Books By Gender

(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared at Hahví.net)

Limit of Vision by Linda NagataI like to read adventure novels. Science fiction, fantasy, historical: I enjoy them all. The important thing for me is a good, meaningful story, which by definition requires well-drawn, interesting characters. I like to think that it doesn’t matter to me if an author is a man or woman. I choose particular books because people whose opinions I respect have recommended them, or because I want to see an example of an author’s work, or just because I happen to stumble on a book that sounds intriguing.

But it’s always a good idea to pause now and then, and check perceptions against fact. Inspired by discussions around the web about reviewers paying more attention to books written by men than by women, I decided to check my own reading record. So I went over the novels I’ve read throughout the last year. I’m not a fast reader, so the overall numbers are low, but I recorded eleven books written by men, three of them by the same author, and six written by women, again three by the same author. I started a lot more books than this, using downloads of sample chapters, but these are the books I finished. All but two are science fiction or fantasy—and clearly, in this past year, I’ve been reading more books by men.

What does it mean? I don’t know that it means anything. If I’d done this assessment in a year when I was catching up on Kate Elliott’s books for example, I’m sure the breakdown would have been very different.

But here’s another interesting statistic. (Interesting to me, anyway.) Of these seventeen books, only three had female lead characters. I find that … startling. Several of the books had strong and prominent female characters, but they were nevertheless secondary to the main male character.

At this point, I couldn’t help going back and taking a look at my own novels. Out of nine, three have male lead characters, three have female leads, and three have shared leads—though these last three are probably weighted toward the male side.

Why do I choose the characters I choose? I’m not entirely sure. I choose characters I like. I choose characters that take up residence in my head. Sometimes I debate with myself on what gender a proposed character should be.

My novel Memory was written in first person, from a female point of view. I wanted to do a first-person novel, and I have a vague recollection of being put-off by the idea of writing an entire novel as male first-person. Fast-forward to today: the current novel-in-progress happens to be first person from a male point of view. I’ve recently discovered there’s a term for this: “cross-gender narration.” I’ve committed cross-gender narration before, though only in short stories. I suspect that with a novel, cross-gender narration is a mistake from a marketing perspective, but it is what it is.

Over the coming year I’ll continue to sample books from a spectrum of authors and genres. It’ll be interesting to see how the tally changes.

Hepen the Watcher by Linda NagataLinda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest book Hepen the Watcher, is the second in a fast-paced mythic fantasy series featuring the antihero demon, Smoke.

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Books By Gender — 11 Comments

  1. My muse has her own ideas, and does not listen to me. I love to read about female heroines, but almost all my books have male heroes. If the protagonist is female she always has an important male co-star. On at least one occasion the co-star has muscled in and hijacked the entire book, accompanied by wailings and thrashing from me as I rewrite over and over trying to wrest the narrative back from him and give it back to the heroine. I have concluded that my muse is simply fascinated by aliens. We know everything there is to know about women, more or less, but men are terra incognita.

    • “…my muse is simply fascinated by aliens”

      Interesting. I never thought of it that way.

      I like writing from either gender, but I’ve also had the experience of a secondary male character shoving his way in and taking over the plot. Of course that novel is still unpublished and will soon be undergoing it’s third (or fourth?) major remodeling. Who knows how it will end up?

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  3. This is definitely something worth thinking about. My first two (unpublished) novels focused on male leads–with strong female secondaries. My current serial online WIP has a female lead with strong male secondaries, so I suppose I fall into cross-gender narration.

    I think some people are put-off by the idea of cross-gender writing; it’s outside their experience, an unfamiliar voice, etc. But I figure, if I’m writing flawed characters who are coming to terms with their flaws–I could do that with either gender, because I won’t bring in any presuppositions. We’re learning together (me, the character, the audience). I wouldn’t say I feel more comfortable in cross-gender narration, but I do feel more interested when writing it. Or maybe I’m just getting better at characterization!

    • I think (I could be wrong) that cross-gender narration only refers to using first person from the opposite gender.

      I do think–when reading and when writing–it’s important to keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of men and women. I’ll sometimes hear criticisms that “a man wouldn’t do that” or “a woman wouldn’t do that” but if it’s consistent for your character, it’s legitimate.

      • Oh I suppose that would make sense (about first person). I tend to steer away from first-person anyhow, although I do mix it in for psychological effect. You’re definitely right about “different kinds of men and women”; the problem with female and minority characters, is they’re still the exception to the rule. Therefore they become interpreted as signifying more than their individual experience–they represent womanhood or the Black experience or whatever. That’s problematic in itself, and something I hope will go away as writers diversify their casts. As the writer you can only keep writing as progressively as you want, but you need to be aware at least some people will come at your work from that angle.

        • I wonder if that’s one reason why more writers haven’t taken on minorities’ perspectives? It’s hard enough to write a character within our own sphere of experience, and then to write a character who has to stand up to even more scrutiny has to more pressure than one can take. Plus, there are tons of stereotypes, which means that there is pressure to be ‘authentic’ and include things like religion, or family dynamics, etc. which would otherwise be glossed over as unimportant. It is even difficult to think of ways to integrate these aspects in fresh ways that don’t seem trite. In reality there’s often a mixture of traditional, stereotype, and the unusual—minorities are not all of a piece. We just aren’t used to seeing the shades of grey outside our small socioeconomic scope, and so the task requires more creativity than we think we can supply. That’s scary, too. At least, these are the thoughts that daunted me whenever I think about tackling a character from a different background from me.

  4. I’ve done my male/female book stats, but never thought to check whether the protagonists were male/female. I’ll have to look at that next time I do my stats.

  5. Looking at the 162 books I read last year, 60% were written or edited by men, 40% by women. Like, you, not a conscious choice, but I wonder what it means. I read widely, poetry, fiction, lit crit, anthologies of various types as well as non-fiction, so I can’t really analyze the protagonists by numbers, but I’m willing to bet that of the fiction I read, most featured leading men.

    Huh.

  6. But even if it is more difficult to write across genders, surely it is not as difficult as, say, Martians. Or even animals. If we can dare to write a work from the viewpoint of a cat or a bunny — and people do this all the time! — we can surely do the other gender.
    Over on Goodreads we’re having a brisk discussion about C.S. Lewis’s TILL WE HAVE FACES. If you have not read it, it is a mythic novel, told in the first person by Princess Orual of Glome, a semi-barbarian state somewhere north of classical Athens. Lewis was proud of how well he had got into the head of a woman, a famously unattractive one at that, and indeed I cannot find any real flaw in his depiction.