January 10, 2018

Have you ever read a novel without knowing whether it was written by a man or a woman?

I got 90% of the way into a novel without knowing, but just vaguely assuming the author was male because the first name just struck me as a man's name, even though it was a name I hadn't seen before. I started wondering why that impression stuck with me when the novel was written from the point of view of a female character (though not in the first person).

Eventually, I looked it up and saw that it was in fact a man, which perhaps is why I never developed enough curiosity to look it up. On some intuitive level, I "knew" and nothing ever made me lose that feeling, though in the end I looked it up to confirm my assumption. But I wonder what gave me the impression? It's not that I ever thought the author doesn't really understand how a woman feels or is missing descriptions of details of things a woman would think of including.

Here's the book. I read it simply because I'd seen the movie and was curious about some of the character's motivations. As usual, the book is better than the movie, and the movie was, essentially, perfect. Isn't it a marvel that one person, with nothing but words, can do so much more than the hundreds of people who work together to make a movie?

61 comments:

John Christopher said...

I'm currently reading a novel where the male author doesn't hide his identity as a man, but he definitely chose a pen name where once could assume he's a woman and buy the book as another "Girl" crime novel.

William said...

I can generally tell early on.

I'll get flamed for saying this, but the reason is simple. In the stuff I read (suspense and tech thrillers, mysteries) women authors put more emphasis on what people are wearing. Male authors—again, I'm speaking generally here within a fairly narrow range of genres—never talk about clothes.

INCOMING!

tcrosse said...

Saoirse Ronan, a pretty young Irishwoman, plays a pretty young Irishwoman. Acting !
Loved it.

sparrow said...

"Isn't it a marvel that one person, with nothing but words, can do so much more than the hundreds of people who work together to make a movie?"

Nice point, thanks

traditionalguy said...

A very interesting Trailer and an exquisite actress. It looks like tonight's entertainment has been picked by LaAlthouse. Thanks once again.

tcrosse said...

Isn't it a marvel that one person, with nothing but words, can do so much more than the hundreds of people who work together to make a movie?"

The reader participates in the work, the way a musician participates in a composition.

Ann Althouse said...

"I'll get flamed for saying this, but the reason is simple. In the stuff I read (suspense and tech thrillers, mysteries) women authors put more emphasis on what people are wearing."

The book I'm talking about had a great deal about what people wore, as much as I've ever found in any book.

Here's a sample:

"The night before, both of them had left their clothes out carefully for the morning. Eilis’s costume, which she had bought in Arnotts in Dublin, had had to be altered, as the skirt and the sleeves were too long. It was bright red and with it she was wearing a white cotton blouse with accessories she had brought from America—stockings with a tinge of red, red shoes, a red hat and a white handbag. Her mother was going to wear a grey tweed suit that she had bought in Switzers. She was sad that she had to wear plain flat shoes, as her feet hurt her now and swelled up if there was any heat or if she had to walk too far. She was going to wear a grey silk blouse that had belonged to Rose not only, she said, because she liked it but because Rose had loved it and it would be nice at Nancy’s wedding to wear something that Rose had loved."

Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn: A Novel (pp. 242-243). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

campy said...

Male authors—again, I'm speaking generally here within a fairly narrow range of genres—never talk about clothes.

Robert B. Parker in his Spenser novels frequently described what characters were wearing. I recently reread the earliest ones written in the 70s, and some of the outfits were hilarious.

Ann Althouse said...

"The reader participates in the work, the way a musician participates in a composition."

But you do have to participate to watch a movie... at least to watch it well. Perhaps the difference is if you just sit there passively, the book doesn't happen on its own and you can completely passively watch a movie.

But the difference I describe is also the difference between an audiobook and a movie (though a little more equipment is needed and the reader might be a different person from the writer).

I have often watched movies incompetently and been unable to figure out what the hell is supposed to be happening. I think watching a movie does take active participation.

And, reading "Brooklyn," I alternated between text and audiobook (using the audiobook when going for walks, which is the main way I read books, as opposed to reading news and magazine articles).

Pete said...

Toibon is gay. Sure, it's a stereotype, but maybe that's why he pays so much attention to what everyone's wearing. And why Althouse had a hard time telling if the book had been written by a man or a woman.

sparrow said...

In a book one person has near total creative control. In a movie there are constraints of budget, time and the competing ideas of a creative team and the marketing team.

rehajm said...

One too many accent aigu.

bwebster said...

As a young kid (5-7th grade), I read tons of Andre Norton novels. I don't think it was until 8th grade that I found out that Andre Norton was actually a woman (though her name really is Andre Alice Norton). As I recall, it had zero impact on my great enjoyment of her novels.

Bay Area Guy said...

I thought "Gay Talese" was a female writer for many years.

