What is Your Novel’s Sex?

I’m not sure many people think about the gender of their book while they are writing it, but when I began The Earl of Brass as an undergraduate, it crossed my mind.  While reading other steampunk novels, I was rather surprised by how the books seemed to either be very masculine (G.D. Falksen’s Blood in the Skies) or very feminine (Gail Carriger’s Soulless).  I wanted to write a book that was androgynous, that had no defining gender for itself or its audience.

As part of my research for writing The Earl of Brass, I read through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in order to better understand Victorian and Edwardian adventure novels. There again, I found the gender gap.  In Conan Doyle’s novel, the men leave their women at home and go on an adventure full of dinosaurs and savages, and while Gilman infused her work with feminist ideals, it was very much an us-versus-them mentality with a muddled ending where the women and men fall in love and go back to America.

I couldn’t stand it.  Why does a book have to gravitate so strongly toward one gender?  While writing The Earl of Brass, I tried to keep this in mind, and I think it ended up manifesting in my two main characters.  Both Eilian and Hadley are rather balanced in terms of their gender identities.  He is not a he-man who traipses into foreign lands and drains them dry for king and country, and therefore, he does not fit the Victorian ideal of what an Englishman should be.  Hadley ends up going against the Victorian ideal of the idle woman when she takes on her late-brother’s prosthesis business.  She also goes to the archaeological dig disguised as a man (a fop to be more precise, which ends up walking the gender line as well).  When writing, I like to stay true to the Victorian way of life in terms of manners and decorum, and a woman at the dig would simply not happen unless she was married to one of the men and stayed out of the way for the most part. One of the solutions I found, was to bounce back and forth between Eilian and Hadley’s perspectives, eyes, and story-lines.  I will admit that I was a head-hopper to begin with, but Virginia Woolf did it so masterfully that I wanted to do the same with my characters.  Why can’t I bounce between their eyes and give a greater perspective on a situation rather than stinking to one person per chapter?  As long as the reader knows who they are embodying, is there a problem with it? No. Much like camera angles in a movie, it changes a scene and gives a greater depth and sense of perspective in any situation.

Now that I am into The Winter Garden, I am not dealing with the issue of gender as much.  It’s set in Victorian London (so no traveling and dealing with a cross-dressing character), but sexual orientation is now the focus and how in society certain sexual desires are “taboo” while others that are often much more perverse are allowed.  That is fodder for another blog post, but I must ask my readers, while reading or writing, have you ever considered gender?  As in the gender of the characters (beyond the Bechdel Test) and the story in general.  Does the story slant to a very male or female audience?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What is Your Novel’s Sex?

  1. I’m not sure a novel should have a gender. I agree with you entirely that an author should be ‘allowed’ to head hop, as editors call it. If you write in close third, unless you have scenes where you are in the head of another character, you will get a one-sided narrative that will be either male or female. I’m all in favour of breaking these silly rules. If you write well, you can do what you like. The essential is to do it well. People aren’t complete cretins, they understand which person is speaking/thinking if the author gives the right directions.

    • Kara Jorgensen

      After reading your blog post, it seems as if editors think readers are idiots. We had a discussion about this in one of my creative writing workshops. Readers should need to do a little work. My professor compared it to a dog. Dogs want to sniff and discover; readers are the same way. Handing the narrative to them on a predictable silver platter isn’t necessarily the best thing, and I totally agree with that.

      • You think that way because you’re an intelligent human being who enjoys reading a book with depth to it. The way the publishing world looks at though is that there are more readers who don’t want to work than those who do. They see it as the most financially safe option to dumb down. That way they think they’ll attract more readers. What they attract are readers who don’t like real books. I totally agree with you that if you don’t have to dig a bit to get the best out of a book there isn’t much merit in it.

      • Kara Jorgensen

        It sickens me how editors and publishing houses treat writing/books as merely a business. I understand that they want money, but I often feel like quality should trump that. Then again, vapid works have sold quite well unfortunately. I decided to self-publish because of this quality issue. Book quality seems to be going downhill, and it’s so disappointing when a book is all surface and nothing more. Because I am working toward a masters in creative writing and take literature classes as well, I feel like it has been drilled into me that books need depth, themes, fleshed out characters, a reliable plot. I’m glad to find others that agree.

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