Can a woman write a novel like a man?
October 25, 2006 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Can a woman write a novel like a man?

Please forgive me if this gets a little sexist. I'm trying to be the good guy after all.

I have a bet with a friend of mine who claims that he can't read books (fiction) written by women. That they have a different style. The he doesn't think the same way women do, and therefore can't ever get into a book written by a women. I bet him that he is full of it, and can't tell the difference simply from the content.

So the bet goes like this: I give him the first two chapters of 6 books. No title. No author. Any number of those books can be written by a women. He has to tell me which. With no mistakes.

My problem is this. At first glance, I'm having trouble finding books. A quick glance at the New York Times bestsellers list give me 3 books by women in the top 5 of each hardcover and softcover. All 3 are not too promising. Now none of the problems with these books are in and of themselves deal breakers as a selection. But combined as a whole, I'm nervous. The problems are these:
All 3 have female main characters.
Phrases like "Self-loathing lesbian", "kick-ass woman warrior", "discover eternal love", and "her soap opera life, her handsome lover" show up right in the synopsis. (synopsi?, synopsises?)
Not to mention the Pink. One of the books has a cover just dripping in pink. That can't be a good sign.
I thought I had a good one until I read a review of it which included the phrase "This neatly structured story is a little too moist with compassion."

Is my friend on to something? Am I doomed? I don't think so. Not yet. But I can't think of any books I've read recently that were written by women. My favorites are Stephen King, Crichton, Grisham, Koontz, Kellerman lately. Clavell, Asimov, Scott Card, and others back in the day. No women in that list.

So that's my dilemma. I'm perfectly willing to believe that there are books out there that meet my needs. My needs being, a few books written by women, but not clearly so. Or failing that, some books written by men that seem somehow to be written by a woman.

Oh. Also, they need to be books "we would both probably read". That doesn't limit me much. Basically, I'm just not allowed to pick any romance novels.

There it is. Hopefully I didn't offend anyone too much. Any help you guys (and gals) can provide, would be great.
posted by gummo to Media & Arts (103 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also. I have to obtain these books for the purposes of this test/bet. Hardcover books from Amazon are not the preferred choice. So stuff that can be found in a used book store, or even better, in some public domain online library, would be best.
posted by gummo at 9:27 PM on October 25, 2006


I think the problem is that women tend to write books for other women, for whatever reason. You should look at sci-fi fantasy, in which case the women would not be writing 'chick-lit' for other chick-lit fans, maybe Ursula K. Le Guin.
posted by delmoi at 9:29 PM on October 25, 2006


I would suggest Patricia Highsmith.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:30 PM on October 25, 2006


Never Let Me Go - written by a man, I almost guarantee your friend will think it's written by a woman (I don't know about the first two chapters, but some of the middle ones have impeccable descriptions of female middle school angst, and the main character is a woman.)
posted by muddgirl at 9:31 PM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Harper Lee. May not work, because she's pretty well-known. Any of the Bronte sisters might qualify. Margaret Atwood would be another reasonable bet.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:32 PM on October 25, 2006


For a contra example, Snow Falling on Cedars has always struck me as pretty damn effeminate.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:33 PM on October 25, 2006


I am at a loss to come up with a lot of great books written by women. One that comes to mind is "Interpreter of Maladies," which is a collection of short stories, so don't know if you can use it, but the author writes from a variety of standpoints (different narrators for each story). I also like "Geek Love" — female author and female narrator.

I am always a sucker for a male writer who can write from a good female perspective. Steve Martin's "Shopgirl" and Paul Theroux's "Picture Palace" come to mind.

You might also try Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" (I don't want to give away the story but he can write from the perspective of a girl pretty well).

Man, this is hard! Maybe that's just a indication that I need to read more.
posted by Brittanie at 9:33 PM on October 25, 2006


Hell, what about Agatha Christie, or is she not obscure enough? If he doesn't recognize it straight away (so no Poirot), and the main character is a man (so no Miss Marple), it'll be difficult.
posted by muddgirl at 9:34 PM on October 25, 2006


Your friend is onto something in the sense that many books by female authors are easily identifiable, because they have febale protagonists, themes that appeal to female readers, and exhibit traits often gendered "female" in our culture. But the same is true of many books by males. I suspect that your friend merely thinks of male-POV books as "normal" and has never realized how heavily gendered their language and subject matter is.

But your friend is dead wrong if he extends this generalization to all authors.

I'm sure others will come up with a good list, but I'll start off with one that I recently read:

Jennfier Egan, The Keep. Fast-paced, gothic novel about two (male) cousins (at least for the first few chapters).
posted by googly at 9:34 PM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


(by the way, your friend will invariably cheat, google a few key phrases, and figure out the authors that way, right? just so you know)
posted by muddgirl at 9:36 PM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'd second Ursula K. LeGuin. Especially the Earthsea series, as the protagonist is male. Try A Wizard of Earthsea. You're going to have more luck in the fantasy area, I think.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:40 PM on October 25, 2006


Anything by Andre Norton will serve you well. Her full name is Andre Alice Norton. He won't realize she's a woman.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:41 PM on October 25, 2006


Girl, by Blake Nelson
posted by frogan at 9:43 PM on October 25, 2006


James Tiptree, Jr was a woman, and no one guessed it.
posted by lia at 9:44 PM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I second A Wizard of Earthsea. Laurie R. King's Keeping Watch is also a good choice. Her other books are a bit more obviously female (The Beekeeper's Apprentice series, for example, centres around a female counterpart to Sherlock Holmes), but Keeping Watch has a warfare undercurrent, male protagonists (especially in the first few chapters) and is rather well paced.
posted by Phire at 9:46 PM on October 25, 2006


Female protagonist, but Patricia Cornwell, I think, writes well and not in a chiclit way. Sue Grafton too. Tess of the Durbervilles written by Thomas Hardy? Not masculinish, in my opinion, in fact, one of the heroes reminds me strongly of Jane Eyre's cousin St John. Cherryh, CJ is female and a strong science fiction writer. She reminds me (probably eroneously) of William Gibson. Katharine Kerr wrote Polar City Blues which I thought was also non-gendered. Julian May (surprise, surprise) is a girl, but her protagonists throughout Intervention are mostly male. Elizabeth Moon is a decent Sci-fi writer (when you separate her from Anne McCaffrey - who I like, but find to be quite feminine). Andre Norton (again a surprise) is female. Plague Ship is one of my favourites. Joan Vinge, excellent writer, but perhaps a little more on the feminine side (without me ever acknowledging what that is). Oh Ruth Rendell & Elizabeth George write mysteries that have been made into movies in England so if your friend knows who Inspectors Wexford and Lynley are, these are not books to trick him with.

