Today's post is a collaboration between myself and my novelist friend Jerry Byrum. Welcome to my blog, Jerry! Together we’re going to examine how author gender affects reader perception.
Personally, I don’t care whether men or women write the novels I read. What does it matter, so long as they provide great content? To me, gender, when it comes to authors, is as relevant as hair colour or shoe size; it simply doesn’t matter. I’ve never agreed with the Mars/Venus approach, preferring a philosophy of life that emphasises similarities instead of differences. I’m betting, however, that if you’re someone who views the world in terms of male/female dichotomies, you’re likely to have a strong preference for either male or female writers. Fair enough if you choose male authors because you enjoy spy thrillers, or female ones because romance is your thing. There's no denying men and women dominate certain genres. What's more suspect is when people won't read espionage novels if they're written by a woman, such as Gale Lynds, or romances when penned by male authors, such as my friend Jerry Byrum.
Stereotyped gender attitudes definitely exist towards novelists. When I told a friend I’d completed my first novel, his first question was ‘Is it a romance?’ Then there’s the time I told somebody I intended to write novels. ‘What sort?’ she enquired. ‘Children’s books?’ This person knew children don’t feature in my life. So why the presumption I’d write fiction for them?
I find it a shame that in 2019, there’s still such strong gender stereotyping. Women are clearly supposed to write soft, fluffy material, whilst men stick to hard action topics. Shouldn’t we be past this nonsense by now? Fair enough if the Bronte sisters had to write under male pseudonyms in Victorian England, but for gender still to matter in 2019? I don’t get it.
Initials have no gender bias
Other writers report similar issues. Author Joanna Penn writes thrillers using her initials J F Penn because she doesn’t want buyers to judge her work based on her gender. She writes in the Action Adventure category, one dominated by male writers. Her books contain violent scenes; one features a psychiatric patient being disembowelled. She’s received comments about how the reader thought a man must have written the book, or that they expected something more ‘delicate’. Joanna says on her blog: ‘The author’s gender shouldn’t impact the way the story is read so it’s best to make it a non-issue. Initials are neutral. They have no gender bias and I like that approach.’ So how do these prejudices operate when it comes to men?
Here’s where I step aside and let Jerry Byrum take the floor. I asked Jerry, as a male romance writer, to give us his take on the subject. Here’s what he had to say.
There is no sacred ground or ownership
The notion that women or men writers/authors are better at particular genres is almost as mythical as saying short people should only write about short people and the same for tall people. Or that only doctors who've had a dreaded disease are permitted to treat it. Men and women have successfully broken through all kinds of areas or endeavors traditionally reserved for the respective genders. In my view, neither has a monopoly on a particular genre. There is no sacred ground or ownership. Creativity, such as writing, takes place on a broad playing field, and it's okay to break the rigid rules and color outside the lines, or write in the margins and off the page. But what about writing romance? That shouldn't make a whit of difference. Even though real-time hetero romance fiction is composed of 50/50 male/female, the bias exists that only the female 50% can write better romance stories. That's hard for me to buy into. However, a piece of information that shows up regularly across the internet is that women writers write approximately 95-98% of all romances, leaving a single-digit percentage to male writers. That high percentage alone, though, does not confirm that women are better at writing romance than men.
So why don't more men write romance?
I believe that question takes us back to how we raise boys and girls in the home and culture/society. Boys and girls are usually directed into certain activities, and heavy emphasis is placed on "behaving" like a male or female. One of the criticisms often leveled at men who have written in the romance/erotic romance/erotica genres is that men writers tend to be rough-edged, abrasive, abrupt, or a combination in their writing of romance. Nicholas Sparks puts that argument to rest, and so does James Waller, of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ fame. Both capture the "softer" edges of romance, and reflect well the female perspectives of their characters. Their works are immensely popular among women.
On the other hand, you've got Sandra Brown who writes edgy romance-suspense with a strong storyline, but with an impulsive romance angle. As well as a good dash of explicit description when things get intimate. Very popular with women.
The process of writing is gender neutral
Then we've got the current BDSM/"billionaire-bad-boy" trend now popular. Both sub-genres have received criticism that they foster a "harsher" portrayal of romance, and rough treatment of women. However, those bestsellers that have hit the New York Times and USA Today hallowed lists are authored not by men, but by women, and women readers drove those authors to the top of the lists. (There are deeper currents as to why the popularity exists, but I digress.)
So who writes better romance, men or women? I say both can write excellent romance, and have. If we as writers, male and female, take our craft seriously, we'll quickly realize the process of writing has no gender; it is gender neutral. Men and women writers are equally capable of learning how to be flexible with words as they capture the full dimension of their characters. I think it's fair to expect all writers to get inside the head of each of their characters, male and female. I don't think writers can hide behind the solitary advice of writing "what you know," but we should also feel free to write what we don't know, and with a bit of research and imagination no telling what wonderful stories we can share with readers. Fiction is our invitation to do that.
Thank you, Jerry!
It's been a pleasure having you on my blog. So what do readers think? Does the gender of a novelist influence you over whether to read their work? Do you expect women writers to be more ‘delicate’, as was said to Joanna Penn, and men more aggressive? Do you have a strong preference for either male or female writers, and if so, why? In which genres?
Or perhaps you're a writer who's encountered gender stereotypes when it comes to your work. Are you a male romance writer who find people expect guns and not roses from your fiction? Or are you like Joanna and me, surprising others with our choice of disembowelment and psychopaths as subject material? What do you think about novelists concealing their genders behind initials or pseudonyms? Leave a comment and let me know! Meanwhile, thanks for reading!
More about Jerry Byrum
Jerry Byrum is a native of North Carolina who now lives near Washington DC. He is a graduate of High Point University, and East Carolina University. After service in the U.S. Army, Jerry taught public school science six years, and served as science consultant four years. He enjoyed a 25-year career as a National Representative of the American Federation of Teachers, with assignments in more than 30 states. He is a member of the Romance Writers of America, and enjoys writing edgy contemporary romance, with strong female protagonists and other runaway characters usually on a mission to satisfy their passions.