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Do Females Write Epic Fantasy Differently Than Males Do?
kateelliott
This is more in the nature of a drive by post to note for the record that I'm on massive deadline doing revisions for COLD FIRE (Spiritwalker #2). Writing, as always, in my girly way.

I have literally not had time to refer to or discuss the various internet things about fantasy, nihilism, morals or lack thereof, beauty and truth, and so on and so forth except mostly to note that as so often, these conversations mostly seem to revolve around men and male writers. My god, people, were there not enough battle scenes in Crown of Stars? And yet, somehow this remains also a stereotype, that a sword fight, say, reflects masculinity and not femininity.

So, while I'm busy, tell me: do females write epic fantasy differently than males do? If so, how and why?


ETA: With regret, I have frozen one of the sub-threads. My apologies. I really don't like to cut off discussion as a general rule. I'm doing this for purely selfish reasons: I'm under a heavy and urgent revisions deadline, and in the manner of procrastinators everywhere I posted this entry because I was revising a difficult chapter so of course it seemed like a Good Idea At The Time to distract me from the difficulty of that particular chapter. The particular discussion thread has moved to a related but not specifically on-topic topic just as the rest of this really great discussion (you guys are so fabulous and interesting, and I'm not saying that to flatter you) is quieting down. Thanks for your understanding.

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I wish I knew!

I'm not sure that men write epic fantasy differently than women, but they certainly seem to get noticed differently.

Oh yes. Male == Important. Female == fluff. I spit, I really do. Some of the best, edgiest, most political and subversive fantasy out there right now is being written by women and always has been. But we hear far more about, say, Tad Williams (whose books I like) than Tanith Lee (whose books changed the way I viewed writing).

Oddly, I've been thinking about this, too. I think there's a perception of difference -- there is an assumption that the women will be all emo and relationships and misunderstood witches, while the men deal with the Big Stuff -- the swords but also the Important Politics. But the truth is that I think there's not that much real difference and that women in epic fantasy are writing some very interesting, important, subversive, political stuff and not being recognised because the assumption gets in the way.

MISUNDERSTOOD WITCHES!

I knew I was missing something.

Good question (thinking of own swords, pirates 'n' battles epic series)

We should maybe put out a Call for Papers. Because this really needs examining.

Crown of Stars is different than, say, George Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series. Not because of the number of sword fights but CoS a a different feel, metaphysical choices, different worlds.

That's not a male/female distinction, necessarily but for most of the book series I have read, you could most likely do a 'Pepsi blind taste test' and have me read a chapter from a male and a female fantasy author...and often I'd be able to tell the difference. Mainly from style and how, to me, I usually need to look for multiple reasons for actions in female author's works. Not so much in male author's. They're right there in front of me.

Very interesting. I do often feel the same, that I can tell if it's male or female written (shades of Silverberg and Tiptree!).

Can you expand on these thoughts?

Style?

Multiple reasons for actions in female author's works?

Really interesting suggestions.

This is a question that requires more thought than this small space--but I think there may be a palpable difference. I'd want to use a blind "taste test" to be sure--but I bet a chapter of, say, the latest Elizabeth Moon, Robin Hobb (or your Crown of Stars series) would read differently than Erikson or Martin.

But it all could be just gender expectations in my head.

Also, you might consider that male and female readers of epic fantasy key on different strengths of the authors as well, which complicates your question.



Edited at 2011-02-18 07:40 pm (UTC)

"key on different strengths" -- expand on this point, please? I'm intrigued.

(altho I agree the entire question needs more space than this)

Don't have anything interesting to contribute (I definitely want to read these comments) but I just wanted to say that My god, people made me think of JARAN. Very random, but true.

Happy revising!

One of my children has just started reading Jaran (he's read Crossroads, CoS, and the first two Cold Magic books) and he informed me via text messaging that "Interestingly, you solidly establish the/a seemingly major conflict within 30 pages. It feels rushed." Which I found very amusing.

In general, I don't think so. However, there does seem to be more male writers of epic fantasy than female writers. Not that there actually are, but when I was trying to come up with examples to help me write this post I could come up with very few female authors without help (you, obviously, Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, and Anne McCaffrey even though her Pern books are *technically* sf). I knew I'd read more, but a lot of the author names that come to mind are male.

