Wednesday, August 22, 2007

female protagonists for female readers?

Nicole Kelly left an interesting note on an earlier post re: the nature of modern readership and what it means for the publishing industry.

Some interesting facts to start with:
-in the past (over the history of literature) most books have been by men and have often had male protagonists and/or have been intended for a predominantly male audience
-today the ratio of male to female readers is getting smaller and smaller, and women make up the bulk of book-reading (and, more relevantly to my life and the life of any would-be author, book-buying) world

I don't want to make any generalizations here, so I'll just use my own taste. I will read war books and thrillers and high-paced Nick Hornby type books, but what I like even better are books with female protagonists whose plots and plights appeal to me on a certain content level (I like stories about female friendship, sisterhood, romances, family, you know, "girl stuff"). I'll buy anything someone tells me is good, and I've read a lot of "boy" classics because, you know, they're classics. But I really like books like THE THIRTEENTH TALE and THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and RED TENT.

So based on these premises, I want to say that there is a chance that the book-buying public (women) has largely been satisfying itself with books directed toward other people (men). Which means there seems to be a potential for statistics to change in the future--for more money to be invested in women's interest books, more "girl" contracts executed, etc.

Another fun fact to note--although many more women than men take a crack at becoming editors (meaning start off as editorial asses and try to stick it out), by the time you get to editor level the ratio is 50/50 (shocker--any angry girls out there with ascerbic comments about rates of promotion are more than welcome to post their rants here; trust me, they won't run amiss in my boy-ridden little universe here). And although it's not safe to say this across the board, since some many male editors have fluid taste and finesse with un-"boy" subjects, it might be assumed that boy editors tend to buy more boy books (which appeal to more boy readers).

But since more readers are women these days, what implications can that have for us Grrls?

I know I, for one, am a little bit prejudiced. This is one white girl's mini-spin on affirmative action: if there are two equally qualified writers that I could reach out to to write the same book...I will reach out to the woman. But there's more than just gender motivation here! I also FIRMLY believe that as the female reading public is more secure in its own taste (meaning, when it no longer feels it needs to ally itself so closely with what male writers, editors, and critics have been telling it to read for centuries) books by women and for women are going to end up selling more!! Meaning if I want to make a name for myself as an editor, perhaps I better start investing in female intellectual capital.

There is a flip side to this argument that is really worth talking about, too, but I don't have the room or expertise here. I will do it a little lip service. Why IS male readership down? Does it have to do with the fact that guys aren't taught to love to read, because so many children's books are by women, for girls? And how do we fix this? Are we increasingly creating a society where boys are discouraged from literary pursuits while girls are encouraged in that direction? This is a different and really serious question (I won't touch the glass ceiling implications... I could go on for, oh, 240 pages). John Scieszka has written a book called Guys Write for Guys Read about this.

Anyway. Gender thoughts, anyone?


angelle said...

When me and my sister stopped by the teenage book bash thingamajig (which I posted about briefly a few months ago), I counted maybe THREE boy oriented books, and several dozens of girl oriented books, including the ever-popular YA versions of chicklit. there certainly isn't that much out there for boys in that age group. so the question is a chicken/egg sort of thing. do boys read less because there's no books targeted at them? or are there less boy books because they don't read as much? and what does that mean as these same boys grow up and become adults shopping in an adult market?

writtenwyrdd said...

No, guys are reading less because they are playing Grand Theft Auto, WoW and etc. online games! ACtually blowing stuff up and creating their own brands of mayhem.

Seriously, I really think that's a bit part of it. Oh, and paint ball. When that came out in the 80s, I was in college. Booya, there they all were, going daft for paintball instead of studying.

This post is really insightful. I hadn't considered that women's fiction, a term which confuses me by its vagueness, is possibly the next wave. However, I write fantasy primarily and psychological instead of hard science based SF.

angelle said...

i just re-read your kyotofu post. and i want it again. NOW!

but okay. let's wait til you're off the money diet (because i KNOW you're going to take a break with that sooooon).

mm. mochi choco cake.......

Nicole Kelly said...

I really could write several pages on all of this, but I promise to contain myself.

I agree with Written on this point, there are many more entertainments (video games, sports, etc.) that are aimed at the male demographic than at the female demographic. Think about it, what is a "girl" video game? Most of the women I know aren't all that into Halo, GTA, or WOW. In the other hand, most of the guys I know play some type of video game on a semi-daily basis. Maybe it is still that men (especially the 22-35 crowd) have more money, so they are marketed at more aggressively for the more expensive entertainments like XBox.

