Is GUY-WRITING really a thing?
"There is a kind of guy-writing that lends itself to scholarly treatment—that, in a kind of guys-jostling-each-other-to-get-to-the-front-of-the-pack, has a certain obvious ambition to it that fosters an imbalance in what gets talked about as canonical." -Jonathan Franzen
Q: When the author's name is Jessie, can you usually tell if it is a guy or a woman, just by reading the words? If so, what differentiates "male writing" from female? Is it "obvious ambition," as Franzen suggests? Something else you normally notice? What's behind these perceived differences? And if you're opposed to the whole idea of this, say why. (04.02.16)
It’s so obvious telling the difference between boy writing and girl writing. Boy writing is written in blue, and girl writing is written in pink. Duh.
That's the short (glib) answer. Other than that, I suppose subject matter might be a clue. Do women use more descriptor words? More adjectives? Do men use more verbs, more action? I've read articles that discuss how women apparently apologize and request more often in their daily speech than men. That women add "I think" or "I feel" kinds of qualifiers opposed to men who speak with more authority, are non-apologetic and more presumptive.
This is a great question, and it is a little uncomfortable to talk about because no one wants to commit gender bias, make blanket assertions and stereotypes. My father used to say that only male authors were worth a damn and naturally this was irritating, hearing your own father voicing such flagrant sexism in your presence.
Just this week on Facebook I wrote a list of women authors who galvanized my mind and thinking when I was in my twenties. I wanted to list them because too often I observe people (men and women) privileging male authors and holding them up as some kind of gold standard—when it’s just not the case, when in fact the first novel ever written was written by a woman, The Tale of Genji by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century.
The list I wrote is the following:
Women authors that galvanized me: Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee and Margaret Atwood, Isabele Allende, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Allison, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Leslie Silko... No, wait, I take that back. AUTHORS who galvanized me.
What I bet some of those women authors have in common is that at one time, or maybe several times, their writing was compared to a man’s, such as, “______ writes like a man.” And that was supposed to be complimentary.
S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders was a woman who used initials probably as a means to be more marketable. And most everyone’s aware that J.K. Rowling felt it necessary to go by her initials in order for her Harry Potter novel to be taken seriously.
Your quote by Jonathan Franzen brings up its own stickiness. Franzen’s made horribly sexist and derogatory remarks in the recent past in regards to certain writers' looks. Women writers' looks, so it’s hard for me to really take anything he might say in regards to gender with any kind of seriousness.
to be shrewd
with a vowel
She/he may want
the way slash
became a term
in the sixties
to signify alternatives,
to click Skip Ad.
may not want
to take an object
or have a gender
or object to take.
Is the apple post,
pre-op or neither?
Singular and plural—
is God’s god
I might want
to buy last-minute
travel, an empty spam
folder, my own agenda;
and a crossover
I, like a clinic,
want to lie inert
It's funny you asked this question as I just fell for this—hook, line, and sinker.
A couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a new series. The author’s name sounded pretty male to me, though it wasn't one of those definitely male names like John or Christopher. It was more new age—one I had no gender bias towards—Avery. The surname was quintessentially Scottish and with the book set in Glasgow, the accent of its heroes spot on with the local dialect, I was convinced this awesome book was by a male Scottish author.
I loved the books so much I wrote to congratulate him. After an exchange of emails it became apparent that him was a her. And... yup, you guessed it, she wasn't Scottish either.
I was more bummed that I found out she wasn't Glaswegian than that she wasn't male. It stung that the awesome Glaswegian dialect had been written by an American. AN AMERICAN! Americans can't do accents. They ask me if I'm Australian, or South African, jeez one even asked if I was Slovakian once.
I digress. I guess I was miffed that I'd been fooled. Fooled enough to wax lyrical to several friends about the awesome authentic Scottishness of the book. However, I wasn't so bummed out about the gender of the author, but then that may be because I am looking at this from the side of a woman and I actually want to raise my hat to her for having me gender confused.
