books, writing

Do I Write Like a Girl?

In my last post, I mentioned a writer who was by all accounts a difficult interview subject. She was hard to hold a conversation with because she was easily distracted. I’ve been trying to remember who this was. Unfortunately, I can’t. I read the article about her very recently, but I don’t believe I’ve read any of her work so maybe that’s why I’m blanking on her name. So I’ve been surfing the web trying to find information on women writers.

Lo and behold, there are scads of Web sites dedicated to women writers. Bookspot’s 20th Century Women Writers lists a number of sites that cover several writers, as well as fan sites for many women writers.

Now last year I spent a lot of time with my nose in Jane Austen’s novels. All of them. But apart from Jane, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf, I’m not sure how many female writers I have read. Back in the Jurassic era when I was in junior high I went through a phase of reading Regency romance novels, specifically those penned by Georgette Heyer. I can’t comment now on the sophistication of her prose because frankly I don’t remember much, but I do know I learned a great deal about Regency England. After that, however, I pretty much gave up romance novels. Ok, except for a few I picked up in one of the book clubs I used to belong to. Those were embarrassingly bad and unless someone really holds my feet to the fire I’m not going to name them. Again, largely because they are long forgotten.

Prior to my Regency romance phase, and since, I was and am a science fiction fan. Not much science fiction is written by women, and much that gets lumped in with science fiction is really more “fantasy” with lots of emancipated sword-wielding princesses holding back the tide of ugly trolls…Marion Zimmer Bradley was of course a notable woman writer in the field, but I have to admit I have not read her books. Octavia Butler is another well-known female sci-fi writer, my heroine Ursula K. Le Guin must be mentioned (she also lives here in Portland! woohoo!), James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon), C. J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey. They’re out there, but again much of their works are mostly “fantasy” rather than science fiction. I can only read so much sword-n-sorcery and dragons.

There are of course others, and I don’t mean to create an exhaustive list here. I just want to think about whether or not fiction written by women is still largely considered “womens’ fiction”, that is, men don’t read it. Jo Rowling published the Harry Potter novels under the name J.K. Rowling at her publisher’s suggestion, who feared a woman’s name might turn off boys from reading them. In the movie “Becoming Jane” which is admittedly fiction itself, Tom Lefroy warns Jane that if she wishes to be “the equal of a masculine author” her horizons needed some widening, insinuating women’s writing was inferior to men’s, or at least the perspective was myopic.

I guess I have to admit I do shy away from novels by women, fearing the dreaded “chick-lit” or “beach read”. It’s fluffy, irrelevant, light entertainment, which is all well and good I suppose in small doses. I like something with a little more meat to it, though. A solid diet of spun sugar leaves me empty. I realize there are plenty of male authors churning out fluff as well, and I avoid them too.

I hope someday women writers will not be seen solely as “women’s writers”.


13 thoughts on “Do I Write Like a Girl?”

  1. I was suprised that when I released my book, there was a high volume of males buying it. Women are now swiftly catching up, but my pen name would not suggest that I am a male at all, so I was actually suprised. The other month while I was in line at the book store, a girl before me was buying “suprise suprise” Twilight, and the male checker was like, “oh I LOVE this series.” And same with my rather masculine cousin, he too enjoyed it. I feel the division is changing, and men are finding that reading a novel written by a female is not so bad, except of course chic lit…


  2. That is very good to hear. I was surprised to hear that apparently men/boys were reading the Twilight series as they don’t seem to have been Meyer’s target demographic. Very encouraging. And best of luck with your books!

    Thanks for coming by, Feather.


  3. I took a lot of women’s studies courses in college and managed to combine a couple of them with my English major. I loved learning about women I had never heard much about in high school {Natalie Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, just to name a few}. There truly are a lot of fantastic female writers out there who write in every genre, but I think the recent “chick lit” phenomena led to the revival of the idea of women only writing certain types of stories [romance, etc]. There are some very good books available in that genre too, but I get tired of some of the fluff and the regurgitated storylines too. Embracing the term “women writers” though can be empowering if you look at the history behind it. There is strength in numbers and in having a shared experience
    PS: I very highly recommend reading Zimmer Bradleys’s “Mists of Avalon” if no others…its her masterpiece and one of my all-time favorites 🙂


  4. Hi Digital Dame,

    Glad to know that there is someone out there cracking the grammatical whip. Like your blog.

    The Grand Dames of the genre are, as you say, Bradley, Butler, Le Guin, Sheldon, Cherryh, Norton, and McCaffrey. However, there is a growing cross genre of Science Fiction Romance written by women. Their work covers the full range of the continuum from hard Sci-Fi to Space Opera, to Futuristic Romance.

    You might like to investigate Lois McMaster Bujold, Linnea Sinclair, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Susan Grant, Catherine Asaro, C.J. Barry, Colby Hodge, and Robin Owens, to name a few. Their resumes include everything from PI, to physicist, to 747 pilot. There are many more, including the rest of us hopefuls. 🙂

    I have a number of blogs linked from the sidebar of my blog. The latest news in the genre can always be found at The Galaxy Express. There is always interesting information to be had at Spacefreighter’s Lounge, and Danger Gal. For some pretty heavy discussion on writing, philosophy, and science, Alien Romances is amazing. All are generously seasoned with humor and friendship.

