July 1, 2014

Crime fiction is far more popular with women than men


via Flickr

via Flickr

In an article for The Guardian, MJ McGrath reports that about 80% of people planning to attend the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival were women. About half of the author’s speaking at the English festival are women. Further, around 80% of students in crime fiction workshops are women.

So, women like crime fiction. But how much? None of McGrath’s numbers are cited, but there is very little reason to dispute her broader claim. According to a Harris poll from 2010, 53% of female readers had read at least one crime book in the past year. That’s compared to 39% of men. On top of that, women are more likely to read than men. A recent PewResearch suggests that 82% of women had read a book in 2013, while only 69% of men had. In other words, McGrath’s numbers seem to be in the ballpark, if not spot on.

That only leaves one important question: why is crime writing so popular with women?

She refutes claims that crime fiction’s disproportionate number of female victims is representative of a misogyny or masochism on the part of its readers. Instead, she asks readers to consider the metaphorical implications of the situations as opposed to the literal ones.

“For women, so powerfully socialised to conform to particular roles as sex objects, mothers, wives, in a society where being a man is still the default position, inventing ourselves can be a particular challenge. We are used to our bodies being appraised and poked about, viewed as vehicles for procreation or male pleasure – or as symbols first of beauty and then, in later life, of ugliness. What better metaphor for the feeling of annihilation which follows the common female experience of being valued primarily as the sum of one’s body parts than a murdered woman on a slab? No wonder we’re so into forensics.”

Along with the relatability, according to McGrath, there’s also an escapist element to it. The things that many of the characters in crime fiction are feeling and doing are the same desires and feelings that women feel they need to stifle.

“For women required in youth to be decorous and in maturity to be invisible, crime fiction gives us permission to touch on our own indecorous feelings of rage, aggression and vengefulness, sentiments we’re encouraged to pack away somewhere, along with the big underwear and the tampons, where they won’t offend.”

McGrath is a crime writer herself, and she openly admits to allowing her characters to act out her fantasies. I find her arguments to be fascinating and they ring true enough, though I’m weary of any piece that makes sweeping generalizations. In truth, this piece is about why this genre of fiction resonates with McGrath herself, but that does not make her points any less legitimate.

The manner in which she frames crime fiction is compelling and honest, and I suspect there are many people who will also believe it’s accurate.