A Young Female English Major Sounds Off

Written on an airplane.

(That'd be me, in case you had any doubt.)

I stood in the bookstore at the Oakland Airport yesterday morning for a good thirty minutes, trying to figure out which of the limited titles in front of me would suffice for (yet another) cross-country plane ride.

I picked a Scott Turow novel because I'd never read him before, and he's always getting compared to Grisham, and maybe it would be "fun."

And halfway through his newest book -- a plodding, self-indulgent best-seller -- I discovered I was really, really frustrated.

I get that there's a difference between great literary works and the kind of books people buy to read on planes. I mean, I buy stuff just to read on planes. I enjoy fast, thrilling page-turners that sometimes also have some literary merit (Harlan Coben), but mostly just serve as literary quickies. I get writing for mass appeal.


It hit me over the head like a ton of bricks: all of these fast-paced, suspenseful-like thrillers are written by men over the age of 45.

After a few minutes, I sort of felt like this particular airport bookstore wall of "best-selling" options was smirking at me. I had so few choices:
  • I could read suspense novels written by men twenty years my senior.

  • I could read any of the "pink books" -- i.e., "fun" girlish books about things women do, like buy pink things or have dating problems.

  • I could read non-pink fiction books by women, but those seem to involve a lot of Victorian settings and/or vampires.

  • I could read Sue Grafton.

  • (I suppose I could read something non-fiction about my finances or blood pressure or new SUCCESSFUL! business strategies written by people whose only real business experience has been telling other people how to run a successful business; I could also stuff in-flight peanuts up my nose.)
Do you see my point? I have nothing against the pink books (if anything, this blog is a pink blog, you know?) but even those are few and far between, whereas Patterson is churning out #1 -- NUMBER ONE -- bestsellers left and right and what is going on there?

How is it there are almost no women writing hard-boiled, fun, suspenseful thrillers?

Is it because there aren't women buying them? That seems hard to believe. So what else is it?

I don't know, but I will tell you what I do know. Or rather, what I'm tired of. Publishing houses, take heed.

Dear Rapidly Approaching Middle-Aged White Authors of "Suspenseful" Best-Sellers:

I know you are too busy lighting your cigars with $100 bills to listen to my whiney little blog entry, but that's why folks like me have blogs. Are you familiar with the term, "blog"? It's like an online journal that encourages two-way communication between author and audience and is changing the very notions of media-- huh? What's that? Yes, I did mean "online" as in "the internet." You know what...um. Nevermind. Let's just say I have a few prickly suggestions.

For one, I would greatly appreciate it if for your next best-selling novel you would refrain from trying to write "strong" female characters. You aren't good at it. Most strong women aren't also always stunning beauties with a wooden-intended-as-wry sense of humor hoping -- just hoping -- for the not-as-good-looking older man to charm them into having wild sex in inappropriate places.

Also, strong women aren't prone to winking a lot, nor to referencing their partner's penis, directly or by nickname, in "sly" conversation.

I don't know where you picked up on this habit, either, but for the record: most white women do not call their female friends "girlfriend!" in casual conversation. No, not even in jest. Please stop with that.

In fact, do you think it would be possible for you to stop with dialogue altogether? Hmm? Because honestly, sirs, no one talks like that. Do you? No, I didn't think so.

I'm also not sure where you get your characters' names from, but I have a sneaking suspicion you troll the made-for-Lifetime movies on Sunday mornings hoping to find something you like. It is going well beyond cliche to have a brash character with the last name of Kincaid. In fact, if you have any character with the last name of Kincaid (or Kincaide, which no, does not make you cleverer), I will giggle at you. Tee hee.

Same goes for any "glamorous" female character you write with the last name of Sinclair.

I also think it would be great if the next time you decided to write about characters who come from or venture into poor, urban neighborhoods, you could find a way to write about rap or hip-hop music without sounding crushingly condescending.

And speaking of condescending, I don't know if it's you or if it's your editors or what, but unless you're a tech person, you might wanna lay off the "technical" jargon altogether. It's my personal opinion that you're shooting yourself in the foot with your brand of computer-speak. For example, when you're right smack in the middle of telling a very exciting tale about someone doing something nefarious, please don't interrupt the action to describe what email is.

