Thursday, January 31, 2008

Is Feminine Writing about Storytelling?

For a few days I have been ruminating a lot on what might be the differences between "masculine" and "feminine" writing. I am choosing to think of this in terms of gender roles rather than strict sex differences, because I know plenty of women who write--in what I will below articulate--as "masculine" voices and vice versa.

This whole "intuition"--because I am a philosopher, I don't do studies--came to me after I finished writing a grant. My male colleague in Psychology--who is masculine in very traditional ways--also wrote a grant for the same reason; we are co-teaching a course and looking for support. Anyway, when I reviewed his grant and compared it to mine, I was struck by how succinct, pared down, and downright terse it was in comparison to mine. I started to panic. That devil--self-doubt--creeped in and sent me into a spiral of fear and loathing. (Isn't amazing how writing for the public can do that so regularly?) I showed my version of the grant to a male colleage (who, tends to write in a more "feminine" mode) and he led me to the kernel of my intuition about gender differences in writing.

The first thing he said about my grant in comparison to my male colleagues' was that it read like I was telling a story. His reaction carried me back to a conversation I had years ago with a former colleague from the French department. We were discussing what kind of writing we liked better: the New Yorker with its long, sprawling stories or the terseness of the Economist. My French colleague preferred the latter because, "I just want the facts."

And in traveling back to this memory, I was jarred to reflect on a more recent conversation with Za, wherein he was gearing himself to complete some paperwork and relishing the idea of making his answers as succinct and terse as possible.

So, I thought about how much the stripped down writing--no run-on sentences, no unnecessary adjectives, no extra stuff--is generally more praised in our culture (Hemingwayesque). I have always resisted this kind of writing. I find it very hard to do well and yet so much of my own discipline hangs on this ability of getting at the core, the nub of the argument, cutting out what is unnecessary and extraneous to meaning.

So, why do I write like a storyteller? I guess I attribute it to my very traditionally feminine nature. I like to communicate--I like relate with my speaker, create a community, forge a relationship. I don't try to master the content--leave some openings--allow for the other to help shape what I want to communicate so that I can be sure that I am not being misunderstood. Granted, the terse style probably has the last goal as its primary aim--to not be misunderstood. But, the very terseness and bareness of this mode of expression is precisely what leaves me totally confused by what the writer means. I want examples; I want to know how to use this concept.

So, I guess my hypothesis about gender differences in writing is that women write long, sprawling stories that aim to communicate (and at times annoy more masculine writers and readers), while men aim for economy and clarity.

What do you think?