So, my original goal was to portray a society that genuinely did not care about gender. Using a single pronoun for everyone was just one part of that, but the more I played with it, the more interesting the effect was. Ultimately, of course, using “she” for everyone doesn’t actually convey gender neutrality, and I realized that pretty quickly. But I think if I’d chosen to use a gender neutral pronoun—e, or sie, or zie, or any of the others—it would have produced an interesting effect, but it would have lost the way that “she” automatically goes straight to the reader’s perceptions. No, that’s not the best way to say it. I mean, the very long familiarity long-time English speakers have with the pronouns “he” and “she” means that we react to them without actually thinking much about it. We don’t stop to ask ourselves what they mean, they just go right in and trigger a particular set of associations, almost automatically, unconsciously. By using “she” for everyone, I get (for many, but of course not all readers) the effect, once those associations are triggered, of undermining or questioning them, in a very basic way, a sort of… experiential way. It’s one thing to tell someone about the masculine default, and have them understand the idea. It’s another thing to actually demonstrate how it works on your reader. But it only works (for the readers it worked for, because of course it didn’t work for everyone) because we parse those pronouns so thoughtlessly.
The various gender neutral pronouns don’t have that long familiarity for most of us. The effect I mention above, which quite a few readers have explicitly commented on and appreciated, would have been lost if I’d used one of them. It was a trade-off, I think. I can’t blame folks who wish I’d used a gender neutral pronoun instead, of course, and I’m hoping to see those pronouns used more so that they become more generally familiar. I’m seeing singular “they” for known people (instead of the nebulous “don’t know who this might actually be” use of singular they) used well in short fiction lately, and I’ve been really happy to see it. But myself, for this particular project, I think the effect that I got, at least with a sizable number of readers, was worth the trade-off.
So, in some ways I succeeded. In other ways I didn’t. But the result was interesting and gave a lot of people something to think about and discuss, and I’m glad of that.
Ann Leckie is so rad.