The Gender Question again…

Lesley-Anne’s blog and VS Naipaul‘s rather silly claim that he can tell, from just a few paragraphs whether the words were written by a male or female hand, reminded me of one of the Washington Post‘s brilliant competitions, where people were asked to assign a gender to specific nouns (in the way foreign languages have feminine or masculine nouns) and explain their reasoning.

Here are some of the best entries:

Swiss Army Knife: Male, because even though it appears useful for a wide variety of work, it spends most of its time just opening bottles.

Sponges: Female, because they are soft and squeezable and retain water.

Hot Air Balloon: Male, because to get it to go anywhere you have to light a fire under it… and, of course, there’s the hot air part.

Web Page: Female, because it is always getting hit on.

Copier: Female, because once turned off, it takes a while to warm up. Because it is an effective reproductive device when the right buttons are pushed. Because it can wreak havoc when the wrong buttons are pushed.

Ziploc Bags: Male, because they hold everything in, but you can always see right through them.

Subway: Male, because it uses the same old lines to pick people up.

Female, because over time, the weight shifts to the bottom.

Hammer: Male, because it hasn’t evolved much over the last 5,000 years, but it’s handy to have around.

But back to Naipaul.  His comment is both a little true and also a little absurd. There are writers with distinct male voices and writers with distinct female voices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person behind that particular voice is actually male or female.  It probably says more about who the book is written for – more about the gender of the reader, and less about the gender of the writer.

There are male writers who write, for example, romance novels under a female pseudonym – a marketing ploy that reflects our own conception that women will be better at giving us the kind of sentimental romance we are looking for in that kind of novel. And there are writers writing under a male or ambiguous pseudonym so as not to exclude the male population of readers. Do you think bestselling crime author P.D. James would have secured such a huge audience, including a huge male fan base, had she written under Phyllis Dorothy? And herein lies the real issue I think. Women are a little more flexible but, in general, men essentially want to read books by men.  Why? Because they probably do have a Naipaulish preconception – that women writers are all ‘too sentimental’.

So, before we attack Naipaul for his scathing comments, I suppose we have to admit we fall for this distinction between male and female writers ourselves. But the reality remains, whilst we might be more open to a narrative if we think it is written by a man or a woman, it is absurd to suggest we can really tell if it was indeed written by a man or a woman. (What would he make of Annie Proulx? I know people who read her specifically because ‘she writes like a man’.)

I wouldn’t take it all too seriously. Given Naipaul’s very successful habit of creating controversy (a bit of fire to keep you in the spotlight…) and that it could all be a bit of nonsense to create some nice headlines or indeed the sign of an obviously inflated ego, I am tempted to conclude this gender-themed blog by simply adding to one of the above Washington Post submissions.

Hot Air Balloon: Male (eg. VS Naipaul)… Because to get it to go anywhere you have to light a fire under it… and, of course, there’s the hot air part.

Chiara Priorelli, Publicity & Online Marketing Manager

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