male authors writing female POVs & vice versa: possibly ilb’s worst thread title

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This discussion in the Elena Ferrante thread that started here was interesting enough for its own thread, I thought!

Unlike most of ILB (afaik) I am female, so if you don’t like me centring my own perspective in the thread title, you should have got in there first :)

To paste over some of my own post on this from earlier:

The tl;dr of this is that writing women by men is like anything else, if it’s invisible you’re doing well. There are weird edge cases like GRRM, where he writes a variety of women in interesting ways but then writes Dany thinking about the way her tits move around as she walks. Stephen King maybe a bit worse than GRRM on this. Then there’s authors where they write all people in a very cold, bloodless fashion such that the actual genders of the characters in question don’t matter.

Then you have the people who can’t write their own gender well. Damn.


What is it, to write a man or woman? We are as varied as anything that exists, similar in the broad strokes. Maybe we only notice it when someone does it badly.

A key factor in getting it wrong (when male authors write women) is the inability to imagine themselves in that perspective. Obviously their writing will be lacking in other areas as well. If you, perhaps, decide you need to write a female character, and never move beyond the basic “what would I do if I woke up as a woman” sort of thought, then it’s not worth the effort IMO. Otoh, if you listen to and know women and are aware of the things that shape our lives and how that affects the way you move in the world, then that is different, and even a failed attempt is miles apart from the first kind.

Something I was thinking about recently, and an obvious example; an ilxor was walking me back to my hotel in Dublin recently and I said to him “will you be ok going back on your own?” (A few of us had been drinking). He smiled and said “no, I love walking through cities in the dark on my own.” Then I said, “must be nice being a man,” because it is, not having to think about that stuff. Even in a place as safe as Dublin, it’s not something I can ever take for granted. If you are writing female characters in fiction, that is one way in which they interact with the world differently.

Another example: there is this infamous article in the Irish Times about English emigrants living in West Cork, and it contains this anecdote that stopped me dead in my tracks:

We’re fairly private people, even though we go out. Or rather, we were. My wife died suddenly a year ago. After she died, I realised she had little bank books, small savings here and there of a couple of hundred euro each. I had to go around all these little places she’d had savings with a death cert, to close the accounts.


The little amounts of money is something that maybe is less common than it used to be, but ime is to do with keeping money aside just in case. A lot of women in my mother’s generation didn’t have their own money, and it would have been hard for them to leave. Factor in that constraining a spouse’s access to money is a very usual way of controlling their movement, and I thought, reading the above, “you don’t even know what you said, do you?” My sisters and I have spoken about always working to have our own money for this reason, and most women of my generation that I know feel similarly.

Anyway, I think that is enough from me, I look forward to finding out the ways in which women write men badly :)

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 17:17 (eight months ago) link

I'll throw in a recent novel example which to me raises this question very prominently: THE FERAL DETECTIVE (2018) by Jonathan Lethem.

JL goes out of his way to write a woman character who is also a generation or so younger than him. I feel that the result is mixed. He makes her genuinely witty, chatty, perceptive, wry. He *perhaps* gives her perspectives and perceptions that only a woman would have.

On the other hand, by my lights, he makes her strangely lascivious and lustful. Which then prompts a variety of possible reactions, eg: 1) is this lustful woman a male fantasy of how a woman would be? 2) on the contrary: isn't it good that authors can recognise and represent how lustful women really are, rather than presenting them as meekly chaste? -- one way or another, thinking or saying these things, you end up saying the wrong thing.

One precursor to this novel, which many people will know very well, is THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (c.1965) by Thomas Pynchon. Lethem's novel is not that different in some ways but, as I say, the lust is greater and so is the wit, on the part of the main character.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 17:30 (eight months ago) link

FWIW I tend to agree with these statements by poster Gyac:

>>> The tl;dr of this is that writing women by men is like anything else, if it’s invisible you’re doing well.

>>> Then there’s authors where they write all people in a very cold, bloodless fashion such that the actual genders of the characters in question don’t matter.

>>> Then you have the people who can’t write their own gender well. Damn.

>>> We are as varied as anything that exists, similar in the broad strokes.

