Some of you see this title and you’re all:
I don’t typically play the gender card. Actually, I usually refuse to acknowledge gender at all. It’s a hot button discussion that has few winners and tends to crumble into messy, uncomfortable feelings.
However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, so I thought, let’s do some research. No right or wrong answers. Let’s just look at this and see if there’s any substance to the claims that men write differently than women. Yes? Cool.
It’s no secret that the romance genre is dominated by females (unless there are a shit ton of men using pen names out there). Even in the indie world, most romance authors are women. Why? Some believe it’s because the ladies like the feels, and romance is all about feels. True? Possibly.
It’s also no secret that Science Fiction is a male dominated genre that seems depressingly full of dicks (pun intended). Is this genre more balanced in the indie world than the traditional one? I can’t find hard data to answer that question. Certainly, more women seem to be self-publishing in the sci-fi genre than are getting published by publishers. If I find some cold hard facts on this one, I will update you at a later date.
While it’s a couple years old, this article does shed some light on the male/female stats in speculative fiction (based on Tor’s figures anyway) when it comes to the submissions inbox. Are we women not submitting because we’re not writing those genres? I don’t think so.
Many feel that acquisitions editors and readers are biased when it comes to the books they prefer, choosing one gender over another, regardless of the quality of writing involved. I wondered, how do they know if the person they’re reading is male or female. Sure, there’s a name on the book, but with so many pen names and gender neutral names out there, how is it possible for them to know who wrote what they’re reading? Maybe they have enjoyed a space opera penned by a woman, or a romance spun by a man.
But you can tell the difference they say…
Can you really?
There have been extensive studies into the stylistic differences between authors, using what is called Stylometry. Read more about that here. This method has been applied to the differences between male and female writers as well, with some interesting conclusions.
I’ve encountered many readers who believe you can determine gender based on the emotion in the narrative. For example, female writers tend to writers tend to hone in on reaction and motivation, while male writers highlight atmosphere and tone instead.
Some believe you can determine gender based on genre. For example, the ladies like to write romance, while most “decent” sci-fi and horror is written by men. (Hey, I’m not saying this is true. These are the assumptions made out there in the reading world. Don’t shoot the messenger.)
Another “stereotype” I’ve heard is that men tend to write fast-paced, action-packed tales, while us girls prefer to add some backstory, so we tend to slow it down a little in comparison. Men focus on plot focusing on the what, where and when, while the women are all about the how and why of everything. The fairer sex is also believed to be more interactive in our style, while dudes are more impersonal, because they’re all about conveying specific details. Screw the feels.
I decided we should conduct an experiment. It’s entirely unscientific, of course, because I’m not sciency. New word. Enjoy it.
Today (Wednesday February 3, 2016) and tomorrow (Thursday, February 4), I will post a handful of short scenes. They’re around 500 words or less, so they take just a minute or two to read. I want you guys to tell me if each scene was written by a man or a woman. Don’t worry about being right or wrong. Just go with your gut.
At the end of the experiment, I’ll let you know how you did when I post the results (and some discussion, of course) on my column at Underground Book Reviews. If you all guess correctly, then I suppose it really is possible to determine gender based on writing style. If you’re wrong, then I’m right, and you can’t. There are no tricks here. I asked the authors to write a scene based on specific criteria. That was:
Write a scene between two people involving an inanimate object no bigger than your computer screen. Must be in first person.
Word limit: 500 words or less.
I’m investigating the assumption that one can determine gender of an author based solely on writing style, character, word choice and genre. Another interesting by-product of this little adventure may be to see if you can recognize a favorite author’s writing based on style and voice, but that’s just a little bonus.
Participating authors (in no particular order) are:
Tammy E. A. Crosby
And, of course, me.
If one of your favorite authors is in there, see if you can ferret him/her out of the bunch.
Some scenes will have a title and genre. Some won’t. All will be anonymous until later this week, when I reveal who’s who.
Oh, and anyone who votes on these is entered in a draw to receive a $10 Amazon gift card. I’m only giving one of those away, because I’m a writer and funds are limited. (winky face)
Scene 1: Genre: Humor
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” I jabbed my spoon into the bowl. “It’s hard.”
“That’s what she said.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
The red bench stuck to my thighs. I hated that feeling, of sweaty skin tacking to cheap vinyl. Reminded me of Gramma’s patio chairs, the ones with cracked plastic that pressed grooves into my shoulders when I was little. And the disgusting food she made.
Why did I order chowder?
“Hit it again,” Pete said.
“You.” I flipped the spoon at him. I wasn’t touching the soup again. Or the bowl or the table. It all smelled like dead fish.
