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Men vs. Women…Are Their Writing Styles So Different?

March 29, 2010

I read a post recently by aspiring author David Jarrett where he talked about how he picks books he wants to read. And that included why he doesn’t read certain books, namely books by or about women (I’ve bolded for emphasis):

“I am not being chauvinistic here, but I have a hard time reading books written by women. When I read a book I really enjoy, I become part of it. Men and women are very different in their thinking and their approach to various situations. Call it a flaw in my character if you want, but I cannot identify with a female protagonist, and I have found almost no female authors who can “get inside the head” of a male one” (my emphasis)

I think there’s been a lot of controversy lately concerning female writers and protags. For example, the fall controversy when female authors got shortlisted for various awards or the idea that women (and really anyone looking for literary prestige) don’t write humorous novels. It also wasn’t too long ago that I read a post about the divide in genders in children’s lit, where “we expect girls to of course watch movies and read books that are entirely about boys, [but] we also accept quite cheerfully that boys won’t read anything about girls.” In light of all this buzz, I’m not surprised by Jarrett’s post, though I find it narrow minded. I responded accordingly:

“I’ve been trying to read more books by women b/c even though I am one, most of the stories I’ve read are by men and about men. I think Garth Nix does a good job writing women, for example. Sophie’s Choice was written by a man as well. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz flips between talking about the son to the mother to the sister, though admittedly all this is told via a male narrator. Other examples include Neil Gaiman (Coraline), Stephen King (Carrie), and Stieg Larson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter, etc, so I don’t think it’s impossible for authors to write about the opposite gender. Also, if I’m able to get into the mindset of Holden Caulfield, then who’s to say you can’t get into the mindset of Scarlett O’Hara? Now admittedly female protagonists dominate romance novels and chick lit, but there are plenty of interesting, fast-paced, intellectual books depicting women. Think Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, anything by Mary Gaitskill or JT Leroy, who typically have a darker, sexier, more biting edge to their writing. We all have different tastes, but guys and dolls aren’t so different that we should sequester ourselves to opposite ends of the library” (my emphasis)

What do you think? Are guys unable to get inside a female protag’s brain? Are girls unable to get inside a male protag’s brain? Are books written by women too sad and weepy to get guys (or anyone) to read it, or do we all need to branch out and read more books? TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK!

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11 Comments
  1. March 30, 2010 12:06 am

    Since I am named in this post, let me respond to it. The original question, posted by Rachelle Gardner on her blog, was how we pick the books we read? She wanted us to be honest in our responses, and I was. I was not, however, trying to suggest that I am omnipotent and know what is best for every other reader. What I wrote was an opinion, an explanation of my own personal taste, which is mine alone, and to which I am entitled. It has nothing to do with good, bad, right, or wrong, and should not be taken as such.

    • April 5, 2010 9:53 am

      I appreciate the honesty! I admit I may have been harsh, and certainly what strikes me as relatable might not be relatable to another. Just look at Jaimie’s comment below–she feels she has an easier time relating to female characters.

      Hmmmm, sometimes I wonder where these things stem from. Is it natural to relate with your own gender, or is this a societal construct, exacerbated by kindergarden playtimes where boys played with trucks and girls played with dolls?

      • April 5, 2010 11:31 am

        I think we’re all products of our upbringing and environment, and I believe those forces define our early behavior more than our genetic makeup. In their earliest years, girls can be taught to be bullies and boys sissies, and will act as such, depending on who is doing the teaching. Women are capable of becoming fierce fighters — witness the Israeli, and to a somewhat lesser extent because of America’s perception of women as the “gentler” sex, the U.S. Army.

        The fact remains, however, that men and women are quite different genetically and hormonally. Testosterone is very active in increasing muscle mass and promoting aggressive behavior, and I imagine aggressive thinking as well. Most men produce far more of this hormone than women do and are therefore usually bigger, stronger, and more inclined to engage in combat than women. Not that women cannot be combative — far from it — but they are combative in a different way.

        Give a woman enough testosterone and she will begin to develop male characteristics. Give a man enough estrogen and he will begin to show more female traits. Those hormones were instilled in the different sexes for a reason — humans were not made to be hermaphrodites. Modern customs and mores have changed the way the two sexes interact with respect to their roles in both the workplace and child-rearing, but the fact remains that women will (probably) always carry the young in utero and nourish them when they first come into the world. In many cases, role-reversal will take place later and career women and “house husbands” will emerge, but these instances are not yet the norm.

