Over at Book Nut (see comments section in particular) I’ve been involved in a discussion about whether men and women authors are capable of writing the other gender, particularly as main characters or narrators. I found the conversation so interesting that I thought I should go ahead and blog about it myself.
Some disclosure afore I begin. I read a good many novels/short stories by women. And many fewer novels and short stories by men. I usually tend not to enjoy those by men. A lot of the time I’m just not that interested in the male perspective, even in fiction. In fact, in college, I tried to read books only by women of color, outside of the reading I did for classes. That wasn’t quite possible , given the vast number of books I can consume in my free time! So my own personal sample is skewed vastly to that of fiction written by women.
I generally tend to think that male authors are crappy at writing women.* One novel I read last year was particularly bad in this aspect, The Apothecary’s House by Adrian Mathews. I thought Mathews wrote a female character that was entirely unbelievable as a woman. An opinion that is shared by some of the customer reviewers on amazon.com (for what that’s worth). Of course, there are exceptions, for me recently in Amitov Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, a novel I wrote about in the most recent issue of Literary Lunaday. One of the narrators in that novel is Piya, a female marine biologist, who I found entirely believable. And I have a pretty high standard in this particular case since I am a female biologist. I found Piya as she was written not only sympathetic but I could imagine her as me or one of my female friends who are field biologists. Her concerns were realistic, her thoughts and feelings ones I would find myself having if in her story.
inkling, in the Book Nut comments thread, asks us, “compare Henry James and Willa Cather–whose women are more believable?” My overwhelming response was Willa Cather, setting aside the fact that I don’t much like James’ novels. Going a step further, I thought Cather did an admirable job writing the narrator of My Antonia, Jim. So, I thought, not only is Cather better at writing women, but she’s just as good at writing male characters.
However, another hypothesis occurred to me. And that is that I have no experiential (is that a word? and moreover, the word I want?) basis on which to decide if women are better at writing male characters than male authors are at writing female characters. Because I don’t know what it is like to be a male and therefore have no idea of whether a man would think/do/say/feel what male characters say, regardless of the gender of the author. So, I thought I would ask some guys what they thought about this issue. People are bums about responding to emails (okay, well, some of them have like tiny babies at home, that’s a decent excuse!) so only the sqvirrel responded. He seemed to think I was right (and not just cos he’s married to me and has to agree with me! He has lots of his own opinions that differ from mine, really!). His most interesting insight was,
[you are probably right,] given that any woman is suffused in male-dominated culture from birth, whereas men are allowed to give relatively little thought to what women think, feel, etc., in our culture.
So perhaps it is that patriarchal matrix that some believe pervades our culture. Men don’t have to think about how women are portrayed because women are…less important? While women can write men well because, well, maleness has been shoved down our throats. Or maybe it’s just that some male writers seem incapable of writing a female voice. An internet discussion I found seemed to think Norman Mailer fit into this category, which led me to the below,
a related, albeit tangentially, topic about women and men authors. That is, the disparity between male and female writers’ critical fame, a topic Joanna Scott tackles in her article for Salon.com. She quotes Virginia Woolf and Norman Mailer,
I detest the masculine point of view. I am bored by his heroism, virtue, and honour. I think the best these men can do is not to talk about themselves anymore. -Virginia Woolf
…the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic**. -Norman Mailer
The idea is floated that women writers can only attain the status of male writers when the write about Male Things: violence, sex, Big Ideas. Cheery thought! But Scott goes on to say that perhaps it’s more that that and opines that there are excellent – female – writers who defy the categories of male-ness and/or female-ness. And that seems to me to be pretty fair, and not unlike the comment made by renee in the original discussion.
Any ideas, my bloggy friends?
*To be fair, I would probably be forced to agree with renee in that excellent writers are probably just really good at writing whatever gender character happens to be in their story.
**I’d really like to know W.T.F. “dykily psychotic” means?!