(Okay, so I'm anal, I checked the database where I have entered all the books I own).
posted by b33j at 9:47 PM on October 25, 2006


Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake should work, though she gets a bit more feministic later in the book.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 9:47 PM on October 25, 2006


What about women who wrote as men and fooled entire generations of their peers? George Eliot was actually a woman. I must confess that it's been a while since I read anything by her so I don't remember whether it would hit on themes or characterizations that your friend would immediately pinpoint as "feminine".
posted by rhiannon at 9:49 PM on October 25, 2006


E. Annie Proulx, particularly The Shipping News, is quite good at writing male characters.
But this all seems so dumb...Is his problem that women can't write believable male characters or that he doesn't want to read about female characters?

give him a chapter from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or The Corrections or something like that to see if he can "pass" his chick-writer test.
posted by chococat at 9:50 PM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Cruddy, by Lynda Barry would be an excellent choice.What else--if short stories aren't out of the question, maybe someone like Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis would serve your purposes. A.M. Homes might also be a good bet--The End of Alice. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, though I am one of the few people on the face of the earth who hated that book so much that the pure force of my hatred made my hair grow a little faster for a few days after I was done with it.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 9:52 PM on October 25, 2006


Try not to use any books that might be easily googleable, or that are on project gutenberg. Just in case your friend can't resist...
posted by iconomy at 9:52 PM on October 25, 2006


How about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark? If he hadn't read it before you could grab one of the chapters where Jonathan Strange is off fighting with Duke Wellington.
posted by meta87 at 9:53 PM on October 25, 2006


There's Greg Iles's "Dead Sleep." It's a generic crime book written from the point of view of a woman, even though the author's a man. I don't think you'd necessarily know the author's gender.

What about Frankenstein? That was written by Mary Shelley, but I think it might work for you. Unless your friend of course recognizes the passage, in which case it probably wouldn't work.

Anne Rice? Again, she's pretty well known, but she has a lot of fans from both genders.

What about Mary Higgins Clark? She too is a generic crime writer, which would probably serve your purposes well.

My current favorite is George R.R. Martin. He's a fantasy writer, and his books have a wide variety of characters and he does a great job of getting in their perspectives. The best example I can think of is in "A Game of Thrones," which has a great passage towards the end of the book where he writes from the perspective of a preteen girl.

I would also recommend "The Perks of Being A Wallflower," by Stephen Chbosky. The main character is a teenage boy, but he doesn't exactly emanate masculinity.

I definitely second the novel "Never Let Me Go," by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think it would fit your standards well. Also in that category would be "Long Way Down," by Nick Hornby. He writes from the perspective of several women in that book, and I think he does a really good job.

Poke around http://www.alec-velyan.com. She's a fabulous unpublished author whose writings are incredibly masculine by your friend's definition. Plus her writings are just damn awesome. I'd say check out the Centre or the Jinx series; I know at least the first chapters are public.

Finally, I think a good strategy would be to go to the romance section of the bookstore and find one written by a man. There's got to be one, I know it!

I'm being told by the owner of this account to stop writing now. Sorry if this is long, but I wanted to give you some good ideas to work with. Hope you win your bet!
posted by cschneid at 9:54 PM on October 25, 2006


Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," mentioned above, which has a male protagonist, would be a great choice. My husband insists the main character is obviously written by a woman, others we know say they can't tell.

I love love love that book, by the way (sorry, Powerful Religious Baby -- although the first time I read it, I didn't get it. It took a second read.).
posted by GaelFC at 9:55 PM on October 25, 2006


Try some of Margaret Atwood's recent work (Oryx & Crake, for example).
Try some P.D. James (The Murder Room is very tightly written and excellent).
Try some Dorothy Parker short stories; she's an incredible and very cynical writer.
posted by nasreddin at 9:55 PM on October 25, 2006


Tom Robbins is a male author whose works have often have female protagonists and who creates very authentic female voices for his characters. "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is one such work, though perhaps too well known to work for this exercise. Also, the narrator is a man though I can't recall if that was revealed in the first two chapters or not. "Another Roadside Attraction" is a lot less well known and also has a female main character who makes an early appearance in the book so it might be a better choice.

Muddgirl has a good point about the possibility of cheating-by-Google. Perhaps you and your friend should set aside an evening when he does nothing but read chapters of your selected books while you watch to verify that his judgements are made without Googling the authors first.
posted by rhiannon at 9:56 PM on October 25, 2006


You need to read The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen. It's perfect for your purposes. The protagonist is male, and I found the writing to be quite enjoyable and authentic. Check it out.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:57 PM on October 25, 2006


Damn, I recommended her in another thread, but try Assassin's Apprentice (and sequels), by Robin Hobb. I've surprised many people by letting them know she's female (the name's a pseudonym anyways). The books have a male protagonist as well.
posted by gaspode at 9:59 PM on October 25, 2006


Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is pretty deceptive; while I'm not actually a big fan of the book, it's pretty absent most of the things you would identify as belonging to a female author.
posted by Paragon at 10:00 PM on October 25, 2006


Seconding PD James -- the Inspector Adam Dalgleish mysteries are pretty convincingly masculine.

