From what I can tell, women write just as well as men. But you’d be hard pressed to prove it by looking at the statistics for the list of candidate books. Out of the 1,712 total books, just 269 (15.7 percent) were penned by those with skirts. For great books written during my lifetime, the rate increases to about 25 percent, which is a great effort, but it’s still one-third of the male rate.
So what’s the problem? Why don’t books by women get the same recognition as those by their manly counterparts? Some experts would say that patriarchal societies impose undue restrictions on women, forcing them to write under a cloak of pseudonym darkness. Others say that publishers are still angry about that whole fiasco with Cleopatra and her mystery novel. But according to an article in the July 18, 2003 issue of Nature, the true answer may be more basic than that: men and women write differently.
What. A. Shock. I always knew that men and women had differences—I’m just naturally observant that way. But Moshe Koppel of Bar-Ilan University, whose research is the focus of the article, found that you can usually tell whether a piece of text was written by a man or a woman by looking at its structure. Male text tends to use more articles (a, an, the) and spelled-out numbers that categorize and organize things. Women, they personalize by making heavy use of pronouns (I, you, we) and inserting the words “I love you” once every five paragraphs. Or at least it feels that way.
The research team wrote a computer algorithm to test texts from different authors. A simplified version of their system appears on the Web. It’s called Gender Genie, and you can use it to assess your own writings. The system doesn’t just look at articles and pronouns. It’s a lot more complex than that. It also looks at prepositions.
I ran the previous four paragraphs through the Gender Genie, and it gave me a score of 282/female to 551/male. In other words, I write like a man. That’s a relief.
What does all this mean for The Well-Read Man Project? Basically, men will appear prominently in the final list of fifty books. Sticking to a representative sample of great works means that only six of the fifty slots will go to female authors. Fair? No. There probably won’t be room for important classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the thousand-year-old Japanese court novel The Tale of Genji, or Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen, who used the male-sounding pen name Isak Dinesen.
In the end, it might not make a difference. Great ideas live in the hearts of both men and women, and impact them equally. I don’t know if it takes a man to come up with, “I think, therefore, I am.” But once it’s on paper, does the ink care about the gender of the person writing it? Reading fifty complex and enduring works is a challenge, and I’m sure that the challenge would be equally difficult if I selected 44 female works.