Personally, in my own epic fantasy stories, I've found that I tend to give more female characters center stage than a lot of the other series within the subgenre that I've read. If that's enough to make my epic fantasy different from male-written epic fantasy despite the battles and the lack of emphasis on romance, then, well, it's a pretty ridiculous distinction. But it's also not something I can magically change or overcome within a single day, and I do think that the perception, even if it's false, is something that both male and female epic fantasy writers should be aware of.

In your reading, do you notice any difference in how female characters are written in ef? (this is not a leading question)


I also note that when this kind of discussion comes up, sometimes there is a major derailment into urban fantasy/paranormal as "female fantasy" -- I have tremendous admiration for the uf/paranormal field, and there is some overlap that might be interesting for an entirely other discussion, but it isn't the same thing. Except there are definitely many female writers in uf/paranormal (and doing excellently well).

Dropping this post by Susan Marie Groppi into the discussion because I don't have time to really talk!

http://www.susangroppi.com/2011/02/friday-reads-a-feast-for-crows/

I posted a long post at Jemisin's post on the same topic (should check back and see there that discussion went).

I think basically that as long as people have different ideas of men and women in their heads, they will THINK that women write differently *usually inferior to * men.

This theory has been supported by linguistics studies in which the same text (often in legal discourse) has been assigned a man's name and a female name and given to groups to rank, and it consistently gets higher ranking (as written text OR when delivered by male and female actors) when it's a man's text, not based on merits of text.

I've taught linguistics/gender courses where students did this sort of blind testing, and yes, the gender of the name attached to text is what shapes response.

(Give students a published essay by an author who is from a culture whose gender naming conventions the students don't know, and they start twitching.)

Then there was the undergrad course where students insisted Camille Paglia was a man and Douglas Hofstadter was a woman based on their style! Paglia's so much more forceful you see.

Given a lot of the current debates, I think it would be fascinating to do an analysis of how male and female authors of epic fantasy (or other sub-genres) handle rape!

Now must go get lunch!

Jemisin's post went on for 80+ interesting comments (last I checked; it may be more now).

I tend to fall strongly in the "as long as people have different ideas of men and women in their heads, they will THINK that ..." etc camp.

Boy, I have a lot of things I could say about rape in epic fantasy but I'm not sure I want to in public. Some dude recently tried to read King's Dragon and couldn't (fair enough) but then went on to say that I was using rape (in the story of Liath) purely as a dramatic devise to heighten emotion and tension. And that comment actually struck me as sexist, on his part, because it didn't not seem to occur to him that I might have actual historical, philosophical, political, and cultural worldbuilding reasons that would lead me to show what happens to (in this case a young woman) placed in a vulnerable situation in a hierarchical world. No, it was just a dramatic device. I, as the writer, could have no more agency than that.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)

I tend to gravitate towards novels written by women. Not because I look at 'who' wrote it but, yes, the way they are written. There was some meme or the like a while back that if you pasted a bunch of text it could tell you if you were male or female by some 'key' words. Mine came out as pretty much even split. But I guess someone did some genuine research to get those results.

Now defining why I go toward women writers; I have never actually sat down and worked it out.

The last meme of that kind was, alas, quite unscientific.

Thank you for posting this. I'm too tired to have an opinion just now, but I will be coming back to your blog when more awake!

Also--sneaking outside of the genre:

James Tiptree, Jr!

And when the Brontes published their works under more masculine sounding pseudonyms, the public and reviewers' responses were incredibly different, especially for Wuthering Heights. Now one could argue that might not be true in today's contemporary world, but JAMES TIPTREE, JR.

Of whose prose Robert Silverberg declared to be "ineluctably masculine" (just like Hemingway, donchaknow).


Has anyone done an actual comparaitive study of public and reviewer responses to the Bronte books depending on the name being used? That would be interesting.


No significant difference.

Pip Hunn

2011-02-18 09:49 pm (UTC)

I don't think there's any overt differences between genders of writers. There are a few subtle ones, but they, I think, have more to do with the choices of writers rather than a trend.

When I thought to myself, "What do I like about female fantasy writers in general?" I came up with two things.

One, I enjoy reading books written by my favourite female fantasy authors aloud more than their male equivalents. My wife doesn't like reading, but we often snuggle and I read to her in the evenings. I prefer to read Robin Hobb than G R R Martin, for example. The lyrical and rhythmic flows are more pleasant to speak aloud.