I’d like to turn this on its head and suggest another concept: Guy/Girl Reading. Because it is in the reading process that suddenly these things begin to matter, at least to some. As a writer, you are as diverse as any human being. You can be ambitious or just trying to express yourself, writing about ‘male’ or ‘female’ issues; be funny or serious, philosophical or down to earth. But once reading starts to happen, you as the author become another character, and that’s when the reader asks ‘Who wrote this?’ 'Was this a man or a woman?’ Why the reader needs to know is another question. It is more about the reader than about the writer. But the actual process of writing happens outside of gender and is determined more by our experiences as humans than by our sex. Whether those experiences are specific to our gender or not may come through in our writing. Would Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer read differently had it been written by a female? Who knows? If the character were still male, it may have been exactly the same. Would a female be able to write it? Why not?
As a society we have been slowly moving in the direction of it not being important whether we are reading ‘guy’ or ‘girl’ writing. ‘Obvious ambition’ can be an attribute of females as much as males, and even though females are still expected to be supportive of each other whilst males—to be competitive, in reality, all this is simply a mark of the times that literature has gone through. We all have both female and male qualities; good writing is good writing regardless of our genitals.
I love this question. There's a great body of research out there on what makes people form "impressions" of things, by the way. So the markers I've come up with—I'd love to know if any other writers happen to agree or disagree with the particular "tells" I've spotted.
A couple of caveats:
a) Gender (and anything else) is more apparent in poorly edited writing. The more you edit, the more effective your writing becomes, so the readers hear only the narrator, not the writer.
b) The subject matter has little to do with gender. True, more romances are written by women, and more sci-fis are written by men, but if you are looking at any particular work, the subject matter alone will not help. Girls write gore, high-tech and straight-up porn, boys do sappy love stories.
Now, for the stuff I noticed:
1. When it comes to unedited writing, women tend to repeat words, whereas men repeat ideas (and well-proofed writing is just not pointlessly repetitive). So, for example, "He fell down to his knees, kneeled and exclaimed, saying, 'Oh, my darling whom I love...' " is a woman. A guy writing the same thing is more likely to say, "He said 'I love you.' He fell down to his knees. He felt that he loved her the most in the whole world and that's why he needed to go down on bended knee and say it."
2. Women are more inclined to misuse words. I've read that women's thinking is more associative, so, presumably, if they have formed a "brutal—vicious—malignant" cloud inside their heads, they'd say, "a malignant attack" without wincing. (Again, this kind of shit goes away with editing). Men, on the other hand, will use inappropriately complex words, if they can. If you see "amanuensis" instead of "scribe," and the substitution is not warranted... yep, it's a dude.
3. Even with good, well-edited writing, men tend to use action verbs more. I just picked up Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple's Final Cases off the shelf. Sherlock opens with "In the year 1878 *I took* my degree... and *proceeded* to Netley *to go* through the course..." While the first story in the Miss Marple omnibus begins, "The vicar's wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms *full of* chrysanthemums. A good deal of rich garden soil *was attached* to her strong brogue shoes..." See? One active verb in two fairly long sentences. A man would have definitely written that the vicar's wife—carried—chrysanthemums (an action verb), rather than had her arms full of them.
4. Details—people overdo details on things they are not comfortable with. A female author is unlikely to spend a lot of time explaining how her heroine hooks on a bra. It's obvious to her. On the other hand, Tolstoy, in War and Peace gives a long and befuddled description of how one washes before a ball, and it's obvious that it's not how he washes himself.
5. Women seem preoccupied with being loved "in spite of." Not just the Fifty-Shades-y "stupid clutzy virgin," major female authors run with it too. Jane Eyre was plain and poor; Miss Bennet was poor, had a temper, and was less beautiful than her elder sister; Scarlett's list of flaws was longer than her train. Female authors are merciless about other women's short-comings. I mean, "cellulite," as a concept, had been invented by women's magazines.
Whereas male writers do fantastic chicks. Rostand's Roxanne is smart and beautiful; Shakespeare's romantic heroines are smart and beautiful, Dante's Beatrice ... right? Tolstoy killed Anna, but, at the outset, he sets her up as—exactly—smart and beautiful. There are exceptions, I suppose, Madame Bovary and such, but I think the overall trend is there.
