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Writing Like A Man

January 12, 2010

courtesy of

It’s been simmering quietly all over the blogosphere of late (NY Times, Book Ninja, Christian Science Monitor) and I’ve decided it’s my turn to say something about the utter lack of women in the top ten of  Publishers Weekly’s list of the year’s 100 best books (Update: the original link is defunct, but this one appears to allow for a partial read beyond Publisher’s Weekly subscriber policy).

I was mostly incensed to write something after reading this great article in The Washington Post by Julianne Baggott. Now Baggott went way beyond simply stating the fact and feigning outrage. She explored why people are attracted to stories with ‘manly’ themes like boyhood, war, adventure, in the first place (because they’re deemed more ‘important’) and why men are patted on the back if they attempt to write “with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties”–something women are expected to do by default. The article also cited a disturbing study where two sets of the same exact story, one with a female protagonist, the other with a male protagonist, (same lines, dialogue, only name and pronouns changed), scored a higher rating when the protagonist was male. My reaction: WTF?

Publishers Weekly feebly defended themselves:

“We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the “big” books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male. There was kicking and screaming for a science fiction title. A literary ghost story came so close, it squeaked. There was almost a cookbook.”

Is it wrong that I believe that the absence of a female writer on the list is worth a little more than the absence of a science fiction or cookbook? The fact that the two can be so blithely equated with each other astounds me. Publishers Weekly’s mistake wasn’t that they weren’t politically correct, or that if cookbooks comprise x% of the market than x% of the list should be cookbooks. The mistake was that female authors weren’t and aren’t chosen because people don’t feel their stories are worthy, and so when they read stories about motherhood, relationships, or romances (you know, cause that’s all us broads write about), they deem them trivial and superficial.

For some reason or another, people seem to believe that men portray a depth that women can never quite scratch the surface of. That men write great works and women write chick lit, only occasionally rising from the muck in the form of Wharton or Austen or Bronte. But these 19th Century white women don’t represent us; their work is obviously incapable of expressing the modern-day feminine perspective. We need women who can speak for us now. Hell, we need women who can speak, without making it a representation of all womankind. I mean really, folks, are you going to tell me that there are no good female writers today? Or at least none that compare to men?

Most significantly, and most bluntly, perhaps, was Julianna Baggott’s insistence that in today’s publishing world, “If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can’t be a man, write like one.”

I’d like to think there’s no manly or womanly way to write a story, but when Baggott said that, I knew what she meant. I equate guy lit with rebellion, James Bond, and some Very Important Issue. The idea of girl lit tickles my gag reflex with thoughts of whining, menstruation, and some Very Explosive Headache.

So what do us XX chromosomes do now? Do we acquiesce and decide to write like men? Do we bow our heads and recognize the fact that if Harry Potter had been channeling estrogen instead of testosterone then Readers-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named would likely place her story down before the evil villain could even inflict that first menacing boo-boo?

Or do we write? Write without trying to write like a man OR a woman, write as ourselves, with our own themes and emotions? I vote that we should be done with people who pity us for not meeting their specifications. This is a new decade, girlies, so what better time to start than now?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. da_euphinator permalink
    January 14, 2010 11:44 pm

    Did you have any particular female authors that you felt got gypped this year, or was it a general irritation?

    • January 15, 2010 9:31 am

      Hmmmmm, that’s a good question, and I wish I weren’t a hypocritical moron by saying that I read very few books published in 2009 last year, much less books by women. Everyone’s been praising The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I read ten or so pages of and determined the writing was good, but stories about African-American servants in the south just really don’t float my boat.

      I’ve been really looking forward to reading How to Paint a Dead Man: A Novel, by Sarah Hall, which looks gorgeous and is written entirely in second person: “You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident….You’re not crazy. You must emphasize this point and remind yourself of it. You are not crazy. And you are not being coy, or difficult….”

      I also read Interpreter of Maladies, which came out a few years ago by Jhumpa Lahiri (I haven’t read her latest, The Namesake, but heard it was good). In the summer I read The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti, which I wouldn’t nominate as the best book of 2009 but which really opened up my mind to the fact that just because I live in a tolerant, urban region, doesn’t mean there aren’t still gender divides in the country. Good read.

