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Style Of Writing May Give Clues About Author’s Gender

TUESDAY, AUG. 12, 1997

The most interesting and least mentioned aspect of l’Affaire Dailey-Roberts involved the sexes as much as it did plagiarism.

How often do you read of women who plagiarize? Less often than you read about men. More to the point, how easily could a woman plagiarize a man or a man plagiarize a woman?

After romance writer Janet Dailey acknowledged plagiarizing Nora Roberts, many speculated that it almost certainly wasn’t the first time it’s happened in a genre that depends on formulaic plots and breathless prose. Both plot and prose are so predictable that males have published romance novels under female pseudonyms. No experience necessary - the phrase here meaning that it’s not fiction rooted in real life.

But set aside the obvious and imagine that the writers were not romance novelists. Imagine that they wrote mainstream fiction and that one was a woman and the other a man. How likely would the plagiarism have been in that case? I think less so, and the reasons have to do with the sound of a man’s voice and the sound of a woman’s.

I’m no more an authority on the sexes than the next man, but I’ve often thought I could read a piece of fiction without knowing its author and tell three times out of four whether the pen was a man’s or a woman’s. Saying even this much invites a rain of brickbats from all manner of right-thinkers who won’t abide the suggestion that the sexes might speak in different voices.

But different - need it be said? - doesn’t mean truer. It doesn’t mean better. It doesn’t mean one speaks with greater authority than another. It might mean a difference in outlook, or it might not. The difference I have in mind has to do with timbre, with qualities we know intuitively.

This won’t mollify the earnest souls who think there are only good writers and bad writers, and it will only galvanize those who think two sexes are one too many. Have at me. I’ll only plead that if the style is the man, so also is it the woman.

I haven’t found many who agree - I’ll be honest about that much. Like most things intuitive, what I’m trying to suggest isn’t easily explained. But to me there usually are differences of tone and inflection between a man’s prose and a woman’s, and those differences go beyond the subject matter that might betray the writer’s sex.

It can be hard to separate style from substance, but there’s a sense in which the ear picks up clues. To pick a straw man: Surely no one would ever be fooled thinking a page of Norman Mailer’s prose was written by a woman. By the same token, Anita Brooker has, at least for me, a distinctly female (and British) sound.

Ernest Hemingway, more than one person has said, wrote better about trout than about women. But the directness and muscularity of Hemingway’s prose, however much it might have been influenced by Gertrude Stein, is recognizably male.

Hemingway’s was also, of course, a prose that paid lavish attention to physical detail, self-consciously so at times. The prose of Anne Tyler, by comparison, is straightforward in its own way and yet observant of the kind of detail that suggests a woman.

I mention Tyler because I once asked her about this.

“I have a sneaking suspicion,” she said, “that if you told me a certain book was written by someone of the opposite sex from the person who really wrote it, I’d happily believe you.”

Even Hemingway, she went on, “could have been written by a woman, if she were a very unperceptive woman with an unusually low IQ.” But this reduces it to an ad hominem argument. It’s subtler than that.

It involves, among other things, the ability of a writer to make a character sound believable.

Several years ago, in The New York Times Book Review, Reynolds Price considered the question of why any number of male writers have written first-person narratives in a woman’s voice but comparatively few women have done so in a man’s. Indeed, it could be argued that few women novelists have created strong male protagonists, period. (I didn’t say none had, only few.)

Just about the first such character who comes to mind - and this isn’t to goad anyone - is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, not perhaps the most rounded figure of 19th-century manhood.

For Price, the explanation lies in the upbringing of writers as children. Men more often create women in fiction because they’re raised by them. From infancy on, women are an emotional part of boys’ lives in a way that men often aren’t for girls.

Pick your own unlikely hybrids. A female Raymond Chandler? A male Virginia Woolf? Price, in a casual conversation, told me he couldn’t imagine a woman writing like William Faulkner.

“But then,” he said, “I don’t think Faulkner created very good female characters. I don’t think he understood women.”

I’ve heard women say that, among contemporary male novelists, none creates women as believable as Price’s and Larry McMurtry’s. On the other hand, the Canadian writer Penney Kome told me, “With the untapped reservoir of women’s experiences to draw upon, why should we bother with men’s bath water.”

The temptation is strong to offer a cleansing last word. But better it drain quietly away with the bilge.

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