June 13th, 2010

When I was working on the manuscript that became Transported, I gave one of the stories to a male friend to read. He isn’t someone who normally reads erotica, or even much fiction, so I was interested in his reaction: could I interest someone who didn’t naturally gravitate to that genre?

When he was done, he handed the pages back to me and said, “You write about sex like a woman.” I was more surprised by my reaction to his remark than the remark itself—I mean, the remark itself is not startling, is it? I am a woman. I have sex as a woman. It’s quite reasonable that I would write about sex “like a woman.” But without knowing quite why, I felt just little bit insulted. What did he mean, “like a woman”? I tried to get him to explain it, but perhaps he sensed some of my defensiveness, because he backed off, as if I were asking him “Does this story make me look fat?”

Is it an insult of sorts? I don’t think he meant it that way at all, but think of similar statements: You throw like a girl isn’t a compliment, and neither is Women drivers! Not that men have it any easier; if a woman says, Typical man! it’s probably not because he did anything good. With erotic writing, though, gender is important. Most characters are one or the other, and the reader needs to be able to believe this. (As an aside, I can’t help but think of one of the best bumper stickers I ever saw, which said, as a nod to Bob Dylan, I brake just like a little girl.)

Three of the stories in Transported have first-person male narrators. As dedicated as I am, I did not get a temporary sex change to write them. How could I do it, then? At the time I was writing, I asked myself the same thing; and my answer was that I didn’t need to sound “like a man,” but rather like a reader would expect a man to sound. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Do men and women speak (and write) differently, as genders? There’s no easy answer. For every study claiming yes, there is another proving that it isn’t really so. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to go into all of the intricacies, but as someone who has studied the issue academically, I’ll give you my conclusion: Yes, there are differences, but they’re more related to power. That is, a higher-status person will talk more, will talk more directly, will interrupt more, and so on. It is a sad reality that at least in the US, men still have more power in many situations than women, and that influences how they talk. But power is also determined by age, experience, job position, family background, level of education, demonstration of expertise, and other such factors.

If you think of the thousands and thousands of novels and stories you have read that were written by men, you wouldn’t say that they all sounded the same. Not all men sound the same; not all women sound the same. However, it’s also true that I can almost always tell on online bulletin boards and lists whether a writer is male or female before a name or gender is offered. It isn’t words alone, of course, but also point of view and choice of topic—but something in the way many people write indicates their gender.

Any author has the same task of making characters sound believable, whether those characters are men or women or transgender or werewolves or space aliens. If a woman could only write “like a woman,” it would be hard to write convincing dialogues between a woman and a man. Nor does a woman (at least this one) want to write like the same woman in every story. That, to me, is really the challenge of writing short stories—to write very different characters believably, who act, and talk, in different ways. I often have a certain person’s “voice” in mind when I create characters; this helps me keep them consistent throughout the story.

I’ll close with a link to a site, The Gender Genie, that purports to be able to guess the gender of a writer by analyzing a chunk of text.

The Gender Genie

You input a chunk (the Genie points out that it works best with chunks of 500 words or more), indicate whether the genre is fiction, non-fiction, or blog (is that a dig at the truthfulness of blogs?), and the Genie will guess. Most people I know who’ve been to the site amuse themselves for a bit putting in different chunks of their own writing, perhaps hoping to discover something about their own identity they didn’t already know. What’s interesting is that the Genie also tells you which words it has tagged as “feminine” and “masculine,” and some of the choices will surprise you, I think.

I don’t think for one minute that the Gender Genie has all the answers. I’m not convinced, actually, that it has any of the answers. But it raises interesting questions for writers about how our word choices affect the impressions we give.

This blog entry, by the way, makes the Genie think I’m male: I rated a Male score of 1604 to a Female score of 1038. So I write about sex like a woman, and blog like a man. But I’m OK with that.

Oh, and I brake like a lady

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This entry was posted on Sunday, June 13th, 2010 at 12:11 pm and is filed under • You blog like a girl. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “You blog like a girl”

Jeremy Edwards Says:

Thought-provoking essay!

This one time on Lust Bites, the blogging team quizzed us with snippets, to see if we could guess the authors’ genders.

Shar Says:

And…. could you guess? I assume you were tested on narration, and not on dialogue… There you have the difference at least of someone trying to sound like a man/woman, rather than just, well, writing (like on a blog post).

Someone mentioned not too long ago on the ERWA list that a number of writers of (published) gay male porn are hetero women. And that so are a large number of readers! I’m guessing those writers use pen names that hide their gender, though I don’t actually know.

Jeremy Edwards Says:

Some women who write gay male erotica use their real names. (The ones I know are short-story writers whose work appears under the same name in straight, lesbian, and gay male anthologies.)

