Friday, September 10, 2010

Soapbox Stilettos: The Reading Habits of Men vs. Women

The topic we picked to dish about this month on our Soapbox couldn’t come at a more timely moment. Not long after we selected it, Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, and Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke out on the unevenness of book reviews when it comes to fiction written by men vs. fiction written by women. So here’s the question we debated: why do you think (some) men are afraid to pick up books written by women? Especially novels labeled "chick lit," "women's fiction," "cozy," or "romance." Why doesn't it seem a problem for women to read books by male authors and female authors?

Maggie: There is this perception that anything labeled "women's fiction," "cozy," or "chick lit" will only appeal to a very small segment of the population: women who like that "kind of thing." Most of these books are about people and relationships, however, and some of your coziest of the cozies delve into some serious and gruesome stuff (see my second book, Extracurricular Activities, where the most deserving villains end up without their hands and feet). Men like escapist literature just as much as women, I believe. Honestly, though, what man is going to pick up a book that has a pair of high heels and a martini glass on the cover? I think the way many women writers are marketed contributes to the idea that only women can read those (OUR) books. I can't think of a more female-centered book than Wally Lamb's first, She's Come Undone, which I consider a literary gem. Had it been written by a woman, it would have been marketed in a completely different way and reached a much smaller audience, in my humble opinion, of course. I think more men would read books that fall squarely into the "chick lit" category if the books were packaged and marketed in such a way to make them be reflective of what they are: stories about people and their lives.

Susan: I have to agree with Maggie that there are often serious issues underlying fiction dismissed as “women’s” or “cozies,” only the packaging usually belies that. Where mysteries are concerned, those softer covers, often with tea cups or cats, are frequently made fun of by those who write darker stuff. I remember one author of serial killer stories in particular who regularly belittled cozy fiction in his talks. I’ve written both dark mysteries and light mysteries, and I actually found doing humor harder than serious stuff. My amateur sleuth novels were all packaged with candy-colored covers, and I didn’t mind at all that they were marketed to romance fans as well as mystery. My debut in women’s fiction, The Cougar Club, has a hot pink cover with a handbag on it. I would venture to say a man would have to be very sure of himself to buy such a book and read it in public! I buy books written by both sexes without thinking twice, and it would take a pretty freaky cover to turn me off. There’s definitely a double standard, but that’s life as we know it.

Evelyn: People do judge a book by its cover. Men are no exception. Just as we wouldn't pick up a book featuring a guy wearing camouflage holding a gun, most men won't pick up a book with a woman in an antebellum dress holding a bouquet of roses. The cover is a large and colorful but clear message about who the book is written for—and who the author is.

Susan: A guy friend of mine once emailed to say, "I was reading Blue Blood on the subway and got a lot of strange looks." I applauded him for being so brave since Blue Blood has a typically chick lit cover that's bright yellow with cartoonish women's legs on it. Which has me wondering if electronic readers will begin to change the book buying habits of men at all because no one can see what you're reading. Hmm.

Rachel: I don’t think men are “afraid” to pick up women’s fiction. I think the presumed topics in those novels just don’t interest them, and that’s fair. Just a few weeks ago, a guy friend who read an ARC of my new book, Dead Lift, said he didn’t expect to like it as much as Final Approach because, where the first novel was set around skydiving, this one is set (partially) in a spa. The interesting thing is that he did end up liking the story despite its more feminine setting. This is where I think men and women differ. Women are more likely to pick up books that are more “manly” if there’s a good mystery driving the plot. But what man wants to be caught with a book that has a pink, sparkly high heel shoe on the front? Final Approach was originally edited by a male author of many romance novels. He published them under a female pseudonym. I wonder how many women are writing as men.

Misa: Raise your hand if you know the gender of Harper Lee. Uh-huh. It’s a book that’s highly recognized by men and women, but how many men think Harper’s a man? Okay, this isn’t really a reason, but I’m just saying.

Rachel: It might be the case that men assume novels written by women will deal primarily with women’s themes or that they will be softer novels. In many cases, I’d agree that’s true. When I think about books by male authors, though, none come to mind that were predominantly driven by “guy themes.” Male protagonists seem more career-driven with relationships on the periphery, and that’s okay with me. I suppose a man picking up a book with a female protagonist may tire of her endless pursuit for dates, preoccupation with her weight, or frustrations with her in-laws. The unfortunate thing is that many books by female authors do not focus on these things. We all have to keep an open mind, folks. There’s something out there for all of us to read.

Evelyn: We're generalizing here, but it's a pretty safe generalization. Men don't want to talk about emotions, theirs or anyone else's. They certainly don't want to read about them.

Misa: Men show a huge lack of interest about personal introspection, family, and/or domestic elements in their book choices. We’re still ingrained with the age old gender differences, and reading choices reflect that. Women acknowledge that fiction can give guidance or solace but with men...not so much. They keep emotion bottled up. Books written by women tend to have more emotion built in and for a man to read such a book would, by association, mean he has those emotions, too, and he just doesn’t, right?

Evelyn: We believe that men who do read fiction are drawn to themes, more likely than not, written by other men, such as Westerns, military themes (think Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October), and adventure.