Because sirs (and really, I cannot emphasize this enough): I know what email is.

It honestly frightens me to think you need to explain it. Perhaps this is more a reflection of you and your high-tech ways of having your girl -- pardon me, I mean, your secretary -- check your email for you, print it all out, and then give you the hard copies (that means something tangible, like print-outs) in a file marked "RECEIVED EMAILS." Yes? Am I getting warm?

Alright, alright, I know I'm sounding bitchy. But so long as I'm subjected to you, I feel you should be subjected to me.

It's the wave of the future.


p.s. It's [ctrl + P].


  1. As a soon-to-be-middle-aged male writer, your views intrigue me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    Seriously, though, I can see your frustration. Even the few thrillers written by women sometimes fall back on clichés you've pointed out (Sue Grafton is a notable exception). But men trying to write "strong" women characters often seem to be writing a description of their dream girl for an extended personal ad, using the formula you describe.

    For the record, I never try to write strong female characters. I don't try to write strong male characters, either. I write characters, male and female, who talk and act like the actual, real-life people I know. At least, I try to. I think trying to write any character "type" leads to the kind of cardboard cut-outs that you describe.

    Then again, what do I know? My only professional publication was a source book for a roleplaying game, and I've only finished one novel that hasn't undergone revision yet.

    Maybe we should start our own publishing house.

  2. I do see your point... but I think you should look into "The Dante Club." Written by a very cute, young, smart man. GREAT reading material. Let me know what you think.

    Any other "She walks" readers have suggestions? I'm interested too!!

  3. This entry is awesome! As a former English major myself, I have a hard time reading anything written in the past 10 years without vomiting on the book.

    Of course, my favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut whose favorite character is a has been author whose books are found in the discount bin in porn stores. I don't know what that says about me.


  4. Patricia Cornwell. Get them, from the first to the last - GREAT suspense thriller drama - and her characters carry over to each book. The stories are very interesting and well written.

  5. What drives me nuts about Patterson is that he has a series based in San Francisco, but he says we eat Eddy's ice cream, eat hellmans mayo, and have inspection stickers on our vehicles. Seriously irks me to no end.

  6. Thank you for this!!

  7. I have so many half-read, abandoned pink books in my bookshelf that were bought for $14.95 in small airport kiosks. I've finally started shopping beforehand.

    Get The History of Love by Nicole Krauss for the flight back. I read it on a OAK-BOS flight. I couldn't put it down AND I didn't feel that slightly-guilty-I-just-read-trash feeling.

  8. Ha! This is hilarious and so true (although I must admit to enjoying the pink books and owning probably more than my fair share).

  9. Sue Kellermen...I believe that's her name. She writes great crime novels with real female characters.

    As for the "pink". There is a lot of it out there and much of it's bad. I have one author that I read religiously, though. Jennifer Weiner. Check her stuff out if you haven't yet. Talk about REAL women...god bless this woman.

    I do have to admit though that as a soon to be 31-year old woman, I do still indulge in the James Rollins, Michael Connelly and Dan Brown books with great pleasure.


  10. Hi Everyone,

    SO glad you can relate!

    Erica, I hear what you're saying, though I dunno. I like Jonathan Kellerman's stuff pretty well, and Faye (his wife) is good too, but has a Christian bent I find off-putting. Their son, Jesse, has a few novels out now, as well, and I'm reading one of them. It's definitely not bad (though I am super bitter because instead of a fiftysomething male suspense writer he's a TWENTYSOMETHING male suspense writer; plus even if his book totally merits being published, his connections couldn't have hurt. He uses a lot of big words, too, which I appreciated right up until he -- and his editors -- spelled "complement" with an "i.")

    I finally picked up Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner, and I um. I didn't like it. I feel *horribly* guilty for saying that, because I recognize that she's a great writer, but something just struck me wrong. Maybe I have issues.

    I couldn't put down The DaVinci Code, but omg -- Dan Brown writes the worst dialogue I have ever, ever read. Oof. (But still totally fun!)

  11. Oh, and Sam -- your line men trying to write "strong" women characters often seem to be writing a description of their dream girl for an extended personal ad, using the formula you describe hits the nail on the head. I totally get this sense all the time.

    I can't exactly fault them, I just wish they'd be a little more authentic/honest about it.

