Gender dynamics have colored the evolution of speculative fiction from the beginning. We can readily observe that male writers have dominated much of the publishing world—yet one of the earliest landmarks of science fiction and horror is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In fantasy, which has come to favor female writers, we find The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Belgariad series by David Eddings. To see the big picture, we have to step back and look at the rules and the exceptions together.
The Gender Genie
We can speculate indefinitely as to whether and how men and women write differently. But some people have done more than just speculate. "Inspired by an article in The New York Times Magazine, the Gender Genie uses a simplified version of an algorithm developed by Moshe Koppel, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Shlomo Argamon, Illinois Institute of Technology, to predict the gender of an author." (Bookblog, "Gender Genie") It allows you to paste in text and specify whether it is fiction, nonfiction, or a blog entry; and it claims to work better with samples of 500+ words. You can visit the Website and test it yourself.
This is hard science, based on counting how often certain words appear in a sample of text. Nor are the words which distinguish gender related to content, but rather to grammar. The differences are structural as well as topical. "Female writers use more pronouns (I, you, she, their, myself) ... Males prefer words that identify or determine nouns (a, the, that) and words that quantify them (one, two, more)." (Ball) Some of the other feminine keywords include: with, if, not, where, be, should. Some of the other masculine keywords include: around, what, are, as, it, said. This suggests that language tends to encode gender in very subtle ways.
According to Koppel and Argamon, the algorithm should predict the gender of the author approximately 80% of the time. At the time I first encountered the Gender Genie (September 15, 2003) it posted an accuracy ratio of 89.74% right to 10.26% wrong, which is almost 10% better than predicted. It has dropped since then; the numbers for Tuesday, April 13, 2004 were 63.37% right to 36.63% wrong for submissions since September 13, 2003 ... still significantly higher than random chance, almost 2/3 correct.
When I tested the Gender Genie with other people's work, it registered the men as men and women as women. With samples of my own writing, the program yielded a mix of male and female readings. This is probably because I picked pieces at what I considered the far ends of my gender-writing spectrum. Sometimes I write in a very masculine tone, other times in a very feminine tone. I was intrigued to realize that my inner sense of what each piece would be was correct. My sense of gendered writing may be more, the same as, or less accurate compared with the program—but it is a real sense, however vague and difficult to describe. I can feel something going on in there. It correlates well to analysis. Regardless of the program's accuracy, I was quite pleased to find that there are absolute, demonstrable differences in my writing—the perceived difference is reflected in statistical changes of word use. So I'm not just imagining that I write differently when I push the ends of the spectrum. I suspect the program would also register shifts in other writers who sometimes write in a very feminine tone, other times in a very masculine tone.
This program reveals both the differences and the similarities in how men and women write. It shows a strong tendency for the genders to write differently, and can tell them apart quite well when they do; yet it also reveals the overlap, because it is not 100% accurate. What makes a story "seem to us" like it was written by a man or a woman may be our own intuitive grasp of this statistical curve. There are profoundly feminine or masculine stories at the far ends, while in the middle, we find stories so balanced in gender that they give no strong clues about the author.
What we actually see reflected in fiction is a pesky little aspect of sex and gender that contemporary culture often obscures: "male" and "female" are not pigeonholes, but areas on a spectrum. They are places where people, identities, and stories tend to congregate; but there are other options. So in addition to the stories highly characteristic of what men tend to write and read, or women tend to write and read, there are those instances in which authors jump the fence into new and interesting territory.
Gender division in writing and reading thus comes down to tendencies, not absolutes. Men more often concern themselves with actions, ideas, and analysis. Women more often concern themselves with processes, perceptions, and implications. Philip Ball observes, "men talk more about objects, and women more about relationships." ("Computer Program") Consider the examples in this article as reference marks at the ends of the spectrum.