Misa: Men read angst-ridden books in which the struggle to overcome some catastrophic circumstance is at the core of the plot. Don’t women write this type of novel? Sure, as long as there’s emotional growth woven in. Ah, emotion, there’s that word again. Men only like adventure and triumphing over adversity just as women only like romance and love. God, it’s great to be a stereotype, isn’t it?!

So what do YOU think? We’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject, too!


  1. I didn't chime in on this soapbox, not sure why. I suspect men just don't want to be seen reading a book with a "girly" cover. Not all women's books look like that though. As for cozies, I just don't think men get them.

    I have male fans for both my series--which I'm grateful for.

    Marilyn Meredith

  2. I read a fair number of women writers - Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardener, Kathy Reichs, etc. - because their stories are to my taste, which tends to be darker. However, I did recently read a book that was classified 'romantic suspense,' and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

    Of course, it was an ebook, without the 'girly' cover, which may reinforce the point some of you made.

  3. Larry, thanks for commenting! It's always nice to get a guy's perspective on things. I'm interested to see if e-books change things, too.

    Marilyn, well, you're joining in the conversation now! And I think you're right about men not wanting to be seen carrying around a book with a "girly" cover. It's pretty easy to tell which audience a book is being marketed for, sort of like selling a hot pink trench coat vs. a tan one.

  4. I'm going to confess I like darker fiction and tend to stay away from fluffy covers unless I know the author. I chose to use my initials so it wouldn't be immediately obvious I was female, and when I started writing historical crime I went one step further, I picked a name that seems even more masculine and set up a Facebook page with a man's picture in silhouette. I'm not hiding that it's me, but at the same time I want people to think 'man' when they see the books.

    I don't like it, but I have a hard enough time being taken seriously as a dark/noir writer without adding to it.

  5. Which has me wondering if electronic readers will begin to change the book buying habits of men at all because no one can see what you're reading. Hmm.

    The surge of e-books began with Ellora's Cave publishing "hot" books that women (or men) could read without anyone seeing a cover or having to walk up to the check-out counter with book in hand. This is nothing new, and how wonderful if it's come full circle.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. I've been reading quite a few women writers over the last year or so; Rachel is the only from this site I can say I've read, and I loved Final Approach. I read more "crime" than "mystery" books (I'd never even heard the term "cozy" as it relates to fiction until a year or so ago), and there are some great women writing them. Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, Sophie Littlefield (though I think Sophie has a heel planted in each camp with her "Bad Day" series), Laura Lippman, etc. I actually make a point to read women writers, and I'm not sure I buy the argument that I've heard some men make that they are somehow different. Softer? Hell, if Megan Abbott is soft then I'm a supermodel. One is more likely to get a good story from a woman's point of view if the writer is female, but there are exceptions (Greg Rucka immediately comes to mind for me).

    I could go on about other women I've read over the years and consider my favorites. Margaret Atwood, for example. Flannery O'Connor. Ursula K. LeGuin.

    As far as covers go, I'd rather be seen reading a bodice ripper than one of those awful paranormal romance books where every cover appears to have used the same dominatrix as a model. A great book I read last year, Caitlin Kiernan's The Red Tree was marketed somewhat to that crowd based on the cover, and it was a real disservice to her work. The book was nothing like that, and was clearly aimed at the wrong market. That's got to be frustrating.

    I don't know that I'm contributing much to the overall discussion, I just want to point out that some of us men DO read the ladies, and happily. And I'm just as much a "manly man" as the next guy, heh. I mean, I gave 4 stars to Forrest Griffin's Be Ready When the Shit Goes Down, for crissakes!

    Oh, one "women's book" I did read, utterly hated, and wished I'd never even seen was Eat, Pray, Love. Don't even get me started on that.

  7. I'm a guy, so I am sensitivity-challenged by definition. I have never thought about masculinity-feminity cover art issues, and if I want to read a cozy in an airport, I will. Besides, if you want to start a conversation with a woman, it beats the hell out of war books with grisly jackets. This does not mean I am above being self-conscious about the books I am seen with--I would never be seen with The Da Vinci Code, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or (gag) The Bridges of Madison County (though I did read that one). Too common. I'm a snob, just not about girly-guy cover issues. All I want is a good story.

  8. Thanks for the comments, you guys! It's nice to get all sorts of perspectives on the subject, and we're so glad you chimed in.

  9. I think there could be a couple factors at work here. The first is the cover. "Chick lit" covers, without a doubt, target the female demographic. Could they be designed to give more cross-gender appeal? Sure, but I'd imagine the numbers of male readers it would gain would pale in comparison to the number of female readers it would lose. You can't have it both ways, and the almighty dollar always wins. Have there been any test markets done with a cover designed for both genders?

    The second is with the reader's ability to submerge themselves in to the mind of the protagonist. I think it's less appealing for a guy to read about a female protagonist eying the rippling muscles of a male character, as compared to a male protagonist eying the sensual curves of a female.

    Just my 2 cents.


  10. Harold, I think your two cents are worth a lot! Thanks for adding your insight to the conversation.