  12. For plane reads and fast mindless fun I love Kathy Reichs, who the not so great Bones tv show is based on, but her books are great page turners. If anything her male characters are a little cartoony, but I like her. I also like Nevada Barr, her character is a middle aged (slightly cliche) park ranger which is toatlly different but I like. And I devour every Jeffery Deaver book that comes out. I don't think he is too sexist, but his writing is great great suspense, kinda like Harlan Coben.

    I also am not such a fan of Jennifer Weiner, it is like her books had so much potential and then I was completely underwhelmed. If you are going to go pink book you have to, HAVE to go Marian Keyes. They are predictable, girly novels but somehow the humor and characters pull them a bit above the rest.

    Ok. I'm going to stop now. I just love books, trashy or not, I read them all!

  13. hi serror,

    i forgot about jeffery deaver. my ex-husband devoured books like i've never seen anyone, and he was big into the page-turners. he liked deaver a lot (perhaps that's why he slipped my mind?). but i'll try him again.

    on the other hand, i have to regretfully disagree about marian keyes. i started with one of hers and thought it was fine. i then tried "the other side of the story" and absolutely couldn't get through it. the attempts at humor were too painful.

    btw, does anyone know if the shopaholic books are decent?

    bridget jones remains the gold standard of pink, and i've never found anyone who could come close since.

  14. Just a friendly FYI ... Jonathan Kellerman is Jewish. In fact, I'm pretty sure he and his wife are both Modern Orthodox. :)

  15. anon - you are right. i wonder if i am either confusing her with someone else (i read a slew of stuff right when i met dave, and unlike him, have a tough time keeping authors, plots, characters completely straight; i LOVED crais and parker, and abandoned everyone else in favor of them), or if the reoccurring religious bent just stopped me from reading her at all?

    i don't know. but maybe i should reconsider. suggestions for which book to start with?

    (i did read one or two of jonathan's books and thought they were pretty good but also got bored with them. dunno why on that, either.)

  16. In fact, I do have suggestions! For starters, I suggest we all post two or three of our favorite (modern) authors. A kind of "Best On Shelf" list, that you (or any of us, for that matter) could pick and choose from.

  17. I'm awfully fond of Jeffrey Eugenedes (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex). When you want a laugh, Christopher Moore is also good (Lamb, the Gospel of Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend and Island of the Sequined Love Nun are my two favorites). For sheer silliness, try Gideon Defoe: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab, and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists. (Though I haven't read the latter yet, I'm sure it's a riot.)

  18. Just wanted to set the record straigth:

    "Also, strong women aren't prone to winking a lot,..."

    Well, I don't want to pigeon-hole strong women*, so I need to give a little counter-point on this one. A couple of the very strongest women I've known happened to have a habit of winking. They were (both, coincidentally) into "inside jokes" and making people squirm a little. (It was great fun, because they always backed off it it started to become mean)

    * When I say "pigeon-hole strong women", I do not mean it as any kind of double-entendre (or other multiple-entendre). I mean to say: it isn't meant sexually.

    These days its hard to keep up, and for all I know "pigeon-holing" might be some kind of code-word for a sexual fetish or something, perhaps something involving the navel.

    Ok, well fine then, if nobody's got dibs on the term "Pigeon-holing", I'm gonna take it! "Navel sex", that's the definition I'm giving it. Yep. Such a choice sounding phrase needs to have more than one meaning. And now that its 'on the web' the meaning is 'official'! Yay!

    But still, I have to emphasize, I didn't mean it the way it (now) sounds. I was quite serious about the anti-pigeon-holing thing, and I think generalizing about strong women is dangerous (I bear the scars to prove it).

  19. OMG - I'm on a well earned (okay maybe not "earned" but totally NEEDED) break from writing a horrid ethics paper because someone decided to go back to school and finish her degree *ahem* and decided to do a little blog surfing and what do I find on my first stop?? A discussion on books? I LOVE it!!!

    I have loads of the pink books - what can I say? I used to have this totally craptastic boss who made me alternately want to drive into oncoming traffic or chew on the ends of my hair. Luckily I refrained from doing either and generally took a lot of baths. With copious amounts of wine. And pink books.

