Monday, August 26, 2013


I'm still reading both of the memoirs I mentioned in my last two posts -- and some thoughts have been percolating about the difference between male and female writers.  Here we have two excellent memoirs about living in Japan, one by a man and one by a woman, and not for the first time I have the suspicion that there is a gender-based difference in how the author's narrative is approached.  I've seen this difference, too, in two other memoirs, reviewed on the "Finding Oneself Abroad" page of this blog:  MANGO ELEPHANTS IN THE SUN, by Susan Herrera and SURVIVING PARADISE, by Peter Rudiak-Gould.  Although in this case the two stories have different settings, their similarity comes from their being stories of young people fresh out of college who go to a third world country to teach English.

So, I have two sets of books here -- and I don't pretend this small sample makes any kind of definitive conclusion possible.  Rather, what follows is just a hypothesis. (And if this idea is already out there, I'd be interested in knowing.)

It seems to me that women's approach, and the language they use to describe their experience, is self-referential:  "When that happened, I felt so . . .. "  Men tend to skip this kind of analysis.  Sometimes they use language that may imply how they feel -- the "objective correlative," to borrow from TS Eliot -- but often they seem to be more interested in describing the world than in observing how they feel about it.

I've noticed how this plays out in my own little writing world.  I sometimes review books for a certain journal, and after the first couple of submissions, I noticed that whenever I made self-referential comments in my reviews, the (male) editor always cut them.  For example, "I didn't find the dialogue realistic," might be changed to, "The dialogue isn't realistic."

What is the difference between these two statements?  In the first, the writer is stating that she herself had a certain experience but leaving open the possibility that others' experience might be different.  The second statement assumes that the writer can speak for all readers.  And the modesty of the first type of  statement -- if I can call it that -- may be the reason that, according to one study I read, women writers are far less likely to be published in the top literary journals than men are.  What women call modesty may translate as lack of assurance in men's ears.

But it's not just modesty, I don't think.  Relating this back to the memoir question, it seems to me that women are simply more interested in subjective experience than men are.  There are exceptions, of course -- among poets, especially -- but for the most part, this generality seems to hold and to be reflected in the way each gender approaches memoir.


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