Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.

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Comments
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JudiJ, Foz Meadows and Foz Meadows, Foz Meadows. Foz Meadows said: Female Fantasies http://wp.me/pfRiP-lf [...]

  2. glenda larke says:

    Excellent post. I hope it gets a lot of readers!

  3. Alex Fayle says:

    Funny. I haven’t ever thought about it. I’ve loved a lot of epic fantasy series and never gotten into others, but I’ve never considered it along male/female lines. If I do think about it, I’ve loved and hated pretty much equally across the genders of the writers.

    There are some, however, that go too far one way or the other (either too “manly” -action-sexualized-women or too “girly” – love-angst-feelings). The ones I love are those that find a balance and don’t create cartoony characters.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Cartoony characters are never a good thing, no matter who writes them. Apart from anything else, it suggests that perhaps the writer doesn’t understand that gender or type of person beyond the level of stereotype – or, if they do, that they think their readers don’t need to know anything more.

  4. Jess says:

    Wow. Yes. Just. I wish I had something to add so this comment isn’t empty, but I don’t. Just consider it an encouragement and affirmation.

    It’s a conversation we’ve been having in the YA community for a while – how boys jump from middle grade boy books to adult fiction because there aren’t enough “boy books” in YA, and how part of the problem is they just won’t read books that are “for girls.” And the demand for “boy books” sort of cycles the problem, in its own way. It’s a shame.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I know exactly what you mean. There’s a parallel argument about children’s movies at the moment sparked particularly by Pixar, whose films are yet to feature a female protagonist (I’m not counting Tangled – it was far more a Disney franchise idea than anything else). One of the reasons for this is the assumption that male-oriented films will automatically have a wider audience, because women are happy to watch them, where as female-oriented films will be offputting to male viewers.

      And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way at all. I went to a joint book signing event at an all all boys’ junior school in Melbourne late last year, and was delighted to find that Solace & Grief actually had a fanbase of boys aged between about nine and thirteen. I never wrote it with the idea that it would just be for girls, but it was still lovely to encounter a school where the librarian had reached the same conclusion and recommended it accordingly.

  5. Kate Elliott says:

    This is a really fine essay, and it encompasses so much.

    Also, !Xabbu is one of my all time favorite characters in an sff novel. I never doubt that he is “a man.”

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thanks! Once I get through my current TBR list, and once I finally finish Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series (I still haven’t read the last two books), I am definitely due for a reread of Otherland. !Xabbu is an absolutely brilliant character, and his romance with Renie is one of the best I’ve ever read.

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susan Murray, glenda larke. glenda larke said: Excellent post here http://tinyurl.com/4jdag4m on gender PoV and related issues in SF/F. Much food for thought. [...]

  7. Jenn Bennett says:

    Excellent, thoughtful post that makes me want to take a second look at my TBR pile. :)

  8. Shedrick says:

    First of all, thanks for the link! And for keeping this discussion going. This is a great essay–I just wish I had said half as much and half as well…

    I think your points about the openness of our culture to women crossing gender lines (not all, but many) and the inability of men to do the same is spot on. One of my favorite manga/anime titles is “Fruits Basket”, a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s manga). I even find myself not bringing it up in conversation, thinking I’ll be viewed as weird. Your points on this are very insightful.

    Thanks!

    • fozmeadows says:

      No worries – your piece was great! And I totally love Fruits Basket, too, though my introduction to it was more through the TV anime than the original manga, which I’ve only read part of. In fact, one of the things that drew me to it was how comparatively feminine Yuki is, especially in comparison to a lot of shonen stuff. But then, sexuality in anime/manga is a WHOLE ‘nother blog entirely!

  9. tzopilotl says:

    …hmmm, tecpatl=flint, tezcatl=mirror, c/se=one, cea(N)=not one=de-sea-r(sp)=desire(E), sex=the grinding/mirror of one. i would be much happier if authors
    discovered the male/female in their characters singly then applied them to
    their interactions with each other as i don’t believe one is entirely male
    or female. the arbiter is reality, theatre, style, beauty, beatitude in a work.
    even if fantasy, it’s roots have to be washed in reality, greater or lesser,
    of the human condition.
    one of america’s delights and deep-rooted troubles is there is too much reflective fantasy and escapism and not enough direct burning of the torch
    of life on starry canopys of night, making us insular gutenborgs and macro-
    dunces. is this the tale/tail of fear we leave out for our politicians to
    step upon when it suits them?

