Our Town: Who writes better, men or women?

Our Town: Who writes better, men or women?
photo credit tom ferraro

I recently read the essay “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard about the 1979 eclipse. It was mesmerizing, magical, and profound and I began to wonder why I haven’t read a comparable piece about the 2024 eclipse we all were so excited about just a few weeks ago?

I seriously doubt that there will be an essay written about this year’s eclipse that even comes close to the way Annie Dillard handled the 1979 eclipse. Here’s a sample of her writing:

“I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. It bears almost no relationship to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him or flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane.”

Her writing reminded me of other great female writers like Joan Didion, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Wolfe. And I began to wonder who are better writers, men or women. It might be fun to compare the two sides, kind of like the World Series but without the uniforms, knuckle balls or bats. So let’s pick five players on each side and see what happens.

On the women’s side we have Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Gertrude Stein to bat 1st, 2nd, 3rd in the line up with Virginia Wolfe in the clean-up spot. And on the mound will be Mary Shelly as pitcher. On the men’s side let’s put Tom Wolfe, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace and E.B. White with T.S. Elliot pitching.

First up are the women. Annie Dillard bats first. I have already told you about Annie. Another line from her essay goes like this: “I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong.” Or the description of the seedy hotel she was staying in: “The hotel lobby was a dark, derelict room, narrow as a corridor, and seemingly without air.” Not a bad at bat, let’s give her a single.

Next up is Joan Didion, a part of the New Journalism school of writing where they would get involved with their subjects for extended periods of time and then publish long form essays about the experience. She wrote “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” both about the social, drug and sexual revolutions that took place in America back in the late 1960s.

She was brave enough to talk about her nervous breakdown induced by the insanity of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury flower children. Let’s give her a walk. So now we have a man (or, in this case, women) on first and second with no outs.

Next up is Gertrude Stein, whose 1935 essay “What are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” tells you everything you want to know about the subject of genius. However her style is so obtuse that it verges on the incomprehensible. Gertrude strikes out swinging. Now there are still two women on and only one out.

Batting cleanup is Virginia Wolfe. T.S. Elliot throws her a 95 mile an hour fast ball right down the middle, which she hits for a three-run home run, clearing the bases with one swing. Anyone who has read her feminist treatise “A Room of One’s Own” will agree.

The score is 3-0 and now it’s the men’s turn to get up.

First at bat is Tom Wolfe author of “A Man in Full,” “The Right Stuff,” “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” This is one intimidating batter and Mary Shelley tries to pitch around him. He gets a walk.

Next up is Donald Barthelme, master of the post-modern short story. Mary Shelly does not have a clue as to how to pitch to him, and furthermore doesn’t like his look with that odd beard.

She is so distracted by his strange appearance and his ironic demeanor that she walks him in four pitches. Man on first and second with no outs.

Next up is David Foster Wallace, the guy who Gourmet Magazine sent to write about the Lobster Festival in Maine and returns with a 40-page essay on the ethics of killing lobsters.

David Foster Wallace is the guy whose footnotes were often longer than his text and who was arguably the best writer in America until he killed himself. In his at bat he struck out looking. You see David Foster Wallace was an overthinker.

The cleanup batter was E.B. White, the genius who wrote “Charlotte’s Web” and my favorite essay of all time “The Ring of Time.” No one can pitch past E.B. and he hits an out-of-the-park home run on the first pitch which ties the game at 3 all.

The game goes on and both pitchers go on to shut out the other team and the game is eventually called in inning 13 due to darkness. Mary Shelley, the writer of “Frankenstein,” pitched masterfully, giving up only one hit, that home run to E. B. White. T.S. Eliot, the man who wrote “The Waste Land,” was overheard saying “April may be the cruelest month but baseball is the cruelest sport. I pitch a two hitter and I look like a bum.”

It is hard to say after seeing this World Series of writers which sex is better at writing.

The women writers all write with clarity and compassion and sensitivity and seem to be in touch with the current zeitgeist of the time. Virginia Wolfe wrote of London in the early 20th century with all its upper-class stuffiness and tradition. Didion wrote about the insanity of the Sixties in America.

The men I mentioned were also in tune with the times and masters of their craft like Tom Wolfe writing about Miami of the 1990s in “Back To Blood” or David Foster Wallace making a state fair in the Midwest actually sound interesting.

Who can say which sex is better at this game of words? All I know is that I am happy that I have read every one of these masters and have learned plenty from them all. And let’s give the MVP to Mary Shelley for pitching so beautifully, for writing one of the most influential novels of all time and for being credited with starting the science fiction genre in literature.

Dr. Tom Ferraro

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here