Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mainlining The Testosterone

”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!


Sela Carsen said...

In the Jennifer Crusie/Bob Mayer book, Don't Look Down Bob made Jenny write action scenes and she made him write a sex scene. He said it was really difficult because in his "other" writing life of military fiction, sex is physical, not emotional. So yeah, men don't write sex scenes the way women do.

He did himself credit in the one he wrote, which was from the hero's pov and stylistically very different from the heroine's pov love scene. He was able to get the emotion in while maintaining guy-type thoughts and reactions.

Christa M. Miller said...

I think our limits are based more on what's in our own minds than on our genders. My husband and I have very similar boundaries on what we will and will not read, write, or view on TV/in movies (most of them relating to children).

Not to say we won't tolerate certain things; it just depends on how it's handled. I've noticed that we both use writing to cope with our worst fears as parents and people, for one thing, and we express them in similar ways.

Ultimately I think gender affects temperament, but not as much as life experiences do. Nature vs. nurture more than male vs. female IMO!

Bill Cameron said...

I have no patience with mysteries solved by cats, and I don't think I could spend much time with a character resolving their angst with a gold card. Beyond that, interesting characters and intriguing stories are all I'm looking for.

Sometimes I want hard-edged, hardboiled, mayhem -- whatever you want to call it. Sometimes I want more introspection. Sometimes a little of both. This year, my reading has been about 2-to-1 women-to-men, and I would say that I've noticed more range among the women, but it's a pretty small sample. About forty novels so far this year. Lee Child is in a class all his own on the mayhem front, but Lori Armstrong brought it too. I also read and loved Jess Lourey's May Day, which is more obviously feminine, but also very clever and intriguing, and a joy to read. Julia Buckley's The Dark Backward had mayhem and romance. The men I read did tend to be more linear, though character development wasn't just lost.

I don't know what I'm saying here. Maybe I'm a weird reader. I like male and female writers.

As a writer, I suppose people will probably say my stuff is pretty male, but I am very character-oriented, and my first novel features a romance as a key plot driver, a pedophile and an attempted rape, some mayhem and a character who works out his angst by examining his feelings rather than taking out a roomful of bad guys with a Desert Eagle. My second novel (in progress) features a sex scene from the point of view of a man and is all about how he feels about it. The grunting and thrusting is tertiary at best.

So maybe I'm a little female, a little male in my writing. Perhaps I should write under the name What's That It's Pat Cameron, and feature an author photo of someone androgynous whosiwhatsis. Hmmm. Now I'm all confused. I can't decide if I need to go lift weights or go shopping. Nooooooooooo!

Anonymous said...

If you've written a novel that's dialogue and action driven, that sounds like success to me. There seems to be plenty of truth in this whole gender argument, but I say do what you do, especially if you hadn't considered the question of a "male" writing style before. If you start trying to write in a style that isn't you, a style you think people expect, it probably won't be as good, but more importantly, you probably won't be satisfied with what you produce.

As for what a man or a woman can or cannot write about, I've got no idea. I like to think anyone can write about anything if they're capable of making it believable. Very interesting topic. I'd have to give it a lot more thought.

Thanks for the mention yesterday, and the link.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sela, that's an interesting example. I'm almost tempted to read it, just to see how he did!

Christa, I don't know that I agree. But then, I've had a lot of time to think about all the points raised from that panel, and I do think there are some things that 'society' is less tolerant of, coming from a man than a woman. And I am talking about a generalization here - I think there are some things men tend to not write, and it could be because they aren't interested, they don't think it contributes significantly to the story or they don't think they can. In each case, the author's reasons might be different. That said, Ian Rankin admitted to a specific example of something he shied away from, and I could understand it.

Bill, I think you're exceptionally well read, for one thing. And it's interesting that you support the idea that women are writing a wider range. I completely agree about interesting characters and interesting stories, and I don't feel men short-change character development for action and dialogue. In fact, what was funny to me was that when Julia asked the question, all I could think of was Rebus sitting on that damn chair in his living room, listening to Jackie Leven, just thinking. Or walking and thinking. Because he does a lot of that.

