Do Readers Hold Female Authors to Higher Standards When It Comes to Violence and Profanity?

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

A few months ago a reader told me I write like a man. When I asked for clarification, the person said, “You know, the violence. Your killer is so twisted.”

It’s true, Eating Bull has short scenes of graphic violence. The novel has a serial killer, after all. It also contains profanity, particularly the scenes where my overweight teenager gets bullied. Something tells me a 17-year-old, inner-city Cleveland bully would not call his victim a “chubby poo-poo head.”

But while I expected people who knew me to widen their eyes at my words and cluck, I didn’t expect to be compared to a man for writing them.

So that got me thinking:

Do male writers enjoy more leeway when it comes to violence and profanity? Are female authors held to a different standard?

I remember reading the criticism J.K. Rowling received for her use of profanity in both A Casual Vacancy and her new detective series (published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). Reviews for the latter also mentioned its violence.

In an article on DailyMail.com about A Casual Vacancy (“We Know You’re Grown Up Now, J.K. Rowling. So Stop Swearing), a writer laments:

“But wading through the torrent of abusive terms in a book by Ms Rowling – of all people! – made me wince with embarrassment.”

AND

“She’s perfectly within her rights to cuss like a trooper – but the fact that she has actively chosen to do it when she could have found ways around it  .  .  .  is just disappointing.”

After reading the article I wondered why reviewers don’t say the same about Stephen King. Some of his books have enough twisted violence and profanity to make Quentin Tarantino blush. But I don’t recall seeing reviews take him to task for it, at least not like J.K. Rowling’s have.

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Of course, this may be because King is King and has always written that way, whereas Rowling is the mother of Harry Potter, a series for children and teens. One doesn’t expect f-bombs and severed body parts to fly from her fingertips.

But after having readers mention my own use of violence and language, I wondered if some of the bias is gender-related.

Yeah, But What About …

To be fair, plenty of books written by men have been called out for their violence. For example, Simon & Schuster canceled American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis on “grounds of taste,” after having paid him a $300,000 advance. The novel was subsequently published by Vintage Books.

I suppose as with most things it’s a combination of factors, gender included. As for how much violence and profanity is too much, well, that’s a topic for another day and not one I’m addressing here, other than to say I wouldn’t be opposed to a content advisory for books. Why shouldn’t readers know what they’re getting?

But in the meantime, I’ll just keep writing. Not as a man. Not as a woman. Only as me.

Do you think readers expect less violence and profanity from female authors? Are you for a book rating system, similar to movies and TV shows?

*     *     *

Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. For full bio, click here.

279 Responses to “Do Readers Hold Female Authors to Higher Standards When It Comes to Violence and Profanity?”

  1. Dawn Quyle Landau

    I’m not sure how I missed this, other than the fact that I was away on my retreat…. but love the topic, an many of these clever, spot on comments! I think women are DEFINITELY held to a different standard, in all areas of life (yo, election coverage!), and clearly in writing. While American Psycho was pulled initially, the criticism didn’t have anything to do with the author’s gender, yet gender is frequently thrown in the faces of women writers… when they dare step in the arena of violence, sex, language. Ugh. Bugs the sh*t out of me! Yes, I stepped out of line there, on purpose! Call me Stephen. 😉

    Like

  2. frederick anderson

    I suspect JKR was quite gratified to have been slated by the Daily Mail. I would have thought a bad notice in that journal would be the equivalent of a five-star review anywhere else. I can’t see any way in which the sex of the writer can matter – if the subject demands a harsh edge, we owe it to the reader to spare no quarter. ‘Eating Bull’ deals with the activities of its characters realistically. They are believable people.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. And I’ve been told the Daily Mail is almost a tabloid in nature, so as with all things of that nature, anything in it should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m sure JK Rowling was crying all the way to the bank on that one…

      Like

  3. Awkwardly Alive

    This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, and it fascinates me! For someone to say that you write like a man is wrong on multiple accounts. It suggests that all women write the same way. It suggests that all men write the same way. It robs each writer of their own individual style and their right to explore and change that style. Stephen King and F. Scott Fiztgerald are very different writers. J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen are very different writers.

