Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#atozchallenge: Gender

2014: A Year In Stories
A twelve-volume anthology published by Pure Slush Books

How much does gender matter in a story? Does it have a role in the larger arena of storytelling? How does it impact your perception of a story?

Stephen V. Ramey, one of the thirty-one 2014 writers, has been reviewing the project's story of the day since January 1st. Yes, every day. He's earned our gratitude not just for the discipline and effort involved, but--perhaps especially--for the insight he provides to each story arc, to the characters, even to the writers ourselves.

On January 12th we read, and Stephen reviewed, Shane Simmons' first story, You Can't Choose Your FriendsThat review sparked a paradigm-shifting conversation. I'd like to share it--and maybe even continue it--with you.

Stephen says about You Can't Choose Your Friends:
From Stephen's January 12th review of Shane Simmons' You Can't Choose Your Friends

Turns out most of us a) hadn't noticed the lack of gender clarification until the end, b) had either assumed the narrator was male because the author is male, or female because the other character in the story is female, and--most relevantly--c) whatever gender we chose didn't make a whit of difference for our enjoyment of the story. 

Some stories come with built-in gender for their characters. Take Michael Webb's, for instance (whose baseball-player protag, Mark Hamilton, you've read about here). In Michael's words,
Mark Hamilton's story is a baseball story, but it is also fundamentally a manhood story. His value is uniquely tied to his body. If he can't throw a baseball where he wants when he wants with regularity and velocity, he is utterly useless as a professional. He is unusually thoughtful for an athlete, but the strain is beginning to wear at him. He's doubting his parenting and his marriage. When the checks stop coming, will he have any value to them at all? He feels that if he has to retire because of age or injury, his work will disappear, his value will disappear, and in a way, he will disappear.
Mark is unequivocally male. His story--the characters, the plot, the conflicts, the dialogue--reflect that, also unequivocally. But what about stories--and protagonists--that aren't immediately identifiable as male or female?

Stephen raises another, more craft-related, point:
Stephen, caught in a Dundee moment.
It's generally a good idea to encourage the reader to engage in the story. This is why minimalist (but sharp) description is usually best. The reader gets to participate in the creation. So long as the author is careful to identify details that really do matter to the narrative, allowing the reader to create non-necessary details (is that dress blue or green? does the house have siding?) can be an effective way of connecting said reader to the action and characters of a story.  
Gender matters a great deal to many readers, but it can be difficult for an author to indicate that aspect of character naturally, particularly in first-person viewpoint. Attempts can come off as clumsy (I stroked my beard and sat next to Rhiannon), or forced (As a woman I dislike Old Spice). 
The larger question is whether gender actually matters in many stories. Does it matter whether a reader identifies a protagonist as male or female in a story that does not play to gender types? If Joe envisions a burly man chopping that wood, does it matter that Alice pictures a strong woman? 
Maybe, but what if the resolution has nothing to do with that accident of birth, but rather the content of his/her character? Granted, the takeaway of such a story will vary between readers, but so long as there is a meaningful takeaway, does it matter? 
I will argue that in some (perhaps many) stories, e.g. Shane Simmons' opening story in 2014, gender is not a detail that truly matters and can be left to the reader to imagine without harming the story experience.  
In fact, it may enhance the experience.
Thank you, Stephen and Michael, for sharing your thoughts for this post. 

What do you think? Do you enjoy stories with built-in protag gender? Is gender ambiguity a problem or an enhancement for you as a reader--and a writer? Have you ever written a piece that made it difficult to clarify the protagonist's gender? (I have. Curious?)

~ * ~ 

Thanks for the visit, and my apologies for the late posting. I'll do better tomorrow :) 
Happy A-to-Z-ing!


  1. Stephen's explanation is perfect!

  2. Interesting. I have read many stories when it took a while for the author to establish the gender of the MC. Sometimes this bothered me, other times it did not. I guess it depends on how much of a role gender plays in the story for the reader. Of course "for the reader" is highly individual and subjective.

  3. ...things I thought about (and played with) a lot when I wrote TRoRS.

    Nice post :) Looks like A-Z is going well!

  4. There are so many things I like about your blog. I like the content, the banner, the Pablo Picasso quote, the banners and quotes on your side bar, and even the way you spell your name. lol! I'm going to follow you on Blog Lovin'.


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