The object was just below the surface, hard and glassy. He pushed it side to side. Round, too. If I would’ve ordered the chicken noodle, I would’ve seen it before diving in. Now there were two spoonfuls of New England clam chowder coating my stomach with the who knows what the hell else.
“What’d it taste like?” he asked.
“How the hell should I know? It all tastes like pussy.”
“How would you know?”
“It’s a guess, asshole.”
He banged the metal edge on the object three more times then started to scoop it out.
“You don’t want to know what it is?”
“Hell no. I ate it already, too late. Just don’t.” I raised my hand but the hundred year old waitress was busy with a truck driver. It took three days just to get our food. No way I was sending it back or paying for it or ever eating there again. Just show the old lady the thing in the soup and leave forever.
“Know what I think it is?”
“I don’t want to know.”
He rolled it with the spoon. “A glass eye.”
“Yeah, look at it.” It swirled just beneath the surface. “About the size of a big marble.”
“And how the fuck did a glass eye get in a bowl of soup? God you’re an asshole.” I waved my arm like the old woman was a cab. “Just stop playing with it.”
“The cook probably sneezed, they do it all the time. Only this time he held it in, you know, so he wouldn’t spray the food and his goddamn eye popped out. Right in the soup.”
“And like he wouldn’t notice it?”
“Well he probably looked for it but didn’t hear it go in. You can’t see in there. Hell, he’s probably still looking for it. We should fish it out before he has to go buy another one. Those things are expensive.”
“How the hell do you know?”
Pete was rhythmically banging it with the spoon when the waitress started our way. Her face was caving in like a half-eaten apple, her lips curving inward. I went to the bathroom to put a finger down my throat before she got to the table.
Scene 2: The Nature of Pride (No genre given)
“Oh come on!” I say, pointing emphatically at the thing on the pedestal with both hands. “That is not art!”
“Of course it is!” Lindie replies, rolling her eyes at me.
My jaw drops as I stare at her. Perhaps the art museum was not the best choice for our fourth date. I mean, I really like this girl, what with her nerdy, slightly androgynous aesthetic common to all art history students, and her bright, brainy conversation. I was hoping that if I impressed her enough with my highly cultural choice of date location, I might finally get her back to my place for some… you know…
“Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power,” she continues. “This is clearly doing that. So it’s art.”
“It’s a computer screen with some paint splattered on it. It’s an accident, is what this is.”
“Did you even read the card? The artist wanted to convey the threat of modern technology, how it’s nothing more than the murder of the human spirit.”
I shake my head. “Bullshit,” I say. “That’s just the B.S. esoteric explanation the artist pulled from his ass in order to sell this piece of crap. How much did it cost, anyway?”
Lindie checks her pamphlet. “Twenty-five million,” she informs me.
“Twenty-five million?! Holy shit! This is the best fucking scam ever! I’m going to go home, pour some coloured goop onto my iPad, claim I’m ‘making a statement’” – I use the international symbol for quotation marks with both hands to provide a visual cue in case my obvious sarcasm wasn’t enough – “and sell it for thirty million. Jesus! The art world is populated by absolute suckers!”
I should realise in this moment from Lindie’s glare that I’m running my mouth, and it isn’t appreciated, but I just can’t let this thing lie. I mean, be real. Twenty-five million? For a computer screen someone accidentally spilled paint on?
“It’s like the story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ This museum got swindled, and everyone has their heads too far up their asses, trying to appear all cultural and learned, to admit it!”
“Oh my god,” Lindie says. “You are such an idiot.” She turns and starts to walk away.
Damn. I’ve blown the date. I reach out and grab her arm. “I’m sorry,” I say, pulling her into a hug. “I’m sorry. How about we just go back to my place. I’ll put on some music, open some wine, and we can talk about other things.”
I smile when I feel Lindie’s arms snake around my ribs. “That sounds nice,” she says. “Just one thing.”
“Admit that the computer screen is art.”
My shoulders lock, my arms now stuck around her, as my back stiffens.
I’m not getting laid tonight.
Scene 3: Genre: Urban Fantasy
The room is bathed in a golden light. It exudes careless opulence, shabby, scholarly even arcane. A large Persian rug is covered in books, strewn at random or arranged in towers like termite nests, and beyond, a fire and a figure hunched in a chair too large for him. I stare at the bone white face and the unnatural brass appendages that look as if they’re glued to his eyes.
A gentle cough prompts me to speak. “I was intrigued by your advert, sir.”
“Ah, the ‘The Beacon’ – you have come from Monmouth, then. My name is Nousel.”
