The Voice in Our Heads

The Voice in Our Heads

August 22, 2013

Gender and Identity in Reading and Writing
[L]ast week, a friend posted a link to the announcement of—a new website marketing “news for women”—asking friends to weigh in. This sparked a discussion of why news stories should be gendered at all, what the significance was of the fact that the site was started by a man, and what it implied about the reading patterns of men v. women. Versions of this discussion have since exploded in various media sources and in comments sections that will make you blush. It’s a hot-button issue.

The same week, I came across a list of “40 Books to Read Before Turning 40” and sent it to a male friend who had recently hit that milestone. Upon closer inspection, however, we both agreed that the list was really for women turning 40, as evidenced by the number of heartwarming tales of women’s relationships with their mothers, and the fact that almost every author was female. Nowhere on this list were any stereotypically “male” authors like Cormac McCarthy or Ernest Hemingway, or indeed a good number of other books/authors that many would agree should be represented on such a list.

As author identity (and author gender in particular) and the “gendered” nature of some writing has therefore been on my mind, I reflected on the recent Ruminate Poetry Prize. I read submissions in April and May, and all of them were blind—meaning I had no clue as to the identity of the poets. On rare occasions, this could be confusing, when knowing the gender of the poem’s speaker would have had a strong effect on its interpretation. Typically, though, it had no effect at all, and in fact served to free the reading of any kind of outside influence.

The subject of gender/identity as it relates to writing and reading is one fraught with disagreement. From Roland Barthes to David Foster Wallace, the debate has been waged as to whether the identity of the author is inseparable from the work itself, and as a former English major, I can attest that a good number of college essays have been written linking details of an author’s personal life to possible manifestations in their writing.

On the other hand, one of my pet peeves about poetry is when people assume that the poem’s speaker is always the poet. But no one’s ever said that poetry = nonfiction, and in fact many of my own poems are written in voices and about experiences that are not mine.

David Sedaris’s new book Let’s Talk About Diabetes with Owls includes a series of monologues in voices that couldn’t be further from Sedaris’s own, yet they are amazing. One of my favorite Sedaris pieces of all time is “Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!”, written as a Christmas letter by a woman whose insanity and criminal implication are slowly revealed throughout the essay. So why, even in cases like this, does the author’s identity matter to us as readers?

Last night, my husband began reading a fiction book we’re discussing for book club this week. Since he was reading it on my Nook and couldn’t easily flip to the front cover, a few pages in he asked me: “What’s the gender of this book’s author?” I asked why it mattered, and he said, “Because without knowing, I’ll just end up reading the whole thing in my own voice.”

I have to admit that knowing an author’s gender (or in fact any details about them) does inevitably color the reading of a piece, even if it’s only to silence my own voice in my head. When I recently revisited the finalist poems from the poetry prize (now matched with their authors’ names and bios) in the proofs to Issue 29, it was interesting to see how that knowledge shifted my reading of the poems. Occasionally it clarified something in the narrative/perspective of the poem, but mostly it just allowed me to read the work in something other than my own voice, which inevitably gave it a newness that allowed me to experience it from a fresh perspective and to find new things to love and appreciate about it.

As writers and readers, I think that the subject of gender and its influence is inescapable. I have writer friends who choose to use their initials so their gender does not affect the reception of their work (positively or negatively), and in fact that’s why J.K. Rowling doesn’t go by Joanne. When men write women protagonists, those characters are inevitably more closely scrutinized for signs revealing their personal feelings toward and relationships with women. When we choose what we read, we are (consciously or not) subject to marketing campaigns that have chosen everything from cover images to font based on the gender of who they perceive their audience to be. So how does that knowledge affect us?

What’s your take on the importance of gender and identity in writing? How does it affect your reading habits, if at all? In the meantime, I look forward to the release of Issue 29, so that you, too, can enjoy some of the fabulous poems from this year’s submissions—whether you pay any attention to the poets’ gender or not.

Image courtesy of Circa Sassy.

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