Friday, June 3, 2011

Can You Tell the Gender of an Author? And Does It Matter?

by Sara N.

Horrors! Some of these were written by women!
In your misogyny news of the day, Nobel prize-winning author VA Naipaul and his breathtakingly wrong-headed comments about women authors are making furious waves online. Naipaul is quoted in The Guardian as saying that he considers no female authors to be his literary equals. He dismisses the literary creations of all women everywhere as sentimental and in possession of a narrow world view, and he singles out Jane Austen in particular for sentimentality. He sniffs that when his own editor began writing, she produced nothing but "feminine tosh." Naipaul even claims that he can tell within a few paragraphs whether a piece of writing was authored by a man or a woman. (In response, The Guardian has created a quiz asking you to identify the author's gender in a number of writing samples. I did terribly on it, making wild guesses on almost all of the passages; here's hoping you have the same result.)

Do not mess with Jane.
I have a few responses to ol' VA's comments. First of all, buddy, nobody messes with Jane. She is beyond contestation. Second of all, shut your piehole. The audacity of brushing away the work of women authors as if you were swatting away a fly is an affront. It's also so blind to the works of countless gifted female writers as to be laughable. I don't even feel the urge to rise to the defense of women authors; frankly, his position is so utterly wrong that it's not worth arguing about.

Thanks, initials! No one will ever suspect she's a woman!
But his small-minded ranting does raise some interesting points: Why is "feminine" writing automatically "tosh"? How does he define it? Does he object to certain topics, themes and characterizations, and does he truly believe that no woman would stray outside of his personal "do not want" list? We don't often hear about "masculine" writing because it's simply considered writing; it's the default setting for literature. Conversely, works that are written by women are too often set apart from general literature via lables such as "chick lit" or "women's fiction." And male authors are generally taken more seriously in literary circles. As an example, books written by men are reviewed far more frequently in The New York Times book section than are books by women, and the Harry Potter books were published under the name J.K. Rowling rather than Joanne Rowling so boys wouldn't be discouraged from picking up a book written by a woman. But how much richer would our literary culture be if we could stop shoving novels into boxes that subtly (or not so subtly) discourage particular demographics from picking them up because they are singled out as "for women"?

In thinking about this phenomenon, I started to wonder whether urban fantasy readers have shown themselves to be less hung up on author gender than Vaipaul and others seem to be. Consider the urban fantasy books that you'll find side-by-side on the bookshelves: Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, Kelly Amstrong's Otherworld series, Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series, Lilith Saintcrow's Dante Valentine series, Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, Stacia Kane's Chess Putnam series and Jennifer Rardin's Jaz Parks series all share shelf space with urban fantasy powerhouses Jim Butcher, Simon R. Green, Richard Kadrey and Mike Carey. And this is only skimming off the top of a deep pool of talented authors of both genders. In how many other genres do you see such gender parity?

Note the mingling of genders.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any research on audience demographics to help me make any conclusions, but surely the sheer numbers of both men and women writing urban fantasy novels must mean that many readers are far less likely to accept or reject an urban fantasy book based on the author's gender. Admittedly, you may find some differences in the books based on author gender; it seems that female authors are more likely to write books that blur the lines between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. But even with emotions and relationships creeping into the storylines, I wonder if men are still more likely to pick them up than they would a woman-penned book in a different genre.

Major gender drama: She's Team Eric, he's Team Bill.*
On the other hand, my perspective could be skewed; my husband was reading Anita Blake novels years before I cracked one open, and he read all the Chess Putnam books before I had a chance to get my hands on them. I still haven't gotten to the Jaz Parks books yet; he's read all of them. His gender-blind reading approach may be representative of a larger group of men, but then again, it may not. (He does cop to skipping over the "talky-talk scenes" dealing with love, sex and emotions. So perhaps men are reading urban fantasy books by women, but they're reading them differently.) I'd love to hear from readers in the comments, both men and women, about whether I'm onto something here.

And as for VA Naipaul and his pathetic views on women authors, just put him out of your mind. We should pay no attention to sad old fools who denigrate the works of those who hold up half the sky. We should, however, pity him for all the fine literature he's missing by omitting the works of female authors from his reading list.

*Photo courtesy of lokozen at stock.xchng
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  1. I think pity is the right response. He must be a big ball of lonely bitterness.

  2. I liked Nicole Peeler's take on this on Twitter: "I love it when really famous intellectuals reveal that they are, in fact, also complete twats."

  3. Not to knit pick, but KIM HARRISON writes the Hallows series about Rachel Morgan, and Kelly Armstrong writes the Women of the Otherworld series.

    Also, per your question, I'm very gender aware in picking Urban Fantasy novels - thus far I've only read woman authors who write about women who kick ass.

  4. Thanks, Melissa. A correction is never a nitpick! It's a nice problem when there are so many good women authors to write about that you get them mixed up.

    Although I read both genders, I do sometimes pick books based on my mood. Sometimes you need to read about a powerful, kickass woman, and sometimes you need to read about a handsome, brooding wizard, ya know?

  5. He's looking for attention and he's getting it. I say ignore him. On another note I got 7 out of 10 on the quiz.

  6. Can you tell the gender of an author? I think that you can.. sometimes. But certainly not from a short excerpt.

    Does it matter? Absolutely not. But there are many out there who won't pick up a book based on their personal feelings.

    Jane Austen _is_ beyond reproach. Her books were romantic but more her social commentary on the times (especially on the dynamic that women can only succeed or are defined by marriage.)

    However, she was considered a "great" writer and had received critical praise even though her books _were published anonymously_ at the time.

  7. SO ANGRY. As a female author trying to tackle big subjects this makes my toes a bad way.

    Many readers may chose books having an MC of their gender, but I doubt they care about the author's sex. Avid readers care about the quality of writing and little else.

    Any theme in a book, emotional, global, developmental, has value if it affects the person reading. Changing people's opinions--and thus their actions--is a huge responsibility authors take VERY seriously. Entertainment may seem a fluffy occupation to an outsider, but it isn't.

    Even a tender romance, which F***tard probably thinks is "tosh" has the potential to alter the way millions of readers feel about dating, sexuality, marriage, infidelity and more. This is MAJOR.

    What a douche. ARGH.

  8. I hate it that any man thinks like this. But I'm not surprised. We still live in a world that, wrongfully, puts a higher value on the "masculine".

    As a woman, I combat this by supporting authors and entertainers who respect equality, I treat both men and women the way I want to be treated, and I stand up for myself when acquaintances say ignorant, misogynistic things.

  9. Hes ridiculous! If a person holds a true love for reading it doesnt matter whether the author is male or female. Neither myself or my husband care which gender wrote the book we want to read.

    He probaly still thinks women belong in the kitchen. Hes just jealous because so many women authers have bigger and more loyal fan bases.