Essay: Do Men and Women Write Differently?

I have asked this of several people,  and all the writers I have asked, male or female, have denied that they do.  But I, a mere reader, disagree.  There are exceptions to every rule – Memoirs of a Geisha, anyone? – but on the whole, I always think you can tell whether the writer is male or female.

I’m not saying one is better, either – just different.  A male writer is (usually) more focused on direct action, plunge ahead narrative.  The male writer’s character often has a certain kind of guy “code” he lives by – doing the right thing, helping the downtrodden, etc.   I think we are all familiar with the “White Knight” P.I. trope.

A female writer may be just as concerned with narrative, of course, but as she achieves her goal of telling a story she may notice along the way what’s for dinner, what went into shopping for the dinner, how messy her house/apartment is, what color her sofa is, etc. I know the kind of china collected by Deborah Crombie’s main character.   I know Spenser cooks, but he does “guy” cooking – i.e., he finds an onion and some mayo in the fridge and manages to make something out of it.  He hasn’t planned ahead.

Sara Paretsky, who writes a series every bit as hard boiled (perhaps more so) than Robert B. Parker’s, never the less has left her readers with the knowledge that V.I. has a treasured collection of her mother’s wine glasses.  I have an idea of what her apartment looks like.  I have no idea what Spenser’s looks like, though I do have a good idea of what his office looks like.

Again, not better, just different.  A woman is interested in her mother’s wine glasses, and assumes you might be too.  And – I am!  I imagine Spenser drinking out of jelly glasses.  Or whatever.  And of course, wait, you say – I know what Harry Bosch’s house looks like.   And what Elvis Cole eats (again, guy cooking – lots of barbeque and beer).  But the emotional details Paretsky shares when she talks about V.I.’s wine glasses are a different emotional detail than one Parker includes when he talks about Hawk’s sweat suit and bare chest, or even the ones Harry Bosch shares as he wanders gloomily around his sparsely furnished home, listening to jazz.

I guess what I’m saying is that the detours male and female writers take on their story telling paths are different.  Women plan ahead – they buy groceries, for example – and men forge ahead, grocery-less.  That’s not so different from real life, in my experience.  One of my favorite quotes is from a  series  by Lee Martin, encapsulating one difference (in my mind):

When Harry arrived he had my shoulder holster and service revolver with him, packed neatly in a brown paper grocery sack.  He handed the sack over and collected Cameron and while he was tucking the baby in his safety seat I was donning the shoulder holster.  Of all the trade-offs I have ever made in my life, I think that was my least favorite.
Deficit Ending, Lee Martin, 1990

Of course this is a female narrator – so it may not be a fair example, but this quote captures the juggling act that most modern women – who work, have families and lives – are a part of.   It’s a trade off, and this character knows it’s a trade off.  Sophie Hannah’s main character in The Wrong Mother has a cascading pile of tasks that if brought only slightly out of balance will make everything else fall apart.  That’s a book written two decades after Lee Martin’s, as are Deborah Crombie’s.  Her Gemma Kincaid is managing a blended household – with a very agreeable partner, certainly – but she’s often the one figuring out what’s for dinner.

Running a household is still a detail women don’t leave out.  Women’s lives may have changed since the overwhelmed new mother in Celia Fremlin’s 1950’s classic The Hours Before Dawn, but somehow there are some familiar details that persevere.

An interesting case in point is Robert Ellis’ fine LA police series which has a female main character.  I love the series, but I still know a man wrote it.  Lena juggles nothing (except emotional baggage) – she forges ahead.

Here’s another quote, this time from Barbara D’Amato’s terrific novel, Death of A Thousand Cuts, where the main character is a female cop:

Park and I stood in the Hawthorne House kitchens with the evidence tech.  My arms were folded across my chest, but lightly.  I was trying not to wrinkle my clean linen blazer, which was just as crisp as my sharply creased navy pants.  It was important in my department not just to be efficient but to look as if you were efficient.  Unfortunately these clothes would look like dishrags by tonight.  And I hate to iron.

OK, so here’s a character obviously on the job (the evidence tech) but she’s worried about wrinkles (thinking ahead to the end of the day) and she manages to throw in a bitch about ironing.  This paragraph, to me, could never have been written by a guy.

Here’s one from Dennis Lehane’s Prayers for Rain:

Tony sat in the back of the black ’91 Cherokee I’d picked up when the engine of my Crown Victoria seized up that spring.  The Cherokee was great for that rare bounty hunt because it had come with a steel gate between the seats and the stow bed in back. Tony sat on the other side of the gate…cracked open his third beer of the early afternoon, then burped up the vapor of the second.

OK, this is a pretty “guy” paragraph – his engine seized up (um, what?) so he needed a new car, the bounty hunting, the beer, the burping…and yet, Dennis Lehane’s emotional punch is every bit as strong as any female writer’s.  He just gets to it differently.

As I said, not better, just different.  Can you tell, dear readers?  I always think you can.