Thursday, December 16, 2010

Readers and Gender: What Works?

By Corrina Lawson

Originally published in an expanded version at

I had expected RWA's “Crossing Gender Boundaries” workshop presented by bestselling authors Suze Brockman and Lee Child to be about how to write to appeal to both genders. It turned out to be more an exploration of what appeals to both genders. In that, it was somewhat eye-opening.

Brockmann said her work likely isn’t viewed as romance any longer by traditional romance readers. For those not familiar with her books, she writes military action/adventure with a strong helping of romance. Some romances take place over several books, others take two steps forward, one step back.

Brockmann is also a big advocate for male/male romances and GLBT causes. Her books appeal to many, many readers, including men.

Child has a large female crossover audience for his hugely popular Jack Reacher thriller/mystery series.

I’d always assumed that crossing the gender boundaries to snag male readers was sort of a holy grail for a romance writer, but Child upended that. He said the potential male audience is very small.

“It’s bad to limit yourself to male readers. Bankruptcy lies that way.”

“Men are a difficult sell. They tend to be hung up about reading fiction, almost considering it demeaning. The ones that do read tend to pick up a lot of nonfiction and, those that do read fiction, many of them read literary fiction. That leaves a small slice that reads genre fiction.”

He said the crossover readership is much more generous coming from men to women than the other way around.

He also said, as a mystery/thriller writer, he encounters the same sort of pre-judgments about the work not being serious enough as romance writers encounter.

Both Child and Brockmann talked about what they called the "Ugly Brown Couch." What they meant was an issue or moment really unpleasant or dark or too realistic that can scare away some traditional romance readers. Brockmann said these traditional readers want the familiar and not do not want to see their fantasy world upended.

And women tend to have triggers that men don’t always have, Child said.

“There’s something elemental about an unjust situation that offends women,” Child said.

One of the most interesting comments, though, came from the audience. When a question was asked about Jack Reacher’s appeal to women, Child said he thought it was because women viewed him as the perfect guy to have a one night stand with – he’s great in bed and he’ll leave in the morning, so he’s the ultimate fantasy.

I thought an audience member hit it closer to the truth. She pointed out that Reacher is a man with no ties and leaves home with only a toothbrush. No responsibilities, just him and the road. She said this is an escapist fantasy for many women who have to support and care for their families and juggle so many responsibilities.

Basically, she said it’s possible women want to fantasize about being Reacher far more than about sleeping with Reacher.

This seemed to take Child by surprise.

I think it’s pretty close to the truth. Running away is, I think, one of those fantasies that “good” women aren’t allowed to have. That’s because they’ll be bad mothers and bad daughters and all those other things, whereas for some reason, it’s a little more acceptable for men.

It’s similar to how, years ago, women weren’t supposed to want sex as much as men because that would make them somehow bad or evil.

Now, I’m not advocating women pick up and leave their families. I’m just saying that even the fantasy of wanting to leave is perceived still as making women bad people.

Even more, the lone wolf male is still more acceptable in our society than the lone wolf female. Some in our society consider women who want to be alone to be somehow wrong and unfulfilled, whereas men like George Clooney are celebrated for staying unattached.

As a result, it’s left to male characters -- like Jack Reacher -- to embody this escapist fantasy.

Corrina Lawson is an editor for the GeekMom blog and the author of Dinah of Seneca, an alternate history adventure novel set in a world where Romans and Vikings have settled in North America. She has been a finalist in the national Golden Heart contest sponsored by the Romance Writers of America and has won several regional RWA contests. A longtime mystery reader, she hopes to see her series featuring a crime-fighting couple published soon.

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