Perceptions of Author Gender

Thursday, January 20, 2011

People think I'm guy. Seriously.

On boards, and blog posts, and especially with writing excerpts, I'd say at least 80% of the time, people read my words as "male" in some way. And it's not just me.

The board I frequent most often is Absolute Write. There are several female writers there who will invariably get pegged as men by new members, just like there are a few men who are assumed to be women.

To an extent, I can understand this. I write mainly action heavy things, and too many people still consider "action" the domain of men. I dropped the "a" off the end of Josina to make my name gender-ambiguous because it was meant for use in screenwriting, and that's still very much a boys' club. If someone was going solely on content and the sound of my name, it would make sense to me (even though I don't think I look particularly guy-like in my profile pic up there in the corner)

But... it happens when my name's not attached. Even when I post anonymously.

I tried one of those content analysis things and according to its ratio of "male" words to "female" words, I'm a guy. (English doesn't actually have male / female words like French, Spanish or even Hebrew, so I find the scientific accuracy of this method suspect.)

With fanfic, the people who read my stuff decided I was a guy. The boards where my stories were traded, discussed (and translated into other languages without anyone bothering to tell me, but that's another day's annoyance...) used my screen name with "he" and "him" attached to it.

All of this makes me wonder about the perception of gender with writing. Can you really tell if a person is male or female, accurately, just by the words they choose?

I think it's a pretty well-known fact that JK Rowling was asked to alter her name from JoAnne on her books so as not to scare away young boys who wouldn't want to read something written by a woman. Obviously her "girl-ness" didn't affect their enjoyment once they'd cracked the spine, so there was nothing inherently female about the writing.

Another story (and forgive me for not remembering the author's name) was about a writer of hard boiled detective novels in the 50's who was sued for paternity by an "ex-girlfriend". The writer made a public appearance to deny the "ex's" claims based on the fact that "he" was a 70-year-old woman. So, I guess her writing was pretty, um... convincing... as a male.

Traditionally, if a writer hid their gender, it was a woman with a masculine name to further her career when women weren't considered up to the same standard based solely on their gender. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a confirmed hit when published, with the main complaint being that it was "sad" such a story came from a woman. The Brontë sisters published some of the best known and loved books of all time with male pseudonyms (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). No one suspected them of being female until they decided to divulge that information.

To me, this speaks to a sort of disconnect between perception and reality where authors are concerned. If so many female writers are "known" to be male based solely on the content of their work, then the idea that you can tell gender based on that work is flawed.

I believe a good writer can pass their self off as anything. A writer can create believable children or aliens or psychopaths, or even a believable psychopath who happens to be an alien child.

A man can write in the voice of a woman; a woman can write in the voice of a man - it depends on what you need for the character and story at hand. The process isn't any different than researching any other group of people to whom you don't naturally belong.

I'm curious what others think about this, or if something similar has ever happened to you? Do people make assumptions about you based on what you write?

You tell me.

5 Chiming In:

Demitria said...

No assumptions about gender so far, but I am definitely impressed when people can write a main character of the opposite gender. I always write girls (YA) and have never tried to write from a male perspective.

People do assume I'm older than I am. When searching for my agent, I wrote several emails and wanted them to be professional (of course.) One agent was shocked when she learned I was in my twenties after telling me she was surprised that my YA novel was so authentic to teens, as she thought I was middle aged.

BK Mattingly said...

I've considered abbreviating and/or messing around with my name so it's more gender neutral. As far as having my words "sound" male, that would actually be okay with me because my MC is a male. I wonder if what they're perceiving as your gender is actually just a connection with your MC?

Matthew MacNish said...

I could care less who wrote a book, until I've read it. If it was amazing I am usually curious to find out a little about who the author was.

That being said I don't doubt for a second that the industry spends a lot of time worrying about the perception of their readers about their authors. I suppose there is a reason, when it comes to the bottom line in business: money, but I can't help but think that's a little sad.

Tawna Fenske and Simon Larter did an interesting experiment the other day. She had him write her blog post, secretly, in her voice. No one figured it out.

Terry Towery said...

Wait. You're a .... girl?????


Seriously, with a name like Terry, I've often shocked people who were expecting a woman and instead got, well, me.

I'm not sure I could determine gender just from reading someone's writing. Some of the best male characters in fiction (Harry Potter anyone?) have been written by women.

It's been my experience that no one gender has an edge when it comes to writing. That's one reason I love the publishing world so much.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I think gender is becoming much more fluid with current generations, and that's reflected in acceptance of authors writing from different gender POVs. After all, I don't have to be a murderer to write about one.

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