I know this topic has been discussed before, most recently in the thoughtful blog post by our own Louise Ure. Last year, debate raged when one book reviewer decried the overwhelming number of female victims in crime novels, accusing authors and publishers of blatant exploitation of women’s suffering. This provoked Val McDermid’s able response.
No one has contested the fact that, yes, crime novels do have an overwhelming number of female victims. Or that such novels are popular. Or that book covers with women’s bodies (alive or dead) seem to attract readers. Charges have been flying that we authors, male and female, are guilty of misogyny and should be ashamed of ourselves. Women crime authors are singled out as traitors to our gender, and male authors are accused of being sexist pigs.
But no one has really stopped to ask the question: Why do these books sell so well? Why do so many fem-jep books make it onto bestseller lists? Where are all the bestselling guy-jep books? Since the majority of fiction readers are women, why do so many women buy books in which women figure as victims?
I confess, I’m one of those readers. When I choose a thriller novel for vacation reading, if the killer is targeting big strong guys, I’m just not interested in the story. But if the killer is hunting for women, I am much more likely to plunk down my cash for that book. Does that make me a sorry excuse for a feminist?
For years, I’ve pondered the popularity of these books, ever since a reader told me that she only reads serial killer books where the victims are women. “What if the victims are male?” I asked her. “Oh, I don’t care about those,” she said. She’s not the only reader who’s told me this; again and again, I hear women readers tell me that they’re most attracted to stories in which women are threatened, women are victimized.
That preference for fictional female victims carries over into my own writing. More than once, I have started work on a novel where the victim is male — only to realize the story isn’t working for me. The first draft of VANISH, for instance, kicked off with a “dead” man who wakes up in a body bag and spends half the book fighting for his life. I wrote about a third of that book, at which point my interest petered out and I got a massive case of writer’s block. I just didn’t care what happened next. I stopped writing for two weeks, went on a long drive, and suddenly had a flash of inspiration: why not make that man a woman? A woman who’s fighting for her life, a woman who’s a victim?
The book instantly came alive for me because I could understand her fear, her desperation, and how the odds were stacked against her. I could identify with her. But only because she was a woman.
And that, I think, is what makes the female victim such a powerful element in a thriller novel. Women make up the bulk of the reading public, and these women don’t identify with the hero or the villain. They identify with the victim.
It’s a phenomenon you see in children’s scary books as well. Kids love to read books in which kids are in jeopardy, kids are potential victims. But an adult in jeopardy? Eh, not so interesting to them. Does their preference for kid-jep books make kids masochists? Do the authors of such novels secretly hate kids? Or are both authors and readers tapping into a deep psychological vein that makes these stories so compelling?
I don’t think this psychology is true for adult male readers, whom I suspect are more likely to identify with the hero. There certainly are a lot of James Bond-type novels out there, so I suspect that men prefer thrillers where men are battling other men.
But for women and kids, the world can look like a scary place, and we’ve learned to pay attention to the things that can harm us. Take a look at where the kids congregate at the aquarium: the shark tank. Or in the zoo: at the snake house or the lions and tigers. As a species, our survival depended on our knowing and understanding the creatures that can harm us, and that’s what kids at the zoo are doing. Studying the creatures that can eat them. Women readers who prefer books about female victims aren’t victim wannabes; we’re behaving like those kids in the zoo, confronting our fears. We are placing themselves in the role of victim, and mentally rehearsing what we would do to survive. But that fantasy can’t happen if we’re unable to imagine ourselves in the victim’s role.