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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't worry, Bev Vincent, I write like a girl too . . . Or maybe we should both worry, because neither of us will ever win a Hugo award. ;)

By now most people who follow SF blogs have heard of this story. In case you haven't, the short version is that Mr. Bev Vincent received an editorial note back from an editor who had been brought in on an anthology that had already bought one of his stories, explaining at length that, like many women, Mr. Bev Vincent could not write men convincingly.

Leaving aside for a moment the absurdity of an editor looking no further than an author's first name before making all sorts of erroneous assumptions, the rigid gender profiling the editor showed in his letter hits on a hot-button topic of mine. Look at these assumptions for yourself:

The editor says: “The story seems far too personal, introspective and emotional for a man . . . It is hard to imagine a fellow from a place like [the setting] uttering the following line.” The editor then provides three sentences from my story as examples. He or she continues, “And I can’t think of many guys from [setting] who call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to their family” [Emphasis his or hers]. Another brilliant insight: “Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature.” The ultimate conclusion: “She [sic] needs to write more convincing [sic] from a man’s perspective.”

I've always had problems with such gender stereotyping because I've never felt like I fit those stereotypes myself--yes, I do think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature. ;)

I lean toward thinking that traditional gender roles are societally constructed and not inborn. No, I don't have a ton of evidence for that position, and I'm comfortable in my unmanly unscientificness. I've seen evidence for traditional roles being genetically determined and found it unconvincing--I've never believed it was possible to adequately control for the pervasiveness of society's messages. Parents of daughters who, like me, tried to keep their kids away from Barbie and from the Bratz know what I mean. If you didn't do a good enough job of reinforcing society's stereotypes, don't worry: your kids still got the message from their teachers at school, from their classmates, from their friends on the street, and, most of all, from television. My kids find it odd that I'm the cook in the house--why would something that's been true for all of your life seem odd to you, unless you're hearing the message somewhere else that it runs contrary to expectations?

I'm not sure the question of where traditional gender roles come from can be answered satisfactorily, but you know what? It doesn't matter. The question is actually irrelevant. (Like the question of whether homosexuality is a choice or not, but that's way beyond the scope of this rant.) Let's suppose traditional gender roles are in fact in our blueprints; I'll concede the point. It's not the real issue. The real issue, to me, is that regardless, there will be exceptions. There will be boys and girls who don't meet your stereotypes. Artistic boys who like to cook, draw, and write, who grow into young men who focus on relationships and on their feelings. Athletic girls who like to play with toy cars and tools, who grow into young women who like to figure out how stuff works and who can opine knowledgeably on football.

The exceptions are out there, and I can't for the life of me think of a reason why anybody should have a problem with this. And because they are out there, I think we should honor our children's right to be individuals. When we as a society hammer home the message, over and over, that males are Y and females are X, we tell those children and young adults who don't fit the mold that there is something wrong with them. How damaging this is--and for what? How much healthier to send the message that there's nothing unusual about a nurturing boy or about an empowered girl. Better yet, let us send the message that all children can have the healthiest features of either gender, and all grow into nurturing, communicative, empowered, confident adults.

Anyway, enough ranting. In the wake of this story, I started seeing references and links to The Gender Genie pop up all over the place. If you're not familiar with it, the short version, once again, is that some researchers did a study of the writing tendencies of men and of women and came up with a complex formula for determining the gender of the author of a writing sample, based on the frequencies of certain key words that men were more likely to use and others that women were more likely to use.

The word lists are the most common of stereotyping: women use personal pronouns, reflexive pronouns, possessive pronouns, and words like "should." You know, 'cause they always gabbing about relationships and shit. Men use prepositions, articles (Seriously?! Men use more articles than women?! How is that even possible??) and forms of the verb to be (except for "be" itself, curiously, which is a woman's word). That's because men are always building shit, so they need to look at blueprints. I guess.

No, this is not a detailed look at their methodology, just my overall impression from several hours of playing with the thing when I should have been revising a story for submission.