Therefore, as I've said before, I am somewhat suspicious of the whole idea of a right / wrong, convincing / unconvincing mode on this matter -- except, as poster Gyac says, when I come across something that seems actively to do it badly.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 17:33 (eight months ago) link

On the other hand, by my lights, he makes her strangely lascivious and lustful. Which then prompts a variety of possible reactions, eg: 1) is this lustful woman a male fantasy of how a woman would be? 2) on the contrary: isn't it good that authors can recognise and represent how lustful women really are, rather than presenting them as meekly chaste? -- one way or another, thinking or saying these things, you end up saying the wrong thing.


I laughed at this for about a minute, but it’s an interesting point. I think I go with your second answer, having been a teenage girl and knowing that girls in this capacity are as bad as any teenage boy, and of course being a grown woman with female friends where we discuss stuff pretty frankly.

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 17:39 (eight months ago) link

I guess I would have to know what “strangely lascivious and lustful” means in the context of this book though.

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 17:42 (eight months ago) link

Posted a Victorian example in the other thread, as I'm likely to do - more opportunies back then to play the guessing game on authors' gender. Some confidently concluding very wrongly.

When Brontë released 'Shirley' and her identity was generally known, G.H. Lewes did basically try to tell Charlotte "why women write men badly": her "over-masculine vigour", "such vulgarities as would be inexcusable even in a man", "details which betray a female and inexperienced hand". This even though Lewes was in correspondence with her. "After I had said earnestly that I wished critics would judge me as an author, not as a woman, you so roughly - I even thought - so cruelly handled the question of sex".

In Shirley's case, there's nothing in the writing of male characters that should strike a reader as being more inauthentic -- it was probably the genre of satire critics found to be unladylike. Historically that's obv very common, female authors (and artists) derided for attempting a "male genre". Some would say the critical reading of men writing female POVs is more modern, but Brontë did a bit of that in her time too:

Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other's creations — worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama — thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial — false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour."

abcfsk, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:00 (eight months ago) link

No I think that’s fascinating and appreciate this post very much, thank you! Brontë’s critique strikes a chord with me, and explains I think why in older books I’ve always found female villains more compelling - a Becky Sharp doesn’t have to be likeable to be a far more interesting and worthy character than an Amelia Sedley, though Thackeray himself doesn’t hold back on the internal critique of the latter either.

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:03 (eight months ago) link

Gyac:

and of course being a grown woman with female friends where we discuss stuff pretty frankly

Funnily enough, this makes me reflect that as a grown male, who is fortunate enough to have a few male (as well as female) friends, I DON'T discuss these things AT ALL, and nor does anyone I know (at least in front of me).

But that's getting away from literary narrative, I realise.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:23 (eight months ago) link

Had already been thinking of returning to xpost The Crying of Lot 49--the allure of conspiracy-mindedness, for the characters and readers of that time,and what the ending meant, of course seems all too relevant now, also after getting flashbacks (I wuz there) to the late 60s-early 70s California quotidian vibe, which young Emma Cline's The Girls and middle-aged-but-still-too-young-for-first-hand-experience-of-it-in-that-era John D. Devil House. Most thread-relevantly, Pynchon's story seems like the first I'd ever read from female protagonist POV, and I was very impressed, though also a high school boy of that era, who might not be so impressed now. Will re-read though.

dow, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:29 (eight months ago) link

[NB I am posting here simply because I find this topic intriguing and *don't* have a particular answer to it - just throwing out thoughts]

Though my own position seems mainly to be a non-essentialist one of "there is probably no right or wrong way to write a particular sex", I also suspect that there is a strong counter-argument to my view in something like "embodied experience", which you have in one body and not another.

Gyac cited an example of a male author writing badly about a woman character and her breasts. But then, maybe being a woman you *do* sometimes think of, are aware of, such body parts. Maybe a male, correspondingly, is too. Maybe it *does* help to have had a particular bodily experience (which in this example the author hadn't had).

And yet, once again: Tons of the greatest fiction was written with very very little reference to such things. If I think "women can write women characters better because they know about menstruation and I don't", I think have to reflect: "but Austen, G Eliot et al did NOT write about that aspect of being a woman anyway, so why does that count particularly towards 'writing a woman'?"