He stares at the paper for a moment or two and raises his head, until the two small brass cylinders are aimed at my face. Though highly polished they look strangely crude and yet imbued with the minute and subtle craftsmanship I have learnt to associate with the early eighteenth century, perhaps earlier. And then, to my unease, I’m aware of Nousel’s eyes staring out from them, like a pair of large and blue exotic fish.
“Sit down, sit down.” Nousel gestures towards the fire as if suggesting immolation was just the thing on such a cold and blustery day. I edge round books that seemed to be teetering in stasis and dust; there is a sense of tracing time through a labyrinth, the unstable towers now resembling wind-torn buttes glowing red from the fire.
The chair faces my host, but is closer to the hearth, forcing Nousel to turn ever so slightly. The effect is off-putting. The brass eyepiece gleams, and ruddy shadows flow from his waxen face like runny paint. Eyes that had only a moment ago appeared as large cobalt fish have been replaced by two tiny red flickers, simulacra of the low burning fire.
Nousel leans forward and smiles. “I am selling everything. Everything . . . everything in this room, the room itself, if that’s what you want.” He pauses, his smile for a moment sardonic. “And these of course.” He tapped the metallic appendages that covered his eyes. “The Alchemical Lenses. John Dee’s last and greatest secret.”
I gaze absently across the finely panelled room, noticing, that for all its subtle richness, the room itself possesses only one small window, and that it looks out upon a yellow-brick wall, built only inches away. I keep my voice even; try to restrain my excitement.
“John Dee, you say.” I look with polite interest at the two cylinders that seem to grow from Nousel’s head, and which were pointing at me now like two tiny brass cannons. “They look of later workmanship.”
Mr. Nousel nods approvingly. “So, it is the lenses you are after.”
“And will you sell them to me?”
Nousel sighs again, with that strange mixture of relief and regret. “Come back tomorrow, and we might agree a price.”
His face is expressionless, putting me in mind of a gambler saving his best card until last.
As I stand up to leave, I spot the mirror behind me, just to the right of the door.
Scene 4: The Book, Genre: Horror
We stare at the dusty, aged book sitting on the table. It’s not much to look at; the leather-bound cover has some cracks, and it’s a bit smooth and worn in places. We found it in the library archives during a bit of trespassing and pilfering. A fun lark to relieve the boredom. Grab an old book off a shelf and make off with it. No real harm. Just a prank.
It’s not funny anymore. This ratty old thing scares us to death.
Silly, isn’t it? Being scared of a book? Then again, most books don’t whisper names, or turn your friend into a screaming mess before incinerating him into ashes.
I glance at the dusty pile of remains that used to be my friend Barry. Then I look at Charlie. His face is pale and he’s trembling. I’m not surprised. The book is whispering his name now. I know he wants to run. I want to run. Trouble is we can’t. We just can’t. The damned book controls us somehow.
“I don’t want to die, Anna.”
I can see the tears forming in his eyes. What am I supposed to tell him?
“I don’t want to die. Please. Help me.”
I want to scream. I can’t. I’ve tried, but I can’t. “I’m sorry, Charlie.”
“I—I know.” The tears track down his cheeks, to soak into the collar of his shirt.
The book stops whispering. We fall silent. I want to tell him everything will be okay, but I know it won’t. I close my eyes, and keep them shut until the screaming stops.
Too bad the smell of burnt flesh lingers.
I stare at the book once more, if only to avoid looking at the second pile of ashes. I know what’s coming next. My name.
There it is. The first whisper. I close my eyes again, and wait for the end.
Scene 5: No Genre
I look into the dead dog’s eyes. It has been stuffed into the old refrigerator in such a way that it appears to have frozen mid leap. Its jaws are wide open with its purple tongue lolling, and one paw reaches out stiffly. Its eyes are wide and wild. Not like I expect dead eyes to be.
“Touch it,” says Billy.
“Ew, no. Gross.”
Billy sniffs, his mouth all scrunched up into one corner. It’s the look he wears when he’s coming to one of his slow, rigid decisions. He picks up a stick, short and stubby.
“Can’t you just leave it alone, Billy?” I say, a weird emotion already bubbling in my tummy.
“Nu-uh. I’m a scientist. This is science.”
I look around. The quarry was sometimes patrolled, even on a Sunday, to stop people dumping their trash. I half-wished one of the mysterious quarry people, squat and dirty, would yell at us to fuck off before he beat the shit out of us, like they sometimes did.
“Why don’t we go check out the car again? We can play spaceships.”
“Spaceships is for kids,” said Billy. “Not scientists.”
