26 January 2013

Boy Books and Girl Books

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Some time ago, I heard an eminent editor admit that in his publishing house, people refer without irony to “boy books” and “girl books.”

Since I became active in the mystery community, I have heard many discussions of the fact or belief that, by and large, men will not read books, or at least novels, by women. That’s why many female writers even now conceal their gender behind initials (although. like the initials in phone book listings, the use of initials in authorship has become a signal that the person thus identified is probably a woman).

Men may object to this generalization, which oversimplifies as generalizations always do. It might be illuminating to ask what books by women they read. Are they “boy books” written by women?
Are they crossover books? Noir is very fashionable these days, and women as well as men are writing noir. Megan Abbott comes to mind—a woman who had already written a scholarly examination of the tough guy in American fiction before her first novel was published. Or how about women whose prose style is “tough” and would have been called “masculine” before the women’s movement? I think of SJ Rozan, a writer I admire greatly and a former architect, of whom and even to whom I’ve said that her prose is built like a brick s***house. Not a wasted word, not a dangling clause, not an adverb. It doesn’t hang together—it grips.

A hundred years ago, when I was a college English major, there were two kinds of writer, or rather, two prose styles: Hemingway and Henry James. Hemingway’s the guy who put the kibosh on polysyllabic words of Latin derivation and made action verbs king of the sentence. Back then, it was possible to say, “I don’t warm up to that Hemingway style. I don’t know that I want to write that way.” I know, because I said it, and no one lynched me. Today, that choice has become an absolute. The highly respected Stephen King, a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, boils down the how-to of writing to this: “Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And lose the adverbs.”

Actually, adverbs aren’t lost. They have migrated to the other side of the aisle, where the girl books sit. A prolific and talented short story writer (not one of SleuthSayers’s bloggers) once told me that Woman’s World likes adverbial writing. Woman’s World, as we know, is a tough market to crack and pays well. My informant, who’s also published in EQMM and other presigious markets, said that when he writes for WW, he makes sure he puts those adverbs in.

Am I saying women don’t write nice tight sentences with action verbs? No, of course not. I can delete an adverb with the best of them. I think it’s subject matter, focus, and sensibility, to use an old-fashioned word, rather than prose style that separates the boy books from the girl books.

Relational psychology offers a convincing approach to human psychological development that explains how and why men mature through separation and women through connection.
The feminist psychologists who thought up relational theory were probably not thinking about boy books and girl books, but it works pretty well. Separation and autonomy—the tough-guy loner PI—boy books. Connection and relationship—traditional character-driven mysteries—girl books. Another psychological model uses the gender-related concepts of instrumental and expressive traits. Instrumental—technothrillers—boy books. Expressive—character-driven mysteries—girl books.

Am I exaggerating? Oversimplifying? Of course. But like the eminent editor, I’m making the point that there are boy books and girl books. Let’s tackle the distinction from another angle. Let’s look at the Great American Novel. Suppose we lived in a less patriarchal society.
Suppose we had always acknowledged that there are boy books and girl books that have to be judged separately on their merits within their own categories, the same way there’s a male winner and a female winner in the New York Marathon. Here are my picks. Great American Novel, boy book division: Huckleberry Finn. Great American Novel, girl book division: Little Women.

How many men have read this wonderful book? Its author created characters so real that it’s still in print almost 140 years after publication, still read for pleasure—and with pleasure—by millions of readers, and still capable of moving readers to tears on an umpteenth rereading, as well as inspiring some of us to become writers like its protagonist. My husband has. I’m proud to say he’s read almost all of Louisa May Alcott, motivated by an interest in the vivid and accessible picture of life in 19th century New England in the context of Transcendentalism, whose theorists included Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father. He (my husband, not Bronson Alcott) also wanted to know what was in those battered books that I was crying over every time I read them. I’d like to hear from any other man who has. And if so, did you come to it on your own, or did a woman (or girl) make you read it?


  1. Good column.
    Picking books that will appeal to both boys and girls or a balance of girl books and boy books used to be one of the tricky assignments of junior high teachers.

  2. What a great column, Liz.

    For the record, I think my favorite female writers include Colleen McCullough, Nevada Barr, and Janet Evanovich (and, of course, you and several of our other SleuthSayers colleagues). Recent additions are Kathryn Stockett (The Help) and Suzanne Collins.

    I agree with King on the adverbs,

  3. Favorite female fiction authors: Jane Austen, Charlotte Yonge, Anne Tyler, Harriet Beecher Stowe (don't laugh - her "The Minister's Wooing" despite the sappy title is a superb snapshot of the New England mind and world) Dorothy Sayers, Ellis Peters, Margaret Frazer, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ursula LeGuin, Cecelia Holland, Mary Renault, Lady Murasaki, and my fellow listmates.

    Favorite male fiction authors: Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Colin Dexter, Michael Gruber, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E. F. Benson, and my fellow listmates.

    Favorite non-fiction authors: Above all, Barbara Tuchman; then Jonathan Spence, Ivan Morris, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Madame de Sevigne, Sei Shonagon, Liza Picard, Judith Flanders, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Pepys, Adam Gopnik and most of the staff writers of The New Yorker.

  4. I would add Doris Kearns Goodwin to the list of non-fiction writers. One of my favorite female authors is Anita Shreve. Of course, there is Harper Lee. But unfortunately she is destined to be the modern day Margaret Mitchell.

    Liz, I have never read Little Women. I think most males of my generation we were steered to the male writers in school. Jack London, Poe, Dickens, and the list goes on. I suppose it wasn't "cool" to read works by women. But this was not a conscious decision--at least not for me. And there were exceptions. "Jane Eyre" comes to mind.

  5. Herschel, it's never too late. :)

  6. "Girl books are for sissies", said Tom dismissively.

  7. When I was a kid my Mom read most of the "Little House" books to me, commenting on how her Grandmother (who I knew)had grown up living on a farm in the prairie in the 1880's. Maybe that's why I'm a history geek.


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