Well, modes of fiction and mimesis, what you can say or are required to say, have changed. So maybe, by this logic, it was EASIER to 'cross-write' in 1872 than it is in 2022.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:29 (eight months ago) link

Well, put it this way:

If the Milk Men thought her such a savage, she would dress the part for them. When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest, and a curved dagger hung from her medallion belt. Jhiqui had braided her hair Dothraki fashion, and fastened a silver bell to the end of the braid.


This is the infamous part, I’m sure most would find it incongruous if a female author was writing about someone’s penis swinging about in their internal monologue as they walked, for example. Though I’ve never had a penis, maybe that’s how you think if you have one?! I have to tell you that i do not think of breasts & what they’re doing all the time, much like one would not think of their nose or eyebrows and what they’re doing unless there was reason to.

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:38 (eight months ago) link

This is a really good thread so far and I didn't want to come in and ruin it, but now we're on to the topic of breasts I've had an old tweet running through my head taking the piss out of men writing women which goes something like "her boobs boobed boobily down the stairs", and I can't stop giggling to myself.

emil.y, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:47 (eight months ago) link

Maybe it *does* help to have had a particular bodily experience (which in this example the author hadn't had).

there are definitely plenty of cringe examples of male authors writing about women being raped and/or sexually dominated from the woman's POV ... like these are probably the worst of the worst aspects of the thread topic

sarahell, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:48 (eight months ago) link

xp emil.y -- my boobs boob boobily as I LOL at yr posts

sarahell, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:49 (eight months ago) link

Another early encounter, several years after it was published: A Long and Happy Life, by Reynolds Price: caused a stir when it came out in 1963, when male-writing-female and not making an ass of himself, or maybe doing it at all, may have been unusual. Should say that this and Pynchon's book were third-person, which seemed to help. The authors seem more respectfully attuned than Omniscient, also not pushing their luck by trying to speak in the voice of a woman. Price's novel, or what I remember of it, seems mainly the unspoken thought processes of a rural American Southern girl, still living at home, who comes to suspect and then decide that she is indeed pregnant, and is trying to decide what to do about it, before disclosing to her boyfriend, the father, or her own mother---although, when usually rowdy daughter becomes super-dedicated to chores, while stressing and absorbed in her thoughts, mother finally says she's done enough: a first ever, and mother knows something's up, as the reader bumps into outside reality, other character POVs, for almost the first time ever, and it's a relief.
Amazing book, recalled when I read Native Son many years later, but can't think at the moment of any others with that kind of sustained deep focus on unspoken coherence.
(There was a later story including this girl, Rosakoke, also another one about her and the boyfriend, published in 80s, but haven't read those, or Price's Kate Vaiden, from maybe first person? POV of woman who had gotten pregnant in early teens and given baby for adoption)

dow, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:50 (eight months ago) link

This is a really good thread so far and I didn't want to come in and ruin it, but now we're on to the topic of breasts I've had an old tweet running through my head taking the piss out of men writing women which goes something like "her boobs boobed boobily down the stairs", and I can't stop giggling to myself.


Lmao I saw that and it’s definitely parodying the GRRM bit above, Stephen King has also done stuff like this iirc

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:52 (eight months ago) link

User wins just reminded me of this:

an absolutely atrocious submission from REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates pic.twitter.com/EzoQbvwisT

— Men Write Women (@menwritewomen) February 4, 2022

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:54 (eight months ago) link

It's not like women *never* think about their breasts - there are plenty of reasons to, but I'm not sure what an uncomfortable bra itch would add to most stories.

I read The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time recently and I was pretty disappointed by it. I'm not sure that it was that I found Oedipa unconvincing as a woman - though there were definitely times where I found her deeply shallow in terms of characterisation. I was sure throughout that if I'd read it in my early 20s or before I would have loved it, but it just felt smug and unfunny to me now.

emil.y, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:55 (eight months ago) link

I’m sure most would find it incongruous if a female author was writing about someone’s penis swinging about in their internal monologue as they walked, for example. Though I’ve never had a penis, maybe that’s how you think if you have one?!

https://i.redd.it/xbwxupqbkqc51.jpg

emil.y, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:57 (eight months ago) link

Yeah, I I might think of them when I’m sleeping and roll over into my front awkwardly or whatever, but not, like, generally.