One stereotype, that women write "fluffy fantasy about bunnies, or unicorns ... the ‘elfy-welfy' stuff," is readily disprovable. (Schwartz, Sisters I, xi) Turned loose in a venue tolerant of female-minded fiction, they produce stories as rich and bitter as black coffee. Yes, women also write light stories—but that isn't what emerges as the prevailing tone in a single-gendered context. Tanith Lee titled her book of retold fairytales Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Compare its contents to the Brothers Grimm versions and you'll see that the "Sisters Grimmer" remark is accurate. Her imagery, while couched in beautiful language, draws some graphically violent metaphors and touches unerringly on how hard a woman's life can be, as illustrated in this line: "Her hands, which had been dishes for her tears, now lay as if slain in her lap." (Lee, qtd. in Allie)
Another stereotype, that men write very spare prose, sacrificing description to plot, is also disprovable. They simply may choose to describe things in other ways, or describe other things altogether, than women would. It's rather like the difference between journalistic and artistic photography. One vivid example comes from Theodore Sturgeon's story "It" in Things Hunting Men: (Drake 7)
At the county fair, someone had once said of Alton Drew that he could shoot at a handful of corn and peas thrown in the air and hit only the corn. Once he split a bullet on the blade of a knife and put two candles out. He had no need to fear anything that could be shot at. That's what he believed.
I was somewhat surprised to find that, in searching my collection of anthologies for single-gender titles, the ones written entirely by men all fell into the most predictable pattern: war, hunting, and hard science. I expected at least a little variation from the stereotype. I was less surprised to find that the anthologies written entirely by men were not deliberately designed as such (except for Men Writing Science Fiction as Women) whereas all the ones written entirely by women had explicitly excluded male writers. Men still have an edge in publishing. However, this suggests another "challenge" anthology duet: forget about gender per se and tackle themes, for instance inviting men to write about relationships and women to write about inventions.
Questions of Difference
The opening premise, "Do women and men really write differently?" unfolds into a fractal array of related questions. Some aspects concern the author, some concern the character, and some concern the topic and techniques in the story itself. These ideas and questions nest themselves in layers of complexity and depth. Try reading some of the works recommended in the bibliography below, and then see what answers you find.
Does gender affect publishability?
An author's sex can affect the ability to sell stories; male writers dominate much of the field, but a handful of noteworthy venues have specifically solicited women. Susan Schwartz notes in her introduction to Sisters in Fantasy I, "Some writers didn't find an all-women's anthology either necessary or desirable ... we would just be ghettoizing women writers further;" (x) and "Ursula LeGuin's Dancing at the Edge of the World made me wonder if a woman artist doesn't indeed have different constraints upon her time and craft." (xii) This is in the fantasy genre, generally considered one where women have an edge!
Furthermore, Kathryn Ptacek's introduction to Women of Darkness observes a similar pattern in the horror genre: "In one anthology I found to my surprise that there were no women writers at all, in a second and a third just one or two. There were too many like that. ... somehow, considering the number of women writing in the field, there should have been more. I didn't really think the editors had deliberately not chosen women writers, but neither did I think that women had not sent their stories in." (ix) My anthology shelves show a similar pattern.
Broad Universe, an organization promoting speculative fiction written by women, has tracked some industry statistics. A count of books received at Locus found 31.4% by female authors, 65.7% by male authors, and 2.8% by authors of unknown gender. A survey of "Year's Best" anthologies revealed that the ratio never reached 50/50—not even in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, where the highest percentage of female authors was 48% in 2000. A more common ratio was 20-30% female. (Linville, "Tour")
Nor do authors enjoy equal recognition of published works, which can affect later contracts. Of seven awards surveyed, only two showed a ratio favoring female over male writers: the Campbell from 1990-1999 (55% female winners, 45% male) and the Tiptree from 1991-1999 (88% female, 6% male, 6% transgendered). In the major awards, such as the Hugo and the Nebula, women never so much as broke even—ranging from a low of 0% (Hugo 1953-59) to a high of 47% (Nebula 1990-99). (Linville, "Tour") This shows a gradual improvement, but not equality.
Watching the lag between the publishing success of men and women is like watching the lag between their respective salaries for similar jobs: you can't quite pin anyone down as causing it on purpose, but you also can't deny that the gap exists. One possible explanation: a count of editors at professional-level speculative magazines tallied 21% women and 79% men. (Linville, "Tour") If women tend to write what women like to read, and men tend to write what men like to read ... then male writers have an edge simply because there are more male editors.