As for books, I write what I like to call feminist speculative fiction. My writing group will sometimes call it science fiction chick lit. I'm proud to have either label, as that is what I would love to read. I am active in trying to put out an image of women in authority roles, faced with gender issues, while still kicking butt and chewing gum. Frankly, that's what I like to read. For instance, I am reading "Parable of the Sower" and "Beloved" right now. I really prefer fantasy as a genre, so I am jumping for joy at the new rush of female protagonist books.

Forgive the rambling ... I really enjoy discussing this topic, and I am a little coffee happy tonight.

writtenwyrdd said...

Women like games like Sims2. I find that fascinating, anyhow. I have wasted days at Myst and its derivatives, as well. The only violent game I've ever wasted significant time on is Fable The Lost Chapters, and it quickly paled.

Froog said...

Oh, assistant?! I never got that until now.

I thought it was, you know, punky, objectionable, opinionated, pain-in-the-a**. I like that in a person.

Then again, occasionally my Classical education would sneak up on me, and I'd wonder if it wasn't 'Editoria, lass'.

That distant tinkling you hear is the sound of illusions being shattered.

moonrat said...

tinkle away :D

Nicole Kelly said...

Written: I'm not saying the women don't play video games (I do). What I am saying is that video games are not marketed to women. Men have more competition (product competition) for their time than women do entertainment wise. Books are big time investments, so it's Wii or Kite Runner ...

moonrat said...

I think that's an interesting point. I think there are also a fair number of women who are pursuing other things--shopping, manicures, spinning, etc--other high-end escapist activities.

I think eventually, reading as an adult has a LOT to do with what we're encouraged to do as kids--little girls are encouraged to pretend more actively (tea party, house, plays staged in the living room, etc) whereas boys only have more passive escapist options open to them without appearing to be "fags."

That and the content of so many children's books.

David L. McAfee said...

Personally, I think the American Education System is partially responsible. The below information is from a Reader's Digest article I read a few years ago (note: this is a summary):

Some time ago, it was said that the AES was taylored to boys, and left girls in the lurch. This was acceptible because the long standing stereotype was for the man to support the wife, and the woman to keep house, a thing for which she would not need as detailed an education.

During the revamping of the AES that followed, little girls became more the focus and it was little boys who were lost. Quite simply, the two genders learn in different ways, and the primary goal was to bring women up to the educational standards of men.

As the percentage of educated women increased, the percentage of like-educated men decreased. One result of this is the current literary marketplace, which is predominantly female.

As for video games, etc. I know quite a few women who are addicted to Everquest and WOW, and I have never played either (not real interested in those types of games).

Personally, I don't care for chick-lit or "girly" fiction (probably obvious), but it's not for the subject matter (I'm a huge fan of movies like When Harry Met Sally and The Notebook). It's more for the tendency of such books to engage in the politically-correct-although-it-shouldn't-be sport of male-bashing. I hate those stereotypes almost as much as I hate that fact that most of the country is perfectly OK with them.

Nicole Kelly said...

Again, I know women who play video games, but I was talking in broad marketing terms. In general video games are aimed at the prime 18-35 male market. Here's an article talking about the industry and its attempts to widen its audience.

David L. McAfee said...

Actually, I can concede that point quite readily. I never meant to sound like I was disagreeing (after reading my own post it occurs to me that it could be interpreted as such).

Diahni said...

The population that plays Grand Theft Auto never included readers in the first place. The guy readership is down because guys who read breed less than guys who don't read. It doesn't take too long for the breeders to produce more guys who don't read. That said, this seems like a literate bunch here. I am trying to remember the name of a woman journalist from California who wrote the funniest essay called something like "Why We Like Bad Men." Can anybody tell me her name?
Read on, dude and dudettes.

Kathleen Molloy said...

I'm slow to respond but your readers have hit the nail on the head on every front. We (authors) are now being encouraged to write for target audiences and then we're surprised when someone outside of that target adores our work – sort of like the broke through a secret door and we look at each other and wonder how that dude snuck in...

At the some time we (readers) are being told by publishers that such and such title belongs to genre X for reader Y.

And authors and readers are equally guilty of this gendre tagging on books. Take Book Crossing for example. I adore Book Crossing but recently ran into a biblio wall when I couldn't figure out what they meant by Women's Fiction. I was listing some books for our village's book crossing zone [RiverEcho in Wakefield Quebec] and I stumbled into Women's Fiction as an option. Is that like Chick Lit but for chicks with mortgages? When do we graduate from Chick Lit to Women's Fiction?

Gendre tags on books drive me batty.

Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death