Two, I like that - in general - the relationships between characters have a more real sense of depth to them. I know this is more related to the strength of writers, but I have to say it: female writers generally convey more realistically complex, empathisable relationships in their stories. I'm NOT saying that relationships are *all* that female writers deal with, but as ONE aspect of stories, I tend to enjoy it more.

I didn't know Mercedes Lackey was a woman :-)

Re: No significant difference.

kateelliott

2011-02-19 07:52 am (UTC)

Aloud? Huh. I don't know what it means, if anything, but it's really interesting.

"more to do with the choices of writers"? Do expand, please.


You're also not the only one to suggest they find more depth in characterization, although I think you're being specific in an important way: in *relationships between* characters.

Worth noting that men, occasionally, write differently from each other. As do women. I wish gender were not the first way we had of drawing lines in the sand. Why not ask whether authors of different economic backgrounds write differently?

I very much wish gender were not the first way we had of drawing lines in the sand (a question I reflect on whenever someone has a baby, and almost without exception the first question is 'is it a boy or a girl' -- very revealing, I think).

I'm actually addressing a lot between the lines of the post that isn't stated explicitly: this is obviously an old discussion that's been going on for years on and off in various iterations, obviously across writerly lines with those (ridiculous) 'do you write like a man or a woman' memes but more specifically in the sff field with ideas about who will read what and why, and frankly a lot of women writing in the field have felt they had greater barriers of invisibility to overcome which I know you understand and have had to deal with yourself.

To be honest, I didn't note that men write differently from each other and women from each other and etc because I thought it was self evident (except, of course, to those people who are so very sure there is some huge flaming gulf separating the male and female psyche).

Why not ask whether authors of different economic backgrounds write differently? Why not? It's a great question. Why not ask whether people who have had the immigrant experience write differently from people who have always lived in the same place all their lives? That's another great question. But they're kind of derailing to this particular question, which is being asked not to draw a line in the sand but to follow up on older discussions that focus on invisibility, expectations, and stereotyping.

BIG difference! It's the covers: More pastel colors, horse's eyes are 17% larger and there are nearly 420% more cats and brocade fabrics in cover art on books written by female authors. Or should that be "authoresses?"

I am not sure if males and females write fantasy differently(I am pretty sure I have more female than male fantasy authors on my shelves) but I am more prone to question when a man writes from a female perspective more than I am female to male.

Probably Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana was the first time I felt this way. For a 17 year old, Dianora's character was well outside my imaginings and understanding. She stood outside the tropes as I understood them and so it was important that the character had been written "properly".


"She stood outside the tropes as I understood them and so it was important that the character had been written 'properly'"

Can you expand on this?

would dearly love to get into this but - argh, deadline 28th Feb, argh, argh.

Something to toss into the mix for consideration - my first series was first person pov alternating female/male/female/male/female. By book 4 a rumour was gaining quite some traction that 'Juliet E McKenna' was in fact a publisher's construct name for a husband/wife writing team - on the basis that the male pov was so convincingly male.

On the one hand, go me, what a compliment! On the other, hell, what an insult!

I learned about this at a convention when a thunderstruck fan read my name badge and said, oh, so you are real!

I too have had male readers express surprise at "how good" my male characters are. As you say, what a compliment, what an insult! :-)

i find that i tend to read more male authors and generally skirt around the female authors because males tend to write more about kick-a$$ery and less about the face sucking time. be it using a male OR female heroine, and regardless if slaying monsters with swords, female space pirates lasering the faces off of aliens, or the like. to put it bluntly, more dying, less crying.

but. NOT to say that i don't read female authors at all. my favourite book ever is written by Janet Kagan (Hellspark). there are tons of female authors who write great action, just that there are more female vs. male who write more emotion bound material.

(and yes, i'm a chick hehe. and still prefer action over chicklit.)

I find this phase very amusing: more dying, less crying

Taking a break from another deadline (and many big hugs to you for yours!) --

This is anecdotal, so, y'know, fwiw ...

I can remember feeling pleasantly surprised when reading Dick Francis at how emotionally real the characters felt, and how a great deal of emphasis was placed on the feelings of said characters, and the emotional impacts of events. I was especially struck by that in Hot Money, one of my all time Francis favourites. So when I learned, years later, that in fact he did the research and his wife Mary the actual writing ... I was not surprised. Because there was a part of me that felt somehow those books didn't feel as though a man had written them.

