I know you’re all thinking: “Well, duh.”Â But I’m not talking about anatomy; I’m talking about our taste in entertainment.Â This profoundÂ difference poses a challenge toÂ writers.
I was reminded about the differences between men’s and women’s entertainment choices last night, when my extended family got together on New Year’s Eve to watch the DVD of the latest version ofÂ “Pride and Prejudice”, starring Keira Knightly.Â We women hung on every meaningful glance between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, delighted in every tart exchange,Â every romantic revelation.Â When the movie ended, the womenÂ sighed, “wasn’t that wonderful?”
My husbandÂ shrugged and said, “Not my kind of movie.”Â
“Pride and Prejudice” seems to be the defining line in what separates men and women.Â (By this I mean heterosexual men; IÂ know a number of gay men whoÂ love Jane Austen.)Â Â All my women friends have seen this movieÂ several times, but they can only go with their girlfriends.Â
Their husbandsÂ refuse to go.Â I mean absolutely, positively, refuse to go.
Just as they absolutely, positively refuse toÂ read a romance novel.
As a thriller writer, I want my books to appeal to both sexes, but I find that sometimes it’s impossible.Â Men will hate a book that women love, and vice versa.Â And they’ll let me know it.
When I wrote VANISH, I wanted to show how motherhood changes Jane.Â She’s more than just a stereotypical tough woman cop; she’s a human being who’s spent the past two books in a state of pregnancy, and now something’s about to happen that will change her life.Â That’s howÂ it was for me, when I had my first son.Â Â It was theÂ most momentous thing to happen to me — to ever happen to me.Â It wasn’t a piece of cake,Â that motherhood bit.Â I was a doctor.Â Damn it, I knew how to save lives.Â YetÂ when they handed me my baby, I felt like a klutz.Â Â In VANISH, Jane finallyÂ gives birth, and of course I knew I had to write about how it affects her.Â If it didn’t affect her, if she wasn’t changed by the experience, then she’d be nothing but a piece of heartless cardboard.Â
Many of my male readers just didn’t connect with thatÂ book.Â The most scathingÂ review I got, in the Washington Post, was from a man who hated the “girly stuff.”Â Â Men don’t want toÂ know about newborns; they wantÂ to get back to the crimes.Â They don’t want boring stuff aboutÂ Jane’s life.Â Â It’s just not important to them, they tell me.
But the women who write tellÂ me how much they loved reading about Jane’s struggles.Â “I identify with her!Â I remember my problems as a new mother, and the fact she has no idea how to breast feed makes her so real to me!”
In THE MEPHISTO CLUB, there’s a subplotÂ about Maura’s romantic entanglement with Father Brophy.Â Of all the reader mail I received in the past few years, the number one subject from my women readers was about that romance.Â They wanted to see the characters fall in love.Â Would I please think about letting Maura and Daniel get together? they begged me.
No manÂ asked me for that.
Then there was GRAVITY.Â Â Almost all my fan mail about that book was from men, because they loved the technical details about spaceflight.Â Most women didn’t pick up the book.Â
I have to plead guilty myself, to beingÂ something of aÂ girly reader.Â For the longest time I didn’t pick up Harlan Coben’s early books because they were about a sports agent, and I don’t give a hoot about sports.Â The first thing I do when I buy a newspaper is throw out the sports section.Â Only after I met Harlan did I finally read a Myron Bolitar book and discovered it wasn’t really about sports at all, and I loved it.Â I suspect this is why Harlan didn’t really break out as a bestselling writer until he left the sports agent character behind.Â Most women, like me, just aren’t big sports fans.
So what’s a writer to do?Â How do we make both sexes happy?
SometimesÂ we just can’t.Â Every book will get criticized for one thing or another.Â I know I’llÂ continue to get letters from men who don’t care about romance elements.Â And I’ll get letters from women who complain about the gore.Â
My experience with GRAVITYÂ taught me an importantÂ lesson about sales, though.Â Men loved that book, women didn’t.Â Of all my thrillers, GRAVITY sold the fewest copies.Â That book, as much as I loved it, was a career set-back for me.Â I discovered that when you lose your women readers, you’re in big, bigÂ trouble.Â When it comes to overall book sales, it’s women readers who buy most ofÂ the novels.Â
You can’t afford to lose the ladies.Â