Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Author genders

Does it really matter what gender an author is? I know a man who swears he can tell if an author is a man or a woman simply by the writing. I've never been able to tell. Then again, I've never really felt the need to guess. If the author's name is Isaac, I simply assume it's a man. If it's Patricia, it's a woman. Things get a bit trickier when the name is Mercedes or Pat. And once they only use initials, it's traditionally presumed it's a woman (because women in SF used to want to hid that fact) so C. L. Wilson and P. N. Elrod are both women. Having said that (and not knowing the 'rule' when I was younger) it's only recently that I discovered P. N. Elrod is a woman. And the 'rule' doesn't work anymore. S. C. Butler is a man. As is S. M. Peters.

So if the name isn't always a clue, you go to the author photo on the back, right? Unfortunately not every book sports an author photo and some back covers manage to not detail the gender of the author either. Take this author blurb for example: Rob Thurman lives in Indiana. Nightlife is Rob's first novel. Visit the author on the Web at www.robthurman.net.

Can you imagine my surprise when, after reading the books and going to the site, I discovered that Rob Thurman is a woman? I saw her photo and thought 'cool, he put up a photo of his wife and his dog. That's awesome.' Didn't occur to me until I was reading her blog that that might be her photo. All because her name is Rob. (It's short for Robyn.) Then again, it might not. Does it matter? Does the quality of the book change? Oddly enough it does. On the surface.

Assuming the author was a man, writing about men, of whom he'd know a lot, the books were great. They had action, a bit of emotion, lots of swearing. The two male protagonists are so well depicted I had no problem understanding their motivations for anything.

Knowing the author is a woman, writing about men, of whom she obviously knows a lot, the books are phenomenal.

Why should this be? Why should I be surprised that a woman can write a convincing, kick-ass male character? Am I surprised when men write well-rounded female characters? No. So what's the difference?

My bookshelves are filled with female writers telling the stories of men, and well told they are too: Lois McMaster Bujold's Illvin in Paladin of Souls (I'd use the Barrayar books but I haven't read them yet), Gail Martin's Martris Drayke in the Summoner, Carol Berg's Seyonne in Transformation, Mercedes Lackey's Vanyel in Magic's Pawn. The list can go on.

So what is the difference? Maybe, by mistaking the author's gender, I was more willing to accept that the characterization was accurate. However, discovering my mistake, the characterization remains accurate, only my perception in reference to it changes. In other words, there is no difference other than my acknowledging that I made a mistake in assuming the author's gender was male.

It makes me think of the Victorian era when women often had to pose as men in order to be published. Sometimes the opposite would occur though, and men would write as women, so their female characters would be better received. Apparently guessing the genders of known anonymous and pseudonymous authors based on analysis of the text was a bit of a pastime for critics. I can see why.

I think it would be interesting to read a book without having any clues about the author to see if, based on the writing alone, I could guess the gender. It would also be interesting to read a book without any prejudice towards either the author or the characters, accepting the characters for who they are, rather than as a possible reflection of the author's gender.

Does the author's gender matter? Is the writing better or worse? Ultimately that depends on the author. A good author can see through the eyes of his/her character and write the character's story as it's meant to be. Whatever else we bring to the story, that's our problem.


Gail Z Martin said...

Hi Jessica!

The observation I'll make (and it's part of what got me started writing in the first place) is that *generalization here* IMHO, male writers tend to skip over the relationships and head straight for the battle scenes, whereas female writers will put at least equal weight on the relationships as they do the character development. It's less an issue of characterization than it is a choice of what to reveal. Every author has a finite amount of space to tell the story--part of the mental and physical editing is picking which pieces to keep and which to let go. (For example, do you notice that in very few books does anyone EVER have to use the restroom. Now really, do you think that's because they don't need to, or because it's not important to the story.) So I find that when picking what to keep and what to discard, female writers tend to choose to keep more interpersonal scenes and give us more of what the character is thinking/feeling/fearing than do male writers, who cut right to the action. Viva la difference!

Jessica Strider said...

You're right, and that's particularly noticable with urban fantasies where male authors tend to do private eye stories (Cook, Butcher, Green, Moorcock) while female authors do more 'how becoming or being a vampire/werewolf/etc affects life' stories (Briggs, Stein, Thurman). Not that there aren't authors who don't follow this, of course, but that seems to be the current standard.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.