Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gender is Murder

The state of the mystery (and thriller, I suppose) is interesting right now.

For one thing, women rule. According to a poll done by Bowker at the behest of Sisters in Crime, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as mystery readers -- almost 70 percent -- are female.  This marks one of the most profound branding shifts of recent times.  On a par with turning Las Vegas into a family destination, only successful.

In the so-called Golden Age of the mystery (I'd actually argue that we're in the Golden Age right now), women wrote and purchased a very substantial share of mystery novels.  Christie, Marsh, Sayers, Tey, and many others were murder generators of the first rank, turning out one dependable book after another.

These were mostly what we call cozies these days.  Little blood was spilled on the page, murder weapons were often exotic, and suspects and victims alike were often upper class.  These were the books in which, as Raymond Chandler said, the suspects "sit sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other while the flat-feet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their bowler hats on."

But then, out of the pulps, a school of male American writers arose to develop the elements of a style that we call hard-boiled.  The leading revolutionary was Dashiell Hammett who, as Chandler said, "Gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it."   Gradually, the hard-boiled school took over a goodly chunk of the market, and by the time of Mickey Spillane in the fifties, the testosterone content of the mystery best-seller list was through the roof.

Now, though, fifty years after Spillane, women write, and read, most of the mysteries sold and bought.  And some of them are more hard-boiled than Spillane ever was.  It's a good thing for Leighton, Dan, Stan, Michael, Jeffrey, and me that women are statistically much more likely to read male writers than males are to read females. If it weren't for this open-mindedness, we'd all be writing catalog copy for LL Bean.

So we don't have to worry, we male writers, about that.  What we do have to worry about -- male and female alike -- is that mystery readers are getting older, as the Bowker survey demonstrates with doleful precision.  (The survey isn't broad enough to reflect what I suspect is the truth, which is that the reading public for all books is getting older.)

On the other hand, just as it looks at though most mysteries will be purchased with funds hoarded from Social Security, along comes the e-book: cheaper and much more appealing to the young.  As the mainstream publishers bite their nails and lay in extra supplies of red ink, the most democratic form of publishing in the history of the world springs into being.

What that means is that anyone can write and publish a mystery now, even a man.  There will be a lot of junk put online -- the mainstream publishers at least established some minimum threshold of quality -- but I believe some kind of sifting mechanism will arise to pluck the nuggets from the sludge.

And a lot of the nuggets will be mysteries.

Timothy -- Sundays


  1. I suspect that the reason men read men's work is that they are more interested in technology and violence or violent technology, while women are more interested in people, whether they are technological and violent or just a book shop owner who finds it necessary to solve a mystery. I think women are more interested in puzzles, too, and returning their small portion of society to normal after the dislocation brought about by murder.

    My first unpublished novel was hard boiled before women wrote that kind of book. Today's market gives me hope that my female CIA agent held hostage by terrorists in the Algerian desert will sell. Or at least attract an agent.

  2. The ages of my children are early thirties, late twenties, and mid-twenties. They are voracious readers but little of it is fiction. All refuse to read mysteries and none is interested in a Kindle at this point. They are of the opinion that if someone is reading from a Kindle it says more about the device than about the book.

    My husband never read any fiction until he retired and was bored. I started him on mysteries and his current to-be-read pile is a stack of 29 books. He has read all of the books written by all who contribute to Murder Is Everywhere. I am the keeper of his book pile; he reads most of what I read and he reads some that I don't. He likes Michael Crichton and Robin Cook and I don't. Between the two of us we do great things for the circulation figures of our inter-library system.

    He isn't interested in the old hard-boiled mysteries because they are not, in his opinion, realistic. The heroes are cut-outs not to be found in the real world.

    Getting young people to read mysteries will, require, I think, coming up with protagonists who are young and involved in undercover work or in a job that young people would love to have themselves. For an unfortunately large part of the female population, you should throw in a vampire or two.

    The biggest problem is convincing young people to begin reading. If the habit wasn't developed in the early years of elementary school, it is a hard sell. Reading takes a commitment of time and focus on that one thing for that time. The attention span of young people is terribly short and that doesn't bode well for the sciences. With all the communication devices available they are used to instant gratification and a good book isn't going to supply that.

    The geezers are the book buyers. I, however, have taken a small step toward the ereaders. I have downloaded the Kindle application for the PC and I have read one book on it so far. That was, of course, CRASHED. It was easy to read, not awkward. I have downloaded seven other books and haven't read them because the pile of paper books keeps calling to me. The books on the PC aren't right in front of me so they don't seem like real books.

    I do have a list on Amazon of ebooks I think I might want to read. My tool for separating nuggets from sludge is to find out if the books is owned by any libraries on our inter-library system. All my nuggets and the sludge in which they are hiding will be mysteries.


  3. One very important thing to remember is society is getting older. The Baby Boomers the largest generation when born remains the largest generation alive. So if more older people read books part of the reason is there are more older people.

    My way of finding gems among the endless choices in mystery fiction is the Amazon sample.

  4. And another thing to remember ... the SinC/Bowker study obtained its subjects out of large pool of survey subjects by asking if they had bought a mystery in the past year. Those who answered "yes" went on to participate. A lot of younger people get books by other means - libraries, swapping among friends - and would not be included. Also, the report suggested that the younger people who did respond tended not to feel strongly about "mystery" as a genre, that it has features that make it distinct from other kinds of fiction. I suspect that might also have left some out of the survey - because a person who read Evanovich or Winter's Bone or - heck - Queen of Patpong might not have shelved it in their mental bookshelves under "mystery." And when you see how many mysteries are labeled "a novel" or "a thriller" by publishers, that contributes to a squishy genre definition.