On the other hand, I read a book called Wanderlust by an author with an ambiguous name (Chris Dyer) -- assumed it was written by a female Chris because it was a chick lit novel, until some point a few chapters in when I read something (can't remember what) that I was just convinced no woman would ever have written. Sure enough, on the copyright page, the author's name is Christopher Santos.
But I'm not sure a man would pick up on that -- it was subtle, but just seemed a little bit off to me.
posted by katemonster at 10:03 PM on October 25, 2006


Based on the criteria of your bet, I think White Teeth by Zadie Smith would be a good choice. The first section of the book deals almost exclusively with two male characters, who are portrayed in a highly authentic way (not easily identifiable as a woman trying write from the perspective of a man). Lots of other very believable male characters in the book as well.
posted by The Gooch at 10:03 PM on October 25, 2006


She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb for male writing female. Definitely.
posted by theantikitty at 10:05 PM on October 25, 2006


I forgot to add--Francine Prose's The Blue Angel would be great for this too.

GaelFC: maybe I should try it again. At the time, I remember being weirdly put off by the ponderous tone, not to mention the fact that the author inexplicably used the phrase "to my utter, utter surprise" not once but TWICE in the space of ten pages. Still, I'll reiterate that it's perfectly suited for this contest.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 10:06 PM on October 25, 2006


I think that Robert James Waller and Lewis Carroll could be mistaken for female writers, based on your criteria.
posted by iconomy at 10:10 PM on October 25, 2006


SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders. I don't think I would have guessed that.

Second for Wally Lamb. Definitely.
posted by gramcracker at 10:11 PM on October 25, 2006


Donna Leon (whodunnits, male detective),
Zadie Smith (e.g. "the autograph man", boy hero),
I second "interpreter of maladies"

I wouldn't pick female-author-male-protagonist and male-author-female-protagonist books exclusively, that might be too obvious.

Pink covers are intended for quick reads in the bathtub when one does not want to think, IMHO, so don't take those.

In general, mystery, crime, whodunnits, fantasy, sci-fi, and "serious" literature should be hardest for ascribing a gender to the author.
posted by meijusa at 10:16 PM on October 25, 2006


Wally Lamb's "She's come undone" Written by a man that managed to crawl inside the mind ofa troubled female teenager. Great read.
posted by JujuB at 10:20 PM on October 25, 2006


AS Byatt.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:21 PM on October 25, 2006


I remember reading S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders in eight grade and was surprised when I found out that Hinton was a female author.

The novel was published under her initials because her publisher didn't believe that a male audience would accept a novel containing male perspectives that was written by a female author.

The novel is aimed at young adults so it may not be a very stimulating read, but it's the first suggestion that comes to my mind.

On preview: gramcracker's comment summed it up much more succinctly.
posted by shoseph at 10:22 PM on October 25, 2006


(by the way, your friend will invariably cheat, google a few key phrases, and figure out the authors that way, right? just so you know)

Even if he doesn't cheat, won't he just guess the opposite on the 'obvious' ones, knowing you're trying to fool him? I would play it straight - give him books by female authors that are easily recognizable as such; the same for men. He will guess wrong, and you will win the bet (although this will do nothing to "prove" your case).
posted by Urban Hermit at 10:26 PM on October 25, 2006


"by the way, your friend will invariably cheat"

I plan on watching him read all 12 chapters in one sitting. That was a stipulation. :)

Thanks for all the great stuff. I'll be dropping by the used book store tomorrow to try and dig some up.

I knew Mefi wouldn't let me down.
posted by gummo at 10:27 PM on October 25, 2006


Is your friend a perl module by any chance?

Your friend may have a point. From the perl module there is a quiz at the NYT and more info from Moshe Koppel's list of publications from googling around.

The test could probably be foiled fairly easily.
posted by sien at 10:27 PM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Kate Atkinson's Case Histories.
posted by rtha at 10:33 PM on October 25, 2006


Try here for some female authors

http://www.salon.com/media/1998/07/02media.html">
posted by JujuB at 10:43 PM on October 25, 2006


Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body might be interesting. It's a first-person narrator about falling in love with a woman, but the narrator refuses to identify as either male or female throughout the book and mentions both ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends. (You'd have to look at it, though; it might seem a bit too obviously gender-queer to be written by a man, or at least a straight man.)

When male friends have asked me for female authors they might like, I tend to recommend Margaret Atwood and Donna Tart (both of whom have been mentioned) and also Valerie Martin; A Recent Martyr is a female narrator, but is written in a very straightforward matter-of-fact style that people tend to associate with men.
posted by occhiblu at 10:44 PM on October 25, 2006


If you can find any English translations of Thea Beckman books, like Crusade in Jeans, that would be a great pick.
posted by easternblot at 10:58 PM on October 25, 2006


Maybe Dalva or some portion of The Road Home by Jim Harrison? Female protagonist, male author, good at writing about feelings.

While we're psychologizing the test, you might want to include one manly-man text that was actually written by a man. Thom Jones's "The Pugilist At Rest"? Something by Martin Amis?
posted by salvia at 10:58 PM on October 25, 2006


Excellent point about female-auther-male-protagonist and vice versa JujuB; it's too easy to guess if you rely on that. It's certainly an interesting question to look at authors whose style (active/passive language, sentence structure, character/situational focus) seems in some way gendered. Zadie Smith, Susanna Clarke, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Tom Robbins are potentially very interesting subjects for such an analysis.

From my own bookshelf, look at The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser and Dreamland by Kevin Baker. I found the tone of the first rather "masculine" (rhythmic declarative sentences) and in the second decidedly "feminine" (sweeping romance and tragedy, long sentences with lots of dashes). Alas, both of those have protagonists of the opposite gender than their authors, butt they're still worth taking a peek at.

