Friends, Romans, Readers & Writers, please welcome author Kristen Elise.
“How do you write women so well?”
“I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
Jack Nicholson’s line from As Good As It Gets was met with laughter by men and cringing by women (as we concealed our inner laughter from the men in our lives so as to not publicly condone the statement.) Of course, Nicholson’s character was a romance writer. Had he been a mystery writer, the line might have gone something like this:
“I think of a man, and I take away action and add sap.”
I have been accused of “writing like a man,” a comment I took as a major compliment. Now, before readers and writers of both genders take equal offense and burn me at the stake, please allow me to explain: it’s a fact that author gender matters to some readers. Specifically, it matters more to men.
Attached are a few statistics from Bowker’s publication of “The Mystery Consumer in the Digital Age.” The stats I have are from 2010, but let’s face it, ladies, we haven’t advanced that much in the last three years.
The good news is that to ~90% of women and ~80% of men, author gender makes no difference in how likely the reader is to read a book. The bad news is that 21% of men and 7% of women are less likely to pick up a mystery based solely on the fact that it was written by a member of the opposite sex.
That’s a little disturbing if you’re a female mystery writer: you might presume that 10.5% of all mystery readers already don’t like you, and therefore that maybe you should write in drag. But it’s not really as bad as that. The majority of mystery readers (68%) are women, so we level the playing field a little bit by sheer number.
In the end, male and female authors share almost equal success. If you look at the top 15 mystery writers for readers of all ages, they’re 40-47% women. As for the all-time, hands-down fave – Madame Christie, bested only by Shakespeare and the Bible.
So what makes that 21% of men and 7% of women automatically judge a book by its cover (and by that, I mean the name on the cover?) The answer is: a personal preference for a writing style automatically associated with one gender or the other. And there might be something to the stereotype. Here’s a little experiment:
Below are two randomly selected excerpts from novels I have recently read. And I do mean randomly selected: In each case, I opened the book to a random page and then copied verbatim the first two complete paragraphs. Here they are:
Turbulence is still turbulent, whether one is flying first class or coach.
The plane bounced and threw hot tea into my lap. I sat in the exit row in the first class cabin, on the upper deck of a 747, traveling from Los Angeles to Edinburgh. It was my first time in first class, and definitely my first time to enjoy a port tasting at 35,000 feet. However, port and turbulence don’t mix. My stomach danced first with queasiness, then with fear of meeting my Scottish relatives for the first time. To add to my anxiety, my beige cotton khakis were now stained Earl Grey.
Hugo shrugged. “I’m not paying your salary, so do whatever you like, Boss.”
“Just make sure you do your shit right. That’s all you need to worry about.” Tom reached for his wine glass but, when he saw it was as empty as the carafe, he grabbed at Hugo’s, spilling half on the paper table cloth before getting it under control.
Who wrote each of these? If you guessed #1 Woman, #2 Man, you’re right. The excerpts are from #1 Whisky Descent, by Sara McBride, and #2 The Crypt Thief, by Mark Pryor (and I thank each of them for playing along in this exercise.)
Did you think the author’s gender was obvious? What gave it away? Do you think your gender comes through in your own writing? And, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I hereby present a fun challenge: In the comment box below, write a line or two under a fake or androgynous name (Kris is always a good one…) Feel free to pull a short excerpt from your own WIP, if you’d like. And let’s see if we can guess your gender.
Statistically, in the mystery market it might be in one’s interest to write like a man. But I’d settle for the success of Madame Christie.
Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and long-time resident of San Diego, California. She lives with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at www.kristenelisephd.com and www.murderlab.com.
Back cover copy for The Vesuvius Isotope:
When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.