Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

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.

On Writing vs. Bird by Bird: Franzenfreude? Gender bias?

You may recall that late in 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, Freedom, to widespread critical acclaim. Such acclaim, in fact, that two female authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, criticized the book review establishment for their adulation – or rather, the lack of such when female writers tackle the same topics. In the way typical of any sort of internet dust-up, their complaints spawned a new term: Franzenfreude.

Dismissive name aside, they have a point. Vida, an organization that promotes and analyzes the impact of women in the literary arts, does an annual survey of the prominence of female authors in the literary establishment, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2010 and 2011, men wrote the majority of both the books reviewed and the book reviews themselves in established publications like the New York Review of Books and The Atlantic.

In light of this, once I finished both On Writing and Bird by Bird and analyzed my opinions of them, I had misgivings. Was I placing more value on On Writing simply because it was written by a man? Did I dislike Bird by Bird – which I felt was plagued by new-age speak, unvarnished neuroses, and runaway metaphors – because it was written by a woman? I majored in Women’s Studies in university, and I’d like to think that I’d be a bit more self-aware of my critical responses than that.

I’m still not sure what to think. Stephen King and Anne Lamott started writing under different circumstances for different reasons. All I can say is that the difference is illuminating. Let’s take a look at some quotes:

Here’s Stephen King describing his creation of a high school newspaper satirizing his school’s staff:

As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit [his satirical paper] to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!

As a matter of fact, they did bust a collective gut; I had some good ideas about what tickled the funnybones of high school kids, and most of them were showcased in The Village Vomit. Cow Man’s prize Jersey won a livestock farting contest at Topsham Fair; in another, Old Raw Diehl was fired for sticking the eyeballs of specimen fetal pigs up his nostrils. Humor in the grand Swiftian manner, you see. Pretty sophisticated, eh? (Page 52)

Here’s Anne Lamott describing her own writing attempts during middle and high school:

But I was funny. So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other. This, as you can imagine, did not help my self-esteem a great deal. I thought I was a total loser. But one day I took a notebook and a pen when I went to Bolinas Beach with my father (who was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet). With the writer’s equivalent of canvas and brush, I wrote a description of what I saw….My father convinced me to show it to a teacher, and it ended up being included in a real textbook. This deeply impressed my teachers and parents and a few kids, even some of the popular kids, who invited me to even more parties so I could watch them all make out even more frequently. (Pages xvi-xvii)

She also says this a few lines up from the excerpt quoted above:

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging. (Page xvi)

There are similarities here – both authors wrote to gain approval of some sort. But when King wrote, it was to entertain his friends. He was doing this all for fun. When Lamott wrote, she used her skill to gain some sort of social standing among her peers. She wrote for herself, but used the success of that writing as leverage. Note that King mentions actually having friends, and Lamott doesn’t.

This lies at the heart of my enjoyment of On Writing on one hand, and my dislike of Bird by Bird on the other: I get the sense that Lamott is trying really hard to prove herself. Whenever she describes her writing process, it sounds like she goes through a lot of emotional turmoil to write something effective and lasting.

I get it – although writing is difficult and unpredictable, sometimes the results are breathtaking. But I’m sick and tired of hearing that writing is an act of Herculean audacity and emotional catharsis. It can be that way a lot of the time. But during the other times, I just want to yank the story idea out and put it on paper so it will leave me the f**k alone. I don’t need advice on the emotional aspects of writing – I need advice on how to transplant the sapling that’s taken root in my head into the fertile soil it needs to thrive.

So, there we have it. I liked the book written by a male author better because it was less emotional and more practical. I guess I’m just as bad as the literary establishment that Vida criticizes.