I wonder, do authors like the above make a greater effort not to write in the expected gendered style and thus are more likely to conciously choose an opposite gender protagonist?

(Also, that kind of "lady brains work like this; dude brains work like this" sentiment just drives me crazy. I hope you whoop him.)
posted by mostlymartha at 11:21 PM on October 25, 2006


The one author that tricked (and not deliberately, I'm sure) me is Andre Norton, mentioned earlier. I haven't read any of her stuff in years and years, and so what I've read is kind of handwavy fantasy stuff of the sort that I don't read anymore, but I had absolutely no idea she was female.
posted by blacklite at 11:58 PM on October 25, 2006


Seconding Le Guin and Clarke; another writer who defied stereotyping was Dorothy Sayers.

As part of your quiz, it might be amusing to include sample chapters of Jan Morris, both pre- and post-. Some critics, however, have detected a change in Morris's style over the years (including the author herself).
posted by rob511 at 12:37 AM on October 26, 2006


Interesting challenge you have there, not least because of the reverse psychology your friend will be anticipating.

How literary is your friend? Would he recognize the writing of Henry James or DH Lawrence? the Bronte sisters? Alexandre Dumas? You could probably mess with him by using less contemporary stuff, as it can be harder to "read" much about the author when the language is more complex, not what we're accustomed to.

On the contemporary scene, PD James is a good idea. Dorothy Sayers too. Or Dorothy Dunnett.

One other thought--seems like the best way to show your friend up would be to find works by women that he'll want to continue reading after the first two chapters. Not just any old thing where the gender of the author is hard to identify, but books that will pull him in. Maybe all six of your choices should be by women, from different periods and genres as suggested above. See if he really has no interest in finishing any of them.

Good luck!
posted by torticat at 12:46 AM on October 26, 2006


If science fiction is OK how about The Exiles Saga (The Many-Colored Land etc.) by Julian May? A woman with a man's name. I don't think her writing is particularly feminine.
posted by markdj at 1:10 AM on October 26, 2006


Fantasy: Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling; Dragonspell by Katherine Kerr.
Scifi (well, space opera): The Warriors Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold.

I also second markdj (above): I doubt he could pick Julian May.
posted by lazy robot at 1:50 AM on October 26, 2006


Colleen McCullough's historical novels about Rome are mostly politics and war, with lengthy and reasonably gory accounts of the battles.
posted by Canard de Vasco at 2:04 AM on October 26, 2006


Definitely Patricia Highsmith. If you don't want to get spotted and avoid the Ripley novels, I'd go for This Sweet Sickness.
posted by meerkatty at 2:49 AM on October 26, 2006


Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake should work, though she gets a bit more feministic later in the book.

Strange, I wasn't thinking too hard about this, but that's the first one that I thought of. I think it has something to do with the very blunt prose she employs--nothing flowery about the novel at all.

Ian McEwan's Atonement always struck me as being very reminiscient of some of Woolf's novels. There are also a number of lengthy passages in the novel which deal with the vantage point of female characters, so that might throw your friend off.

Frankly, though, whether you succeed or not, your friend is very much wrong. It's possible he mostly reads bestsellers, in which case this sort of gender pandering is often prevalent (consciously or unconsciously), but this is certainly not always the case. Then again, I tend to really enjoy novels written by women specifically because they're writing from a different vantage point, just as literature written by people of different cultures and classes is also appealing. I guess that's neither here nor there, though...

Finally, this might be the devilish fiend in me talking, but as a lark, the very best thing you could do in this scenario is throw in a bit of Timothy Findley. There are two reasons for this:

1.) His novels are wonderful.

2.) He writes very sensitively about very "manly" things like war. Elegiac prose about the human condition followed by bloodshed. That sort of thing. Additionally, he was a gay writer, so he deals with subject matters from an interesting (and, I suspect for your friend) different perspective, one that perhaps contains elements of both things that you're looking for.

As such, his attempts to discern whether or not the writing is uniquely male or female might meet some textual resistance. And, as an added bonus, if he guesses correctly (and a guess is all he'll be able to muster, I suspect) that the author is male, you can let him know that Findley was a homosexual--ask him then why it is he can't get into the mind of a female writer, but he can that of a homosexual (or does he think that gay males think the same as straight ones?). It should poke enough holes in his absurd theory to render the entire argument irrelevant, at any rate...

The possibilities are endless, really. Make sure to have a bit of fun with this one, mate. I suspect you'll be mining it for anecodatl stories for years to come.

Note: I don't mean to suggest above that the intrinsically funny aspect to using Timothy Findley is a simple "Haha, you think like a gay guy!" joke, in case anyone is getting the wrong idea. I just think it's a somewhat simple way to illustrate the odd and untenable position his friend has taken in the argument in question.
posted by The God Complex at 3:01 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


One other thought--seems like the best way to show your friend up would be to find works by women that he'll want to continue reading after the first two chapters. Not just any old thing where the gender of the author is hard to identify, but books that will pull him in. Maybe all six of your choices should be by women, from different periods and genres as suggested above. See if he really has no interest in finishing any of them.

Yes, this is another idea that occurred to me, but one that I forgot to mention in my haste. Good point, torticat. gummo needs to make certain that at least a few of the novels he chooses from female authors are not only cleverly disguised but would appeal to his friend. This would prove his case far more elegantly than a bit of simple misdirection would.

Of course, that's a pretty hard thing to do without a working knowledge of his friend's reading list. I'm curious, gummo, why did you include your favorites and not his? That seems somewhat beside the point, don't you think?
posted by The God Complex at 3:04 AM on October 26, 2006


I can't belive nobody's mentioned Iris Murdoch. Anything by her would be a goer, and she's written tons so finding something obscure is probably possible.

Monica Ali's Brick Lane is also a candidate.

Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" also has one of the funniest opening chapters I've read, I think.
posted by handee at 4:32 AM on October 26, 2006


The Secret History by Donna Tartt? Male protagonist, not touchy-feely at all (in fact, it's hard as nails).
posted by pollystark at 4:35 AM on October 26, 2006


Restoration by Rose Tremain
The Giant O'Brien by Hilary Mantel

Those are two books I've read recently by female authors that might catch him out. The protagonists are male, the writing is darkly funny, and they're well worth reading anyway.

I actually think that your friend has a point, in that women do write different books from men. But then every author writes different books from other authors, so it's not actually a very interesting thing to say; being female or male is just one thing that affects writing. The differences between individuals are larger than the differences between the sexes.

Your friend is missing out on some great writing with his stupid assumption.
posted by tomsk at 4:35 AM on October 26, 2006


Susanna Moore (In the Cut, for one)
PD James
Mating by Norman Rush is an incredible feat of writing from a female protagonist's point of view.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:41 AM on October 26, 2006


Give him something by Nicholas Sparks in that mix. That boy can write some tear-jerker romances, lemme tell you.
posted by headspace at 5:01 AM on October 26, 2006


Please report back on the outcome of your experiment.
posted by iconomy at 5:20 AM on October 26, 2006


Here are two great male authors that he might be fooled him into thinking are female, just to mix things up a bit: writing about men, Andre Dubus (that's the father, not Andre Dubus III); and writing about women,E.M. Forster.
posted by footnote at 5:59 AM on October 26, 2006


Well, I can't believe nobody's mentioned Geek Love!
posted by flabdablet at 6:00 AM on October 26, 2006


Minette Walters. Seriously good mystery/thriller/police procedurals, with a definite hard nastiness to them. Her books are much meaner than many comparable books written by male authors (and they're also extremely well-written and intelligent).

Also Michael Slade is currently half female, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more consistently violent and brutal author than Slade.
posted by biscotti at 6:02 AM on October 26, 2006


There are two strategies that are sure winners.

1) pick 6 books that were all written by men or all written by women, with protagonists with a variety of genders, or with a variety of writing styles (flowery, hard-as-nails, etc).

2) pick 6 books from both men and women authors with the same gendered protagonist, and similar writing styles. If he can pick up which ones are which, more power to him.
posted by muddgirl at 6:07 AM on October 26, 2006


The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, which falls into the sort of beach reading you prefer and has a few chapters which are solely from a male perspective.

Good Faith, by Jane Smiley. A first-person male protag, and the major relationship is between him and a Michael Milken-type.
posted by blueshammer at 6:08 AM on October 26, 2006


check out ceremony. Written by a woman, but the main character is a man. There's quite a bit of violence and drinking in the beginning too, so that might be good.
posted by milarepa at 6:23 AM on October 26, 2006


Your friend is missing out on some great writing with his stupid assumption.

It's not a stupid assumption. Don't assume that the reader is content with the situation. I feel similarly. Though I constantly try books by women, they very rarely click with me.

I have an ongoing similar experiment with a friend. She and I both prefer male writers but she seems to have more tolerance for female ones than I do. She occasionally reads things to me over the phone and I have to guess the gender. I'm rarely wrong and when I am, it's always "man sounding like woman". Because of that, I think that some of the people in the thread are misunderstanding this a bit. (Or I am.)

To me, it seems like some people are understanding the situation as "I can tell the author's gender of everything written." I see it more as "For some reason books written by females don't click with me. Prove me wrong by finding one that I like."

So, when I read your Q I thought the guy only had to be to be correct on 100% of the books he says were written by women which actually were written by women, not 100% of the gender guesses. So, in order for you to "win" he has to identify a female author as man--you don't win by him identifying a male author as a female. (However, this system has a flaw because if he says women for all of them, he'll be "right".)

So, he'll only be wrong if he identifies a woman as a man, correct?

Let me say that my own lack of appreciation for books written by women has nothing to do with subject, genre, or gender of protaganist. Two of my favorite books could be classified as romance novels (Endless Love by Scott Spencer and Sparrow Nights by David Gilmour).

If your friend is like me, he's not saying he likes all male authors or that male authors always sound like male authors. He's saying that there's something present in the writing of women that seems foreign to him but that he can't put his finger on it. That's the case with me, anyway.

So, finding male authors who also have that quality isn't that uncommon and isn't the point of your experiment, to my understanding, but finding females who don't have the quality is very, very difficult. I've read many of the books in the thread and simply don't agree with the suggestions, for instance. In the Cut, Jonathan Strange, The Shipping News, Written on the Body, Amy Hempel (whose stores I love), White Teeth, Secret History... all "scream" female author to me.

Anyway, good luck with your experiment. I'm interested in hearing the results (especially if my understanding of the thing is correct). My suggestion for the experiment is give hiim 6 books written by women. That's your best chance of winning from a psychological perspective. He'll start to think that at least one of them must be written by a man and will trick himself.

My own recommendation is Kathe Koja's Kink.
posted by dobbs at 6:24 AM on October 26, 2006


If it's not too late for a counter-suggestion, you might also try a passage from Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden. Beautifully writen from an entirely female perspective, IMO.
posted by shiu mai baby at 6:25 AM on October 26, 2006


Based solely on books sitting near my desk: CJ Cherryh's "Cyteen." Sprawling sci-fi novel [almost Dune-like, in some ways.] The main character's female, and the book's written by a woman, but I can't imagine the story being considered particularly feminine. (She does male protagonists in a fair number of her other books, if you'd prefer that.) Garth Nix's "Abhorsen" books, particularly "Sabriel," the first. They're young adult books with female main characters, and I don't think they feel particularly "masculine" or "feminine." [You'll get a much better selection of books here than you would looking at a Bestsellers' list. Bestselling doesn't mean good, and many books are specifically written to appeal to a gendered audience, as you saw.]