      Right now I’m reading a really INCREDIBLE book, a book that you forsake all of the work you really can’t afford to forsake in order to be antisocial and read deep into the night: Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. It was published in 06, and I avoided it for about 6months because of the strange title, but it’s really a murder history that revolves around a girl named Blue de Meer and her intellectual father. Critics have described it as a “Nabakovian thriller.” I’ve been trying hard to find flaws, since the writing makes me feel so insignificant. Anyhow, my point is, though I haven’t really read anything published in 2009, I plan on doing so and have been reading a few other noteworthy things. I think one of my favorite authors, actually, is the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. She’s old school (as in, ahem, she’s dead), but The Hour of the Star is in my top five books of all time.

    • January 15, 2010 9:35 am

      Also, the Orange Prize for Fiction is a pretty cool UK contest that recognizes female writing.

  2. blahhugganah permalink
    January 14, 2010 11:51 pm

    i disagree with your statement about harry potter. i think it is very girlie. even though it is written with a male protagonist, the vibe is that of a lady author. i actually think that science fiction in general is just a really girlie genre.

    i think the most applicable fundamental difference between man and woman is the mentality of trying their darndest to get better at something. in this case that something is writing. men tend to more (from my point of view) be intrigued by something at first, understand it entirely, and then try their hand at it. if a woman writer starts writing with the mentality of “im gonna be a famous lady author” then she is beginning from the wrong place. yes, we all want to be great at something, but trying to force an organic skill like writing by starting with the desired end result is just silly. like you said, if one wants to be great at writing, male or female, then they must write. if they are truly good, then they will be recognized for their talents. it doesnt matter their gender, only the results. if that famous author happens to be a woman then hats off to her. this means that she had genuine interest in her craft and has mastered it. thats what the creative process should be, but if we get caught up with insubstantial motives like trying to be the greatest LADY writer, and not THE greatest writer, then that will be clear in the work.

    • January 15, 2010 9:09 am

      I don’t know if I can entirely agree with you on the Harry Potter thing. Sometimes I wonder if we only think it’s ‘girly’ because we know a woman wrote it. Harry Potter himself is very angsty, very testosterone. I think I’d have to have you define what a girlie book was though before I argued further.

      Science fiction is absolutely a boy’s world. Fantasy might be more of a girl’s world now, what with Vampires and Faeries and Angels, oh my! But for the longest time even fantasy was dominated by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, by the craze over Christopher Paolini and his Inheritance trilogy or Jonathan Stroud and his Bartimaes trilogy. As for Science Fiction…My immediate thought is anything written by Orson Scott Card, especially Ender’s Game, and even Garth Nix, famous for writing the Abhorsen trilogy (featuring female protagonists) was picked up strongly by guys. Things like Dune, Hitchhiker’s Guide…no one’s saying girls don’t read ’em (girls are willing to read lots of ‘guy’ books, though guys don’t really read ‘girl’ books) but that men are targeted by the industry to read them.

      I do think that women fall into the trap of feeling like they have to prove something, and so maybe they do try too hard to be famous. But I think a large part of it is because women disproportionately write YA, middle-grade, or elementary novels, so men get all the glory in the ‘literary’ establishments. But honestly, women score higher on english exams, read more books than men (they comprise 80% of the book buying population), go to college more often than men, and write half of the books that are produced. That’s why I think there must be plenty of good female writers. Though, I also honestly believe that a) women tend to not fight for as good payment or representation and b) publishing houses find men more marketable than women. Therefore, we never see those good writers.