John, I think it's safe to say I'd never try to write what people expect. I love trying something different. My short fiction, like what I posted at Killer Year, is all about picking one thing I want to convey and playing with it. Just for fun, for growth. I have a challenge to myself, "can I do this?" and I go for it, and that's it. With the longer work, I'm always going to do what I want to do as well. I never thought of it before, and I can't see it impacting me in the future.

s.w. vaughn said...


This is exactly why my thrillers are written under S. W. and not Sonya. I write male thrillers, and I like 'em. :-)

Mindy Tarquini said...

I wrote two novels from a male perspective and people said the writing sounded male. I think they sounded like a female writing from a male perspective.

angie said...

I get kinda tired of the whole gender debate. Yes, men and women have different perspectives. Yes, it is partly a matter of bio-chemicals and yes, it is partly socialization. So what? Does it really matter in terms of creative process and output? I'm not dismissing the gender divide in term of business/sales/etc., but I really don't give a flying fuck about whether (in general) a man writes better action scenes or if (in general) a woman has a broader range. There are always exceptions to the perceived rules, and it just seems silly to get tied up in knots over who is better, or not, and why. Of all the things rushing through my head and my life, this one is pretty damn low on the totem pole. Whew! An unexpected mini-rant!

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, you could have written as Sonny!

Very funny, Mindy. You're such a comedian!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, I hope to see the extended version on your blog later!

I never really thought about it in terms of selling myself, but now I hear people having debates about female authors using initials, blah blah. And one woman at Harrogate had an interesting story, about winning an Edgar, and because she had an androgynous name when she got there (this was years ago, pre-internet, so with no author photo...) they had assumed the writer who won the prize was a man. It hasn't made me change my name, write under initials or anything. It never occurred to me I couldn't sell because I was a woman - I was always so surprised that being Canadian seemed to be such an obstacle for some agents.

Will it impact my sales when my book comes out? I don't think so, but time will tell.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I've probably mentioned this before, but the original protagonist of my w-i-p was a female cop. After struggling for months to get her point-of-view down and make her an interesting character, I ended up writing her out of the book. One of the major male characters is now the protagonist and--of course--it has changed the whole tone of the book. But I'm more comfortable and confident writing from the male p.o.v.

There are plenty of women writers out there whose work I enjoy. Flannery O'Connor remains one of my all-time favorites. Then there's Annie Proulx, Lisa Goldstein, Laura Lippman, Louise Erdrich, Kelly Link.

p.s. I've never heard of Julia Buckley.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandra Ruttan said...

Well Patrick, Julia Buckley is a fairly new author, and I think she's right up my alley. Just like Cornelia Read. It isn't that women don't/can't write what I'm really interested in as a reader, just that it's harder to find them.

Oh, and Anne Frasier's new book is fantastic.

I know what you mean, though, about the protagonist. I worried about my men reading as real. I can see how it would change the whole tone.

Bill Cameron said...

You convinced me over at KY!

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Whoa. Just had to reread Bill's comment. I thought he'd written "You convinced me over KY." Got a little scared for a second there...

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"Oh, and Anne Frasier's new book is fantastic."

I've been trying to get my town's librarian to pick up some of Anne's books. I think they'd find a loyal audience here.

Unknown said...

Glancing over my book collection I see I have an awful lot more books by male authors than female and I agree with Sandra that that's probably because more male writers write in my preferred genres.

I also spotted that in the first draft of my book, my protagonist spent many more passages thinking and feeling (which could be judged a more traditionally feminine style), but I pared a lot of that back in the second draft because it seemed extraneous to the immediate plot, relying instead more heavily on dialogue and simple descriptive action. So I don't if my writing style is male or female, but I think my editing style is probably a cranky old man.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bill, thanks! I think... (Does that mean I write male? Well, I'll consider that a compliment, coming from a guy.)

Patrick, the idea of using 'Killer Year' was obviously not thought out well. We should have gone French or something with it, so we didn't get stuck with KY all the time.

Anne would be touched - every author should be so fortunate to have such a motivated reader working on their behalf!

