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Sarah Lindsay

Men Reading Women: Why Not Write Like a Man?

Fresco from Pompeii of woman with a stylus
Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”), c. 50 AD | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 2 of a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women and how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men. Read part 1 here.

In Monday’s post, I raised a problem — that men don’t read books by women at the same rate as they read books by men — and argued that this problem is a symptom of a larger problem. That problem? Society still does not view women as quite fully human, because women’s experiences are assumed to be specific while men’s experiences are universal.

So how might we begin to address this problem? Setting aside the impossible dream of smashing the patriarchy in one fell swoop, encouraging men to read more books by and about women is a good start. After all, from the time we are young, we women are expected to read books by men and about men, expected to be able to identify with male protagonists. Why not ask the same of men?

One way to get men to read books by women involves obscuring the author’s gender. From George Eliot to James Tiptree, Jr. to J.K. Rowling, women have used pen names and initials to gain male audiences for their books.

This tactic is harder, though, for writers of non-fiction. In order to publish a book, non-fiction writers need a platform, an audience for their words — and that makes it somewhere between difficult and impossible to obscure gender. So women who write non-fiction cannot easily pass themselves off as men in order to gain male readers.

The next solution that presents itself? Women just need to write more like men. This advice surfaces periodically in a variety of contexts: women should apologize less, use “just” less, cut out the uptalk and the vocal fry, all in order to be taken more seriously because they sound more like men.

At one panel at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing, one woman writer suggested that in order to get male readers, women need to write more serious theology and leave behind the personal and confessional style so common in women’s spiritual writing in particular.

This advice is not entirely bad. I think women do apologize far too often for simply existing in the world. And women who write Christian non-fiction for a general audience do tend towards (or are pushed towards) the personal and confessional even when they write about theology.

But here’s the problem: the advice to write more like a man continues to elevate the male voice as normative. And when that normative male voice is also viewed as objective and logical, the female voice is seen as deviant, subjective and emotional. So in asking women to write more like men, we continue to devalue qualities viewed as “feminine.”

I do think that women should be writing more theological books, that women should have and fully use their intellectual grounding to challenge and encourage the church. But if we don’t challenge the assumption that women write subjectively and emotionally, and therefore lack authority or relevance to the church as a whole, we have not solved the problem.

Back in the high middle ages, women were barred from the university education that allowed someone to participate in scholastic theology. But women could still hear from God, could still be mystics; for many women (like Julian of Norwich or Catherine of Siena), mysticism offered their only entrance into the world of medieval theology, and they took full advantage of that entrance to participate in and even shape wider theological discussions.

Similarly, for many women today the devotional or confessional style — often personal and emotional — is the best route into spiritual and theological writing. As Beth Moore recently revealed, she like many other women was blocked from the avenues to theological education and authority. But unlike the medieval mystic theologies written by women that were widely read, the more personal, devotional and confessional styles of these modern women writers leads to their dismissal as fluffy or relevant only to other women.

We can, and should, not only allow but encourage women to write more “like men,” if by that we mean that women should be writing solidly intellectual theology, like a James K.A. Smith or a N.T. Wright. Women are no less capable of this work than men, and women’s perspectives will help challenge the assumption that male perspectives are, or should be, normative.

But this cannot be the entire solution. We must also recognize the value of the personal and the confessional. After all, Augustine’s Confessions is a classic of Christian theology for good reason. Theologies influenced by experience, mediated by more personal and emotional styles of writing, can be just as valuable to the church as intellectual or academic writing.

And so men should read books like Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior and Jen Hatmaker’s Seven and Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts and pretty much anything by Lauren Winner. These women draw on their experiences to offer valuable insights to the whole church, not only to other women.

Women shouldn’t have to hide the fact that they are women, either by obscuring their names or jettisoning so-called “feminine” writing styles. We (both men and women readers) should value their full personhood, including their experience of being a woman in the world, and not see it as a deviation from or poor imitation of the normative experience of men.

And so I resist placing the responsibility on women to attract male readers by contorting themselves into man-like shapes. Instead, men should be willing to read a variety of books by women, from the academic to the confessional. And perhaps in the process, more men can discover the value of personal and experiential theologies and we can work in earnest to dismantle the idea that theology must be intellectual and abstract.

Tagged: books | gender | theology