From my e-mailbox:
I started reading your book, and put it down because you used the generic feminine twice in the first 15 pages. Don’t do that! It breaks up the flow of the reading. If you want to agitate for feminists, do it privately.
Even if you’re not a feminist, there are already four ridiculous things in Cranky 1950s Man’s e-mail. One: that you should stop reading a book the second you disagree with exactly two words. Two: that two pronouns in a 300-page book constitute “agitating” for anything. Three: that there even is such a thing as agitating for a cause without telling anyone, and four: that books should, at all costs, protect readers from the author’s point of view.
But using the “her” instead of “him” just makes it hard to read you.
(If you are an Eisenhower-era Man.in a Gray Flannel Suit fresh out of a time machine.)
Use the generic masculine, like all good writers do.
Actually, every style guide that I’ve ever used, including Chicago, my style guide for Brainiac, has discouraged the generic masculine for decades.
Nobody even notices when you do this, which is exactly the point. Readers should notice the jokes, not the syntax.
Okay, so our correspondent seems to have some issues with women that go beyond mere sentence construction. But let’s leave aside the straw-man part of this argument (feminine pronouns are hard to read because they fill me with a blinding rage!) and boil it down to somethng more sensible (feminine pronouns are hard to read because they distract the reader from the subject). Is that valid?
I guess to some degree I’m sympathetic to the notion, because I remember looking for pronoun-free ways to recast those sentences, and couldn’t find one I liked. (If anyone cares, the feminine generics are the Jeopardy! contestant on page XII and the Gen-Y quiz show fan on page 4. The rest of the book has no more pronoun game that I’m aware of.) The first case follows a common gender-bias strategy by alternating genders, using a generic “he” contestant alongside the “she.” (I hope my cranky reader gives me a little credit for putting the “he” contestant first in the alternation, just like God intended.) I believe the second “she” is the relic of another alternation, but her male counterpart was easier to rewrite pronoun-free, so out he went.
I’m not the militant gender-bias-avoider that Grumpy Man probably thinks I am, but I’m aware of the problem. I think it was a Douglas Hofstadter essay that first pointed me toward the disturbing findings of a 1972 experiment at Duke, in which groups of students were given two versions of a textbook, one with gender-neutral phrasings and one without. The students of both genders who read the gender-biased version were markedly more likely to picture the subjects of the text as male. In other words, the generic masculine is not generic. It makes readers think the generic sentence object has a penis, to the tune of about a 30-40% margin.
This result is huge. Empirically, gender-neutral writing allows your readers to picture your subject as man or woman or neuter, as they prefer, while this guy’s beloved generic masculine often forces them to picture the subject (the baby, the valedictorian, the soccer coach, the CEO, in my case the Jeopardy! contestant) as male. But that’s dumb. The vast majority of all Jeopardy! games since 1984 have featured both men and women as contestants. Leaving politics aside, wouldn’t it be more accurate for the writing to reflect that?
(Hoftstadter is also responsible for this funny essay, which satirically asserts that “white person” should be a generic term for persons of all races, analogously to the way the generic masculine is used.)
When you think about the problem this way–generic male language measurably excludes female readers–my correspondent’s plea goes from sounding sensible to sounding ominous:
Nobody even notices when you do this, which is exactly the point.
(My italics.) In other words, the idea that the universal representative of the human race should always be a man is so basic in our society that most readers let it go unchallenged. The equally-sensible reverse–making the generic representative happen to be a woman–provokes angry letters. Even if you just do it twice.
That kind of status quo isn’t something to enshrine.