From that same account: a truly appalling example. She’s not even wearing a sports bra!

there is... a LOT to unpack in this submission but I can't get over "aerodynamic as a shark" or the plethora of adjectives

(THE HEART AND OTHER VISCERA, Félix J Palma) pic.twitter.com/EVY9IDSRw6

— Men Write Women (@menwritewomen) February 16, 2022

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:58 (eight months ago) link

James Tiptree Jr to thread ASAP

thinkmanship (sleeve), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:58 (eight months ago) link

great thread. it's made me realise I haven't read many male authors recently!

kinder, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 18:59 (eight months ago) link

xpost re finding Mrs. Maas shallow now, vs how might have seemed earlier: Yeah, I read Lot 49 when I was 16...the conspiracy stuff and everyday weirdness still seem otm, though.
In King's Madder Rose, there are feminists and a an abused wife on the run and her hideous cartoon beyond-macho cop husband in pursuit: cop was most credible character in King terms, maybe because that kind of broad gross-out shit is center of his um art.
Anna Karenina seemed good that way as well, while spiraling from and to her POV to show social context, what she was up against.

dow, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:00 (eight months ago) link

"divine oscillation of breasts and buttocks" oh lord

emil.y, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:01 (eight months ago) link

She soaps her fucking crotch. I can’t.

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:01 (eight months ago) link

I know I've been critical of James Tiptree Jr before, so I want to reiterate that I think she is very very good, but I feel like her male POVs are too relentlessly depraved and depressing. She takes "all men are rapists" very seriously and very literally. I am not a man and was not raised as a boy, but I don't know if you guys spend most of your time thinking about how you could overpower or rape women, including your own family? I hope not, anyway. Now, the difference here is that there is a *point* to her writing in this way, where there is usually very little point to the "boobs boobing boobily" tendency. But having read a giant compendium of her works in one go, it definitely felt like this was her idea of every man's POV, that every man is actively evil internally.

Oh my god, I just "not all men"ed myself, didn't I? Fucking hell.

emil.y, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:09 (eight months ago) link

Tiptree was thought to be an old military and/or intelligence guy, kinda mellow and kinda shady, in voice of her earliest published science fiction stories---past-employment-wise, true to her own life---kinetic mass of her artistic development was something else---she's one of the all-time most powerful voices in SF---the disturbance in the cockpit is only part of that, but a central part for sure---

dow, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:11 (eight months ago) link

The male characters aren't always unsympathetic, though.

dow, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:12 (eight months ago) link

I was lucky enough to see a panel on Tiptree including Ursula LeGuin, I immediately thought of her because there is iirc an amusing forward to one of her anthologies where Harlan Ellison insists that the author *had* to be a man

emil.y I haven't ever really gotten that subtext in her work but her POV is def not what I'd call sympathetic

thinkmanship (sleeve), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:14 (eight months ago) link

I said this on the thread where we talked about her before, but I think my mistake was reading the entire collected works in one go. I am already an extremely depressed person who thinks the world is terrible and terrifying, it was all just a bit much for me.

emil.y, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 19:34 (eight months ago) link

I suppose The Collector by John Fowles is a pretty good example of doing this badly, especially since he is basically saying “look! Watch me write from a female perspective” like it’s a magic trick. I don’t know if it seemed convincing at the time but it comes across as badly dated.

In the opposite direction, the male character in Normal People comes across to me as transparently a vessel of Sally Rooney’s wish fulfilment. He’s sporty but he’s in touch with his feelings. I’m not saying this to be mean about her, but it made me wonder how many female characters written by men that I had found to be compelling but a woman reader would immediately clock as a MPDG or something.

