What Women Want – Graham Brack takes a view on the sometimes differing tastes of female readers
By Graham Brack
I am writing this in the United States where I have been amusing myself by, among other things, visiting bookshops. Needless to say, I focus on the crime fiction shelves where two thoughts have impressed themselves on me.
The first is how much more expensive American paperbacks seem to be than those in the UK. Several that I picked up yesterday were $13.99 or $15.99 for books that would have been £8.99 or so at home. The second is that there is a thriving sub-genre here that I rarely see in Britain, the very cosy crime book.
These books are small in format, perhaps 180 pages, and their authors turn them out at an amazing rate. Series of ten, twelve or fifteen books of perhaps 40-50,000 words are common. The crimes take place in bakeries, knitting circles or boarding catteries, for example, and they frequently have puns in the title.
Now, the first observation I should make is that these books must sell. One truism of publishing is that you don’t get to put out a series unless your publisher is seeing a good return. A second observation is that the readership appears to be almost entirely female.
Female readers dominate
This ought not to surprise us. There are various estimates around, but a common rule of thumb holds that around two-thirds of the crime fiction readership is female, with that percentage rising as high as four-fifths for books written by women – so much so that some men have taken to publishing under women’s names, a neat reversal of the Brontë story. The wise crime fiction writer will therefore want to ensure that they steer their books in the direction of What Women Want, insofar as that can be determined. I will freely admit that, as a man, my ability to determine what women want is limited to the women in my family and is heavily influenced by their unsolicited advice; it is also true that women are not one herd who all think the same way. For example, I avoid unnecessary gore in my books. Bad things happen, but they happen off-screen and are reported rather than viewed. This is largely because most of the women I know do not like explicit violence, but I have come across enough women at talks and book events who positively love blood and guts to know that this is not a universal feeling.
Mind your language
Similarly, the women I know are not fans of bad language. They accept that realism may require some, but they do not use it themselves. I am well aware that some women do not hold back in this area and are more than capable of holding their own against Malcolm Tucker, but I use it sparingly in my books. More often, I will pass it off with a comment such as “Slonský used a phrase he must have picked up in the street”.
There are plenty of hypotheses about why women like crime more than men.
Differences in processing?
One has to do with the male and female approaches to new information. According to this theory, when men face something new they ask “How does this differ from what I already know?” whereas women ask “How does this connect to what I already know?” This, it is claimed, is why men can often retrieve answers quicker in quizzes whereas women are able to see connections that pass men by. It also makes women great at remembering family trees and keeping on top of soap operas where, frankly, the average man has enough to do recalling who Kayla is now with, let alone all the people she has been with in the past.
Women may also have more emotional insight than men. For good or ill, they read things into actions and words. My mother-in-law used to feel slighted if a close friend put a second class stamp on her Christmas card; my mother once told me firmly that if a woman picks fluff off the shoulder of a man’s suit, they’re very close.
The back story
This is backed up by the reviews of my books. Some reviewers make very astute observations about things that I have not noticed myself, or at least not thought I had expressed. Men would be very happy just to be given the facts so they can solve the case before the detective does. They are not very interested in the back stories of the characters, whereas women frequently draw attention to those in their reviews and mention the actual mystery only in passing – sometimes not at all!
I always planned that my Slonský stories would form a continuous series with an underlying story arc built on the lives of the characters. I just did not know, when I started typing, where this was going to lead. In the first book it was not until I had introduced the character of Kristýna Peiperová and described her that I thought that a young man like Slonský’s assistant Jan Navrátil might be attracted to her, and that she might find him good company too. He is emphatically not a party animal, but he is loyal, scrupulously honest, and he will take good care of anyone he is with. That is quite an attractive mix, so I let them spend the next five books getting to know each other and letting their relationship deepen.
My lead detective, Slonský, by contrast, keeps well away from women, having had a very unpleasant experience with his wife. I didn’t want him to have anything in his life apart from his job, because that drives his desire not to retire, but when I was writing the second book, Slaughter and Forgetting, his wife reappeared to disclose that she had never actually filed the divorce papers he had signed. This seemed to me to add some additional tension, because she clearly wanted to get together again and he does not know what he wants. This is not to say that Slonský is immune to women. He has a very strong friendship with Dumpy Anna in the canteen, who can say things to him that others would not dare and has no romantic interest in him at all. This is based on the premise that men and women can sometimes “just be friends”.
Not every relationship in the book is a successful one. Desk Sergeant Mucha loves his wife and therefore will not interfere in her relationship with her sister, preferring to vent his spleen at work with frequent references to the Evil Witch of Kutná Hora and by doing his best to roster himself for duty when she comes to visit.
In books five and six I introduced a new female character, Lucie Jerneková. It fascinated me to see female reviewers immediately pick up on the fact that she had not had an easy life. Lucie’s back story hasn’t all come out, but when we meet her she is unemployed, living in a grubby little flat and struggling with her debts. I added her because I wanted a spiky female who matches Slonský when it comes to barbed observations. Lucie is not the archetypal female; she lacks social skills, because she doesn’t see the need for tact, and she won’t let something slide just to get on with someone. She can, not to put too fine a point on it, be very rude. Yet reviewers believed that they saw her as a great support for the more gifted Peiperová, the female backup that a woman would need if she is going to be successful; and Peiperová intends to be successful.
I will add that some of the plot twists come from readers, who have not been slow to email me to say “A and B wouldn’t last as a couple – they’re not suited” or “I’d love to know more about Navrátil’s mother, who sounds like a wonderful old lady”. You will, gentle reader, you will.