So Who Has Time to Read?

By Davis, J. Madison | World Literature Today, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

So Who Has Time to Read?


Davis, J. Madison, World Literature Today


Social Class and Crime Writing, Part 1

Apiece of fiction is often said to "find its audience," mean- ing that certain elements of the piece appeal to a particular set of readers that has some characteristic or set of characteristics in common. Sometimes the characteristics define a large audience that will sustain a regular production of books written and edited to appeal to this audience. These books share common elements that create guidelines for the genres and subgenres of commercial pub- lishing. Many of the elements are general. "Cozy" mysteries are light on sex and violence, for example, with- out being too specific about what "light" means, but the readership knows it when it sees it.

Some characteristics are very particular to a specific audience. Author Eve K. Sandstrom, who lives near Lawton, Oklahoma, has described how an editor demanded that Satanists in one of her novels not sacrifice a cat. Never mind the fact that Satanists often do such things, as her research proved. Read- ers who like "cozy" mysteries are generally cat fanciers. A novelist who murders the entire church choir is merely providing corpses, but one who murders a cat deserves an eter- nity of languishing unread on the ice of the ninth circle. Under the pseudonym Joanna Carl, Sandstrom has also written a successful "choc- oholic mystery" series, initiated in 2006 by the title The Chocolate Cat Caper. The title not only panders to the appeal of cats to this audience but also evokes the old joke about a pandering publisher who creates the can't-fail novel Lincoln's Doctor's Dog.

Some people like shredded wheat; others religiously masti- cate their bran cereal. Still others like their corn flakes and can't get enough of sugar and corn. For all its artistic qualities and pretensions, fiction is entertainment for the audi- ence, which has no practical need to read it unless trying to under- stand a particular culture or pick up a literature degree. Like motion pic- ture companies, brewers, automobile manufacturers, and everyone else in the business of selling consumer products, pub- lishers (if not authors themselves) directly target defined audiences catering to their likes and dis- likes and exploiting their interests.

One of the clichés of publishing is that women read fiction and men don't; however, surveys confirm the anecdotal truism. In an NPR interview, Carla Cohen, owner of the Poli- tics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, said, "We see it every time in our store. Women head straight for the fic- tion section and men head for nonfiction." Ian Mc- Ewan has said that without women, the novel would be extinct. The Harry Pot- ter series is credited with having caused an uptick in boys reading, but many surveys show more women readers in every category of book except history and biography.' Even among the aging group of West- ern readers, there are more women than men.

Naturally, then, pub- lishers tend to seek novels that appeal to women in ways similar to the movie moguls who avoided scripts lacking female char- acters and romantic subplots. According to Hol- lywood legend, an executive once shouted out, "Where's da goil?" at the end of an MGM prescreen- ing, and a "goil" in love with the hero was spliced into the film. A novel manuscript perceived as hav- ing "goil" appeal is far more likely to get a contract. Some subgenres of the mystery (like the cozy) are pitched almost entirely to a female readership. But now even "tough guy" detective novels tend to have female sidekicks or other active female characters. Making the tough guy protagonist into a tough woman (in Sara Paretsky's, Sue Grafton's, and Marcia Müller's novels, for example) has been said to have saved the hardboiled novel from its severe decline in the 1970s.

Gender appeal is so commonly discussed as an aspect of different mystery genres' market- ability that it is almost taken for granted. Social class, however, is discussed much less often, although it is an obvious characteristic of the various subgenres of crime writing. …

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