Anyway, I first played around with the Gender Genie, er, so to speak, two or three years ago, but seeing it again in the context of Bev Vincent's story made me want to look more closely at the supposition that a fiction editor could distinguish between manly writing and womanly writing based on the textual clues.

So I fed through the story I was supposedly revising. Gender Genie said it was written by a woman. No surprise . . . it was a first person story with a female protagonist. Probably lots of womanly words there. So I ran through "Spacelift," the story I posted here last week. It has a gender-ambiguous protagonist, but at least it's not first person. And it's on a space ship, so maybe there are more engineering words there. Nope, couldn't fool Gender Genie. That was definitely written by a woman. So I tried my coarsest, most vulgar story, which featured an unambiguously male protagonist. Written by a female, said Gender Genie again. I tried my wife's WIP next. Female. *whew*

Well, big deal anyway. Like I said at the beginning, I never felt like I fit those stereotypes very well. So it's no surprise that Gender Genie says I write like a female. Besides, writers tend to be artsy types, right? That probably skewed things. Maybe all fiction writers showed up as women on Gender Genie.

There was an easy enough way to check: coincidentally enough, it's almost time to award the Hugos, and that means most of the nominees are available online. I thought it would make an interesting experiment to run as many of those stories as I could through Gender Genie.

First the short story nominees. According to Gender Genie, all of those stories were written by men. Yes, that includes the stories by Mary Robinette Kowal and Kij Johnson.

Now I started to freak out a little bit. It's one thing to be told I write like a woman. It's quite another to discover that a sampling of the most well-received short fiction in SF this year is written in a more masculine style. Gender Genie didn't peg a single one of my stories as being written by a man, so what did that say about my chances of publication? Is this what I've been doing wrong? Am I not butch enough?

Oh, but the plot thickens. Because next I tried the Best Novelette nominees, and three out of the five were identified by Gender Genie as being written by women. Oddly enough, though, none of those three was the one by Elizabeth Bear, the only actual woman among the nominees.

Mike Resnick is an interesting case. His "Article of Faith" was written by a man, while Gender Genie thinks his "Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders" was definitely written by a woman. Don't worry Mike. I empathize with your painful gender confusion. (((Mike Resnick)))

By this point, I wasn't sure what to make of it all. Maybe the novelette form is friendlier to a more feminine style of writing because it's longer. Women write florid, dontcha know, while men use fewer words and more grunts and gestures.

I plowed on, because the alternative was productivity, and found that, among the best novella nominees, Gender Genie correctly identified the three stories written by men ("The Tear" by Ian McDonald was not available for examination) and the one story written by a woman. Thank God for Nancy Kress--finally, a woman who writes like Gender Genie says a woman should!

(Many of those were extremely close calls, though. A couple more "with"s, maybe one less "around," and we'd have some more gender confusion among SF's leading men.)

The only novel I could try, Little Brother, was correctly identified by Gender Genie as being written by a man.

So what wisdom can I take from all of this?

Beats the hell out of me. In twenty unscientific trials, Gender Genie was right ten times. A .500 batting average is fantastic in baseball, but a 50% average is not so good in school. The samples I fed were 75% by male authors, and Gender Genie guessed male 55%, which is basically comparable to results I could have obtained by flipping a coin. Beyond questioning the stereotypes underpinning the algorithms of Gender Genie, maybe we can say that some men write "like men" and some women write "like women" and some don't, and yet they all seem to please their fans enough. Or, in other words, that it doesn't matter much whether you fit the stereotype.

Nah. That's sissy talk.

Oh, and Bev Vincent is right. I ran his blog post through, and Gender Genie says he definitely writes like a girl.


Joe Iriarte said...

"The Gender Genie thinks the author of this [blog entry] is: male!"

Huzzah! I've finally learned to write like a man!"

Bev Vincent said...

Concerning the story in question:

Words: 4650

Female Score: 5792
Male Score: 6036

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Joe Iriarte said...


That just tops everything off perfectly!