Friday, 10 April 2015

Male vs Female Writers

Settle down into your fireside chairs, folks, for it is time for some rambling thoughts.

As many of you know, H. O. Charles is not my real name. It exists to give me an identity apart from the one I've cultivated in the spoken world, and it exists to mask my gender. Okay, Charles is a bit manly, but then you could interpret that as an effort to distance myself from a female gender, or indeed as a double-bluff.

Why hide my gender?

Because I know that we read books differently when we believe an author is male or female. I wanted my readers to be able to escape from that trap. Did it work? Well, perhaps, but I wonder if, in our social obligation to assign a gender to every person, it has inadvertently compelled readers to come to their own conclusions about my boy-girl identity. After all, when they come to write a review of my work, it's a difficult thing to mention the author without using a 'he' or 'she' pronoun. I would like to know how each reader came to the gender conclusion they did. Author name? Style of writing? Plot? Characters?

I've always believed that male and female brains are biologically pretty much identical, and that ultimately, we have the same worries, desires and fears as each other. It is society that tells us we should talk in a different manner, dress in a different manner, or indeed write in a different manner. From the moment we are born, our parents and those around us feed us information about the sorts of toys we should be playing with, or the colours we should like. They react to us in different ways because they have different expectations of our behaviour. For example, a boy might be permitted to get away with marginally more boisterous behaviour because it's 'the way boys are', whereas similar behaviour in a girl might be more strictly controlled as it's perceived as abnormal.

In gender-disguise studies, male toddlers are dressed as girls and female toddlers as boys. A parent of a different child is then invited in and asked to offer one of these children a toy to play with. Almost invariably, the adult will offer dolls or pink toys to the children they think are female, and car-themed 'boy toys' to the children they think are male. They will also describe the childrens' behaviour in differing terms (e.g.: more often 'angry' when they think they are talking about boys and 'happy' when they thought they were interacting with girls). What this demonstrates is that, even before a preference is demonstrated by the child, an adult will communicate ideas to that child about what they should be playing with and how their behaviour is perceived. (Please see the programmes listed below for references and illustrated examples)

In another piece of research, it was found that boys and girls' preference for dolls is similar at age 12 months (57.2% of girls looked at the dolls compared with 56.4% of boys). At 24 months, boys showed greater interest in the car image (52.7% of girls and 47.9% of boys looked at the doll first), but that shift was only slight. The researcher who led this study interpreted the evidence as suggesting that part of toy taste is acquired socially rather than being of physiological origin.
"The current study adds to growing evidence that infants younger than two years of age display sex-typed toy preferences, with boys showing more interest than girls do in cars, and girls showing more interest than boys do in dolls. Within sex analyses found that the female preference for dolls over cars begins as early as 12 months of age, whereas boys of this age also prefer dolls to cars. The male preference for cars over dolls, or avoidance of dolls, emerges later, suggesting that socialisation or cognitive development, rather than inborn factors, causes the male avoidance of feminine toys."

To be fair, I am absolutely cherry-picking my research examples in favour of the nurture argument, and for more equally balanced summaries of the evidence out there (together with some actual references!), check out:
This blog from The Guardian on gender
This radio programme from Kat Arney on the colour-coding of toys
This TV programme from Horizon on male and female brains

All of these summaries essentially say the same thing - that the jury is out as to whether nature or nurture produce the differences in male and female brains - but I am most certainly on the side that says nurture creates the differences. This is probably because I feel my brain is neither particularly male nor particularly female, and that I am capable of understanding both... because I don't see vast, inherent differences between the two. In my mind, society has prescribed gender roles, and we are all taught from a very early age about how we should fit into them.

But back to writing...

Are there differences in the ways males and females write?  Well, even if there aren't, readers out there seem to think there are. Here is a short infographic from Grammarly:

NB: I am trying to find out more about their sampling methods - will fill in this bit later

So, according to Grammarly, you readers do have your biases :-p though of course I know Fireblade Array readers are among the least sexist of any reader demographic!

What does the research say about the actual nature of writing, authored by different genders, rather than social perceptions of it?

In a study of texts, led by Shlomo Argamon from the Illinois Institute of Technology, it was found that male writers tended to use more noun specifiers (a, the, that, those, some, any etc.), and that they tended to write fiction in a more 'informational' manner. Female writers, on the other hand, tended to use more pronouns (he, she, it), and were found to write in a more 'involved' manner.