        I have known many women, most notably my wife of forty-six years, who is definitely no shrinking violet. I was surrounded by them, both as staff members and as patients, during my long career as a dentist, and I feel I know the gender fairly well.

        I love women, particularly those who blend their femininity with intelligence and strength, but I still feel that there are essential (and be thankful for that!) differences in the way men and women interpret events and express themselves. Whether that precludes a woman writing accurately about a male protag or vice-versa, I cannot say for sure, but in my reading, it has always seemed that way.

      • April 5, 2010 4:49 pm

        Well said. I agree that biologically, women and men are noticeably different, and I think this difference influences society/culture which in turn influences us which influences culture, etc (I think there’s a fancy term for this, but I don’t remember). I think there has to be some things you would identify with more strongly as a male in a novel in the same way someone from a different race/ethnicity/religion would identify with x more strongly. We all bring our different experiences and perspectives to the table, and I don’t intend to bash you as women-hating (you didn’t say those words, but I just want to make that clear). I suppose I was just surprised when you said you felt you hard time reading any books with a female protag because you couldn’t identify with them, particularly because most of my favorite books concern male protags. I’m sure you do, but I think it’s so important to read books about people you can’t readily identify with. Imagine if a Vietnamese-Jewish-Female (or any other combination) only read books featuring Vietnamese-Jewish-Females? Besides, I find I can identify with some of the most unlikeable and unrelatable characters, and yet by the end they’ve got my heart all bunched up in their fist!

      • attackoft3hrolo permalink
        April 13, 2010 12:02 am

        Utter bullshit. Men and women have biological differences, sure. But anyone who honestly thinks that that is the most influential factor in what separates women and men clearly flunked out of Gender Studies 101. I understand that this is at least slightly a situation of wanting to stay friendly with two bloggy friends, but there is no excuse for not bothering to treat half the population as adequate protagonists. “I am a product of my upbringing; what I wrote is an opinion” — these are the words of people who know that they are wrong. They are the words used to defend racist, homophobic, transphobic and YES, MISOGYNISTIC AND MISANDRISTIC instincts. Everyone is a product of an imperfect upbringing. It is your burden to remove the worst aspects of it from yourself. And, perhaps most importantly, there is nothing more influential in the development of a child than their gender identity. It changes the way you are treated by literally every person you encounter from the day you are born. It changes all aspects of your social upbringing and consciousness. If you believe you are too good to bother to internalize female structures, you are a chauvinist. If you are simply too fucking lazy to identify with someone that thinks differently from yourself, it just makes you a shitty writer and reader.

        You don’t need to be a fag to identify with Basil Hallward. You don’t need to be retarded to identify with Benjy Compson. You don’t need to be black to identify with Bigger Thomas. Get off your high fucking pseudo-scientific horse and recognize that gender identity is no different.

      • April 13, 2010 10:20 am

        Crass as always, dear Rolo, but I couldn’t say it better myself 🙂

      • David Jarrett permalink
        April 14, 2010 3:30 pm

        This is the most vituperative, emotional, non-scientific psychobabble I have ever seen. Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the meaning of the word “Opinion,” as I used it in my original post — you seem to have missed that. Worse yet, you think everyone else in the world should conform to YOURS.

        Let me know if you ever learn what all those big words you used mean, and, should you ever need to enlarge your four-letter word vocabulary, I can supply you with several more. You really should get over yourself.

  2. Jaimie permalink
    April 5, 2010 12:09 am

    This post addresses something I often struggle with, as a reader. I read books by both men and women. Until I actually took the time to notice my reading patterns, the vast majority of my Favorite Titles were by women. I do think it’s cause I’m a girl, and it’s easier for me to identify with. Once I started making a conscious effort to include male authors on my list, the Favorites have evened out. But it took effort.

    In terms of men writing women or women writing men, I don’t know, I don’t know. I agree with you about Junot Diaz, and maybe JK Rowing (though I’ve never been a boy, so I don’t know if she’s being accurate). I think it’s a thing that has a lot more failure than success. Is it possible? Yeah. Is it likely? … maybe not?

    • April 5, 2010 9:55 am

      More questions than answers, right? I find that most of my favorite books (save Gone With The Wind, essentially) feature male protags, so go figure. Thanks for commenting!

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