When Writing, Assume Your Reader is a Woman

jean-baptiste

“Try to write for a single reader who’s sitting across the desk from you…and if you’re smart, make that reader a woman…women buy 70% of the books.” – James Patterson

Currently I’m listening to James Patterson’s master class. I’ve just gotten started, but I think this is probably the most brilliant thing he’s said so far.

Why? Because with so much of the media I, as a 31-year-old woman, have grown up consuming, (TV, Movies, Video Games), has been made assuming that the target viewer is male (although that’s definitely changing).

Back in the 1930s, Hollywood made their basic formula for selling movies. They assumed that the average person buying movie tickets was going to be a white male.  Movies were made predominantly to target the male ticket buyer, and to treat the female viewer as accessory, with the exception of the occasional “chick flick.”

And even in very recent times (like this decade) many Hollywood producers refused to make movies with a female superhero, or female lead, claiming that it would get low viewership, never mind the fact that Wonder Woman was a box office success. Marvel CEO Doesn’t Believe in Female Superheroes

What’s interesting is that there is a tendency to see the under-representation of women as the norm, and to overestimate the presence of women when they’re actually being underrepresented, or normally represented. For example, there was a study that found that even when women did 50% of the talking in a group, they were perceived as talking too much (PBS).

The tendency to see the under-representation of women as the norm, and to underestimate the value of their contributions, is due to longstanding exclusion. When a group has been excluded from representation for a long time, this exclusion becomes seen as normal. And thus we are trained to see the male experience as the norm, and to see the female experience as accessory.

I think when many men write (and many women too), they automatically think their reader is going to be a male, because male is the lens we’ve all been subconsciously taught through which to view the world. People don’t think this way for malicious reasons, these are just very deeply ingrained stereotypes that are difficult to dismantle.

But the literary world is not like Hollywood. As James Patterson said, women buy most of the books. According to Author News , women buy 60% of books, and 65% of ebooks. Also, I’ve noticed a vast majority of literary agents are women, and most of the people who are going to be involved in producing a book are women.

Does this mean that men shouldn’t write, or that there shouldn’t be male characters, or that there shouldn’t be books with a more gritty, masculine vibe? No, I think people should write what they want to write, and anyone who feels compelled to write should do so.

But I think the point is that when people write, they shouldn’t do so assuming their reader is only going to be male. Writers can’t afford to think like that if they want to be successful.

I think what many people, male and female, need to realize, is that if their book has language that turns off women (because it’s overtly chauvinistic, or seems to go over the top in promoting sexual violence against women), it’s going to be a hard sell.

As a beta reader, I had an experience with reading a scene where the male lead character (who was supposed to be the good guy) committed an act of sexual violation against the female lead, an act that made me (as a woman) very uncomfortable. When I told this to the author, and then told him he should change it, someone else said, “Well maybe he just won’t write it for women.”

Well…maybe he just won’t get published then.

And what about those who self-publish? That’s hardly a loophole. Women are buying most of the ebooks, so trying to self-publish a sexist manuscript probably won’t go over that well either.

I’m not saying there can’t be books with sexual violence and chauvinism. Those are challenges that people deal with everyday. And in particular, when writing about an older time, chauvinistic ideals may simply be part of the time period.

But the point is that a writer shouldn’t write a story that seems to promote these ideals. The main character (if they’re the hero) shouldn’t be making sexist comments against women, or sexually violating women, unless he’s some kind of antihero. But that’s a balance that should be handled very carefully. If the antihero’s sexism is supposed to be a negative aspect of their personality, that should be made very clear.

Long story short. Write what you want, but make sure it doesn’t alienate women. And value the opinions of the women who beta-read your material. 

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