      However, I agree that it’s the results that matter. But just as we can’t band affirmative action because minorities are still disadvantaged in society, so women are still disadvantaged in society. If anything proves this is so, it’s the study where readers voted a male protagonist of the same book as higher than the female protagonist. Women are considered to have less depth, less global importance, less literary gravita. I think that needs to change. But nothing can change, whether the girl writes a better book or not, unless the read no longer walks into the book expecting that the lady writer just isn’t going to write as good of a book 🙂

  3. schnookercracker permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:35 pm

    i actually have never read much sci fi, so i am somewhat ignorant when i say this, but from an outsiders perspective, the whole concept of making up an entire universe and everything that goes inside it, just so that youll feel like you fit in, seems incredibly girlie to me.

    yeah lady authors dont sell, but honestly who cares? im all for feminism and standing up for equal rights but why should strong female authors let the market define who they are? if a ladyauthor (i just coined that term!) wants to be great, then it should be only in her interest to write to the best of her ability. not in the market’s interest, or the public’s interest or anyone else’s interest other than hers. creative talents are and never have been (and hopefully never will be) defined by the public. they exist independently of things that would tie them down and turn them into something that can be measured and sold according to whomever and whatever’s statistics. art is the beauty of personal expression, not the economy’s expression. that’s why there’s the lowest common denominator for the masses, and the “real” art is reserved for the intelligent and open minded.

    men understand this better than women and, more importantly, are willing to try their darndest to succeed in this abstract field. women are more concerned with the tangible things in life, the here and now, like living standards and raising children – short-term tasks where there are short-term consequences (but that are also promoted/fostered by hormones). men are and will always be more independent than women – its in their nature. but this is a good thing. our species needs both.

    honestly i am not concerned about statistics and as a writer yourself, neither should you. write till your heart’s content and be proud of what you publish, and i guarantee someone will like it. people recognize confidence in anything and are willing to pay for it. leadership and passion is always appreciated in whatever field, so know that if you write from the right place, your shit will be read.

    • January 15, 2010 6:18 pm

      “the whole concept of making up an entire universe and everything that goes inside it, just so that youll feel like you fit in, seems incredibly girlie to me”–Who’s saying that female authors write to fit in? or if you’re saying that the act of writing is specifically to fit in (which I disagree with) then this phenomena still isn’t exclusive to women.

      i do think that art is a somewhat independent entity. but how can art be considered art until it is judged by the public? and if it not available to the public because no one will mass produce that art, then does its existence matter? Art is supposed to be viewed by others. While I’ve never judged art by its critics, or by the number of people who have viewed it, there is somethign to be said about a work of art that no one likes except the artist’s mother, or a work that no one has seen. Had Kafka’s last works been burned instead of published posthumously, I wouldn’t call his work art.

      I feel as if you’re stating lots of general, vague facts. why do men “understand this better”? besides, I know plenty of women who aren’t simply concerned with raising children much less taking a shower–culture may have raised most women to behave in a certain way, but I know plenty of women who don’t conform to those standards. Besides, philosophy is clearly not only a man’s field: we are essentially philosophizing right now, and we are two women, yes?

      and are you trying to say that testosterone is the defining factor of independence? That a few eager hormones determine someone’s nature? Just because women have estrogen and thus cry more frequently doesn’t mean that women feel more than men, and just because men exhibit their aggressiveness more physically doesn’t mean women are less aggressive–a friend of mine in AP Psych just learned that women are actually inherently more aggressive than men.

      statistics are only bad when you think they are the only truth, the only answer. For example, people are wrong to think that U.S. News and World Report’s college ranking system actually quantifies the excellence of a college when what it really measures (among other things) is the college’s selectivity, and how much $ its alumni donate. Statistics are usually misread, and so one needs to understand what they’re actually saying before citing them willy-nilly. And what I’m saying is that if we operate on the assumption that women are as smart as men, and that women write as many books as men, then as many women as men should be voted as having the best books. I was offering a reason as to why this might not be the case, mainly the fact that women tend to write more YA and middle grade novels. All the same, the fact that out of 100 people, all of them were men….doesn’t that seem shockingly disproportionate? It would be one thing if 20% or so of the top 100 were female–I could grudgingly except that. But NO women? ZERO? It screams prejudice, and the worst kind of prejudice: subconscious prejudice. So apparently, plenty of women are writing, schnookercracker, and I’m sure they’re writing with “leadership and passion.” But they aren’t being liked. They aren’t being recognized.

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