29 facepalms, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 20:32 (eight months ago) link

In 1975, in his introduction to Tiptree’s ‘Warm Worlds and Otherwise,’ Robert Silverberg gave voice to a bio-critical speculation about the author which has since become famous. ‘It has been suggested that Tiptree is female,’ he wrote, ‘a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.’

mookieproof, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 21:03 (eight months ago) link

xpost

Yeah, I was going to mention. I like Rooney a lot, but the male leads in her three novels seem like very "people you only meet in a book" type characters, with smoothly problematic back stories and game-of-consequences motivations. I suppose she's interesting and funny enough that her characters are good company even if they don't actually add up as convincing people. The female leads have tended to lives closer to my own.

Chuck_Tatum, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 21:05 (eight months ago) link

xp
I've been slowly reading Her Smoke Rose Up Forever over the course of several years, partly because it can be so bleak

rob, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 21:07 (eight months ago) link

was coincidentally thinking about this thread topic because of gyac posting about Marian Keyes y'day. gyac's post made me think about which Keyes characters were my favorites and I realised that I couldn't really recall any of the male characters in the 5 or 6 novels of hers I have read. I don't remember them being badly written more perhaps they are never her focus at all.

oscar bravo, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 22:30 (eight months ago) link

actually the father of the Walsh clan is the only male I can really recall at all

oscar bravo, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 22:31 (eight months ago) link

Fintan in Last Chance Saloon is great. Jack in Sushi for Beginners is a bit meh, but the book is not really about him. Artie in The Mystery of Mercy Close is pretty ok, but he has to be to be Helen’s boyfriend. Oh, Paddy in This Charming Man ofc…memorable but if you’ve read it you know why.

mardheamac (gyac), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 22:47 (eight months ago) link

re Tiptree, the last two books (The Starry Rift and Brightness Falls From The Air) are maybe my favorites and iirc less bleak

thinkmanship (sleeve), Wednesday, 9 March 2022 22:53 (eight months ago) link

it's been almost 30 years since i read 'a long and happy life' or 'kate vaiden' so i can remember very little about them apart from (the duality of) the southern thing

but also reynolds price being gay may (or may not!) have helped him avoid the very worst in female characterizations

mookieproof, Wednesday, 9 March 2022 23:10 (eight months ago) link

from the excerpts here, it seems that mediocre male authors have a hard time writing about characters they are attracted to. these women come across as flat, one-dimensional fantasies. that makes sense, but i wonder how virginia woolf was able to pull off "orlando," which was a portrait of someone she was infatuated with who had "drenched violets" for eyes. is it just literary skill or could a man never really pull this off?

treeship., Thursday, 10 March 2022 01:58 (eight months ago) link

feel like it's two parts literary skill and one part men being bad at sex

possibly optimistic

mookieproof, Thursday, 10 March 2022 02:09 (eight months ago) link

it could also be that woolf portrays orlando -- aka a fairytale or mythologized vita sackville west -- as transcending gender, so the kind of beauty and sexual charisma he (then she) has is not built on cliches.

treeship., Thursday, 10 March 2022 02:14 (eight months ago) link

much like a male author, though, woolf had as much contempt as admiration for vita's grace and beauty and the ease with which she moved through the world.

treeship., Thursday, 10 March 2022 02:18 (eight months ago) link

Re Tiptree,can't imagine reading xp the collected works all at once, for the same reasons that keep bringing me back: the intensity times the bleakness, the driving force, and what fueled it, creatively and otherwise. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the perfect title and a great collection, but there are other good stories that didn't make the cut, in earlier (and maybe later?) collections. Also enjoyed the ones Sleeve mentioned.

dow, Thursday, 10 March 2022 04:02 (eight months ago) link

The opening paragraph of Jonathan Franzen's 2001 review of Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days:

Colson Whitehead's first novel, ''The Intuitionist,'' was a lively comic fantasy about a New York City elevator inspector named Lila Mae Watson. The book established Whitehead's intelligence and originality as a novelist, but I wasn't too excited by the world of elevator inspection, and I was frankly irritated by the author's choice of Lila Mae as the protagonist. Although it's technically impressive and theoretically laudable when a male novelist succeeds in inhabiting a female persona, something about the actual practice makes me uneasy. Is the heroine doing double duty as the novelist's fantasy sex object? Is the writer trying to colonize fictional territory that rightfully belongs to women? Or does the young literato, lacking the perks of power and feeling generally smallened by the culture, perhaps believe himself to be, at some deep level, not male at all? I confess to being unappetized by all three possibilities; and so, fairly or not, I found myself wishing that Whitehead had written about a man.