As a kid, I also thought "Jean Shepherd" was female too, and enjoyed reading his short stories.

In both cases, I was duped by their first names, not the substance of their pieces.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Yep. A lot of early (as in 1930s-1950s) female science fiction authors would use their initials of the first and middle names. I would just read the novels and never even considered the sex of the person who wrote it. Apparently that makes me a misogynist. The first actual novel I read was by Andre Norton and I think it was The Beastmaster. I assumed that Andre was a woman's name, and I was right.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

@bwebster

I too read every Andre Norton novel they had in the school and public library at that age. She was my gateway drug into science fiction.

Char Char Binks said...

Colm is a man's name, just not a very common one outside of Ireland.

There are some men who write popular romance novels under female pen names. It's part of the kayfabe.

Jim at said...

"Have you ever read a novel without knowing whether it was written by a man or a woman?"

Yes. Dreams from My Father

Mrs. X said...

Toibin also wrote The Master, a wonderful historical novel about Henry James. I don’t usually like historical novels (whatever that does for your opinion of my recommendation). Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Jupiter said...

James Tiptree Jr. was a very good science fiction author when I was reading SF. He often had a rather dystopic take on human sexual relations. Later it was revealed that "he" was actually Alice Sheldon. I'm afraid that the quality of her work went downhill rather rapidly once she was no longer keeping up the pretense.

tcrosse said...

"Have you ever read a novel without knowing whether it was written by a man or a woman?"

What Happened.

buwaya said...

"Andre Norton and I think it was The Beastmaster"

Andre Norton was a very popular "youth" SF writer, and no, as a kid I didn't know she was a woman. She wrote a huge number of these, I think her best was "Witchworld".

My first real novel was "Away All Boats", Dodson, in the fourth grade, which is not SF and not at all a kids book, and holds up today extremely well. Very worthwhile.
Available on Amazon, used and in paperback, but unfortunately not on Kindle.

James Tiptree Jr. was in all the best SF anthologies of the day, and I didn't know it wasn't "James". But C.J. Cherryh I knew was was female, because of course the SF magazines told me so. Cherryh was (is, she's still writing I think) a very "male" writer actually. You would struggle placing her, on some of her things anyway.

SF said...

Andre Norton, yup, assumed "he" was male as a kid. Pretty sure that happened with several other authors as well -- lots of old SF&F books had minimal or no biographical material and vague-to-a-pre-teen names.

veni vidi vici said...

I like that actor named "Colm Fiore"

I always thought it was a made up name (although "Colm" is real enough) to juxtapose "Calm" and "Fear".

Sort of an actor's "Iron Butterfly" / "Led Zeppelin" / "Guns 'n Roses" / etc.

Sadly, I was mistaken and the fella's name has a much more banal origin story, alas.

chuck said...

James Tiptree Jr. was my first thought, but I don't think she counts because I thought she was a man, I was just mistaken. I did love the way she got thrown out of a group of female science fiction writers because, as a man, she just couldn't understand the women's point of view. IIRC, the disagreement was over the importance of children.

MathMom said...

This:

But I wonder what gave me the impression? It's not that I ever thought the author doesn't really understand how a woman feels or is missing descriptions of details of things a woman would think of including.

Immediately made me think of this:

Receptionist: How do you write women so well?

Melvin Udall: I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.
(from As Good As It Gets)

veni vidi vici said...

"I'll get flamed for saying this, but the reason is simple. In the stuff I read (suspense and tech thrillers, mysteries) women authors put more emphasis on what people are wearing. Male authors—again, I'm speaking generally here within a fairly narrow range of genres—never talk about clothes."

William, you would flip out reading Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho". It's so obsessively detailed that one almost believes it to be the writer's weird style (sort of the way William Gibson obsesses about technical details), which it may be, although it is as much a perfect depiction of the thinking of the insane character in whose first-person voice the story is told. Almost supernaturally brutal in its violence (far more graphic and intense than the film version), it's nonetheless one of the better reads of the past 25 or so years.

But then, maybe Ellis gets the details so vividly because he's gay, which may lend some oblique credence to the "women authors put more emphasis on what people are wearing" end of the see-saw, as terribly un-PC as that may be for me to dare say out loud.

veni vidi vici said...

"Have you ever read a novel without knowing whether it was written by a man or a woman?"

Yes. Dreams from My Father



[uproarious laughter] You magnificent bastard!

southcentralpa said...

I remember reading JT Leroy excerpts and being 95+% that the author was a mentally ill woman and 100% sure she was not from Appalachia. And I was right!

The Godfather said...

Did any of the Sci-Fi fans here notice a change in Heinlein's style after his sex-change operation?

chuck said...

> women authors put more emphasis on what people are wearing.