He carefully moves the stick and prods the dog a few times in the neck. “Alsatianus zombiecus.” He says authoritatively. He pokes at it again when he doesn’t get a reaction from me. “Good boy. Stay.” Billy gives a high shrill laugh that makes me want to kick the back of his legs.
“I declare Fido to be dead as dog shit.” he says. “Here, your turn.”
I look at the stick and shake my head. The way the dog is half in and half out of the refrigerator reminds me of old fairground ghost trains. Of silly vampires leaping from their coffins.
“Ah, come on. Do you wanna be a scientist or not?”
Billy’s mouth once again scrunches to one corner. “Figures. Girl’s don’t science. Everybody knows that.”
“They do too, Billy. There are lots of girl scientists. Famous ones.”
“Probably too afraid they’ll get their hair covered in…” Billy fumbles for a word. “Magnesium.”
I snatch the stick out of his hand. “You’re such a jerk.”
Billy grins, widely. “Go on, touch it.”
I look at the dog. I take a deep breath and hold it, suddenly certain that death is something I can get caught in my throat. I slowly jab the stick into the dog’s neck. It feels like I’m poking a suitcase or a sofa.
I spin around, head full of electric, mouth full of copper. Billy is laughing his high pitched laugh. “Your face!” he manages, eyes streaming with tears. “You should have seen the look–”
I punch him. I swing a hard right hook that smacks into his lips and instantly draws blood. Billy stops laughing, his face drawn in comic book shock. “I’m gonna tell mom!” he yells. He sprints away, leaving me alone in the quarry.
The air is warm, and full of the sound of fat flies buzzing. I am suddenly sure that I’m dreaming. “Good boy,” I say to the dog. “Stay.”
Scene 6: Genre: Humor
“I think I’m going to hurl.” I say. “Why didn’t they clean the blood off?”
“It’s only on the sides. Inside’s clean.” Bob says. “I heard it took a man’s dick clean off.”
My balls shrink a little. “What are we supposed to do with it?”
“We’re supposed to verify that it can in fact take a dick off.”
Bob scratches his tuft, the only bit of hair on his shiny head. “Guess we could put a screwdriver in it,” he says. “See what happens.”
“That’s not going to tell us anything.”
“Test the torque?”
“Does this thing have a torque?” I look at the vagina, our most lifelike design yet. I hope it doesn’t have torque.
“I don’t even know what torque is.” Bob admits.
“This is dumb,” I say. “We’re the safety department. Why aren’t the production guys looking at it for design flaws?”
“They said it works fine. Legal wants to make sure the damn thing has all the warnings it needs.”
“We can’t say “don’t stick your dick in it” since that’s its whole purpose.”
“You’re not very helpful.” I say.
“Why add a warning at all?”
“Because of lawsuits, I bet. The guy couldn’t have lost his dick if he used it correctly.”
Bob points at the blood stains. “He clearly wasn’t.”
“Maybe he was and it malfunctioned. Squeezed too tight?”
“Still wouldn’t have ripped his dick off.” Bob says. “Squeezing might’ve cut the blood supply. I guess if he left it on there long enough, his dick might’ve fallen off.”
“I can’t imagine a guy leaving his dick in this long enough for that to happen.”
“We’ll just have to test it.”
“Take off our pants, put our dicks in it, and see what happens.”
I am not getting naked with Bob. “I don’t love my job enough to put my dick anywhere near yours. I definitely don’t love you enough.”
Bob unbuckles his pants. “You’re such a pussy. Probably why you’re still a minion and I’m a supervisor.”
Bob is an asshole. “Still not doing it.”
“I’ll do it. Turn on the camera.”
I walk to the tripod, where the camera is waiting. As I turn it on, my phone rings. I press the screen and put it to my ear. Bob has already stripped down to his boxers.
“Yes,” I say.
“This is Sally in Legal. Forget the testing. Turns out the guy got his dick stuck because the batteries died and he cut it off himself. Didn’t want his wife knowing he was banging a rubber twat.”
I want to vomit. “How the—?”
“Bob’s testing it right now.”
“No need. It malfunctioned, but the injury was self-inflicted so we’re going to settle and put the matter to bed.”
“This thing is powerful,” Bob says. “Who was that?”
“Sally in Legal. She said to make sure we can see the logo on the side.”
Bob turns to face the camera. “Good?”
That’s it for this post, kids. In the comments tell me which ones you think you’ve figured out. You can find the second batch of scenes in Part 2 of this little experiment (you don’t want to miss these, I promise). Don’t worry about right or wrong. This is science… well, not really. It’s an experiment, though, so whatever you “vote” helps answer the question: Do men and women write differently?