    You write like you know how your characters would speak and behave. You write like a good writer, Carrie. You write like you.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. I appreciate that. I don’t think the person meant anything by the comment, but it just shows the preconceptions we develop. Thanks for sharing the post on Twitter! Hope you’re doing well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kourtney Heintz

    I was at Readercon this summer and they talked about a rating system for books so that readers know what they are getting into. It was suggested it be on the inside back pages so that if some readers want to be surprised they can be, but if readers has specific triggers they can be forewarned and avoid books that might be harmful to them.

    I think it would be great if this could be done for readers for swearing, violence, sexual violence, etc. Some people are more sensitive to certain things and would them be steered toward the books best suited for them.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      That sounds like a great way to do it, and for books they’re ordering online, maybe there could be a brief content advisory in the book’s description or in the preview section. Just something to let them know ahead of time so they don’t spend their money on something that will offend or trigger them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kourtney Heintz

        Yes, that’s a great idea for online listings. Maybe something they have to click on to see the ratings. That way readers who prefer a surprise will be and those who would like a warning will be given one.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Curmudgeon-at-Large

    CR, I am late in responding but had the urge to put my two cents in. I think that the remark by the reader that you write like a man because of “you know, the violence. Your killer is so twisted” is sexist both ways. Why should the reader – and the reviewers for that matter – assume that violence and profanity in writing are exclusively a man’s domain? Where is all the gratuitous violence and profanity in War and Peace, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Caine Mutiny or In Cold Blood? If an author – female or male – has a purpose for profanity and violence in a novel, then they belong there regardless of the author’s gender.

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  6. RobinLK

    Carrie,
    I’ve had a similar conversation with parents when their middle or high school children (usually the former) aka my students, wondered why we have YA novels with sex, violence, and profanity littered throughout.

    While I don’t encourage those behaviors in teens and preteens, I do encourage student-writers to give their characters the ‘right voice’ – if that means sex, violence, and profanity, then so be it… with this tip: use good judgment, please. I employ the same encouragement with readers: Use good judgment. If your parent wouldn’t approve, then either have a conversation with him/her or select a different book. This came up frequently when I taught middle school, but believe it or not, once in a while in my high school classes, too.

    That said, I don’t think a rating system is necessary. I also don’t think gender or age should have any bearing on how a writer portrays his/her characters.

    Great post! And… loved your interview with Larry Brooks. 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! And thank you for sharing your thoughts as a teacher. That’s a nice perspective to have. I was initially hesitant to donate a copy of ‘Eating Bull’ to my high school son’s library, but after he told me about the various books their library stocks, I realized I was being foolish. They gladly took a copy. Wonder if my son will check it out. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Aquileana

    “She’s perfectly within her rights to cuss like a trooper – but the fact that she has actively chosen to do it when she could have found ways around it .  .  . is just disappointing”…
    I guess that statement concerning J.K. Rowling´s use of language is a sort of understatement… ambiguous as well… If she has the right to do so, why would be anyone be disappointed…
    Hence, she was not in her right in am guessing … ☺️
    Seriously though… it is quite odd this sort of genre stereotypes being related to female writers… I say you should write your own way, despite this…
    Sending love and best wishes, dear Carrie. Aquileana 🎇☺️

    Like

  8. butimbeautiful

    I don’t think you write like a man (as one who’s about to embark on her second Philip Roth novel). I don’t mind sex and swearing, but I wouldn’t mind a warning about graphic goriness, especially if it’s paired with sex. I try not to read that kind of thing – one reason for giving up Game of Thrones episodes.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, that’s a subject area I tend to avoid too. That’s where a content advisory statement would come in handy. Maybe that’s easier to do than a rating system.

      Like

  9. My Inner Chick

    Darn, my comment is lost.

    Anyhow, I agree w/ you.

    Somebody telling you that you write as a man is sexist and offensive ( in my opinion)

    You write as “YOU.”

    Strong & Powerful. As a Human Being!

    xx

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      It’s probably just because the person knew me and didn’t expect some of the things in the book. But authors make things up, and not everything is going to be pretty. 🙂

      Thank you, and thanks for the Twitter share!

      Like

  10. Vanessa-Jane Chapman

    I’m sure all angles have been said in the comments by now, but I’ll throw mine in too! I think it’s a reflection of life in general, women are expected to cuss less, and be less violent/interested in violence, and so that probably translates into our expectations of them as writers. As a reader, I’m not sure if I make that judgment – I don’t like a lot of profanity and violence when I’m reading, but if it’s appropriate to the book and the characters, then I think I take it at that value, rather than assessing it in terms of whether the author is male or female. I’m not sure of that though, I’m going to pay attention to my reactions in that area when I read from now on!

