”I also noted, because the book is very dialogue and action-driven, that it reminds me more of mysteries written by men than those written by women. Do you think this is the influence (if only unconscious) of some of your favorite male writers in the genre--such as Rankin, MacBride, etc?”
If I had been sitting across from author Julia Buckley when she asked me that question, she would have seen me staring at her with my mouth hanging open, speechless. Of all the possible things she could have asked me about my debut novel, Suspicious Circumstances, discussing if I have a “male” writing style hadn’t even occurred to me.
I’d never thought of it before.
I mean, sure, I read a lot of books written by men. In general – this is a generalization people! – I seem to connect more with male authors. Even male protagonists. But I am a woman. I never thought about whether I wrote male or female, until the moment Julia* asked the question. I mean, I always just thought I never wanted to write one thing, one way, that I wanted to try doing whatever interested me. I’ve written from the perspective of a young girl, from the perspective of men… and women. Even an old woman.
(This post does connect to my Killer Year post, by the way. Which is very short, but you might want to read it and then you tell me if I write male.)
This has been on my mind a lot since Julia interviewed me. My friendships with women are tight – I’m talking about my close friends here - but historically, I have had a tendency to have more guy friends.
From the time I was very young, seven or eight, I was entranced by The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. I have his collected works here, still. And I wasn’t much older than that when I was introduced to the works of CS Lewis. I was a fan of The Great Brain series, and the first chapter book I bought my nephew Athaniel was This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall by Gordon Korman, the start of a series I loved as a child.
It wasn’t like I thought about it, and it wasn’t as though I didn’t read Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume as well. But the books that had a big impression on me, that have lingered with me to this day? A high percentage were written by men.
A few weeks ago, in my Harrogate recap, I said men did write better crime fiction, and I’d finally figured out why. Of course, I didn’t explain my reason for saying that at the time. Some might wonder at the insanity of a female author making such a statement.
But it is a generalization, and it has to do with appearances, perhaps not even fact. How do I put it delicately? Women seem to write a wider range of novels within the scope of crime fiction. The crime-solving cat books tend to be dominated by female authors, as far as I can see (without reading them). The quirky amateur sleuth books, again, tend to be championed by women writers. Women have their own little subgenre, meshing crime fiction with chick lit. And even romantic suspense, which hovers on the edge of the mystery world, tends to be dominated by women authors.
So, I think it might be fair to say that women write across a broad spectrum. Superficially at least, if not in actual fact, it seems like men stay within a narrower framework for what they do, while it could be said women are all over the place. Or, diplomatically, pushing the boundaries.
But that is, I think, why I have more consistent success with male authors. I have yet to pick up a book by a man that heavily features shopping, manicures and obsessing about weight.
And, dear God, shoot me now if you want to subject me to a few hundred pages that prominently features shopping. Getting dragged to malls by evilkev is torture enough. But putting me through that in my fiction? It’s enough to inspire crime, I’ll grant it that.
For me, I would lean on the side of saying that men do it better, because men more consistently write the type of books that appeal to me. A woman? She could be writing to all sides of the genre, which makes me less certain about the automatic appeal of her work. I need to know she’s a Val McDermid or Natasha Cooper (who knows hideous ways to kill people) or Denise Mina or Laura Lippman.
I need to know she isn’t going to work out her angst through a protagonist with a gold card and a love for shopping at Saks. Gag.
I realize this is all subjective. It’s a matter of taste. Was my brain wired to the male way of thinking from the womb? Was I born without the capacity for producing estrogen? Have I been mainlining the testosterone?
Who knows. The point is, some people think I write ‘male’. And one thing that’s interesting is, statistically, men tend to read books by men and not by women. Which makes me wonder if women will like work by a woman who writes more like a man.
Should I change my name to Sam? A very small number of people do call me Sam, fyi.
Now, some people have told me they don’t really get what it means to ‘write male’ or ‘write female’ so I want to quote Val McDermid, from her forum:
I think, as a generalisation, that we write different styles of book. Men tend to be better at the more linear style of book, the thriller as opposed to the convoluted whodunit. Whereas women are generally better at the sort of complexity of character, at what lies beneath. I think much of the reason for this is the social conditioning we get from early childhood -- boys learn to fight for what they want, girls learn to manipulate. This is all very broad brush-strokes, obviously, and there are lots of exceptions, but I think it has some validity.
I’ve talked about content. Val has talked about style.
It reminds me of what Denise Mina said at The Great Gender Debate panel at Harrogate, when she said that women just didn’t have the same ability as men to go on at length about cars.
As much as the participants in that panel poked as much fun at themselves as they did each other (you had to be there to really appreciate Natasha Cooper asking Ian Rankin if he was in touch with his inner girlie) there was also some serious talk. That there were things women could get away with writing about – pedophiles, for example – that men couldn’t delve into to the same degree.
This is all stuff I’d never thought about, in terms of gender.
Maybe, instead of being a writer without an audience, I’ll find myself being a writer able to cross both sides of the gender lines and address more interesting topics without the restrictions of being male or female.
Or maybe I just won’t care about people dictating what I feel inspired to write.
I don’t know. What I do know is, I find this interesting. I’d never thought of topics in terms of ‘taboo for a man’ so much, other than presuming that men don’t write about female protagonists as much because they don’t want to write sex from a woman’s point of view. Guys actually think about sex from the woman’s point of view, never mind write it? I still harbour a sneaking suspicion this is why Siobhan Clarke hasn’t had a serious relationship… ever. (I wished Ian would bring back Holmes. Kill that bitchy chick he went off with and bring him back with a vengeance, maybe to hunt her killer down and thank them. He could have gone back to the police, to a quiet branch out of the city doing routine stuff to have the seniority to move back...)
Anyway, now that I’ve thought about it, I wonder if it will affect what I do in the future. And now I wonder, how do men feel about writing rape scenes, for example?
What do you think? Is there anything a man or woman can’t do, in writing? Is there anything you don’t feel comfortable approaching yourself?
Or is this all obsessing over nothing?
Today I’m listening to Fairytales For Hardmen.
*Let this be a warning to you. If Julia asks for an interview, be prepared for tough questions you’ve never been asked before, and aren’t sure how to answer!