    Happy discovery,

    Frances Drake

    Writing Science Fiction Romance
    Real Love in a Real Future


  5. Hi Jan! Yes, there are some wonderful women writers, like Joan Didion who I mentioned the other day, Joyce Carol Oates, Doris Lessing, and so on. I wish I could read faster, there’s never enough time to get to all the books I want to read!

    @ Frances,
    Thanks for all that. I think I was kind of giving out mixed messages in my post. After admitting to reading some romance novels in 7th grade, I should have said that that was enough for me. The sci-fi romance genre that you mentioned is not what I’m currently interested in reading, or writing. I think the romance slant is what keeps many women writers from being taken seriously, forever overshadowed by their male peers. When I look for sci-fi, I’m looking for something more along the lines of Robert J. Sawyer, Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick. I can put up with a romantic sub-plot, but heaving bosoms in space is not my thing. I will check out the other writers you mentioned, though, I like to see what’s out there.


  6. Hmmm. Your post reminds me of a Creative Writing class I took in college, taught by a woman who shall remain nameless. She annoyed me by going on about “if you want to become a woman writer…” Then as now, my response was this – if I can’t compete with the men, I don’t want to bother. I am a WRITER. Let’s not limit ourselves as women by forming our own little club. We all have things to say and stories to tell. The only reason I look at the author of a book I’m thinking about buying, is to see whether it’s somebody I’ve read before, or somebody who has been recommended. I’ve read great fiction and horrible drivel by writers of both sexes. I suppose Sci Fi might be a category dominated by men. You’ll have to rectify that! DD, the next Dame of Science Fiction.


  7. I guess it comes down to who our target audience is, and what we like to read. I subscribe to the philosophy of writing (or trying) what I like to read. If someone likes to read romances, they should write romances. I don’t. Now romance is being taken to the stars, and I still don’t want to read it. It’s still a genre targeted at women, women’s fantasies, and there are more things in heaven and earth that I want to read and write about. In order to be taken seriously in the sci-fi field Alice Sheldon published under the name James Tiptree, Jr., and I totally understand why she did it.

    I have a friend who teaches English at a major university, and she is very vocally opposed to anything that calls itself “women’s studies” for the same reason you don’t like being called a “woman writer”. Labels like that perpetuate the division.


  8. Hi, Didge! I think I’m the the friend to whom you were referring. You’re right, I was never interested in taking or teaching any women’s studies courses although I don’t object to their existence, for folks who are interested. In fact, I’m thinking of putting together a course for next year called “Crimes and Ms-demeanors – the female sleuth in detective fiction.” the diff is, men are welcome to take my course, and if anybody wants to research female protagonists created by male authors ((I just read one of Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall novels) that’s fine by me. I think the fact that these characters exist is interesting and worthy of study, but the thing that bugs me, as uppington says, is the idea that there are special rules or tips or pointers or expectations for male or female writers. I think you become the best possible writer by reading the best writers available, and I certainly don’t have different rules/expectations for my female students than for the young men in my classes. Getting all worked up over gender is counterproductive.


  9. Hey-hey, MJ!

    I had just re-read a discussion we had over at Goodreads back a few months ago, talking about “women’s studies” which was what I was thinking of. Your class sounds fun, wish I could sit in and audit it at least!

    I certainly don’t want to write anything that would appeal only to a certain segment of the female population (i.e., romances) unless I miraculously became the modern Jane Austen. Her insight into human motivations was acute, Mansfield Park blew me away. So subtle, but it’s in there (and I know that was one of her least popular novels but I think it’s grossly underestimated). It’s interesting that many of the critical studies of her novels have been written by men.


  10. Greetings DD — I am enjoying your blog, and find myself sparked by the inspiring and creative juices that are steeping here.

    I have to say maryjblog has always been ahead of her time. She raised my consciousness back in the early 70’s when she pointed out that it was no compliment when a teacher told me I “wrote like a male.” I’m sorry to say that wasn’t the first time I heard stuff like that, but it made me more aware of what came to be termed ” the soft bigotry of low expectations” in a lot of different contexts and situations.

    Color-blind, gender-blind….creativity comes in all packages.


  11. Hiya Rosie! I had no idea you were reading this thing! Welcome!

    You’ll have to fill me in on which nimrod made that comment about your writing. (you can e-mail me through the “contact” page at the top if you don’t want to name names here.) I don’t think I would have been astute enough to realize what a back-handed compliment that was back then, but I’m not surprised MJ picked up on it. May we live to see the day when good writing is just seen as good writing, regardless of which corner it comes from.


  12. I know who the nimrod was, and it was somebody who should’ve known better: a teacher from whom I learned a lot, but only because I figured out when NOT to listen to her as well. She was a very bright woman, but to this day I firmly believe that my callow disregard for her “strategies” re: taking the English AP exam was the reason I did as well as I did. I also credit my parents for letting me find my own way instead of doing all my thinking 4 me.


  13. That’s even worse, that a comment like that came from a female teacher. I shake my head everytime I think of it, like, “wait… what???” I would say your disregard for her strategies was more insightful than callow.


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