Also anecdotal -- I do the PR for my local community theatre company. As is my habit, I rolled up to a late rehearsal of Art so I could see the show in a full run and write some copy about it. I didn't know the play, hadn't seen it before, hadn't read it. It's a 3 hander, and all the characters are male. When we got to half time, I turned to the director and said, Is this play written by a woman? And she said yes. And I thought, well, that figures, because none of it felt authentically male to me. Those guys were up there talking to each other and sharing their feelings with each other the way I've seen plenty of women do, but no men. (Of course I could be hanging with the wrong men.)

Final thought? Read a Dalziel and Pascoe novel by Reginald Hill, and then a Lynley novel by Elizabeth George. To me, the differences are like being smacked in the face. I find the gender filtering astonishing.

I don't think the question is, do male and female authors write differently? I think the answer is yes, because we live very different emotional lives, for a lot of different reasons. Honestly, I think that's a no brainer. I think the question is, why the hell should the male experience be held as superior by default, and the female interpretation of certain events ie epic fantasy tropes and narrative staples, be instantly downgraded and denigrated and kept silent and invisible? Which it absolutely is. Even now, in 2011, the male voice is touted as infinitely more worthy. Somehow that has to change. But I doubt that it will change until more men - more male fantasy writers - speak up and say, yeah, we ain't so special. We're not better by default and virtue of our gonads. But for that, I don't know that I'm holding my breath. Because honestly? I don't think too many of them think that. I could be wrong, and I'll happily eat my words if I am, but ... hmmm.


I am through the first "half" and am pleased to report I have cut 300 pages to 222 pages. Go, me!


This issue of certain experiences and interpretations being privileged over others is such an important one and not just on the gender axis.

Another kind of filtering that goes on is not just the filtering we may (or may not) bring to our writing, but also the kind of filtering that we bring as readers that cause us to interpret what we're reading in a differing light based on what we may have already determined to think about based on things we may have decided before we ever start reading (or viewing, or talking, or what have you). But this is an issue across human relations.

Lately my thoughts on this is that women write really hard, edgy, 'gritty,' fantasy, other women really leap on her work because it is not romantic, and the good guys and protagonist don't end up happy ever after.

When guys write it they are applauded by other guys.

The difference in their writing of this kind of brutality and violence is that men still tend to write as influence by film rather than other writers: Coppola, Peckinpah, Leone, and later Quentin Tarrantino, and even more lately, Milch in Deadwood. This means that the dialogue, the action, and the reaction are mannered and stylized. This means that they're no more realistically gritty than the women writers they won't read.

When women used stylized and mannered dialogue and so on, it's to make the protagonists look smart, witty and hip.

Love, C.

Ooo! Love your new avatar!

Love, C.

I think there is a definite difference. I've been trying to put my finger on it for a long, long, time...

Perhaps there is a clue in this: I once asked the male members of a SF/F message discussion board what women writers got "wrong" in writing their male characters. Almost universally they said something along the lines of, "Women authors make male characters a lot nicer than we men actually are." Which I thought was an interesting comment. They thought we made men much more introspective than they they are in reality...

I read male and female writers of epics with equal enjoyment. I think the most disturbing thing is that men often don't - that many male readers won't even pick up a book with a woman's name on the cover. And that troubles me on a number of different levels.

BTW, I've also had a weird comment - from a very well-known male book blogger - about rape and sexual abuse in one of my books. He completely missed the point. Perhaps this is another thing that makes a woman's way of telling a story "different" - we live in a world where we women have to tread that little more carefully. We think twice before giving a friendly smile to a stranger. Perhaps this comes through in our writing of characters? We don't quite capture the, um, "gung-ho-ness" of men? (Sorry, words are failing me. Too early in the morning.)


(Deleted comment)
Not that I've noticed. As it happens, a sizable chunk of my favorite authors in fantasy happen to be female. Haven't run the numbers, but it might be up around 50+%. Not all of that's epic fantasy, mind you, but then you get into the whole "what's epic fantasy" argument, and that goes noplace fast. I dig mostly on secondary world swords and sorcery, and that's epic enough for me.

[My wife reads mostly urban fantasy, and she sez her percentage is probably around 90-95% female. Not exactly a surprise, there.]

The only difference that really comes to mind is that female writers tend to have more female primary characters, even if they're not the MAIN character.

Yeah, I was writing the quick post quickly, and I forgot to put in a disclaimer that I wasn't going to define epic fantasy, which means it can be anything anyone wants it to be.