jaymc, Thursday, 10 March 2022 05:17 (eight months ago) link

I'm in the middle of reading Mating by Norman Rush, written from the POV of a 30-something female anthropology grad student who is frequently musing on her experience of gender, sex, types of femininity and masculinity, relations between men and women, etc. I'm finding it very compelling and believable (as a cis-het man), though there's not much depiction of a woman's ordinary navigation of society/the world, as the narrator is living in an isolated community in Botswana, and is depicted as a very unusual, hyper-observant person. It's reminding me a bit of the first half of The Last Samurai.

JoeStork, Thursday, 10 March 2022 07:19 (eight months ago) link

Can't believe Franzen wrote something stupid and bad

Nordle (Noodle Vague), Thursday, 10 March 2022 07:32 (eight months ago) link

Some of the examples cited upthread seem limit cases -- good for laughing at, or for indicating a problem, maybe, but not proof that most authors could not, in principle, if they were careful and thoughtful, write an opposite-sex POV.

re: the "embodied experience" idea that I threw in (which does relate to those limit cases), it occurred to me that you could get another take, possibly even a clearer one, on this whole issue by transposing it to:

"Can an able-bodied writer write a disabled character POV, and vice versa?"

(Note: the terms are no doubt contested - one critic replaces able-bodied with "temporarily abled"! - so, replace with whatever terms you think accurate.)

Can a sighted person write a blind POV? Could a person who's always been blind write a sighted POV? ... Here I think you get into territory that might possibly make the "woman writing a male POV" seem straightforward.

the pinefox, Thursday, 10 March 2022 09:18 (eight months ago) link

It should be easy enough if you think of the character as a person and not some sort of wish fulfilment fantasy. So many people fail to meet that very low bar!

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 09:35 (eight months ago) link

I love Mating and think it’s a good example of a male writer creating a fully realized (and awesome) female protagonist.

horseshoe, Thursday, 10 March 2022 09:48 (eight months ago) link

is the distillation of pf's musing not rather "can anyone write a character not a facsimile or facet of their own self?" which is either a deep question without an answer or a simple question with an answer that is a sliding scale between badly-excellently depending on their skill as a writer and/or the distance between their self and the character

Ár an broc a mhic (darraghmac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 10:21 (eight months ago) link

I think people can, but I'll confess one of the main reasons I've never written fiction is I don't think I can, and am somewhat awed by the level of self confidence I feel is necessary to think it possible.

Daniel_Rf, Thursday, 10 March 2022 10:32 (eight months ago) link

I don’t think you need to be X to write Y but you should know something of what you’re talking about, whether by research or experience. But also, experience can make a character and book more meaningful, like I was saying in the what are you reading thread, Marian Keyes being an alcoholic herself means that all the stuff she’s writing about she knows personally, which I think is important in such a subject. Does that mean that someone with no experience, either direct or indirect, couldn’t for example write about alcoholism? No, but I don’t understand particularly why they would want to. Does that make sense at all?

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 10:35 (eight months ago) link

It should be easy enough if you think of the character as a person and not some sort of wish fulfilment fantasy. So many people fail to meet that very low bar!

― mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, March 10, 2022

In relation to the gender issue, I think I see this.

In relation to the disability question, I don't think I do.

I don't see "wish fufilment" coming in if I write about, say, a person in a wheelchair or a blind person. Whatever I'm doing in writing such a character, I'm probably not wishing to be that character. The potential obstacles to writing them well seem clear: that these people, as real people, have experiences that I don't know, haven't yet had. ("Yet" because, after all, any of us could have these conditions soon enough.)

You can say "well, just write them as an individual consciousness, don't focus on the disability" - sure, but people's bodies may, in some cases, strongly shape their consciousness and experience.

