Female Crime Writers Belittled

Although the readers of mysteries and thrillers are overwhelmingly female and female authors are selling just as well as their male counterparts, the reviews are full of male authors.
Although the readers of mysteries and thrillers are overwhelmingly female and female authors are selling just as well as their male counterparts, the reviews are full of male authors. | Photo (detail): picture alliance/ullstein bild

Although women crime writers are holding their own in sales figures, book reviews tend to focus more on male authors. We look at the factors perpetuating this gender gap. 

Books with dark dust jackets featuring an oppressive sky and a creepy cabin are usually about murder. The colour scheme used on the cover of most crime novels is a clear indication that publishers are still primarily marketing this genre to men. On all the other tables, especially featuring other kinds of fiction, pastel colours dominate in green, blue and plenty of pink. And while this stereotypical use of colour might inspire a reader to smile patronizingly or swear with feeling, it is impossible to deny what the marketing departments at publishing houses know so well – colours send the right signals to buyers, the same way they do in children’s clothing. Expert psychologists, sociologists and brain researchers continue to debate whether the colour preferences that seem imprinted in our limbic systems are down to nature or nurture. Either way, men seem more drawn to dark blue, black and grey. 

Women are crime fiction’s prime readers

When it comes to mysteries and thrillers, marketing experts seem to be lagging behind the times. It has been quite apparent for years that women have overtaken men in the genre, and indeed in fiction overall. Significantly more women read crime novels than men (51 percent to 37 percent), as the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels’ (the German Publishers and Booksellers Association) 2015 “Buyers and Readers of Books” study showed.  

Women have also caught up as successful authors in recent years. While books by Sebastian Fitzek, Frank Schätzing and Klaus-Peter Wolf, to name just a few successful German male authors, still sell hundreds of thousands of copies, books by German women like Charlotte Link, Rita Falk and Nele Neuhaus and English-language authors, like Elizabeth George, Tana French, Tess Gerritsen and many more, are also flying off the shelves. In sheer numbers of crime novels published, men still hold the lead, but women are neck and neck when it comes to the copies sold. 

Which makes the findings crime writer and translator Zoë Beck cites on her website even more surprising, where she points to the dominance of male critics. According to the “Frauen zählen” (Women Count) study, which statistically assessed and sociologically evaluated over 2,000 reviews from 69 German media (print, radio and TV) in March 2018, the visibility of women in the media and in the literary world considerably lags behind that of men. The analysis found that men enjoyed twice the attention women received. Male authors were discussed more frequently and in more detail, and two thirds of the books reviewed in all types of media were written by men. The reviews were also predominantly written by men at a ratio of four to three. Three-quarters of all works reviewed by men were written by male authors. Women, on the other hand, tended to discuss authors of both sexes with similar frequency.

This gender gap visible across all types of literature is particularly noticeable for crime fiction, where one female author is mentioned for every five male authors. Zoë Beck draws a bitter and depressing conclusion: “The only truly balanced genre seem to be children’s and young adult books where authors and critics of both genders work in the genres considered intellectual or ‘masculine’, such as non-fiction and crime fiction.”

Female=light entertainment, male= existentialist literature?

Author Simone Buchholz, the most recent winner of the German Crime Fiction Award for her novel Mexikoring (Mexico Ring) published by Suhrkamp, also spoke after the award ceremony about the rampant sexism in mysteries and thrillers: “I adore my two fellow writers Matthias Wittekindt and Max Annas. We all won the same prize, but when my book is called ‘light entertainment’ and the men’s books are ‘existentialist literature’ or ‘politically radical’, then I can’t help but think how wonderful it must be to have a penis! And why do we have to belittle anything that doesn’t have a penis? We have been talking about this structural problem for such a long time. The fact that we still have to point it out is just exhausting.”
How wonderful it must be to have a penis! Crime writer Simone Buchholz speaks out against the pervasive sexism of the book industry. How wonderful it must be to have a penis! Crime writer Simone Buchholz speaks out against the pervasive sexism of the book industry. | Photo: picture alliance/Christian Charisius/dpa This frustration and anger is more than understandable. The fact that author Dörte Hansen took first place in the current 37th German Booksellers’ and Publishers’ Choice of the Year, closely followed by Juli Zeh and Carmen Korn, may provide a bit of comfort. The “Buchmarkt” industry magazine ironically noted that a “men’s quota” might soon be necessary, especially since the success of the three female authors was reflected in very high sales figures throughout the year. As far as the impact of reviews is concerned, Buchholz and Beck can perhaps take comfort in the fact that while all German critics regardless of gender warned readers to steer clear of Stella by Takis Würger, buyers put the book on the bestseller list. So one effective motto might be to just let the critics – with or without a penis - write whatever they like while we just keep buying whatever we like.