  10. Kelly Bryson says:

    Great thoughts here. Thanks for raising the issue. I remember first reading Ursula K Leguin and being so *happy* to find a book that I could be enthusiasctic about. And I’d loved Tolkien, etc, but it was a whole different kind of story and I loved it.

    In my book, I describe a kiss from both the man’s and the woman’s perspectives, and I have wondered how that will be received. I guess I’ll find out:) I wonder with you if there is a difference between how men’s and women’s brains interpret what we read, or if it’s a cultural permission thing. Thanks again!

    • fozmeadows says:

      Re describing a romantic scene from both POVs: I do something similar in my next book, too – I guess we’ll both have to wait and see how people react!

  11. Amanda Pillar says:

    Great post, Foz!

    There are so many fascinating points that you raised and I agree that most of them are culturally based.

  12. Erin Hoffman says:

    Enjoyed this post, thank you for writing it. I’m glad that gender is being discussed with regard to epic fantasy, but wasn’t aware that somehow the new gritty epic fantasy — which IS new — was somehow being held up as definitive, rather than being new sub-branch on the tree, which is what it seems to me.

    I think, independent of what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be, there is a kind of schism going on in epic fantasy right now, which is strange and interesting. My understanding is that the fantasy audience as a whole has been more female than male — but that the new “gritty” fantasists (Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss) may be in the process of changing that. Which is all to the good, if it broadens the general fantasy readership. And while they have been rising, we haven’t seen — unless I’m missing someone — a female author of, say, Kate Elliott’s stature emerge in recent epic fantasy. Instead most of our burgeoning female fantasists have diverted (quite wisely when it comes to making bestseller lists) into the new “paranormal” permutations of urban fantasy. Carrie Vaughn, for instance, began as an epic fantasist but her breakout series was in urban fantasy, and she’s now able to publish more of that “core” fantasy work, but Kitty is what makes the NYT lists. Similarly, Patricia Briggs I think would be an Elliott (her first books are epic fantasy), but the market demand right now is for paranormal romance.

    Hmm, maybe I had better end this before I wind up writing a whole blog post here in your space… :)

    • fozmeadows says:

      It’s funny you should mention this, because Katharine Kerr has been asking exactly the same thing with regard to the gritty fantasy debate sparked by that massive post over at Big Hollywood (here, although I’m assuming you’ve read it, and Abercrombie’s response here). It’s definitely a related and interesting topic, but I’m still putting together my thoughts on it, which is why I didn’t address it directly in this post. Would be interested to read your views, though!

  13. [...] gender, sex and epic fantasy going on. N.K. Jemisin kicks it off here, Shedrick Pittman-Hassett and Foz Meadows weigh in as well. Some very good points [...]

  14. Allison Pang says:

    Wow – I’ve been following these blog posts (Elliott’s, and Jemisin’s) but I hadn’t stumbled on this one until today. This post really struck a nerve with me (they all have, honestly). I’ve been reading fantasy books since I was in about 4th grade (early 80’s – so my material was a bit limited to what I could find in the library or what my Aunt would lend me.) As a result, I tended to read more fantasy books by men – Piers Anthony, David Eddings and Tom Dietz, among others. I had the same problem as you did with the Tolkien and the Fiest and I’ll admit I could never get past five chapters of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. (Of course, I was in 8th grade at the time, so maybe that’s why. Or maybe it was the casual way he raped the girl my age and got away with it. *cough*)

    On the other hand, I did have Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey to balance out the female side of things. (And those definitely had more appeal to me as a young female reader, even if they weren’t technically epic fantasy) But once I discovered Elliott, Hobb, Carey, Monette and many other women writers, there really wasn’t any turning back.

    I did read most of Terry Goodkind’s works, as well as Jordan’s, but neither of them are particular favorites. I don’t know if it’s the gaze issue, but I found both series to be lacking in some way. There’s a certain smugness in the tone that I found off-putting. (Really, she’s tugging on her braid and planting her fists on her hips again? Go figure.)

    At any rate, this is an interesting argument – and one that is coming up quite a bit in the computer gaming industry as well, particularly in the RPG scene. Like you noted above, it is assumed women gamers will play games with a more male slant (i.e. the Witcher) even if we have no choice to play female characters, but male gamers wouldn’t play more female oriented games. (Although judging by all the guys masquerading on WoW as female Night Elves, I’d almost have to beg to differ).