On the other hand, women are much more likely to get a chance to write for a venue which excludes the opposite sex altogether. It's an interesting experience, which male writers rarely encounter. I found several anthologies whose parameters restricted submissions to women, but only one for men.
Can a reader tell which stories are written by men or by women?
Regarding the author, there are stories written by male authors and stories written by female authors. Closely related to the first point, there are stories written by authors under an opposite-sex pseudonym. This raises the fascinating issue of "passing," in which some authors successfully fool editors and/or readers into believing their pen-sex instead of their body-sex. Many women writers have disguised or at least downplayed their sex by writing under a male pseudonym (like Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree, Jr.), initials (like C.L. Moore), or a name easily taken for male (like Marion Zimmer Bradley). One famous example of passing: "Wilhelm is the woman to beat, but Tiptree is the man." (Ellison, 814)
Conversely, in genres favored by women, male authors sometimes use the same trick and take a female pen name, especially in romance and fantasy. Harold Lowry, who served as president of the Romance Writers of America for a while, wrote under the pen name Leigh Greenwood; Tom Huff wrote as Jennifer Wilde. Aimee and Dave Thurlo (husband and wife) wrote romances under Aimee's name, then later published mystery and suspense novels under both their names.
Can authors write characters of the opposite sex, plausibly?
Moving deeper, we find stories written from the perspective of a character having the opposite sex to the writer. This technique, while demanding, is something that most writers try at least once. Two challenges leap to the forefront: it requires writing outside one's own direct experience, and it is very easy to fumble by trying too hard. There is a matched set of anthologies which explore this issue, Women Writing Science Fiction as Men and Men Writing Science Fiction as Women. While the titles suggest, to me, the previous idea of passing under pseudonym, the common thread of these stories is actually first-person narratives written across the gender gap.
Mike Resnick began with the idea of Women Writing Science Fiction as Men based on the long tradition of female writers using male pen names, then decided that it needed a mirror image and launched Men Writing Science Fiction as Women. The premise for the first volume (repeated with genders reversed for the second) was: "first, each story had to be told in the first person of a man; and second, if changing the narrator from Victor to Victoria didn't invalidate the story we didn't want it." (Resnick, Men Writing, 10)
I found neither volume particularly convincing in terms of how well writers captured the worldview of the opposite sex; the character actions were plausible enough, but still sounded like men written by women or women written by men. Most authors, alas, overdid the gender cues—exactly the same thing I've seen in writing classes attempting this (very challenging) exercise. They grabbed the most obvious points, whereas the epitome of gender-oriented fiction capitalizes on the subtle differences. I don't think a man would joke about penis size in quite the way Leah A. Zeldis wrote "Big," nor a woman joke about pregnancy the same as Tom Gerencer in "Not Quite Immaculate," but both stories made me titter anyway.
However, two stories stand out for capturing aspects of the opposite sex. "G-Bomb" by Ron Collins in Men Writing Science Fiction as Women explores the lengths to which a mother will go in obtaining the best for her child, and the emphasis falls not so much on the pregnancy as on that particularly feminine flavor of ruthlessness. "Thumping the Weaver" by Susan R. Matthews in Women Writing Science Fiction as Men considers the traditional point of etiquette that a man shouldn't hit a woman—and the main character urgently needs to do that, or something like it, to prevent disaster. In my mind, these two authors came closest to the anthologies' stated target of conveying the opposite worldview. From a research perspective, the misses are just as enlightening; and from an entertainment perspective, the stories are still fun to read.
Certainly a talented author can write the opposite gender well enough to delight readers. Can they do it well enough to convince readers that the author and the character share the same gender when, in fact, they do not? Sometimes, yes; this is a whole different flavor of passing, often not deliberate on the writer's part.
