[Paleopsych] This Is London: The great gender gap

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The great gender gap

    The current trend shows women prefer reading about love and family
    while men opt for sex and violence

    By David Sexton, Evening Standard
    16 May 2005

    Some people like to think that men and women are becoming increasingly
    alike in our unprecedentedly equal society. A few even try to maintain
    that nearly all gender differences are acquired rather than innate.

    A quick way to realise neither claim is true is to look at what men
    and women read for pleasure. Let us take the two nationwide
    bestselling mass market fiction titles, after the dreadful productions
    of Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell have been discounted. Love and
    Devotion by Erica James (Orion, 536 pages, £6.99) sold 18,188 copies
    last week; The Increment by Chris Ryan (Arrow, 440 pages, £6.99) was
    close behind with 17,687 copies.

    Both books are competent, even enjoyable examples of their different
    genres. Having just come out in paperback, they will be picked up at
    airports everywhere this summer to serve on the beach, being
    undemanding yet entertaining enough.

    They are written for readerships as automatically and emphatically
    divided by gender as public toilets. Reading them together doesn't
    just suggest that men and women are different, it makes it seem
    extraordinary that the sexes should be able to communicate at all, let
    alone to the extent of mating successfully. Not that that's commonly
    seen, these days, in the longer term.

    Chris Ryan is an alumnus of one of our most commercial creative
    writing schools, the Bravo Two Zero SAS patrol which came to grief in
    the First Gulf War. Having told his own tale in The One That Got Away,
    he has produced a series of military thrillers.

    Matt Browning, a super-tough soldier, has been thrown out of the SAS,
    having failed the test for the ultradeadly eight-man unit of
    cold-blooded assassins called "The Increment".

    Now running a bar on the Costa del Sol, Matt is blackmailed by the
    secret services into coming out of retirement for "one last mission",
    on behalf of a sinister French pharmaceutical billionaire, resident in
    London, who crosses the Channel each weekend in his own private
    armoured train, pictured looming up excitingly on the cover of the

    Soon Matt realises that he has been double-crossed and is being hunted
    down by the very same SAS unit to which he briefly belonged. In a
    grande finale, Matt assaults the villain-laden armoured train, blazing
    away with grenades and machine guns, although there is also some
    hand-to-hand work with Napoleonic sabres, collected by the frog

    There are women in The Increment, or as one officer dubs them,
    muffins. There is Matt's old girlfriend Gill who wants to settle down
    and have kids. She is tortured to death by the Increment, making Matt
    truly furious. "Now I take my revenge in the reddest blood," he vows.

    Then there is Orlena: "She had the classical, sculpted beauty of an
    Eastern European. Her skin was as white as snow ... Her lips were
    thick and red.." Orlena orders Matt to make love to her as if it was
    his "last time on earth".

    Later he is obliged to shoot her but, the sporting type, she bears him
    no grudge and reappears later to save his life.

    Meanwhile, Matt has been solaced by Eleanor, the sister of a murdered
    comrade: "Sex and danger, he reflected, as his arms pinned her back
    down on the mattress, pushing her down. One inevitably leads to the

    What we do not find in The Increment are scenes involving children or
    families. Well, one 12-year-old girl appears briefly, being tortured
    by Matt to extract information from her father. But otherwise this
    entire element of life, highly rated by at least half the population,
    has been quietly dropped. Can it be that such joys, or, as it might
    be, ties and burdens, are not what men read about for relaxation,
    given the choice?

    Instead, a profusion of hardware is lovingly detailed, from weaponry -
    the AN-49 has a much faster rate of fire than the AK-47, as well as
    greater accuracy, due to its redesigned recoil - to vehicles - there's
    a harrowing moment when, being on the run, Matt has to trade down from
    his Porsche Boxster to an 11-year-old Ford Escort - culminating of
    course in that very special train.

    And the basic human action depicted in The Increment is not nurture,
    affection, the feeling of community or love but establishing dominance
    by killing your enemies. This may not be what most men actually do day
    to day, but we have here proof that it is a world many men find
    appealing to inhabit in fantasy.

    Erica James has written 10 or so novels, just like Chris Ryan, and
    built up a similarly sized following, being three times shortlisted
    for the Parker Romantic Novel of the Year Award. There is some
    violence in Love and Devotion but not much. Two brothers have a brief
    fistfight outside a sherry party and a grandad smashes up his own
    pergola and rose garden with a spade, while having a mental breakdown.
    But there are no automatic weapons whatsoever.

    Harriet Swift is 32, single, childless, working in IT. When her sister
    and her husband are killed in a car crash,
    Harriet gives up her job, her flat in Oxford and her dull boyfriend to
    go back to the family home in Cheshire to look after her orphaned
    niece and nephew, Carrie and Joel, nine and four.

    Will she find a man to share this challenge with her? Perhaps the
    likeable, dependable but somehow not very sexy bookshop owner, Miles,
    whom she has known since childhood? Surely not his brother, the
    fiendishly cruel bi-sexual Cambridge English don Dominic, despite his
    dashing hat and ebony crucifix?

    Might it just be Will, the 46-year-old antique dealer, slim, handsome,
    witty, kind, divorced but extraordinarily supportive and tolerant to
    his two student daughters? A clue, perhaps, may be found in "the way
    Will could make her weak with longing, and the way he could make her
    climax for ever and for ever."

    But Love and Devotion is far more densely fleshed out than this
    summary of the central plot line suggests. The whole social world
    Harriet inhabits, from her workplace to the children's schools to the
    neighbours, is patiently detailed. All of the affairs and divorces and
    illnesses, are carefully drawn out across the generations.

    The sentences groan under the weight of keeping all these
    relationships in play. "While Mum was off paying the bill and Gemma
    was in the loo, Suzie watched her grandmother dig around inside her
    purse for a tip for their waitress." "Will knew from Gemma that Suzie
    was bored and missing her friends from university."

    Every action derives its meaning from its social context. There are
    moments when the book feels as densely related as a real family
    gathering, full of in-laws, cousins, nephews, uncles and aunts - and
    about as appealing to rough male tastes. But Erica James's
    overwhelming female readers evidently relish such ample peopling of
    the fictional realm within which Harriet seeks for romantic
    fulfilment, and, contrariwise, don't pine for Boxsters and AN-49's.

    Matt, generally to be found spraying the room with bullets, would not
    fit in well to the world of Love and Devotion; nor would Harriet cope
    impressively with the deadly assassins of The Increment, despite her
    cute beret. These worlds can never meet. Somehow their readers must,
    though, as they lie side by side on the beach. Or more likely back to

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