Asked to contribute to a debate on whether women or men make better authors, of course I´m flattered, but then I ask myself if I really have anything to say on the subject. The start point is a survey published in the Daily Beast, carried by Grammarly, in which a majority of the 3,000 respondents clearly felt that women would have the edge, essentially (to paraphrase somewhat brutally) because they have more interest in people whereas men are more concerned about things. Essentially it is the old issue of whether plot or character should take precedence (with the twist that women are seen as stronger on character) and what can you say about that? – except to note that most fiction that doesn´t have some kind of story that makes sense having regard to the individuals who are supposed to be in it tends to be rather unsatisfying.
My first, instinctive, objection to the findings is that I´d agree we can usefully talk about qualities that we naturally consider to be male or female (in the way that nouns in most European languages are assigned gender – but note for example that the word for sea in Spanish can be male or female depending on whether you live close to the inconstant water) we shouldn´t expect to find those qualities reflected in the writing (or other activity) of only one sex. In other words, we may think of a tendency to value character over plot as being a “female” characteristic without falling into the trap of thinking that women can´t write thrillers (which tend to be plot driven) or that only effeminate men understand character.
If I think of an example of two writers I could consider to be modern greats in their respective fields, James Elroy writes in that most masculine genre of crime noir, but his entire published output could be seen as an extended character study of a certain type of American male. Some of his plots achieve almost Chandler-esque irrelevance. By contrast, Hilary Mantel´s historical novels are carefully structured, grounded in narrative, with character development emerging through events. It would be pointlessly reductive and somewhat beside the point to fix either of these writers as driven by male or female principles of authorship. The important thing is that both have written books that we want to go on reading; and that show us something about human that resonates with what we may have overlooked or taken for granted in our own life experience.
A second observation is that such polls need to be viewed with caution, because the views that readers and other consumers have of what they value and enjoy are not accurate – they are a better indication of self-image than tastes. People know what they have liked but not what they will like. No business has yet been able to make a success of asking customers to state their preferences and interests and using that to predict what those individuals will choose to buy. Amazon can´t even make useful recommendations when it knows just about all we have already bought. Maybe the next internet billionaire will have cracked the problem. Read More→