According to “I Write Like”, we all write like men.

According to “I Write Like”, we all write like men.

Something interesting just happened to me on Facebook. A friend of mine posted the result of an online test that analyzes your writing called I Write Like. According to the special little algorithms of this site, my friend’s writing resembled that of William Gibson.

Colour me intrigued. I plugged in an excerpt from my own work in progress into IWL’s little testing brain, and the results stated that my writing sounded like Neil Gaiman’s.

Colour me delighted!

Then the originator of this post noticed something interesting: all of the people responding with their testing results were women, yet all of the test responses came back with the names of male authors. The original poster’s creative writing sounded like William Gibson, yet her blog writing sounded like David Foster Wallace. Hell, my blog writing, according to IWL, sounds like H.P. Lovecraft! (Seriously? Ew. That’s just insulting. My prose can’t possibly be that overwrought, can it?)

A third woman’s writing sounded like Arthur C. Clarke. A fourth woman pasted in some paragraphs from her romance novel and got Cory Doctorow. A fifth woman got J.D. Salinger. A sixth woman plugged in two excerpts from her story and got both William Gibson and Chuck Palahniuk.

Seriously?

Things were sounding mighty fishy, so at the suggestion of the original poster, I plugged in some excerpts of famous novels written by women and posted the results:

  • An excerpt from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre sounded like Charles Dickens.
  • An excerpt from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood sounded like Anne Rice – finally, a female name, though the comparison made us laugh.
  • An excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion sounded like Cory Doctorow.
  • An excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time sounded like Stephen King.

It was only after this spate of copying famous books that another contributor to the Facebook thread got a female result: according to IWL, she sounded like Margaret Atwood, lucky her.

But how come it didn’t recognize Atwood’s writing the first time?

For one final test, I decided to use the big guns: an excerpt from the Harry Potter series. I pulled my copy of The Deathly Hallows off the shelf and, after some searching, found a passage thick with ellipses and words like “Dementors” and “Voldemort”.

The result? Success! I Write Like stated that the sample sounded like J.K. Rowling herself!

Of course, you’d hope a tool like that would have the ability to ID the literary fingerprint of the most financially successful author alive. But even so, this provides a lot of room for thought:

  • This year’s VIDA survey found that, like the years before it, the majority of articles in our culture’s top literary magazines (Harper’sThe Atlantic, The NYRB, etc) were written either by or about men, or about books written by men.
  • This is despite the common wisdom – unfortunately I don’t have any statistics to verify this – that outside of this validating circle of critique the majority of published books are written, purchased, and read by women.
  • This experiment of mine falls in the wake of some online controversy regarding the screenwriting bias of Dr. Who – despite airing over 60 episodes since then, the show has featured not a single female screenwriter since 2008.

Why is it that despite all of the sterling examples of female authors we have across both “literary” and “genre” writing, so little of it is respected enough to be considered distinctive or unique? The richest, most successful author in the world is a woman! Why is it that despite the fact that every single contributor to this Facebook thread was a woman, it took seven tries for this supposedly comprehensive online tool to come up with a single female author’s name?

I’m not dying to become the next H.P. Lovecraft or Neil Gaiman. (Well, maybe Gaiman, by a whole lot.) I’m dying to become the next Catherynne M. Valente or Aliette de Bodard. I’m dying to become the next Ursula K. Leguin. How long will it take the literary industry, or even the world as a whole, to recognize that there are women out there – amazing, challenging, jaw-dropping female authors – with unique voices of their own?

Update, April 4th: The shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke award was announced today. And guess what? Despite the fact that the majority of jurors were women, and the fact that nearly 1/5th of all of the longlisted books were by female authors, all of the books on the shortlist were written by men. Quelle surprise.

One thought on “According to “I Write Like”, we all write like men.

  1. Jessica Outram

    Great post, Christina! I always wondered about that online test. I’d noticed it was only men that were selected. And I put in different passages from the same story and it suggested the writing was like four different authors. Seems to be more of a magic eight ball than anything else. I agree–female authors are still not getting the attention they deserve despite their profound brilliance.