    I know that when it’s a book from an author I personally know (and when I say “personally”, I’m including those I know through blogging), I do find myself sometimes thinking things like – I’m surprised that person would write this particular thing – but that’s based on what I know about the person, not on their gender.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks for weighing in. I probably do that when I read a book by an author I know too. I try not to, but sometimes it creeps in. I suspect that was the origin of this comment made to me. The person knows me. Well, indirectly anyway.

      Like

  11. Jennifer J. Chow

    I think we should write whatever the character says or feels. (As women writers, though, there’s always that battle of our literature being seen in a different light.)

    Like

  12. Joanna Aislinn

    Idk why I can’t keep up these days. Late to the game–again.

    Hmmm. I’ve never considered this topic a gender issue, but I can see why one might.

    IMHO, the writing should bring the story to life via its characters and plot organically (?), otherwise the story loses its authenticity. (I’m hoping I’m conveying what I think I mean, lol.) I’ve recently grumped about authors who sacrifice POV and/or dialogue to fit a genre. Makes me nuts.

    Not sure it’s a gender issue sometimes–perhaps more of an expectation(?)–particularly for an established author. Maybe that’s why the same authors publish different style works under pseudonyms, and why some folks go straight to writing under one (i.e., the school principal who writes graphic, romantic vampire stories, etc).

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      You may be right–it might come down more to expectations. Gillian Flynn certainly uses violence and crude language, and I haven’t seen her faulted for it. Well, that’s not really true. I have seen readers take her to task for it in their reviews. But maybe it’s the reader, not the author. Maybe they’d say the same about a male author. I don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Britt Skrabanek

    Loved your close honey…I’ll just keep writing. Not as a man. Not as a woman. Only as me…Standing O over here on that one.

    The things people say…goodness gracious! I haven’t had enough people read my books to share that kind of blatant feedback. Who knows what they would say? You know I cuss like a sailor!

    I think a comment like that is offensive to both sexes anyway. I’m a feminist through and through, but why should a male author be seen as a person who can write violence more naturally? Grrr, it’s just a strange thing to blurt out. I’ll stop now. 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Haha, yes, I thought it strange too, but they didn’t mean any harm. I think it probably stems more from the fact this person somewhat knows me. They probably weren’t expecting it.

      Glad you liked the closing line. Thanks for your nice tweet about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. reocochran

    You got loads of responses, Carrie! I like a story with no flinching or skirting issues or current common language. I enjoyed Ian Fleming James Bond because he was British, sophisticated and rarely ruffled. Still could best or beat the villains. I laugh and have enjoyed 22 books by Janet Evanovich who about 5 or 6 times a book has wild escapades with main character, Stephanie Plum and one of 2 men she juggles. I haven’t noticed Stephen King using swear words but am fine with anyone using them in appropriate stressful or private situations. I tend to hope that authors use what fits their characters. 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Some of King’s newer books tone down the swearing a bit, but he’s been known for some doozies. Some misogynistic language too. His son is even worse for that. But I remind myself it’s the character, not the author, just as I would want readers to do with my book. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • reocochran

        In any case, Carrie I don’t support double standards. I feel women may choose to use violence, swear words and no reason not to write whatever she feels suits the characters. I believe in women expressing themselves. I am not a “fan” of the longer books put out by S. King but have liked some of his short stories, e.g. those that inspired, “The Green Mile” and “Shawshank Redemption.” His book of short stories, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” seemed creative and I borrowed this book from the library. The “library staff recommends” shelf is interesting to see what is current.

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        • Carrie Rubin

          I read most of the stories in “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams”. Skipped a couple, including one about baseball that didn’t interest me. I prefer his novels, but I’m not a big fan of his fantasy work. Just not my genre.

          Like

  15. Andrea Stephenson

    I suspect we’re most definitely held to different standards and although in Rowling’s case some of it might have been because she was a children’s author, that’s most likely not the whole story. I’m not sure I’d want ratings systems for books – may be just another reason to censor them. We do occasionally get complaint letters in libraries that a certain book shouldn’t be on the shelf because of language, etc. but we would never censor on those grounds.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, maybe ratings are too strong. A voluntary content advisory by the author might be okay. But then, where would you put it? The back cover? On the inside. Guess it’s trickier than I first imagined.

      Liked by 2 people

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