    • fozmeadows says:

      The video game angle is definitely part of the same problem in a lot of respects – a very interesting case study is the Final Fantasy franchise, which is pretty much my favourite series ever. Though all the games feature great female characters, there’s only been three efforts at a female lead character: X2, where all three characters were girls, but spent the entire game changing into and out of different outfits when not signing or high-fiving each other; XII, which still had a male main character, but distinguished itself by not making the main female his romantic interest; and XIII, which apart from having the worst combat system known to man was an absolute regression in terms of the female characters. Lightning was meant to be a kickass warrior chick, but she has no depth and no personality – but then, neither do any of the other characters in that game, which I guess is a species of equality. Point being, why is it easy to write great female characters in these instances only when they’re not the leads? What is it about making the main player character female that suddenly seems to cause problems?

  15. euphrosyne says:

    A thought-out post, but I think you’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent with your almost purely sexual (as opposed to a broader, gender-centric) analysis. Specifically, I think you do your abstract male antagonist a disservice by a) implicitly problematzing their preferences, and b) assuming the basis of that preference is sexual insecurity. (In fact, this is the self-limiting ball and chain at the heart of traditional feminism, though that’s a separate discussion.)

    As a male reader of SF and fantasy, I’ve thought about this issue a fair amount. Personally, I find myself *enjoying* about a 70/30 male/female author split in both genres. I read closer to 50/50. And as sexuality (even the liminal, might-make-fratboys-subconsciously-uncomfortable type) comprises only a fraction of a percent of nearly any book not actually classified as erotica, I’m fairly certain that my taste preference isn’t heavily influenced by that.

    Allow me to shift my examples to short fiction–I read a lot of it, online and in print, and it’s easy to not read a byline when you read the way I do. I’m often even unaware of a story’s title. But whether a story’s author is male or female is often crystal clear in the first paragraph, sometimes the first sentence, of a story. I occasionally do blind tests on myself to make sure this isn’t just an easy post facto claim I impress myself with. I guess correctly at least 80% of the time, and I suspect that many others could as well.

    Now, I–like you–don’t believe that I have any significant prejudice against an author’s chromosomal configuration. I just want a good story. But my point is that the differences are usually, while subtle, *far* more pervasive than the sexualized (if any) component of a story. It’s in choices of words, choices of subject, choices of selected mundane details. Choices of grammar…and everything else. Many females write in what I can only poorly describe as a softer, more “sighing” tone. Many write less active/forceful/direct sentences, and are more broadly accommodating. I say this not to disparage–I enjoy many female authors–but merely to (imperfectly) classify. Male authors likewise have their tells. But to reiterate, it’s *everything* about a story that is influenced by gender, not just sexuality.

    So, obviously, we all have our preferences when it comes to fiction. We all like what we like. But do I enjoy more male-penned stories because I’m sexually insecure? Do I secretly think that enjoying the wrong book can “turn straight men gay”? Do a significant number of other male readers?

    I humbly but firmly reject that thesis.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think it’s an oversimplification of my point to say that the *only* reason men don’t like to read female gaze stories is because they’re sexually insecure, especially as that’s not a word I actually used, and definitely categorised that particular point by saying *some*men might be unsettled by reading stories told in that manner, for whatever reason. While respecting your right to disagree, I find the idea that the idea of each gender having a set of tells is a much more problematic notion, and I particularly object to the idea that women write in a “softer, sighing tone.” At a very basic level, your terminology implies that the things which characterise male or female writing under this system, in order to do so with any degree of accuracy, must be unique (or at least, very heavily favoured) by either gender. Men never write softly, then? They never lack for action, are incapable of being anything other than forceful or direct? I think assuming so says more about your literary preferences than about men and women en masse, and does at least as much disservice to your own gender as you claim I’ve done. If nothing else, you seem to be talking about all men and all women having these tells (despite the apparent 20% discrepancy in your guesswork, which I guess doesn’t count? somehow?), whereas I was only ever talking about a very small community of men. Are there no literary conventions shared by male and female authors under your system? And how then, to reintroduce the apparently troublesome and feminism-undermining concept of sexuality into the debate, do you succeed at categorising work my non-heterosexual writers, if the male/female split is so definitive?

      • euphrosyne says:

        “I find the idea that the idea of each gender having a set of tells is a much more problematic notion”

        Do you find the notion problematic because you dispute its accuracy–or because it complicates your preferred philosophy? I can debate the former empirically; the latter is subjective and more likely closed to persuasion.

        Of course men can and do write “softly”…but a male author’s softness is often qualifiably (if ineffably) different than a female’s. Likewise and vice-versa down the list. But set aside my insufficient attempt to classify the “tells” with labels–they were a poor start and you’ve responded by putting words in my mouth and reaching conclusions opposite to my intent.