Female primary characters . . . that might be true. I tend to want to say that female ef writers would have more female characters overall, but it might not be true, it might only be something I *believe* is or should be true.

Directed here from karenmiller. Hi! ::waves::

In my experience, which is admittedly much more limited than some, there are two major differences in the way male and female writers write.

The first is something I can't explain. It's not that all male writers focus on action over emotion and all female writers focus on emotion over action. This is so not true at all, and it's not even that male writers who write from a place of emotion don't go to the same depth as women do, because that's not true either. Men and women just write from a different place, and it's a place that's hard to really define, to me.

The second is that I have noticed a tendency for male writers to write mostly from a male point of view and have male main characters, while female writers are more likely to write male AND female main characters. The one male writer I can think of off the top of my head who has written a series with female main characters (more than one!) is jimhines, and he does it so well I can barely breathe. I can't compliment or recommend his princess books enough.

Anyone feel free to correct me (or rec any books!).

"a different place"

Do try to define, if you can, but I know what you mean about it being really hard.


I agree that I don't think there is specifically an action/emotion axis. I am perfectly able to find male writers who write with real depth of emotion and who write satisfying characters and their relationships. of course, I can find ones who don't do so good a job, too, and then I might fixate on the latter as somehow more "representative" of a male writing style when really they aren't; they're just an example of whatever kind of writing style they are, one which (let's say) favors action, and another which doesn't.

I could write an essay on this, but I'll be brief. I tend to find many male fantasy authors write women as mere caricatures- if they are strong, they are still very sexualized. Rape is often used as a plot device, for character growth or just general misogyny.

Racist archetypes are generally prevalent in fantasy fiction, male or female- but as a WoC, I do find I have trouble reading a lot of fiction written by white, male authors with absolutely no clue about racial and gender processes- or their own damn privilege.

Elizabeth Bear wrote about this:
http://matociquala.livejournal.com/1544111.html

The question of sexualizing female characters is a really important one and I think it bears discussing in terms of those writers (I won't gender them here) who, as the story goes, see woman as human beings and those who see them only in so far as they may have a relationship to "men" -- so therefore sexual or care givers.


I totally agree about the larger issue of what I guess I'll call the intersectionality of portrayal.

I'm really fascinated with this whole question, but I also find it sort of hard to answer, because it occurs to me that the vast majority of epic fantasy I grew up reading - and which I still read - was and is written by women. Off the top of my head, women whose works defined epic for me early on were yourself, Katharine Kerr, Robin Hobb, Lynn Flewelling, Melanie Rawn, Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey; I did read Tolkein, but never with the same zeal - I had to force myself through LoTR - and while I've always loved George R. R. Martin, I was never into Eddings or Jordan (though I did like Tad Williams' Otherland quartet) and I abandoned Terry Goodkind after three books, because, GAH, there are only so many ways to threaten your heroine with rape while raping every other character before I just want to SET YOU ON FIRE. And there was Feist, I suppose, but I'd read the Silmarillion by the time I got around to him, and therefore spent a large portion of that series feeling annoyed at how much he'd cribbed from it; and again, I gave up after a certain point.

I don't recall that I ever consciously selected the novels I read on the basis of the author's gender, but it seems likely in retrospect that the stories I most enjoyed were written from the female gaze rather than male, and that in a lot of instances, I found the male gaze either offputting or something to struggle through, even if I couldn't identify the problem in those terms. Because what stands out to me about the male authors I did like - Martin and Williams and, on rare occasions, Feist - was that not only did they write good, strong, believable female characters, but wrote large portions of their stories from the point of view of those characters, so that the narrative was equal parts male and female gaze. Goodkind might've tried to do the same thing, but his stories are so saturated with sexual violence for the sake of sexual violence that it didn't count.

Anyway, yes: I have more thoughts, but must get up now and go for a birthday wander :)

One view that male and female fantasy writers write differently

(Anonymous)

2011-02-19 01:51 pm (UTC)

Someone I know who reads fantasy told me he doesn't like to read fantasy written by women because if there is a nice character, a female writer will not want to kill off that character, and so the story is more predictable!

My reaction was: Is that true? Because if true, I should read more fantasy written by women, as I hate it when good characters get killed off!

Re: One view that male and female fantasy writers write differently

kateelliott

2011-02-20 02:46 am (UTC)

Hmm. That would be difficult to prove OR disprove, I think. One would have to define "nice" first, and then consider the kind of story it is and how any given character functions within the story, and so on.

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