Vincent, cranky old man?! LOL! Can't wait to read the latest draft!

WannabeMe said...

*hand to forehead*

And here I thought MG was writing about gay brothers.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Dana's obsessed with gay men.

I use my initials because the name 'mindy' sounds silly on somebody as old as me. It's not a diminuitive for Melinda. Imagine all the Mindys and Bambis that will be populating the nursing homes in a few decades.

Unknown said...

Interesting post and something i never thought about. Personally I read all over the genre from teh coziest cozy to the hard boiled & noir. I think you might be right women are more diverse in what they write. They go from cozy, romantic suspence to hard boiled and noir. Men tend not to write cozies although there are a few. Same with romantic suspense. As for me so far this year I have read 35 books written by men and 30 books written by women.

I've heard said some men won't read books written by women which is just plain silly. I never even think about gender when picking a book. I just think about does the plot sound interesting.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I've been accused of arguing like a man all through my time at university, and I fight dirty. :)

So, yes, I suppose my books are more male oriented (think Bernard Cornwell, not Sharon Kay Penman) in that they feature male MCs, lots of fighting, almost no romance and no children characters. Friendship between men, loyalty and its negative counterparts like betrayal and strife for revenge beyond what's sane are my themes. And I write my sex scenes from the male POV if I don't write gay sex, anyway. ;)


This summer I've read Denise Mina, Dan Judson, Cornelia Read, Jason Starr, George Pelecanos, Kate Atkinson, Sara Gran, Harry Hunsicker, Carlos Fuentes, Olen Steinhauer and Ken Bruen. If I had to pair them up it might look like this: Denise Mina and Dan Judson are "similar" in approach and detail, while Sara Gran reads like Bruen for her spare approach.
I don't think a male author could replicate Read or Atkinson's style, but then I didn't think a fly ball could hit Jose Conseco on the head either.

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, I'm having trouble typing because my head is so giant from being mentioned on your blog that it keeps falling forward onto the keyboard. Nice to know that question has kept you thinking, and what an interesting question about men and the rape scene. I have to think about that.

And Patrick Shawn Bagley, I have never heard of YOU.

anne frasier said...

yes, i am wiping a tear from my eye at this very moment. thanks so much, patrick!!! :)

this is a great topic, but i'm confused.
i don't know if there really is a gender divide. i think that shifts with every pairing of writer/reader. i definitely read more men, but there are certain kinds of books i call guy fiction, and i don't care for them. i've always tended to hang out with guys. friends, uncles, brothers. not many females in the fam. i was never into the shopping, clothes, boy talk, girl stuff. i sometimes feel i understand men more than i do women. but maybe i only think i do.

anne frasier said...

i have a headache as big a a house. did any of that make sense? if not, just keep walking.

Mindy Tarquini said...

And Patrick Shawn Bagley, I have never heard of YOU.

I'm sending you the bill for my keyboard, Julia.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Dana, LOL! I suddenly know exactly what ms you're talking about!

Mindy, I would have changed my name if I was you. I'm so glad my name isn't Sandy, and (sorry) Mindy is worse. But people who name their kids Bambi? Oh boy.

Andrea, I wonder if there are any women who won't read books by men? I mean, I've heard people say they won't read American authors, some say they won't read Canadians, others say they won't read translated books, so I don't think women are special. Honestly, it isn't true of the guys I know (see, they're all enlightened) so I never thought about it. I was surprised, though apparently the stats back this up.

Gabriele, from reading your blog I've always had the sense you write in a way that would appeal to men. And it appeals to me too!

David, your reading has been diverse. Could a man replicate Cornelia's style? You're likely right about that one - I'm not sure. I love what Cornelia does - fantastic.

LOL Julia! You've been mentioned here before! I've been racking my brains ever since to see if I could remember an actual rape scene written out by a man. Residual effects of sexual abuse or a rape/murder, sure, but the actual rape? Now someone's going to mention one that should be brutally obvious and I'll feel stupid, but for the life of me, I'm drawing a blank.