        The most puzzling thing about your argument: you undeniably accept the reality of male/female gaze–i.e., that there are real and tangible differences in how the sexes see the world, and write about it–but then take exception to the notion that the very same gaze *pervades* the text. You’re quite comfortable speaking of female gaze when sexuality is explicit, yet refute that such a gaze might exist in the opening pages, or paragraphs of a work, when we meet a sexless character or see a landscape or hear the sounds of the city?

        It seems like you have to either acknowledge the existence of both, or neither. You can’t cherry-pick when people are allowed to point out that differences exist.

        • fozmeadows says:

          “You’re quite comfortable speaking of female gaze when sexuality is explicit, yet refute that such a gaze might exist in the opening pages, or paragraphs of a work, when we meet a sexless character or see a landscape or hear the sounds of the city?”

          Acknowledging the fact that men and women have sexual differences isn’t the same thing as saying they do everything differently, or that, if they do, it’s automatically because of those differences. People can be different just because they’re different people, regardless of gender. Your argument is akin to saying that because a female artist might choose different things to paint than a man, her brushstrokes must likewise be different to his; she will choose her paints differently, select a different type of brush; and that because of this, a trained artist could glance at any artwork or sculpture, or listen to any song, and instantly know on the basis of these “tells”, as you call them, whether the creator was male or female. I will go so far as to agree that gender – or rather, the accompanying perspectives of gender – can influence more of what we create than the purely sexual components, but you are not talking about influences, or the logic behind a piece, or motive, or anything like that, so far as I can see: you are talking about tangible things, the physical manner in which sentences are constructed, the decision to make them long or short, a predilection for particular parts of speech or grammatical constructions, and what I say to that is that every writer does those things differently, regardless of their gender or sexuality, and that because this is a universal difference, trying to blame any patterns you read into it on gender is never going to be accurate, if only because gender could not possibly be the ONLY influence. Other writers are influences. Ethnicity, language, culture, personal preference, age, aesthetic, purpose, experimentation – you cannot subtract these things from a writer’s style and claim it is only ever their gender which matters or sets them apart.

  16. euphrosyne says:

    “Your argument is akin to saying that because a female artist might choose different things to paint than a man, her brushstrokes must likewise be different to his; she will choose her paints differently, select a different type of brush; and that because of this, a trained artist could glance at any artwork or sculpture…and instantly know on the basis of these “tells”.

    Actually, I might well argue that–except that the visual acuity required to “read” that level of detail in a painting is both more demanding, and of a fundamentally different scope than interpreting the words in a story. (Actually, I would argue not that it is *because* she chooses a different subject, but also, perhaps particularly, when the subject is identical.) As you say, such an argument is akin to mine–though not actually the one I’m making. So I’ll not digress further.

    “…what I say to that is that every writer does those things differently, regardless of their gender or sexuality”

    Differently, yes. But systematically differently. We all like to think we are unique, distinct: sui generis. But the outliers don’t negate the existence of averages. (There’s a reason why the bell curve is called the ‘normal distribution’.) Google “gender differences in speech/language” and you’ll find entire academic journals investigating this phenomenon. Some of the findings are counter-intuitive, but nearly all agree that there are systematic, detectable differences.

    However, I’m *not* just talking about tangible sentence structure. But nor am I talking just about conscious influences and logic behind a piece. I think it’s those things, but also something else, in between (I used the word “ineffable” intentionally).

    “…gender could not possibly be the ONLY influence…Ethnicity, language, culture, personal preference, age, aesthetic, purpose, experimentation – you cannot subtract these things from a writer’s style…”

    I agree entirely. I just happen to think that an old urban Kenyan woman and a young South Dakotan farmgirl will both likely be identifiable as female authors, among other qualities. And though I’m not familiar with the sexuality of all that many authors, the gay men I can think of all write like men. Not like “gay men”, not notably differently than straight men in the dimension I claim is detectable, but just like men. Which leads me to suspect that the difference may be physical; in the brain rather than the mind.

    That’s not to say that biology is deterministic, but just that it is detectable.

    Now I shall go finish my William Gibson book and begin a Catherynne Valente. I expect to enjoy them both equally, differences and all.

  17. [...] things. Enforce them too stringently in accordance with too specific a set of principles, and last week’s debate is the inevitable result. Because ultimately, the most common conventions of genre should not be [...]

  18. [...] which female-authored texts were presented to readers. The conversation was continued in a number of places around the [...]

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