And muddgirl's got a point regarding strategies.
posted by ubersturm at 6:28 AM on October 26, 2006


I have to third Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. After I was finished with it, I told my girlfriend that I really enoyed it and that I "usually don't like things written by a female." She had a good laugh at my expense.
posted by Diskeater at 6:28 AM on October 26, 2006


I'm going to second the book Never Let Me Go. He will definitely think it is written by a woman.

Also, try some Margaret Atwood, specifically Oryx & Crake to convince him that a male is writing.
posted by dead_ at 6:31 AM on October 26, 2006


And, something just occured to me: the category of books I have that are most written by women: non-fiction. The Coming Plague, Hit and Run, Swoosh (history of Nike) are all written by women and are all excellent and, to my ear, the gender is unguessible.
posted by dobbs at 6:33 AM on October 26, 2006


Also, maybe Room With A View. I'm not sure why, but I really think that book will fool him.
posted by dead_ at 6:37 AM on October 26, 2006


Or failing that, some books written by men that seem somehow to be written by a woman.

Dang. Sorry, I missed that first read through. Apologies. (Though I'd clarify it with your friend if I were you as, as I say, I feel similarly to him but would never agree to that term as it makes the experiment impossible for him to win. Based on my own prose, I get accused of being female pretty much weekly.)
posted by dobbs at 6:41 AM on October 26, 2006


I'll Nth Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and add a recommendation for the greatest female author of the 20th century (and one who has rarely ever felt "feminine" in all my readings of her), Flannery O'Connor.
posted by saladin at 6:50 AM on October 26, 2006


Try Taft by Ann Pratchett. Written from the POV of a black man in Memphis and his relationship with a young white woman.
posted by witchstone at 7:06 AM on October 26, 2006


Following up on dobbs' non-fictions suggestion Longitude was written by a woman.

The Eight by Katherine Neville, kind of a cross between Dan Brown and Grisham.

I remember actually checking, several times, to see if Mating: A Novel was written by a man or woman.

Bridges of Madison County
is another obvious example of a "woman's" book written by a man.

On the Science Fiction front I've always found Elizabeth Moon's and David Weber's space operas really similar. Both have primarily female protagonists.

Lois MacMaster Bujold's, however, main character is a guy.
posted by DarthDuckie at 7:40 AM on October 26, 2006


Toni Morrison's books often have female protagonists, but her prose, I think, is lyrical in a way that's not necessarily identifiable as female. Song of Solomon has a lot of male characters and might fool your friend. It's also a great book.
posted by CiaoMela at 9:13 AM on October 26, 2006


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson was surprising in its similarity to early Faulkner. It is the story of dying minister writing a personal story letter to his young son.
posted by rabbitsnake at 10:04 AM on October 26, 2006


She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb for male writing female. Definitely.

that would only make a point about terrible sentimentalism in female authors. (Of course people are welcome to enjoy whatever they like, but that book is not a good example of literature - just a good example of stereotypically bad schmaltzy chick-lit, by a man).

Donna Tartt is a fun read, though I would not say "hard as nails" - it's a murder mystery and a well-done one, but it's still pretty sympathetic. It strikes me as in the same category as jonathan franzen - like watching good TV dramas. They're enjoyable but probably won't change your life.

Women authors I like: virginia woolf, jeanette winterson, katherine dunn (she has two short novellas from before Geek Love), gertrude stein.
posted by mdn at 10:20 AM on October 26, 2006


I, too, was going to recommend Nicholas Sparks as did Headspace, but the more I think about it if there is going to be a tear-jerker in the mix he will probably see the obviousness of you putting something sentimental in and vote for it being written by a man.
posted by Ugh at 10:44 AM on October 26, 2006


I think your friend is wrong. A talented female writer can write "male" and a talented male writer can write "female". Maybe he just hasn't found a subject matter the some females write about that he likes.

Regardless, to really torture your friend you should make him read the intentionally bad novel "Atlanta Nights" and figure out which chapters were written by men or women.
posted by dgeiser13 at 10:47 AM on October 26, 2006


and add a recommendation for the greatest female author of the 20th century (and one who has rarely ever felt "feminine" in all my readings of her), Flannery O'Connor.

It is a brave person that ventures, when talking about books, to to put forth the "greatest", especially since it causes almost the same immediate reaction in anyone that reads it: no way. This reaction is often independent of whether they've read the person or not, and, in fact, it may make them resist the text as much as possible when they finally read it. Then again, if they happen to agree with you after they read it, your victory will be all the sweeter.

For my money nobody tops Woolf, in this century or any other, but I can see how she might rub people the wrong way. I've never read Flanney O'Connor, though--while we're talking about her, where would you recommend I start?

-----

dobbs, that's interesting. As I mentioned earlier, what is your opinion when you read a novel written from the perspective of, say, a gay male? What about diasporic literature? Does the culture or sex-pref gap give you similar dissonance when you read a novel?

I mean, honestly, most female authors aren't hard to peg. My preliminary conclusion, given what you said about academic writings, is that you prefer people that write in a strong voice--you know, the "god voice". In my experience, women tend to avoid this sort of godly authorial license far more than men do, so perhaps that's part of what you don't connect with. I don't mean any offense by this, but the way you comment leads me to believe this may be the case; that is to say, you tend, when writing about something you're passionate about (music, for example) to adopt a similarly unassailable tone.
posted by The God Complex at 12:03 PM on October 26, 2006


Oh, an Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr Fortune's Maggo is a great read. It's written from the perspective of a man, but is somewhat sensitive to the position men are thrown into. He'd probably guess it's a woman writing, but who knows. Either way, great novel.
posted by The God Complex at 12:05 PM on October 26, 2006


*Maggot
posted by The God Complex at 12:06 PM on October 26, 2006


The God Complex:

a strong voice--you know, the "god voice". In my experience, women tend to avoid this sort of godly authorial license far more than men do, so perhaps that's part of what you don't connect with. I don't mean any offense by this

is just a little bit eponysterical
posted by handee at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2006


I think your friend is totally crazy. A good book to try, though, would be The Professor's House by Willa Cather. It is excellent.
posted by josh at 3:13 PM on October 26, 2006


The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. When I started reading it I didn't even note the authors name. When I was done with it (after just two sittings) I was kind of surprised that it had been written by a woman.