I applied some of the statistics Argamon et al used in their study to my own book, City of Blaze, and here's what I found:

My pronoun use is entirely characteristic of a female writer. In CoB, there are 808 pronouns (he, she, him, hers, their etc.) for every 10,000 words. In Argamon's study of fiction, this number averaged 683 and 559 for female and male writers respectively. However, their median value for female writers was 779 pronouns per 10,000 words, which is indicative of a few female writers with an exceptionally low pronoun count, and this is reflected by the larger standard deviation on the mean (19 for females versus 15 for males).

My use of male and female pronouns were quite similar (405 and 377), whereas male writers tended to use significantly fewer female pronouns in their works in Argamon's study (305 'he's 'him's and 'his's, versus 154 'she's 'her's and 'hers's), and female writers tended to use more female pronouns than males (although the numbers were often closer together, like mine). This is good for me - I like having something approaching equality in the appearances my male and female characters make (!).

However, my use of 'its' was bang in the middle of the male range - averaging around 10 per 10,000 words. This tends to be a lower figure (averaging 6.87) among female writers.

But City of Blaze was written four-and-a-half years ago. When I checked Voices of Blaze (my most recent novel) for the same statistics, I found that my pronoun use had become ever-so-slightly more masculine, but was still strongly female. My pronoun usage had fallen slightly, to 795 per 10,000 words, and my usage of 'its' had increased slightly - to 10.6 per 10,000 words. My male and female pronouns demonstrated a greater proportional difference in usage (379 for male, 334 for female), which again, is a more masculine way of writing according to Argamon et al. (Note to self - must ensure more equality by increasing mentions of female characters!)

But Argamon's work has been developed into an algorithm, together with some script from the Gender Genie. This algorithm tests for more elements of written texts than just pronouns, e.g. noun identifiers and proper nouns.

I pasted 6,000+ words from City of Blaze into this site to analyse my writings and find out whether it thought I was male or female. After three goes with different bits of text, and ensuring I included equal numbers of chapters on male and female characters, my results were: weak female (this means somewhere between male and female, but closer to female), weak female and weak female! Because their machine is based on American English, it also identified that I might be European, which can make the results a little unreliable. Or put another way, by American standards, I'm a weak female :-)

When I did the same with Voices of Blaze, I got the same results again: weak female, weak female and weak female.

No, that doesn't mean I write as a woman with particularly feeble arms would. It means my scores are right in the middle of the two genders, but slightly biased towards the feminine, though this bias was statistically insignificant most times I ran the algorithm.

What's more, according to Grammarly, being a female-style writer is great, because 59% of readers feel that female writers are better. Wooyay.

Incidentally, when I ran this blog post through the Gender Guesser, I got 'weak male'! Perhaps that'll make this blog post less liked than my books...

But what do readers think?

My next avenue of research was to look at reviews. How many of you assumed I was male, and how many female?

Out of all the reviews of my books (and discounting duplicates, or those written by the same reader), I have so far found six references to me as a male, two as a female and one reader described me as a he/she :-) I would suggest from this that most of my readers believe I am male, but I think I need some more data!

To summarise - does it matter what gender the author is? No. No, it shouldn't.

That said, in the field of romantic fiction, which is usually aimed at a female audience, how many male author names do you see? Not many, but that's not to say there are few male romance authors out there. Frequently, they are encouraged by their publisher to adopt female nom de plumes with the assumption that this will not put as many female readers off.

I find it pretty interesting to study the differences and assumptions, and I do wonder if authors of one particular gender do truly attract audiences of similar or differing genders. I also wonder if authors of each gender will tend to write to societal expectations, i.e. in a manner that reflects their gender, because it is moulded by the ways in which they have learned to speak, or the books they have tended to read (this assumes that female readers will choose books written by women and vice versa). And when I think back, could those toys our parents gave us so many years ago have affected the ways in which we read and write?

Anyway, I'm staying genderless for now (and keep quiet, those of you who know whether I shave my legs or my face), but how have you always pictured me? I'd be intrigued to know (and why)! Feel free to write in the comments box below...


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Fall of Blaze is now available on Barnes & Noble

Find it for pre-order here:

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Fall of Blaze now available from Apple iBooks/iTunes

Find it here for pre-order!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Fall of Blaze available for pre-order

Now on Amazon!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What it's like to be a writer for The Daily Mail

I thought I ought to share this as part of my public information service (!!). It's a piece written by a former journo at the DM, and it reveals just how tabloid news stories are put together.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Woo hooray PARTYTIEMZ!

Over 100 reviews of City of Blaze on and more besides!
Better get on with Vol 6, hadn't I?