    I like Laurie Notaro for something quick and then if you're into the historical fiction like me (it's a special kind of geek I know) I recommend anything Allison Weir, Phillipa Gregory (except for the Wideacre trilogy - holy hell incest issues!) and OH! Diana Gabaldon! She's my favorite!

    Okay back to ethics... Thanks for the diversion!

  20. For fast, airplane reads, I like Carl Hiaasen--Striptease, Stormy Weather, Sick Puppy. His books always have short, strange titles but they read fast and they're good.

  21. Best modern fiction writer I know...Margaret Atwood. Page turners that are beautifully written (apparently she's one of the "new classics" the AP Literature exam has on their reading list, if that's any encouragement for you). Try The Handmaid's Tale (a modern-day 1984), or Alias Grace, or my favorite of all, Oryx and Crake (her latest).

    Whatever you do, do NOT believe that she is a science fiction writer. Many libraries and a few bookstores erroneously shelve her books as such. She is no more sci-fi than George Orwell. There is a difference between Orwell and StarTrek. Blech. She is prophetic! Love her. Read her.

  22. Liz, I take issue with your comment regarding genre. Some of Margaret Atwood is most certainly science fiction, especially the brilliant The Handmaid's Tale. Genre fiction is not synonymous with garbage--as science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once observed, 90% of science fiction is crud, but "Ninety percent of everything is crud."

    Handmaid's inherent literary worth means that it is not merely science fiction, but its underlying conceit is a classic science fiction trope (the same goes for Orwell's 1984), so it is science fiction.

    Speaking of modern literature using a classic science fiction trope, I can't believe I didn't think to recommend Audrey Niffeneger's excellent The Time Traveler's Wife. It's not just worth reading--it's worth reading multiple times.

  23. two words: Andrew Vachss.

  24. so many good suggestions! and um, i don't mean to sound even more whiney than i already have, but i find it hard for authors to really hit my sweet spot.

    liz and sam, i understand where both of you are coming from. Atwood is one of El_G's favorite authors of all time, if not his favorite (i know he has a soft spot for vonnegut). he made me read the blind assassin, which was incredibly well written and thoroughly amazing, but in the end i felt sad and not excited to go through that emotional experience again. i know the handmaid's tale is considered a modern classic, but a dear friend described it as "reading a nightmare" so i have avoided it.

    i have picked up the time traveler's wife and never purchased it, but will reconsider.

    i love carl hiassen, though i feel like i have to space out his books because they are so similar and the plots run together for me. good stuff. i just read skinny dip this fall.

    i should add here that i read 'the pilot's wife' by anita shreve a long time ago and i hated -- hated -- it. thank you everyone for not suggesting her.

    tiffany, i know nothing of those authors. i shall look into them.

    also fwiw, i LOVED the lovely bones. sobbed all the way through it, but still.

    what were your thoughts on "running with scissors"? i read it and am just curious how you guys felt about it.

  25. Kristy, I can relate to your sentiments about The Blind Assassin. It seems most of Atwood's books end in an open-ended fashion; she doesn't tie anything up neatly and send you hope feeling good. I can only read her stuff when I am prepared to feel all "dark and twisty" like Meredith on Grey's Anatomy :)

    Sam--you are right about the sci-fi category and Atwood's place in it. It's just that the phrase science fiction makes me recoil in disgust...and I would hate for anyone to skip her over because she is categorized as such.

  26. My favorite author of contemporary stuff is Alice Munro. She writes mostly short stories but she is a an elegant, beautiful writer.

  27. I'll throw in another couple of modern favorites - Mark Haddon, esp. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (I heard his new book is very good, too.) Also Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, and Jody Shields' The Fig Eater. In my head, they all get grouped together, as contemporary authors whose use of language in storytelling can still be called "brilliant."

  28. OH! Time Traveller's Wife - I loved that one. Gosh this is like crack! Just what I needed - an excuse to play on B&N all day!

  29. Curious Incident of Dog in the Nighttime rocked! Definitely written by someone who had direct experience working with students with autism.
    Also, you've probably read this, but The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is my alltime favorite.

  30. Well.... she does not write thrillers, but I really like Janet Evanovich. She has a series with a female bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum that I just think is hilarious. I think it falls under that "quick read" category if you just want something fun!