Maybe that in itself is the proof that, to me, it doesn't matter if it's written by a man or a woman, so long as the story is good and holds my interest. I've never thought about it.

Anne, first off, thank you for your comment at Killer Year - high praise indeed. And yet another thing we have in common! There are some 'guy' things that are too guyish for me. I prefer Futurama to The Simpsons, for example. Although The Simpsons have moments of sheer brilliance, I can only take so much Homer. I don't know if I do understand men better.

But perhaps it's more about a sense of isolation from my own gender, seeing myself as a bit outside of it. Not really being a typical girl, therefore an anomaly. Perhaps it's more about me not feeling I fit in with women than that I fit in with men.

Honestly, although I'm blessed to have some women I've gotten very close to, even in this industry I find the men very accepting and encouraging. Women, more reluctant to talk to me. That doesn't mean that some women don't, but I notice it in lots of ways. Men are almost twice as likely to reply to emails. Isn't that weird? It leaves me feeling apologetic even writing some women, which is just bizarre.

Hope your head feels better soon. I like Aleve...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, Julia, this is Patrick.

Patrick, Julia.

There. Now you've both heard of each other!

anne frasier said...

i'm a hermaphrodite

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sort of changes the concept of touching your male side too much, doesn't it?

Julia Buckley said...

Well, as you know, I'm partial to The Simpsons, but I hate the Three Stooges. So do I have a male outlook, or can I just distinguish good satire from doltish comedy? :)

Oh, all right, MG, if you must, but I'll treat it the way I do all my other bills--with contempt. :)

Anne, have you heard of that headache stuff that you're supposed to be able to just rub on your forehead for instant results?

And Sandra, my old boyfriend had a sister named Candi. (Candi with an I.)

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"And Patrick Shawn Bagley, I have never heard of YOU."

Fair enough.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Julia, is that headache stuff like novacaine for the brain? I've got to get me some of that!

Now Julia and Patrick have heard of each other! Patrick, Julia did a fantastic interview with me - you should follow the link and read it. Well, assuming you want to know anything about me. Otherwise, it would be torture.

anne frasier said...

novacaine for the brain! i want some!

julia, i have seen something like that advertised. intriguing...

angie said...

James Patterson wrote a nasty rape scene with a milk snake. It was pretty vomitous.

Bill Cameron said...

I know Julia.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, it's a good idea, isn't it? Someone should get right on making that!

Angie, did he write it, or approve the outline he had one of his underlings write?

Bill... Remember, this is my blog. The obvious question is, "Biblically?" See, you always have to watch what you say around here. Never leave room for misinterpretation.

Bill Cameron said...

Well, if I'd said, "I know Julia!" *wink wink* then you'd know for sure.

Unknown said...

I can use your help and advice when I am ready to publish my stuff. I love your style!

mai wen said...

I feel like I've brought this book up previously during a blog discussion, but have you read "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb? Lamb writes from a girl's perspective and takes us through divorce, rape, being an overweight adolescent girl, having sex for the first time, being in love, being heart broken... all in first-person. It's absolutely amazing. Many of my close friends have read it as well and we've all discussed how we kept checking the back, inside cover to make sure that it was a Male writing the book. He wrote so convincingly from a female perspective it truly blew me away and to date it is still one of my favorite books, it was so well written and such a powerful book. I have tried to decipher how the story was impacted by being written by a male rather than female, but it's very hard because it's so hard to convince yourself that a male wrote the book while reading it. I feel like there should be some obvious different perspective or something that jumps out that could be attributed to a male writing the story, but I can't pull it out.

Anyways, very interesting topic. I'm too intrigued by it right now to get anything more intelligent out of myself for you right now.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Uh, thanks for clarifying Bill!

Tanginika - you know where to find me!

Mai Wen, I haven't heard of that book. It sounds like one I should check out for sure.

Julia Buckley said...

Bill and I share a spiritual bond.

And thanks for admitting to knowing me, Bill.

Patrick, I do try to be fair in all my dealings.

Anne, I find that almost all of my headaches are from dehydration. Did you know 75% of people (got this statistic at Curves) of people are chronically dehydrated and don't know it?