Deepest of all—and the category most subject to denial—are the stories whose content is so inextricably linked to gender that they raise questions about what, why, and how we write ... and who we are. Certainly there are motifs that people typically avoid; few male writers find menstruation an attractive topic, whereas few female writers go on and on about guns. Are there stories that men could not write? Are there stories that women could write, but don't write? Or is gender truly irrelevant to writing? Should any skilled author be able to write plausibly the perspective of an opposite-sexed character, or under pseudonym fool readers about the author's sex? Should it be easy, or impossible, to sort stories by male and female authors—with the names removed? Literary critics disagree, vehemently.
Because so much of the speculative field focuses on male writers and readers, special exploration of gender issues falls more often to women. In the submission call for Sisters in Fantasy, editor Susan Schwartz said, "...what I want you to write is the story you've needed to write and couldn't think of an appropriate market for before I contacted you." (xiii) Indeed, the resulting contributions seem to me a different flavor of fiction than the usual. Jane Yolen declared flat-out in her poem "Women's Stories" in the same anthology: "My stories are not your stories." (2) Noted linguist and science fiction author Suzette Haden Elgin went so far as to invent a language, Láadan, to express the unique worldview of women on the grounds that existing languages were inadequate to the purpose. One noteworthy counterpoint exploring how male authors tackle gender issues is, as mentioned above, Men Writing Science Fiction as Women.
Every perspective has its spotlights, and its blind spots; when you specify gender as the perspective, people get edgy because, in all honesty, we haven't done a terrific job with gender relations in real life. To say that there are stories men wouldn't think of, or women wouldn't care to commit to paper, is to assert that—at least in some ways—there are genuine differences between the genders, more than a simple chromosome.
One common highlight of men's fiction is the "story of idea" where it matters more what happens than who gets caught up in it. "Park Rules" by Jerry Oltion in Nanodreams takes a single idea and uses a tiny everyday detail—the list of park rules mentioned in the title—to illustrate how the technology has changed everything. Not only are the "nanorangers" a clever concept, the methodical structure gives the story a very left-brain, logical flavor; characteristics often considered masculine. "The War Memorial" by Allen Steele in Future War features a character trapped into standing helpless as a battle rages around him, sweeping away his fellow soldiers. This type of mental torment neatly counterbalances some classic images of female helplessness, such as a mother watching her children's murder.
The two volumes of Sisters in Fantasy present some of the best stories I've found in terms of conveying the ineffable sense of gender through subtlety rather than a sledgehammer. "Horse of Her Dreams" by Elizabeth Moon in Sisters in Fantasy tells of two girls who become icons of youth and beauty by riding magical horses—but it's less about that than about the desperate struggle of those not destined for such popularity. "Kneeling at His Side" by Lois Tilton in Sisters in Fantasy II turns Norse mythology on its side by following Loki's wife Sigyn through his story, from her original attraction through the death of their sons and her loyalty in remaining with Loki to mitigate his punishment.
Contrast these last two examples of human idolatry and of helplessness with the poor soldier who became a monument in "War Memorial" above. Even when dealing with the same theme, male and female authors often write about opposite sides of the coin. Along with "Park Rules," these are stories that seem most characteristic of the author's identity—the least likely to occur to writers of the opposite sex.
After reading numerous stories about gender issues, or written in single-gender venues, I realized that there isn't a convenient term for such things. So I worked my way to a definition of "genderfic" as stories unique to the author's gender. If the reaction of the opposite sex is "Huh? Why would anyone want to write (or read) a story about that?" while the reaction of the author's sex is "You said it, sister (or brother)!" ... that is genderfic. I've heard people say exactly that about some of the stories cited in this article.
In writing this article, I favored short stories over novels so as to sample more writers in shorter space. Another reason is because I found several anthologies especially suited to exploring how the author's sex influences fiction. However, similar patterns appear in longer fiction. Take a look a your favorite books and ask yourself how gender may have influenced them—or your decision to purchase them.
One of the oldest pieces of advice to authors is, "Write what you know." When it comes to gender, most authors write most plausibly from their own perspective, but some of the best works in the field have come from crossing the gender gap. Why? Maybe it's because speculative writers feel especially drawn to exploring the alien, and men and women can seem very alien to each other at times. Stories with a strong influence in these areas invite us to take a closer look at this fundamental structure in our lives we call gender ... and only then can we decide if we like what we see, or if we want to make changes.