    And it's probably the case that older readers have more time and disposable income - and are less involved in taking care of children, establishing careers, and reading for school or work, which can cut into spending time on voluntary reading.

    As for the e-book revolution, don't be so sure that will change reading demographics. The Sinc/Bowker report find that people under 30 have about the same interest in e-books as the over 60s, which is to say less than other age groups, though they are the group who have the most experience using e-books; it's people in their 30s and 40s who accept e-books. A majority of under 30s said they don't want e-books and prefer print.

    If you'd like to see the SinC/Bowker report, it's at the Sisters in Crime site, though rather well-hidden.

  5. Hi, everyone -- Don't know about the reasons, for the male/female preferences, Marilynn, although I don't think male writers have as much of an exclusive on technology and violence as you do. I'll agree, though, that female writers have an almost total lock on certain kinds of cozies - the whole "craft" genre, for example. And I also think that the return of order to a broken society is the basic underpinning of virtually all mysteries, no matter the gender of their authors.

    Beth, your kids grew up in a reading household, and probably were exposed to a wide array of books from the beginning. Also, I think a lot of people get their mystery and thriller fix from TV. The Kindle (or Nook, or whatever) is just another delivery system for text, as far as I'm concerned. Having now read about 30 books, including WAR AND PEACE, on mine, the experience of reading on it is virtually identical to reading a book, except that I don't have the book lying around afterwards.

    Michael, correct. Any survey will show consumers of almost anything as getting older. But it's pretty pronounced in terms of the mystery audience. As far as I remember, though, the survey didn't compare the percentage of mystery readers at certain age points with the percentage of those age points in the general population. I'll go back and look at it again.

  6. Oh, by the way ... I did look at age groups in the US population, and the percentage of mystery readers in this survey who are over 60 is quite high per capita. That's a wealthier cohort, too, so they may indeed be buying more stuff than younger cohorts. Of course, a major increase in US population in the past 20 years is due to immigration, and it's unlikely that immigrants will embrace exactly the same fiction genres that native born folks have. (The popularity of mysteries varies quite a bit throughout the world. Very few mystery writers in the Middle East; loads in Scandinavia.)

    I'm guessing, too, if we're looking at this over time, that our current 60+ population is more educated that the 60+ group of thirty or forty years ago, and leisure reading correlates to education level.

  7. Hmm... I posted an earlier comment but it must have not gone through. In any case, here's the linkto the study if you're curious.

  8. Hi, Barbara --

    Your earlier comment came to me via e-mail but for some reason didn't pop up here. It was very thoughtful but contained one piece of data I found really questionable, the assertion that older readers are embracing e-books at a greater rate than younger readers. This is at odds with another datum from the survey, which is that readers sixty and above are the most resistant to e-books.

    In my experience, younger readers are the least tied to preferring a traditional form of text delivery, even though they're also (regrettably) the least likely to read novels. In any survey, the big intangible is how the respondent would like to be seen, and a desire not to seem to be a Luddite might have skewed some of those answers.

    Just my thoughts.

  9. I have a new screen saver. If the screen could take it I'd chisel in the words:

    “And I also think that the return of order to a broken society is the basic underpinning of virtually all mysteries, no matter the gender of their authors.”—Timothy Hallinan

  10. Take a look at page 38. 58% of respondents under 30 agreed with the statement "I will only buy/read print books and never read ebooks." It was a bit higher, 60%, for over 60s, in the 40s for everyone else. But the under 30s had the highest rate of experience with e-books. Of those, 85% said they prefer the experience of a print book.

    I hear this from the college students I work with. Students in a class I'm teaching right now (these are traditional age college students, 18-22) surveyed 176 fellow students and only one who had used e-books said he preferred them to print; four said it didn't matter to them, and six who had never used an e-book thought they would prefer them, all things being equal. 22 said they would buy an e-book if it were up to 1/3 cheaper. Over 100 said the prefer printed books.

    Of the 176 students, only 9 said they don't particularly like to read. That's consistent with a much larger study we did two years ago. And our students, when it comes to voluntary reading, map pretty closely to average voluntary reading numbers tracked by the NSSE survey of college students, so even though we are in Minnesota, they are not all above average.

  11. ...uh, and sorry for going all geeky on you. I find these kinds of data really interesting

  12. Thanks, Jeffrey -- I wish the thought was original, although I think the sentence is. It's funny that so many people think of our genre as dark when most of the time it's actually optimistic: crimes can be solved, the guilty will be punished, the world can be returned to its unbroken state, although the emotional scars will linger. People who don't understand this have trouble seeing mysteries as "comfort reading," which they certainly are for a lot of people.

    HELLO, BARBARA!!!! If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. I've been wrong before. (I think.) And I'm a data geek, too, although I probably should have read the survey more carefully.

  13. Thanks, Tim, for your insights, they're right on as far as I'm concerned. I just finished writing a novel that yields "relative resolution" for a problem I fear has little chance of that in the real world. And, yes, as hard as it may be to believe, we who show the worst of what's out there, are actually optimists when it comes to how (we hope) it all turns out.

  14. Hi Tim,

    I just read that your book is up for an award for best novel.

    Congratulations and I'm wishing you the best of luck!


  15. Thank you, Susie. I woke up to the news this AM and am sort of vibrating from it.


  16. I think reading, in general, is "getting older." The science fiction market is also aging rapidly, just as the study you mention indicates for the mystery market.

    (And congrats, again, on the Edgar nom!)

  17. Tim--

    Just saw the Edgars email. Congratulations! A well-deserved nomination.


  18. Thanks, Everett and Lenny -- I'm blown away by being on that list. There's not a dud on it.

    Afraid you're right, Everett -- the reading world is aging. But I have a secret hope, which I will probably share in a blog.