The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:17 PM on October 26, 2006


As I mentioned earlier, what is your opinion when you read a novel written from the perspective of, say, a gay male?

I don't have much experience in this. I used to read a bunch of gay fiction but it was when I was much younger--before I really started paying attention to what I read, if that makes any sense. I liked Nicole Griffith's Stay, and I think she's gay. I didn't much care for either of Dale Peck's books, though for some reason I read them.

My preliminary conclusion, given what you said about academic writings, is that you prefer people that write in a strong voice

I don't think I said anything about academic writing, unless you mean non-fiction, which is something different, to me.

In my experience, women tend to avoid this sort of godly authorial license far more than men do, so perhaps that's part of what you don't connect with.

I don't know. I've never been able to put my finger on it. It's something that bothers me about myself but doesn't seem to be something I can change. I try female authors' works often, but they just don't click. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with voice, tense, or anything else obvious.

you tend, when writing about something you're passionate about (music, for example) to adopt a similarly unassailable tone.

Hmm. Interesting. I've never noticed. Though I'm passionate about music I don't like writing about it and I really only do so on Metafilter. I think I write about it the way that I talk. My actual writing, however, is not even close to the way I talk, but is closer to what I like to read--or, perhaps, the way I wish I talked. I dunno, but as I mentioned, I've often been identified as female by readers--in fact, the one interview I ever gave to a newspaper for my writing, the journalist said she was sure I was a woman, prior to meeting. I take it as a compliment, which is sort of odd considering writing by women doesn't usually do it for me. Whatevs...

Flamingbore's suggestion of Parkhurst's Dogs of Babel... hmm, I dunno. That's actually the last book I finished. It's a lovely book, but to me it didn't seem to be written by a man to me.

FlamingBore, since you liked that book, I'd recommend Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krause to you, as well as The Dying Animal by Philip Roth (probably my favorite book), and David Gilmour's Sparrow Nights.
posted by dobbs at 4:12 PM on October 26, 2006


Again, thanks for all the great info. I'm finding this discussion to be fascinating. I've printed off the list of authors, and will be heading off to the used book store on the way home. I will let everyone know how things go. The 'competition' is scheduled for one day this weekend.

Just to clarify a couple things in response to some comments made above:

He doesn't have anything against female authors, or think himself in possession of some special skill for picking out a female author. He just stated that he thinks there is something going on there, because no book written by a woman that he can remember reading ever 'clicked' with him. He just figured it was a brain thing. I'm sure he would be happy for me to point out new female authors that he can start enjoying.

I mentioned the books I've read and prefer, only while asking if he was on to something, since my authors were all men. I didn't list his favorites because I don't know them.

My goal here is to win the bet, but not only that. I don't really want to trick him into losing. I wasn't looking for a psychological way to get him to pick incorrectly. The "all 6 books by women/men" idea, while I'm sure would result in a victory in the bet, sorta feels like cheating to me. I want to present him with 6 books which actually show that his position is incorrect. Though, I think by reading this thread, I'm leaning towards the idea that he's correct. There is a difference. The fact that exceptions to the rule surely exist, doesn't prove otherwise. For some people to comment that he's wrong, crazy, or stupid, I think is unfair. If it can be agreed that women and men tend to write differently, then preferring one style over the other should be just as valid as preferring fantasy over sci fi. Anyway. I'll report back with the books I chose, and the outcome of the bet.

Thanks again for all the great stuff.
posted by gummo at 4:23 PM on October 26, 2006


Actually, on reading my post back, I guess he does "think himself in possession of some special skill for picking out a female author".

Since after all, that's the bet.

I worded that wrong. He doesn't think himself in possession of some skill at deconstructing sentences, writing habits or styles, and using that information to determine sex. He just thinks he's going to have a feel for the writing. That it's going to 'click' with him only when it's a male writer.

Anyway, what am I still doing at work. Time to go to the book store.
posted by gummo at 4:27 PM on October 26, 2006


Also, as some have suggested, it'll be much more satisfying when he picks one of the books written by a women and says, "Yeah, this is good. I like it. It's surely a dude."
posted by gummo at 4:49 PM on October 26, 2006


I hope I'm not too late, for Freezing, by Penelope Evans, is just perfect for this.
posted by 31d1 at 5:26 PM on October 26, 2006


The book Switch Hitters was tailor-made for this experiment.

Really, it's excellent and amusing.
posted by digitalis at 11:49 PM on October 26, 2006


The Update:
For those of you who check back.

Based on suggestions here, a small amount of research on my own, a quick trip to the used book store, and a selection of books I happened to have laying around, I picked the following books.

1. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Female
2. The Eight - Katherine Neville - Female
3. Crash Dive - John McKinna - Male
4. White Teeth - Zadie Smith - Female
5. A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula Le Guin - Female
6. Oryx & Crake - Margaret Atwood - Female
7. She's Come Undone - Wally Lamb - Male
8. Death in Holy Orders - P.D. James - Female

All the books by females were selected based on suggestions here on 'who wrote like a man'. Those were all purchased at a used book store except for Frankenstein which I happened to have. One of the male books was Crash Dive by Jonathan McKinna, and was laying around at work. It was upposed to be a typical guy book along the lines of Clive Cussler. The other male book was Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, recommended here and purchased at the same used book store.

Some notes:
Our original bet was 6 books. He had to get all 6 correct. I started to feel bad like my book choices were going to slay him, and offered him the change to 8 books, he had to get 7 right, giving him a little room for error. That was accepted.

I presented my buddy with the first two chapters of each book. All identifying information removed. (Author, Title, etc..) If there was a prologue or preface that was of sufficient size, this was used as the first chapter.