By the way, if the writer is gay—(eg. Armistead Maupin)—women spoil. Perhaps we build up those we are sexually attracted to (or, at least, judge them less harshly).
And men don't do "love in spite of" nearly is much. If the hero is unworthy, he simply doesn't get any. Othello was an idiot—ok, minus a wife. Richard III - nobody loved him. Cyrano—nobody loved him, until he died. Quasimodo—nobody loved him. If a woman wrote Hunchback of Notre Dame, I bet some billionaire or other would totally discern how beautiful she is underneath that hump and limp.
I typically assume that if the protagonist is male, it's a male writer, or if the protagonist is female, it's a female writer, but I know that isn't always the case. I've written several stories with female protagonists. I don't think there is any way to differentiate "boy and girl writing" although I suppose there might be some specifically male or female events in life (such as childbirth) that are unique to one sex or the other, but really, it's fiction, right? I mean, I've never murdered anybody, yet I've written about it many times. I do research on areas of life that I don't understand or have a lack of experience with, all the time—places I've never been.
I personally don't notice or care if a story has a female or male protagonist, and if the author is male or female. What I'm drawn to, always, is a powerful story. I write, edit, and publish in a number of different genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime, neo-noir, transgressive, Southern gothic, magical realism, etc. For me, it's always about the story—the emotion and impact. The last anthology I published, Exigencies, was 40% women, and the authors involved in my new online magazine, Gamut, are 60% women.
The biggest mistake we can make as editors and publishers is to be exclusive, to not seek out work from a wide range of voices. There are so many fantastic tales being told, with new perspectives, different mythologies, unique cultures, and original settings, that it would be irresponsible of me to ignore it, to not embrace it. There is so much excellent writing happening today, the fact that we still see so much bigotry in publishing, well, it's shocking, to be honest. I thought we had evolved beyond this. Obviously we haven't. All I can do is try to change the system from within, in my own endeavors—writing, editing, teaching, and publishing. And I'm certainly doing my best to do exactly that.
Professional orchestras have traditionally been male dominated. By this, I mean, that as recent as the 1970s, only 5% of professional musicians in orchestras were women. That is until judges began doing blind auditions. Each candidate was given a number to replace their name, and performed behind a curtain, shielding their appearance from view. Instead of placing assumption and biases on the candidates based on their gender, they were judged purely on their ability to play music. As a result, some orchestras today contain more women than men.
Yet, in the literary world, biases still abound. Is it any wonder that we know Harry Potter's author as J.K. and not Joanne? Or that the Bronte sisters and Louisa May Alcott used male pen names for some of their books? It was and is still believed that boys and men won't read novels written by women, so they end up hiding their genders behind the screen of male and gender-neutral pseudonyms.
Is there such a thing as male and female writing? I have no idea. I like to read books by both men and women, and I don't tend to seek out differences that may (or may not) be lurking in the language, announcing whether one possesses an innie or an outie for their sex organs. There have been studies published toward answering this question, but most seem to have an end goal in mind from the outset, coloring the results.
If it makes such a difference to a reader whether the writing contains a certain special something they feel they can only get from a male writer, then by all means, read men. The same goes for those who feel the same about women writers. Just be secure enough in your biases to say that they are just that, biases.
I think wherever you find a stereotypically male or female theme, style or voice in literature, you can also find an example which contradicts it. I always think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which is one of the first stories I read that blew my mind. It's a first-person story told by a fictional male character yet written by a female. For me it accomplishes something that makes literature truly magical: the ability to convince us of the impossible So while I agree that gender analysis can perhaps apply to literature on some level, we should remember that it can also be torn up for arse paper in lots of ways. And while people are free to write about what they choose, we should always be mindful of oppressive stereotypes and strive to maximise our creative freedom by rejecting them.
Sources say testosterone does not engender urges to assert dominance in (perceived) competitive situations. At least not textual ones.
Other sources say phooey.
One source said (via speakerphone) "Now that all depends—we talking public or private?" When asked to clarify the source replied, "Well in public observed differences are necessarily cultural." Then he hurried off because, he said, his one-year-old was "babysitting his mother." It is unclear whether "his" was meant to indicate the source's mother or the baby's.