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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Gender Bias in Mystery and Romance Novel Publishing by Anna Faktorovich

I originally intended to review this book on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer, but I decided to post a brief version on Book Babe.  I have a bit more to say about this book here.

This is an academic study, but I thought I would try asking myself what a general reader would want to know about it.  I reviewed The Romances of George Sand by Anna Faktorovich on Book Babe.  I also interviewed her.  More recently, I received a free copy of Gender Bias in Mystery and Romance Novel Publishing from the author in return for an honest review. 

                                               
Gender Bias in Mystery and Romance Novel Publishing

                                           
First, I’d like to discuss what Faktorovich did right from the perspective of general non-academic readers.

1) She was honest about the fact that she usually didn’t read these genres, and didn’t portray herself as an authority about them.

 2) She selected both 19th century and 20th century writers in each genre so that long-term trends could be identified.

3) She showed that in the mysteries she studied, authors of both genders tended to be disturbingly sexist in their character portrayals.  Many of these mysteries have female victims who are undeveloped characters, and have no other prominent female characters. I read Faktorovich's results as showing that mysteries are more sexist than romances. Women in most of the romances she studied are active characters, and romance tends to portray the male and female protagonists as having equal social and professional status.

4) She was willing to consider the idea that erotic romances might be explorations of women’s sexuality and could have a feminist impact for authors and readers.

5) She included short biographies of authors that contained interesting facts about their lives which aren’t well known.

Now I’d like to enumerate some serious flaws in this book.

1)Faktorovich chose mysteries as the most male dominated genre.   Actually, the western is the genre with the largest proportion of male authors, but there are so extremely few female authors of westerns that you couldn't really do the sort of statistical study that Faktorovich wanted to do in that genre.  Yet science fiction is also more male dominated than mysteries, and does have a number of female authors who could be studied.  I think that it would have been more appropriate and more interesting to study science fiction instead of mysteries.

Faktorovich made a remark about science fiction being formulaic.  It is actually less formulaic than any other genre.  Those who have formed their opinion of science fiction based on movies would be astonished by the diversity of themes in 20th century science fiction books.  Since publishing in general has become more corporate, you can find a great many clones of bestsellers in 21st century science fiction, but that wasn't always the case. Science fiction began as a literature of ideas. Editors in the field used to reject books on the grounds that they weren't original enough.  This still happens to new authors submitting to science fiction specialty publishers.  Although "It's been done." is a phrase that can be applied to all types of authors, it's still a more frequent reason for rejection in science fiction than anywhere else.

2) Faktorovich had outdated notions of both the mystery and romance genres.  Both genres have developed in directions that weren’t addressed in this study.  Crossovers with other genres such as the romantic thriller or the paranormal romance that contains fantasy elements have become extremely popular in romance.    Publishers of mysteries now understand that women read more books than men, and are producing the sorts of books that they believe women want to read.

3)  She seemed completely unaware of mystery sub-genres.  The cozy and paranormal mystery sub-genres which are dominated by female authors would have been particularly relevant to this study.

4) She biased the sample of her survey by mainly distributing it on listservs for educators or librarians. It really isn't difficult to find listservs and discussion boards devoted to mysteries or romances.  Faktorovich could have included  more regular readers of these genres in her survey. 

 Faktorovich spoke of male authors gravitating to mysteries.  The best way to determine what authors want to write without the influence of the gatekeepers of traditional publishing imposing their ideas of what's marketable, is to take a look at the output of self-published authors.  Based on what I see on lists of self-published books, I would say that men gravitate to erotica and action/adventure thrillers.  Self-published mysteries by men are much less common.

I was astonished to see that an academic writer like Faktorovich displayed such  touching faith in the bestseller list as an arbiter of quality.   She said that if male writers were so poor at portraying characters and relationships, there wouldn't be so many male writers on bestseller lists.  I beg to differ.  I read so few bestsellers because I have found that most books that make it on to bestseller lists (by both male and female authors) contain stereotypical characters and relationships.   One example is the mega-bestseller, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  Apparently, the overwhelming majority of readers prefer books with little to no characterization.

Faktorovich said that more women don't write mysteries because women don't see themselves as detectives.   Many American women of my generation grew up reading a mystery series written for girls called Nancy Drew.  As a result, I told my parents when I was a child that I wanted to be a detective.  I remember being certain that I could be a better detective than Nancy Drew.  I eventually decided that I preferred the equivalent mystery series written for boys, the Hardy Boys, because I thought the protagonists were more intelligent than Nancy Drew.   I still don't identify with female protagonists unless they're intelligent. 

She wondered if women read romance because women write it.  Yet women do read m/m (the current term for gay romances) written by men.  Women also read m/m romances written by women.  I have to admit that I began to read m/m romances as a result of reading Mary Renault's m/m novels.

One part of Faktorovich's survey involved identifying the gender of the author of samples from novels.    A female survey participant said that women write feisty woman protagonists.  Actually, these days men write feisty female protagonists too.  They're popular.  In fact, the trend began with a male television writer by the name of Joss Whedon.  See my review of  a collection of essays about his television series called Reading Joss Whedon here.

I was completely flabbergasted that a passage by Henning Mankell was mistakenly identified as by a woman by a number of survey participants because they thought the characters were on a date.  Yet they were discussing a nuclear submarine.  Do people normally discuss nuclear submarines on dates? I can't imagine why anyone would have thought so.  I'm not familiar with the work of Henning Mankell, but it seemed self-evident to me that the passage in question was written by a man.  It dealt with a subject that is usually of concern to male writers.

The majority of survey participants mis-identified a passage by J. A. Jance as written by a man.  The protagonist/narrator is a man and this comes through very strongly in the passage. Jance is very successful in writing a male perspective.  I confess that I didn't know that J.A. Jance is a woman until fairly recently.   I would also have mis-identified the author's gender if I had read the passage from Jance's work that Faktorovich provided.  Yet Jance is scarcely the only woman who writes well from a male character's perspective.

Faktorovich thought she'd found a correlation between female mystery writers and divorce.  All the female mystery writers in her study were divorced.  I didn't encounter divorce in the online biographies of any of my favorite female mystery writers.  I'm pretty sure that this correlation won't hold true for the majority of female mystery writers.  Faktorovich believed that they would write romance if they weren't divorced because their income would be higher as romance writers.  She believes that romance publishers discriminate against divorced writers.

I know of two female mystery writers that began as romance writers for Harlequin.  One is recently deceased, but she and her husband were a very devoted couple who were collaborators.  They were bestselling authors in both romance and mystery.  Their names are Aimee and David Thurlo. The other is living and has had a long lasting marriage.  She is a bestselling author as a mystery writer, but was never a bestseller as a romance writer. Her mystery series has been adapted for television and is currently airing.  Her name is Tess Gerritsen.  I should also add that one of the romance authors in this study, mega-bestselling Nora Roberts, writes futuristic mysteries as J.D. Robb.  She is not divorced either.  So divorce wasn't the motivation  for these women's decision to write mysteries, and women can become bestselling authors in the mystery genre.

Although this is an interesting book, I think that Faktorovich missed a great deal in her exploration of gender in these genres. I also think that she didn't explore either of them deeply enough and that her ignorance of the genres led her to some false conclusions.

                                                      

                                                                               

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