whatever it is I'm really interested in. It's an accident that I even had to learn about it once upon a time. I'm not good at it.
Hi Reine. That makes sense. Thanks for filling me in! And I can see that knowing those extra details would be fascinating. I actually used a software called poll daddy (www.polldaddy.com) and you can analyse by country but that's the next subscription level up…the one you have to pay for 🙂
And yes, I don't think you can let stats like this affect what you write or the way you write, but sometimes it's interesting to try to think more consciously about issues. Like the risk thing rang true for me…I think it is more believable when a male protagonist takes risks and while I always thought it was only because of the reality that women are in more danger of sexual assault and generally physically weaker, now I wonder if it's also because men, in real life, are more likely to take risks!
Thanks for the comments…you weren't "carrying on" at all!