Tuesday 21 October 2014

Why women enjoy the gory details – but only in fiction

Published 21/05/2014 | 02:30

A scene from 'Love/Hate'

Male domination of crime fiction is officially over. Today, over half of all novels in the crime fiction genre are written by women and these are the most popular books with a female audience.

This is very good news for female crime writers as women buy and read a lot more books than men (up to two-thirds). Crime fiction sells over 21 million books annually in Britain and outsells all other genres worldwide.

And it's not just books, TV crime shows with strong female leads are exploding in popularity too.

My own shelf used to contain box-sets like 'The West Wing' and 'Sex and the City', but it is now laden down with Scandinavian crime dramas like 'The Killing', 'The Bridge' and our own 'Love/Hate'.

When did women's thirst for violence become so acute? According to research, young women today are particularly drawn to violence in books and TV shows.

One theory is that women seem to enjoy reading or watching stories about the brutal murders of other women at a safe distance and particularly like it if the killer and/or detective is also female. I can vouch for this as Detective Saga Noren from 'The Bridge' is one of my all-time favourite TV characters.

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, whose characters inspired the ITV series 'Wire in the Blood', believes that "women are better at scaring us". She explains that women authors can write about violence from the inside instead of the men writing about it from the outside.

McDermid believes that women are far more in tune with violence than men. "We perceive violence differently from men," she explains. "From childhood we are taught if you walk down a dark street you risk being raped or worse. We fear the sound of footsteps, men don't."

She has a point, but if we are scared and afraid of violence, why are we lapping it up in fiction? What happened to curling up with a nice romance novel? Why are women writing books in which female victims suffer horrendous violence? And why are so many more women reading about it?

Is it because sensation sells or is it because women feel more comfortable reading about sexual violence if it is written by another woman? Does the fact that a woman is writing about rape and murder somehow make it more palatable?

McDermid believes that female writers understand that readers want to be reassured. They want to know that you can not only survive but that justice will be done to the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.

Criminal activity and dark tales don't only come in adult crime novels. In fact, if we look at childhood fairytales we'll see a lot of similarities. The aptly named Brothers Grimm were no strangers to a scary story.

Look at Hansel and Gretel – you have a vicious stepmother who tries to starve two children to death, followed by a witch who locks them up before trying to eat them. But in the end they survive.

It's not an easy story to read to children. It requires answering far too many questions about why the evil women wanted the children to die.

Perhaps this increased leaning towards violence is because women have become desensitised to a certain degree? With the exposure to 24-hour news stories about atrocities being carried out in all four corners of the world, fact is often so much worse than fiction.

Or, are women drawn to read and watch increasingly violent books and shows because they are able for all the gore. After all, women have traditionally always had to nurse the wounded and dying not to mention go through the agonies of childbirth. Do women just have stronger stomachs?

The female crime writers I have met have all been absolutely lovely. None of them appear to have any hard edges, sinister minds or dark personalities. In fact, they couldn't be a nicer bunch. They clearly just have very good imaginations and are excellent storytellers.

Ten years ago the most borrowed library books were romance fiction. Now, according to the Public Lending Scheme it's crime, thrillers and horror that are at the forefront of popular taste.

In total, five authors writing in the crime and thriller genres appear in the latest Top 10 most borrowed adult fiction authors list in Ireland.

But all is not lost to crime. Interestingly, the top two selling books on Amazon in 2013 were self-help books while the top selling e-book of 2013 was a Nicholas Sparks romance novel.

As an author of popular fiction, I may have to re-think my next book. If I could just write a crime novel with a female detective who is into self-help and has a healthy romantic life, I'd be guaranteed top sales!

Irish Independent

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