Shh, one of the reasons I like Althouse's commentary during elections is the discussion of what the candidates wear. I hardly notice, myself :)

Another trait is romance. When a novel drifts off in the direction of romance, with descriptions of the hunky love interest, it is a good bet that the author is a woman. But they don't hide it and even if the name is a bit ambiguous -- Lindsey Buroker, for instance -- there are enough biographical details to know the authors sex. I can take a bit of light romance, but it tends to grow, and eventually I just lose interest in the books.

Caroline Walker said...

After I read Atonement by Ian McCuen, I made the observation that, in my experience, the most memorable female characters have been created by men. And taking that idea a little further, I was at pains to name a female author who has, in fact, created a main character of the opposite sex of enduring value...and the only contemporary author-ess I could come up with was Jhumpa Lahiri’s exquisitely drawn protagonist in The Namesake. I mean, excluding your Austens and Sands and Brontes.
I am not by any means a prolific reader, but I sure do prefer a novel written by a man. Women tend to write about their own experiences. There is something more universal about prose written by a man, and I much prefer it. I absolutely abhor chick lit.
I noodled for some time over why this might be, and, natural law acolyte that I am, I believe it is written in our physiques: men are transcendant, women, immanent. I know I’ll take a lot of #*¥€ for saying that, but by and large, it’s true.
I miss the patriarchy!

Luke Lea said...

If one were reading The Witches of Eastwick and didn't know it was by Updike and had never read anything by Updike, who powers of description are rather unique, could one guess it was not written by a woman? If so, how?

chuck said...

> created a main character of the opposite sex of enduring value

I don't know that science fiction is of enduring value, but Lois McMaster Bujold created Miles Vorkosigan, who is a very popular male character. Science fiction tends to be more about ideas than character, so it may not be a severe test of the ability to cross over.

Gideon7 said...

Most fan fiction works seem to be written by women, particularly anything involving romance or featuring self-insert characters. Second place seems to be LGTB authors (slash fics).

R.A. Crankbait said...

When I read Mariynne Robinson's "Gilead" I knew the author was a woman, but I had to double-check several times. The book is written in the first person by a male character, and Robinson's insights on the inner workings of a man's mind were startling.

walter said...

It's pretty blatant in published articles these days.
If a celeb or notable addressed in the article has mention of their physical/aesthetic traits, it's typically written by a woman. Because..they can.

"Isn't it a marvel that one person, with nothing but words, can do so much.."
It's a joint process..and each reader gets their own version.

DavidD said...

Colm Meaney was on ST:TNG and ST:DS9 for years and years.

William said...

I saw the movie. I thought it was a more accurate depiction of its time and place than, say, Mrs. Maisel. It didn't have an ideological axe to grind. Nor did the people alive back then. The women weren't aware of how badly they were being oppressed. The characters were good people whose power trips were mostly confined to giving each other a helping hand. The priest in the movie was not a perv but rather a kind, good man. How long has it been since you've encountered such a priest in the movies......Saoirse Ronan is not striking looking, but you can fall in love with her character. It's entirely based on her performance.

Bad Lieutenant said...

1. Ian Fleming would definitely tell you what someone was wearing. Not obsessively, but appropriately.

2. The Godfather said...
Did any of the Sci-Fi fans here notice a change in Heinlein's style after his sex-change operation?

WTF? You're joking.

rcocean said...

I read George Eliot 'The Mill on the Floss" in HS, and thought he was a Guy.

And if you told me Henry James was really a woman - after slogging through "The Golden Bowl" - I wouldn't have been shocked.

And Dreiser talks a LOT about clothes in "An American Tragedy" - But then he wrote in unnecessary detail about everything.

rcocean said...

Memoirs of a Geisha is written by a man, and its pretty obvious. Almost every page screams "I'm an American Male writing about a Japanese Giesha".

rcocean said...

The real give away is the shoes. If an author goes on and on about the female character's shoes, they're a girl.

The Cracker Emcee Activist said...

Very few women authors, quality ones anyway, can (and perhaps want to) write with a convincing gender-neutral voice. Pat Barker, Carson McCullers, Hillary Mantel, .... well, those are the only ones I can think of at the moment. Even when the narrator is female you should be unable to guess the sex of the author. OK, add Harper Lee to the list.

Skevo said...

One of my favorite authors in childhood (the 50s) was Andre Norton -- she also wrote under the name Andrew North. I read every science fiction book she wrote into the early 60s. In one book -- I think it was "Star Rangers" -- she wrote a combat scene, and her protagonist won his battle. But I said to myself, "A man would never do it that way. Andre Norton is a woman." I went to the library to verify my suspicion, and I was right. It took me back a little that I was regularly reading a female author of science fiction adventure novels, but I continued reading her until she switched to a female protagonist in telepathic partnership with a large dangerous cat.