He had to read all the books in a sitting, without getting up to leave.

I presented him with the following clues.
1. Both sexes are represented.
2. Two of the books were not purchased for this experiment, but were things I had laying around, and was planning on reading.
3. One of the authors is quite famous. The book a classic.

The Results:
He presented me with two sets of answers. His gut feelings based on reading, and his official guesses based on his gut feelings, the psychology of the test, and what he thought I would give him, etc...
He would be scored strictly on his official answers.

They were as follows.

1. Gut: M - Official Answer: M - Incorrect
2. Gut: F - Official Answer: F - Correct
3. Gut: M - Official Answer: M - Correct
4. Gut: F - Official Answer: F - Correct
5. Gut: F - Official Answer: M - Incorrect
6. Gut: F - Official Answer: M - Incorrect
7. Gut: F - Official Answer: F - Incorrect
8. Gut: F - Official Answer: M - Incorrect

He officially got 3 out of 8. Based on his gut, without second guessing himself, he would have gotten 6 out of 8. He lost either way. But his gut was pretty good. I have to give him that. Especially since he was going up against 'some internet braintrust' as he called Metafilter after I described my 'research' here.

He did have to go up against a pretty tough set of books. (Excluding number 3 above: the John McKinna one, since I screwed up and left the interior cover page completely exposed to him. It was a freebie anyway). His two incorrect gut answers were Mary Shelley, and Wally Lamb. And the Wally Lamb one was pretty unfair. And also a little counter to the goal of this test. It was a man's book that he misidentified. He never claimed to be goot at that.

Also. I have to say, I'm a little suprised at a couple of the suggestions. The Eight by Katherine Neville was suggested. He read exactly one sentence of that book and tossed it aside. This is the first sentence of that book.
"A flock of nuns crossed the road, their crisp wimples fluttering about their heads like the wings of large sea birds."
Come on. Wimples? Gut: Female - Official: Female

He also voted Gut Female and Official Female for Zadie Smith, who came HIGHLY recommended as a very good 'masculine' female writer (or whatever it was I needed). I wonder how many of the recommendations were by men and how many were by women. That would have been an interesting thing for me to have requested.

Anyway. It was a fun experiment. And I won a little money. Almost enough to cover the books I bought. :)

And he is now planning on reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and seeing what else she has written. So it wasn't a total loss. I'll have to give the other recommended books a try (maybe excluding the Wally Lamb one) and see what I think.

Thanks for the help everyone.
posted by gummo at 6:59 PM on October 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


Scoring the first+final correct guesses as 1, the first+final incorrect guesses as 0, and the ones where he changed his mind as 0.5, I figure he scored as follows:

1. M - Incorrect - score 0
2. F - Correct - score 1
3. M - Correct - score 1
4. F - Correct - score 1
5. Changed mind - score 0.5
6. Changed mind - score 0.5
7. F - Incorrect - score 0
8. Changed mind - score 0.5

Total score: 4.5

Now, I just flipped two coins eight times, with the following results:

1. Heads, heads - score 1
2. Tails, tails - score 0
3. Heads, heads - score 1
4. Tails, heads - score 0.5
5. Tails, tails - score 0
6. Tails, heads - score 0.5
7. Tails, tails - score 0
8. Tails, heads - score 0.5

Total score: 3.5

Make of that what you will. Personally I'm impressed that the first coin came up tails six out of eight times :-)
posted by flabdablet at 5:21 AM on October 31, 2006


Having just read a book by Andre Norton (I saw it at goodwill for $1 and thought of this thread), that would have been a great choice - much better than Katherine Neville, in my opinion. Her writing is tough as nails, as far as SciFi goes.
posted by muddgirl at 9:19 AM on October 31, 2006


Thanks for the update.

He also voted Gut Female and Official Female for Zadie Smith, who came HIGHLY recommended as a very good 'masculine' female writer

I'm one of those people who says, "Told ya so." ;)

I'm really curious what he'd think of Kathe Koja's Kink, which was my suggestion, thought it's probably impossible to tell now as anything else presented to him would be a give-away as "I wonder if this will fool him!" which = female. It begins:

In bed we hear them: half-laughter, voices, TV noise and their own beneath it, movements unseen but felt as vibration: feet across the floor, soft thud of fucking as we lie together, Sophie cramped and cradled, long bare legs canted high around my hips and: thump, boom, finding a rhythm, fucking harder past Sophie's silent laughter, rag-doll head nudging, digging, nestling like a fist beside my own and "Maybe they're finally using the vibrator," whisper and giggle, pink lips to my ear.
posted by dobbs at 7:48 PM on November 3, 2006


Not sure about the misogyny or what else might be going on with you, I imagine one could still be a misogynist and appreciate certain women's writing. Also, I've always had trouble taking seriously the whole can-women-write-from -a-male-perspective and v.v. debate. Who cares? As long as you enjoy the writing, and if you don't, well, whatef...I mean how many novels are published each year? Probably more than any sane person can read in their lifetime.

Anyhoo, recently I thoroughly enjoyed "Find Me" by Carol O'Connell which, I believe, is generally classified as a thriller. IANAB [I am not a bloke] and I'm not all that familiar with the genre but was blown away by the writing which I thought was almost over-the-top "ballsy", "muscular", "taut"...fill in with whatever masculine du-jour adjective (yet still far more enjoyable than Hemmingway). Apparently this is the nth in a series but I reckon this one is the culmination: there's no need for whatever went before, it definitely stands on its own. Give it a go, mate.

And, yes, James Tiptree Jr as suggested by damn dirty ape might appeal as well...I certainly loved her stories.
posted by ponystyle at 2:41 AM on February 14, 2007


Oopsadaisy, confused this thread with another, more recent one...sorry for the mashup.
posted by ponystyle at 3:28 AM on February 14, 2007


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