And I found that LB quiz:

http://lustbites.blogspot.com/2007/06/write-sex-week-day-one.html

Shar Says:

OK, that was a great link and a great exercise, and I did it, but Jeremy…. where are the answers??

What we really need to know, though, is not (necessarily) the actual gender of the writer, but the intended gender of the narrator. Some I felt quite sure about (no woman is going to call her own pussy “meaty”–or “fat”! But there was one I really couldn’t tell what I thought.

Now I’m sad, though…. that looked like an amazing blog, and it seems to be inactive now. Shame! But still good to browse around. I’m glad they left it up.

Jeremy Edwards Says:

They revealed the answers a few days later:

http://lustbites.blogspot.com/2007/06/write-sex-week-day-five.html

I do miss Lust Bites terribly. (Or rather, I miss it very competently.) It was so intelligent and so much damn fun! But, yes, it remains a great resource.

Shar Says:

Wow. I had only 4 out of 7 right, and not the two I was surest of! Although… the “answers” are the gender of the writer, and was that always the gender of the narrator? Because we agree (don’t we?) that a male writer could write as a female narrator.

I found when judging these I looked at vocabulary first, and then other cues. The Gender Genie looks at vocabulary too, but in a different way, and (for example) calls some prepositions masculine and some feminine, and I’m not convinced that’s valid.

There are studies that show (and doubtless some that refute!) that women use more adverbial expressions, more modal verbs, more hedging and mitigation (I think, perhaps, in my opinion, it seems to me) and more tag questions (don’t they?). But I didn’t see the Gender Genie checking for any of that.

Jeremy Edwards Says:

Because we agree (don’t we?) that a male writer could write as a female narrator.

Absolutely! I do it myself sometimes.

I’ll have to go back and reread before I can opine as to whether narrator gender, author gender, or both were at issue.

There are studies that show (and doubtless some that refute!) that women use more adverbial expressions, more modal verbs, more hedging and mitigation (I think, perhaps, in my opinion, it seems to me) and more tag questions (don’t they?).

Hahaha. Well done!

Willsin Rowe Says:

Hello Shar (and Jeremy, howarya?).

I, too, enjoy writing a female narrator. I find the minds of women far more fascinating than the minds of men (in general).

I do quite like discussions like this. A few years ago here in my home town (Brisbane, Australia) I attended a seminar run by three female authors of erotica. One of them, Krissy Kneen, expressed the opinion that erotica written by men tends to be more mechanical in nature. That is, it was more concerned with “how” than “why”. I don’t support this across the board, but I think it’s probably a healthy truism.

As an obscure observation within the same field of genders and words… I have a stupid saying that I use when I can’t be bothered to think of the name of a particular item. I’ll call it “the thing with a thing on it”. People sometimes chuckle. Some people also adopt the saying. In every case that a woman has adopted the saying, she has actually reworded it to “the thing on the thing”

I wonder if this is anything to do with that idea of power that you mentioned. That a male would put the emphasis on the “thing” which is carrying, whereas a woman would emphasis the “thing” being carried.

Or perhaps I’m just commenting like a man…

Shar Says:

Well, now, there’s a coincidence. The person who told me I write about sex like a woman is also from Brisbane, Australia. So now in addition to gender, we must also consider the Brisbane/non-Brisbane aspect…

I’m glad to find people who are interested in discussing the issue beyond just looking for exceptions. Sometimes I think we’re so quick to point out the exceptions that we miss the generalities that they are the exceptions to. (Or, … “to which they are the exceptions,” if we’d like to keep it writerly.) Erotica unavoidably involves genders, and therefore gender issues, and gender styles, and gender habits.

I’m definitely more interested in the “why” when I write. In fact, for most stories, that is why I’ve chosen to write them in the first place — there’s an issue I want to resolve or a point that I want to make. Where the two (or more) people have sex or how they have it interest me far less than why they have it. I think that’s also why I prefer writing short stories to novels — I have a chance to examine and resolve just one small point. I might go back and rewrite a sex scene (for example, to vary it from something similar I’ve written in another story), but I don’t change the underlying point. I may finish the story or I may not; but the plot, the “why,” is something essential, whereas the “how” is something variable. But is that influenced by my gender? Hard to say.

I liked very much the exercise that Jeremy linked to, where people tried to guess whether a passage had been written by a man or a woman. I notice that either no one or almost no one got them all correct; does that mean, then, that some of the writers were less successful in convincing the readers of the narrator’s gender? (I still don’t know, though, whether people were being counted “correct” if they guessed the writer’s gender, or the narrator’s gender–and it’s that latter that should have been the case, it seems to me.)

It’s interesting that you say that you enjoy writing female narrators because you find their minds more fascinating — because that is just what I would say about writing men! Perhaps we enjoy our chance to explore that which we are not; and, further, to finally have some control over it. 😉

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