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Books for Boys – Would Your Protagonist Kill a Dog?

Posted July 24, 2012 by Joel

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An author friend of mine was talking to another author friend of his about the large number of women who read his books. This surprised him. His books are for the most part military thrillers in which the main character (often a man) shoots and explodes his way through his problems, usually scooping up a lady friend along the way for extracurricular fun. This shooting of problems and gratuitous sexy times, said the author’s friend, did not make any of his novels a boy’s book.

“Would your protagonist kill a dog?” asked the friend.

“No, he doesn’t kill a dog,” replied the author.

“Not does he kill a dog. Would he kill a dog. If the dog was in the way.”

The author thought for a moment and allowed that, if they had any other choice, most of his protagonists would probably not kill a dog.

“There you go then. Chick’s book.”

Let me clear here – personally I believe the concept of a boy’s book or a girl’s book is completely socially constructed. Given that fiction is read much more by women than men it seems clear to me that almost any successful fiction title will have a significant female readership. And I’ve spoken to plenty of men who read what is traditionally termed “women’s fiction”. Nonetheless, the idea of gendered fiction is still quite powerful. A lot of guys would avoid Fifty Shades of Grey like the plague – not because they don’t like a bit of light spanking in their fiction, but because it’s perceived as a girl’s book.

Rules of thumb like the above might reinforce the idea that women don’t enjoy violence in fiction and that men are savages who like nothing else, but it doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t exist. As a publisher, I can’t help but try to think of the potential reader when I read submissions, and sometimes that reader is gendered.

I don’t use a rule as clear-cut as the above, but something figures into it (and it certainly isn’t the gender of the author). It isn’t the gender of the protagonist either – as a reader some of my favourite protagonists are women who would calmly kill a dog if necessary (with a lot less traumatised screaming than most men I know). I don’t know why this is, but I suspect Joss Whedon has a lot to do with it. Either way, the gender of the author and the protagonist don’t come into it – but there is certainly a tipping point that makes me think “probably a boy’s book” (even when I know plenty of women will read it).

So my question for the day – where do you draw your line? Do you like boys’ books or girls’ books? Do you care? And if you’re an author – would your protagonist kill a dog?

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