  31. I'm a lover of female writer mysteries- Laura Lippman, a detective series and a couple of stand alones; Early Sujita Massey, she writes about an American buyer of antiques in Japan so I feel like I'm learning something while solving a mystery; Kate Atkinson is my new favorite, VERY enjoyable and beautifully written. Tammy Hoag isn't bad, not my favorite, but she's popular enough to be on the best sellers.
    If I'm going on a plane trip I usually like to grab a short story anthology so I can devour one, take a nap, flip to a magazine, devour another.. repeat.
    Long post, I LOVE mysteries.

  32. I second the Cornwell recommendation. Good stuff. Thriller, suspense, etc. I also love Tom Clancy, but he's realllly detailed. I find I have to go back and re-read entire chapters.

  33. I'd like to second the Christopher Moore recommendation. I LOVE him. And for a forty something white guy -- he writes hilarious (laugh out loud funny) dialogue. Plus he's the most accessible of any author I know. He actually answers email and has a blog and message board that he posts on.
    "A Dirty Job" (out last year) has the added bonus of being set in San Francisco, so you might enjoy that aspect. His new book comes out next week titled "You Suck" and he starts in signing tour in SF on Tuesday.
    I sound like a commercial, but he really is cool. :)
    Check out his blog titled "I Do Not Read".
    Oh. And I know this isn't falling into the suspenseful page turner genre, but Tom Robbins rocks too.

  34. I hate when authors stop to explain the obvious. Same thing with movies/tv shows.

  35. btw, the shopoholic books (at least the first two) are fantastic!

  36. For my 2 cents (for what it's worth):

    1. Patricia Cornwell: I *LOVED* the Scarpetta character when the series was first started. Near the end though, ugh. Seriously, she's flying in helicopters, shooting AKs with her niece. It was just...I couldn't deal. She is starting to become a Mary Sue. All the men want her, she's super intelligent (a doctor, a lawyer, a SUPER DUPER MEDICAL EXAMINER) and a great cook to boot. By the end of the series I just couldn't take it anymore. And the next series that Cornwell started...double ugh. It was starting to read like Rita Mae Brown with the talking cat nonsense.

    2. Shopaholic series: The first one is pretty good. I found it quite funny, but the whole, "I'm so ditzy and I spend spend spend but yay! I come out ahead in the end" is slightly offputting. Especially by the end of the series. Couldn't deal.

    As far as the pink books go, I do agree, Bridget Jones is where it is at.

    I kind of left fiction in the dust though. Now I'm into David Sedaris, David Rachoff and Sarah Vowell.

  37. I have to second the Andrew Vachss recommendation, thought it would be too intense but instead ran back for more. Heavy topics though, and he definately falls into the middle-aged white guy catagory. Read it for pulp pleasure, not authenticity. Also, loved The Time Travelers Wife. LOVED IT.

  38. Amen. And also, I wish they would stop trying to be so literary. I HATE having to stop, ponder some contrived imagery, and then try to find my place again. Just don't waste my time. Go ahead, be Dan Brown. It's okay. I know what I've gotten myself into. Word to the wise -- avoid David Balducci at all costs.

    I've only read one of the Shopaholic books, and it was very cute. Very pink, but quite cute. Then again, I have an affinity for all things anglo. So.

  39. So much good information here--I am totally copying and pasting these comments into Stickies!!

    Favorite book ever: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet.

  40. Everyone - EVERYONE - needs to read The Time Traveler's Wife. I loved The Red Tent too.
    These suggestions come from someone who liked The Lovely Bones and feels exactly the same as you regarding Dan Brown. And Bridget Jones.

  41. Maybe I'm out of the loop here, but I love the series that Diane Mott Davidson writes... a murder mystery coupled with yummy food recipes thrown in... what more could you want?

  42. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife (which is being made into a movie with Rachel McAdams, rumor has it) and I am a fan of Carl Hiassen after reading Skinny Dip, but haven't read anything else of his. I travel a lot and always need airplane books, so I can empathize with your predicament, but reading taste is so subjective! I recommend Wicked and Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire, along with How to Be Good by Nick Hornby (which has a strong female protagonist.) I am also enjoying Jodi Picoult and for "pink books," Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.


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