On men writing women and women writing men
Doing so means something else as well, though - it means that I expected to be able to tell a gendered difference between authorial styles (i.e. men write one way and women another). I expected to know, from the page in front of me, whether this book was written by a man or a woman. And yet, surely my expectation rested, not on the author, but on the narrator of the story? To come back to an old point about the death of the author, it's not the sex of the author that matters.
Is that really the case? Reams and reams of stuff has been written about this issue before, of course, and all pointing to how important the sex of the author is - some male writers won't write from a women's point of view at all because they don't think they can (http://blog.pshares.org/2012/02/27/one-mans-approach-to-writing-women-characters/). Some women writers insist that a woman character must 'be a character first and female second' (http://impishidea.com/writing/how-not-to-write-female-characters). In an interview with The Atlantic, Junot Diaz tellingly reveals that he thinks women are better at writing men than men are at writing women (he cites Anne Enright as a favourite example of this: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/the-baseline-is-you-suck-junot-diaz-on-men-who-write-about-women/262163/). And a couple of years ago, John Mullan listed his ten best 'women writing as men' which included, perhaps surprisingly, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Wharton, Rose Tremain and Rachel Cusk, none of whom I think of as particularly good in that respect. But all of this makes it clear that the sex of the author does matter.
Perhaps the question of writing in the voice of the opposite sex is simply a question of how good your impersonation is. Joyce's Molly Bloom is a famous example of a woman written by a man - and given a 'woman's voice', too. A woman's voice that is meandering, mendacious, sentimental, 'stereotypically feminine', as some critics have argued, an exaggeration or a 'flaunting' of femininity. D H Lawrence wrote The Rainbow from several women's points of view, giving them each a voice you could argue as distinctly 'gendered', or linked to the female body (maternal/on the cusp of 'womanhood' etc). Virginia Woolf wasn't a man, of course, but I think she helped establish during this era what we think of when we think of a 'woman's voice'. A fluid, inner, particularly sensitive kind of voice. It's perhaps no accident that we don't associate Hemingway with writing a 'woman's voice' - his sentences are considered 'stereotypically male'. The sentence must reflect the sensibility - and the sensibility is gendered. Our consciousness is gendered.
Is that true? As someone who's studied feminism at doctoral thesis level and written since on the subject, I'd say yes, of course our consciousness is gendered. And given that it is, that should be reflected in literature, which is trying to represent that consciousness. Many years ago when I'd first started to write a novel, my first-draft entry in a writing competition was critiqued by a (male) published writer-judge as needing a 'virile hand'. Too much feminine fluidity, I guess - and as soon as I realised that, I wanted to resist the notion that body equals sensibility (what some of the hostility towards Naomi Wolf's book, Vagina, is aimed at, possibly).
And yet, so many of the modernist writers I admire did precisely that - used the body to indicate a different kind of writing, a gendered kind of writing, whether the writer was a man or a woman, it didn't matter - it was the narrator's voice that counted, and the gender of the narrator. Which produced a kind of writing I actually love.
It almost seems that the more experimental these writers got, the more gendered they became, but in ways that we now think of as stereotypical. The aim today seems more to be an urge to hide that possible difference but not by playing up the opposite any more. To be a man writing as a woman, or a woman writing as a man, and not have anyone notice that you're doing it, seems to be the goal. As with the modernists, the narrator is god, behind whom the author hides his/her identity.
But is that narrator today somehow genderless, rather than overtly female or overtly male? Are we frightened of the extremes of gender, and more resistant to the body as it's reflected in prose style? And is that a good thing?