It's easy to understand her position. If I had picked up a book by Mary Norton, I would not have bought it, or read it. I would have been the loser. But I survived a year in Vietnam with 5th Special Forces, and I still say: "A man would have never done it that way."

The Cracker Emcee Activist said...

"you would flip out reading Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho". It's so obsessively detailed that one almost believes it to be the writer's weird style"

Ellis was riffing on Yuppie materialism, hence the obsession with details. Strange book. Comic and repulsive in equal measure.

Tarrou said...

Yes. All of them.

Caroline B. said...

What a great question! But what about nonfiction? The male versus female question comes up constantly for me when I poke around on the web. Sometimes after reading just the first paragraph of an article, I have a hunch about the sex of the author. I am not always right, but there are clues that rarely steer me wrong. I just prefer the writing of men. Can't help it.

Scott McGlasson said...

"Have you ever read a novel without knowing whether it was written by a man or a woman?"

No, but I've read most of SM (Stephen Michael) Stirling's novels and watched him turn into a woman right in front of my eyes with these latest few.

Guildofcannonballs said...

"How long has it been since you've encountered such a priest in the movies......"

"Hail Caesar" and "Gran Torino" are two.

navillus said...

William- "...women authors put more emphasis on what people are wearing. Male authors—again, I'm speaking generally here within a fairly narrow range of genres—never talk about clothes."

In addition to being a terrible author, Dan Brown must also be a chick because his novels are laced with clothing brands being name-dropped.
"The tiny projector in the breast pocket of his Brioni suit bounced against his chest as he ran." [from 'Inferno']
Words fail me, but they failed Dan Brown first.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Very few women authors, quality ones anyway, can (and perhaps want to) write with a convincing gender-neutral voice. Pat Barker, Carson McCullers, Hillary Mantel, .... well, those are the only ones I can think of at the moment. Even when the narrator is female you should be unable to guess the sex of the author. OK, add Harper Lee to the list.

Agree with your picks and would add Annie Proulx.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Lionel Shriver's work has seemed genderless to me, appropriate to her adopted male Christian name.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

I was always amused by Ken Follett's penchant for gratuitously remarking on his female characters' breasts. I even went back to re-read The Pillars of the Earth with post-it flags for the sole purpose of calling all the instances out, but lost interest after 3-4 instances.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

I miss the patriarchy!

The only patriarchy that matters to me is the one in my own home (although he'll identify me as The Boss every time).

(That's a microprose illustration of your observation regarding women's tendencies to discuss their own experiences. It's something I'm both guilty of and annoyed by. I find women who can't telescope out and discuss things on an abstract level intensely annoying, but I'm also painfully aware that far too many of my comments at Althouse involve the words "I" or "my husband." Something I ponder.)

stlcdr said...

Almost everything great comes from an individual.

We get conditioned to believe that groups and teams can accomplish more than an individual - which is true - but it’s distorted to make people think that it’s the only way things get done. The reason being is that the vast majority of simply average people can get to participate in something great. They are still average.

A movie can have the greatest camera operator in the world, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be a good movie. Some really great movies come not from the masses of people involved but from one man or woman with drive, vision, inspiration and ability.

That’s why books are great.

Unknown said...

Happens to me all the time (I read a few books a week, rarely look at the author's name unless it's really good & I want more works).

FIDO said...

I find that lady writers tend to spend a lot more time internally than male writers: what do thoughts means, what do actions mean, how to interpret how things are said, what tone of voice.

Also, if sci-fi has lots of cats or dragons, it's usually a woman. Sorry Andre, but it's true.

FIDO said...

Oh. And unhealthy relationships with horses.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Another trait is romance. When a novel drifts off in the direction of romance, with descriptions of the hunky love interest, it is a good bet that the author is a woman.

You do know that you're basically describing all of late Heinlein, yes? I mean, The Number of the Beast was a decent book until Liz and Lori Long drifted into it.

But while we're talking genre fiction, why are almost all good mystery writers women? There are very few men in the field (OK, James Patterson takes up whole shelves by himself, but he's the exception). I can't think of any men I admire in mysteries apart from Edmund Crispin (=Bruce Montgomery) and the incomparable G. K. Chesterton and E. C. Bentley. But women! Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Marsh. Elizabeth George. Catherine Aird. The late Sue Grafton (I didn't much like her work, but she sure had a fan base). P. D. James. Ruth Rendell. (Both also late, recently.) Why the disparity?

Bad Lieutenant said...

Er...Edgar Allan Poe? Arthur Conan Doyle? Rex Stout? Erle Stanley Gardner? Raymond Chandler? Dashiell Hammett? No goodski?