On men writing women and women writing men

I'm thinking about this issue because I've just finished a book that I'd found myself believing was written by a woman (Why Men Lie by Linden MacIntyre - the author's name could indicate male or female), but was in fact written by a man. Why did I assume it was written by a woman? Because the story is told from a woman's point of view? Or because I was lazy, simply splicing together the narrator and the author?

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?       


  1. BIG questions to which I confess I have no answers although it's something I find myself discussing (usually with fellow female writers) quite often! Without having any real axe to grind, I find myself reading and enjoying more books by women than books by men. And even that's open to question because - just as an example - I like Alan Bissett's work very much. But some writers have much too 'virile' a hand for me. Sometimes it has to do with subject matter and approach to that subject matter. I recently reviewed Cally Phillips' excellent Scots story collection, It Wisnae Me, and found myself wondering if the story called Wha’s Feart O’ The Library could have been written by a man. It was so subtly written and yet the atmosphere of fear and intrusion created (it's essentially a story about an encounter with a flasher) is palpable and I'd like to bet most grown women can identify with it in some way. Sometimes, I don't think it's that women write with a particularly female sensitivity. I think it's that women are defiantly describing their own experience. Men are (sometimes - I'm aware that I'm generalising very much here!) a little phased by this, whereas women have grown used to seeing the male experience as the default setting for 'literature'.
    I do think that certain writers are not so much genderless as able to write about what it means to be human: Bernard MacLaverty, William Trevor immediately spring to mind. Short story writers both, which may or may not mean something.

  2. Hi Catherine - do you mean you think women write more from personal experience than men do? (Horribly generalising here, I know). Like you, I suspect I read more women than men, and perhaps it's to do with the kind of voice I enjoy. I know I prefer a more psychological narrative, something more internal, and again, generalising horribly, women writers tend to do that more than men. Perhaps that's what seems gendered to me?

  3. I don't think I do mean that. I suppose what I mean (and I suspect I may be shot down in flames here, but I still think to some extent it's true!) that women have begun to write from personal experience AS MUCH AS men. But while women are tentatively aware that men may not always identify with their point of view, many male writers don't even question their point of view, or accept that many women may see things differently. And I suppose I mean that both are valid and interesting and we should celebrate them as such. But also that when somebody (MacLaverty, Trevor, Heaney, Atkinson, oh lots more, but I'm writing off the top of my head here!) can see it from both points of view, that's even better. Another anecdote - when my short story A Quiet Afternoon In The Museum of Torture was published, a (male) writer friend congratulated me on it, but also said that the female character was the 'coldest' character he had ever come across. I was quite taken aback by this at the time, but later, when a steady stream of women had told me that they identified with the character, and absolutely recognised that post childbirth feeling of vulnerability through the child - and the biological imperative of protection - NOTHING else matters so much, not even the man in your life - it struck me that here, at least, was a piece of writing which was clearly perceived quite differently by some men and many women. And of course, that's generalising too. But it intrigued me.

  4. That's really interesting, Catherine - traditionally male writers have been viewed as writing universal, nor personal, experience (although for so many of them,it's as autobiographical as for women - both Gellhorn and Hemingway used their personal experiences of war for their fiction. Perhaps it's still that sense of 'other' in women's writing that to me, separates the sexes. And an interesting response from a male reader to your own story, one that is very linked to the female body.


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