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Nathan OdellNathan Odell is Senior Editor in the English Department at Bedford/St. Martin's.

Exercise: Close Reading for Gender

posted: 12.21.12 by Nathan Odell

Over on Theresa Frohock’s blog some prominent fantasy authors are trying to settle an age-old debate: Can a reader tell whether a scene was written by a man or a woman just by detecting clues in the prose? The contest has begun, and the task is as follows:

THE TASK: Tell us, based on the prose, whether the scene was written by a man or a woman. At the end, I want to tabulate the results and see if readers can really tell the difference. If you want to, you may say why you feel a particular scene was written by a man or woman, but you don’t have to.

Yes, as a scientific study, it is full of holes and sucks, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. This little test is an itch that I’ve been wanting to scratch for a long time, especially when I read the Fantasy Reddit and I don’t see a single woman listed for best novel in 2012. I know women released books in 2012. Perhaps I’m hanging out in all the wrong places.

Or maybe the “female-authors-equal-romance-y/YA-ish-themes” connotation is true in readers’ minds, so you all are skipping novels by women entirely. I wonder. And when I think too much, I tend to get into trouble … or hold a contest.

THE CHEESE: You have a chance to win free books.

This sort of contest could easily be adapted into a layered exercise in close reading for students. Not only do they have to read closely—looking for nuances in diction, making inferences based on the content—but they need to take a stance on the effect of those choices, namely whether they perceive a masculinizing or feminizing effect. We should, of course, reinforce that this is simply an interesting exercise—detecting gender is not the usual purpose of close reading—but sometimes limiting the scope of the task has benefits. And, ultimately, there’s roughly a 50% chance that students will absolutely insist that they have detected the gender only to be absolutely wrong, which will yield some important lessons about gender stereotyping. And for an encore: passages from George Eliot.


Categories: Chapter 2: Close Reading, Close reading, Literature, Tone
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One Response to “Exercise: Close Reading for Gender”

  1. A. Hultman, Santa Fe high school Says:

    I agree

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