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Writes Like A Girl

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-09-06


When J.K. Rowling was "outed" as the real author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo's Calling this past summer, the somewhat obscure discipline known as "forensic linguistics" was suddenly thrust into the limelight. Very generally, forensic linguists study and assess language patterns and usages and then apply that knowledge across a wide range of related fields; most dramatically, forensic linguists are called in to help with legal matters and criminal investigations, occasionally studying anonymous threats and ransom notes. In those criminal cases, the linguists try to establish a "thumbprint" of the writer's particular literary tendencies in order to determine who wrote the incriminating lines.

In the case of The Cuckoo's Calling (originally attributed to "Robert Galbraith"), however, the linguists were asked to use their skills to figure out if the world's most popular writer might be using a pseudonym. Almost immediately upon publication, many critics didn't believe that "Robert Galbraith" was a real person, for The Cuckoo's Calling seemed far too accomplished for a first-time novelist. Acting on an anonymous tip, the U.K.'s Sunday Times began their own investigation and eventually they cracked the case--the forensic linguists that they hired compared "Robert Galbraith"'s book to two J.K. Rowling novels and determined that Rowling's "writer DNA" was all over the Galbraith book. When asked point blank, Rowling finally fessed up and admitted authorship, and sales for "The Cuckoo's Calling" (not surprisingly) increased about 500,000%, virtually overnight.

One of the linguists was an American, Patrick Juola of Duquesne University, and he promptly became a popular guest on many news shows after the story broke. I caught an interview with Mr. Juola on NPR and it was fascinating to listen to his methodology — linguists analyze a number of different variables (word length, vocabulary, use of prepositions, etc) in order to determine authorship, and they feed all that information into a computer and then collate the results. Juola admitted that it wasn't a slam dunk that Rowling was indeed the writer of The Cuckoo's Calling, but he was pretty confident after studying the data.

What really got my attention about Juola's NPR interview was something he said almost in passing — he mentioned that there are ways to determine if the writer of a particular text is most likely male or female. When pressed to elaborate, Juola said that women, in general, use more colors in their descriptions than men, and that they also are use greater detail when talking about sensory imagery — taste, touch, smell, etc. The moderator, unfortunately, breezed past this fascinating bit of gender differentiation and went onto the next question, but Juola's comment stayed with me, for I've always been curious about this very question: do I write like a "guy?"

I don't often get tripped up by gender politics — I learned a long time ago that men and women are different and that I shouldn't go crazy trying to figure out why — but the notion of "masculine" and "feminine" as it applies to writing is something completely beguiling to me. I've often wondered, if a reader didn't know who wrote Emma or Persuasion, would they immediately peg that author as a woman? And if they could, well, then how about Anna Karenina, or Streetcar Named Desire? Not so easy, is it? All four works have female protagonist who are rendered with such dexterity and authenticity that one would be inclined to believe they could only have been created by a woman. And of course two of them weren’t. To confuse matters more, I could point out that in the Austen novels, the leading male characters (George Knightley, Captain Wentworth) are wholly credible masculine characters, as are Levin and Stanley Kowalski in the other two works I've cited. And please know, I'm fully aware that I'm over-thinking all of this, that I know there's a little thing called "universality" that all great writers must employ and that I'm flat-out ignoring it, but still: I'm not confident that I could definitively ID any specific writer purely by gender.

I'm sure the more erudite among us would probably point out the Austen novels end in marriage, which is "feminine," while Tolstoy's book and Streetcar end in tragedy, which is "masculine." But who would want to argue that romances are exclusive to women and that tragedies only belong to men? Any casual reader could point out dozens (if not hundreds) of exceptions to this rule.

But then again — and here I go, tripping myself up — maybe there are differences. Writer Roald Dahl was once asked to edit an anthology of ghost stories, and when he went through the 700+ stories that he had gathered for the project, he was startled to discover that a disproportionate amount of the really good ghost stories were written by women. Could it be that women have a knack for writing ghost stories? In the introduction to the book, Dahl pointed out that, in general, women writers rarely contribute to most reputable short story anthologies — perhaps a story by Willa Cather, maybe one by Shirley Jackson, or Katherine Anne Porter, but that's it — yet in his ghost story collection, the women/men breakdown was much closer, more like 50/50. Why was that? (I have to admit, that when I think of the two scariest American short stories that I've read, both are by women — "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson, and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor.) Dahl went on to point out that in one particular genre — children's literature — women absolutely dominated, with Lucy Maud Montgomery and Beatrix Potter and Frances Hodgson Burnett and P.L. Travers writing the works that became timeless classics of the genre (And Dahl died before the success of the current mega-selling "young adult" women writers: J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins.)

It's rare, but there are times when I'm listening to music when I can absolutely identify a "masculine" or "feminine" line — when I heard "Creep," for the first time, for instance, I knew positively that the song was written by a guy, just like I knew that "Loser" was as well. And there's a line from a Laurie Anderson song that goes "if I were president, if I were queen for a day/I'd give all the ugly people all of the money/I'd rewrite the Book of Love/I'd make it funny" and when I heard that, I knew it was a written by a woman, and not just because of the "queen" signifier. There's a specific sensibility there that strikes me as wholly unavailable to most male voices. I'm sure there are other, easier examples of male/female identifiers, but those are the only ones I'm certain of. Maybe you're better at it than I, but maybe not: that annoying 80s "girl power" anthem "Girls Just Want to Have Fun?" Written by one Robert Hazard. Who was not a girl.

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