Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Ginn Hale! I’ve read and loved her (as of now) standalone novel Wicked Gentlemen as well as both volumes of Lord of the White Hell, published by Blind Eye Books (a publisher dedicated to SFF about gay and lesbian protagonists). In particular, Lord of the White Hell was one of my favorite books in 2010 because of its wonderful characters and the strikingly different cultures it portrayed. Inspired by fan comments that she “writes like a man,” she’s here today to talk about what that might mean and to what degree gender plays a role in how an author’s work is received.
Write Like a Human
Over the years I’ve received a number of fan letters that, while well-intentioned and very kind, always give me pause—especially when they exclaim something along the lines of “you write like a man.”
Obviously, the comments are intended as compliments and I take them as such. (I’d be the last to complain about a reader taking the time to contact me. It’s always flattering and inspiring.)
But those comments did get me wondering—is writing itself really gendered? Or is it that certain subject matter seems more male or female? For that matter, does awareness of an author’s gender affect a publisher or reader’s perception of the book’s authenticity? And why—despite the vast number of top-selling and award-winning female authors in the world—should “writing like a man” be considered commendable? If it is, then by extension does that mean that authors who “write like women” have somehow failed…even if they are women?
May Fowles, in a 2011 article for the National Post aptly titled “Write Like a Man: the Unspoken Rule of Avoiding a Pink Cover”, notes that the reception of a book regardless of theme often seems to depend upon the author’s sex:
“Men actually write ‘women’s books’ all the time, but they’re certainly never labeled as such. When male writers write about relationships, family and the domestic sphere, fiction or non, they’re considered groundbreaking and often celebrated for it.”
So the bias seems to have far less to do with the subject or genre of a book than the gender of the author.
A common criticism raised against women writers, regardless of genre or theme, is that a female author cannot write a convincing male character. To a much lesser degree the reverse has been argued, as well. But since Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are all considered classics I don’t think the criticism is taken too seriously. As May Fowles pointed out, men are often applauded for writing about women.
Female authors on the other hand must often contend with a very skewed version of the write what you know adage. Apparently a woman may be able to convincingly write characters of wildly diverse backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, ages, educations, and physical abilities—she may people entire worlds–but she can’t possibly characterize another human being with genitalia that differs from her own.
Of course such an assertion doesn’t make any more sense than claiming that mystery authors must be criminals to really write a good mystery. (Thieves might pass muster for some less discerning critics but the truly discriminating will demand a murderer!)
Though some women have been male authors–in name at least. Many a female author has received recognition and praise—not to mention much better pay for her work—when it was attributed to a male pseudonym. Enough of us have written as men that by now you’d think the point would have been proven.
But more often than not, when the truth is revealed, critics make a point of declaring that this singular female author “writes like a man” as if she were some astonishing prodigy who defies the limits of her sex. To quote critic John Clute, speaking of Alice Bradley Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) “she wrote like a man, and a meteor, a flash in the pan, a mayfly angel.” By the end of the summation the author has not only transformed from a woman to man but she’s become a bizarre ‘flash in the pan’ hybrid of insect and angel.
So clearly the gender of an author plays a huge role in how writing may be perceived.
But is the text really all that different? Considering all the genres and styles of writing that exist in the world, is the real division just as simple as male and female? I personally don’t think so but how about we test the theory out?
The following are short excerpts of writing, taken more or less at random from several authors. Read them over and if you’re inclined go ahead and “sex” them. (There is an answer key at the end.) But it might also be worth taking a few moments while reading to consider whether it would matter to you if any particular author turned out to be male or female. Does it in anyway alter your conception of the prose? And if so, why?
1 Strange spices scented the chilly autumn wind, and he could hear faint cries drifting over the wall from the streets beyond.
2 Neglect could kill a building brick by brick. It was, to his mind, more insidious than hurricane or earthquake as it murdered slowly, quietly, not in rage or passion, but with contempt.
3 A hand appeared from the dust and wrapped about her upper arm, firmly but not hard, and guided her into the maelstrom.
4 Clara Reece screamed, cried, shouted, hit her brother with all her strength, kicked furniture and walls, but none of it served to ward off the horrible realization that a stranger was coming to take possession of half of her ranch.
5 They were a strange lot. They knew about old things no one used or needed anymore, and they built things with their hands.
6 Maybe what’s been carved away, the empty space that’s left, is like silence. The dark shadow that defines the pale form.
7 Electrodes, attached to long wires and wrapped in saltwater sponges to further conduct current, would be fitted to the ankles and head.
8 It was reassuring just to look at him, riding slowly forward into the sunlight on the black Irish stallion.
Certainly some authors do seem better than others at capturing a diversity of authentic voices, be they male, female, young, old or any other shading of individuality. Such authors often transform mere print into living characters that readers can recognize, sympathize with, love or hate. They are outstanding writers. (I’m often gripped with awe and envy while reading such books.)
But these authors are not confined to one gender any more than they are confined to one ethnicity, nationality or age. What they all do have in common is their grasp of humanity and of course human language. In short, the single trait that they all could be said to share is that they are human beings.
Now, until we see the rise of the machines, when perhaps a horde of plot-bots will crank out digital novellas featuring unfulfilled toasters and the ovens they both hate and admire, I don’t think most critics or readers are likely to start informing authors that they were moved by how very human their writing is. Writes just like a real human is unlikely to be splashed across covers any time soon. We tend to take an author’s humanity for granted. But in doing so, we can often fall back on identifiers that are largely superficial when deciding who can be a great author.
But if we accepted that anyone could produce a powerful work, then maybe we’d all discover new caches of wonderful books that we would otherwise have devalued, ignored, or felt couldn’t speak to our own particular niche simply because of the author’s sex.
The answer key.
1 George R.R. Martin—male
2 J.D. Robb—female (Nora Roberts)
3 M.L. Buchman— male
4 Leigh Greenwood—male (One of a number of men now making in-roads into the romance market.)
5 Rebecca Rowe—female
6 David Esterly—male
7 Deborah Blum—female
8 Michael Shaara—male
Ginn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two cats. Her novel Wicked Gentlemen garnered her recognition as a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Spectrum Award winner. Her publications include the Lord of the White Hell books, the Rifter trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones, as well as the novellas “Feral Machines” (Tangle), “Touching Sparks” (Hell Cop) and “Things Unseen and Deadly”, which appears in the shared world anthology Irregulars.