A writer who has given this a lot of thought is, of all people, Adam Mars-Jones - especially re: disability but also I believe re: gender.

the pinefox, Thursday, 10 March 2022 10:35 (eight months ago) link

A very popular woman writer who has, as I understand it, written a lot from a male POV (in various series) is J.K. Rowling.

Has anyone ever criticised her on this score - eg: argued that she doesn't understand what it's like to be a teenage boy?

I don't know. I'm afraid I've never read her.

the pinefox, Thursday, 10 March 2022 10:37 (eight months ago) link

I think the wish fulfilment in this context is less about wanting to be disabled and more about having a fantasy of what you want disabled people to be like, i.e. so that you don't have to feel troubled by their existence.

Daniel_Rf, Thursday, 10 March 2022 11:00 (eight months ago) link

That wiki entry on Tiptree is quite something. I never got round to reading any of her stories.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 10 March 2022 12:02 (eight months ago) link

The world in general gets framed around men’s perspectives and priorities, so I think you could argue that women have no shortage of “insights” into what it’s like to see the world through a man’s eyes.

Tracer Hand, Thursday, 10 March 2022 12:41 (eight months ago) link

I'm reading Them by Kay Dick, whose narrator is (or narrators are) unnamed and not explicitly gendered, yet I intuit from dialogue, setting and action that they are female. I don't know if that is because I know the author was a woman.

Halfway there but for you, Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:16 (eight months ago) link

i’m reading written on the body where the protagonist’s gender is never identified, and if you spend any amount of time trying to figure out their gender you’ve kind of missed the point of the book. more books should be written in this register

that franzen quote upthread makes me want to kick his ass

STOCK FIST-PUMPER BRAD (BradNelson), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:29 (eight months ago) link

Franzen has made loutish remarks his specialty. He infuriated me years ago with his Edith Wharton essay -- he couldn't believe 21st century readers would care about a rich lady writing about the rich.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/02/13/a-rooting-interest

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:33 (eight months ago) link

i think a lot of cis men are incapable of writing women bc the only perspective they have the inner landscape of their own assholes. i know that we are all different, shaped by individual experiences, but at the same time i tell myself almost mantra-like that we are all the same and you only have to think of your character as a person to write them well (you should also do your research and talk to people if you are writing someone really outside of your personal experience bc “we are all the same” does not preclude the hard work of understanding)

STOCK FIST-PUMPER BRAD (BradNelson), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:35 (eight months ago) link

Franzen has made loutish remarks his specialty. He infuriated me years ago with his Edith Wharton essay -- he couldn't believe 21st century readers would care about a rich lady writing about the rich.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/02/13/a-rooting-interest🕸


Stopped reading this deeply stupid essay right here:

Wharton embraces her new-fashioned divorce plot as zestfully as Nabokov embraces pedophilia in “Lolita.”


So I’ll never get to see if he mentions how he didn’t find Wharton attractive for a third time and if he ever realises “people like the stories” or what. Does he think his work will still be read with the same affection in future centuries as hers is?

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:50 (eight months ago) link

i think a lot of cis men are incapable of writing women bc the only perspective they have the inner landscape of their own assholes. i know that we are all different, shaped by individual experiences, but at the same time i tell myself almost mantra-like that we are all the same and you only have to think of your character as a person to write them well (you should also do your research and talk to people if you are writing someone really outside of your personal experience bc “we are all the same” does not preclude the hard work of understanding)


Yes this is very otm. You don’t need to be a cis woman to write one; however you probably should know and be friends with some so you don’t write big glaring tells into your book like, for example, a character soaping her vagina.

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:52 (eight months ago) link

i think a lot of cis men are incapable of writing women bc the only perspective they have the inner landscape of their own assholes. i know that we are all different, shaped by individual experiences, but at the same time i tell myself almost mantra-like that we are all the same and you only have to think of your character as a person to write them well (you should also do your research and talk to people if you are writing someone really outside of your personal experience bc “we are all the same” does not preclude the hard work of understanding)


Yes this is very otm. You don’t need to be a cis woman to write one; however you probably should know and be friends with some so you don’t write big glaring tells into your book like, for example, a character soaping her vagina.

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:52 (eight months ago) link

He obsesses over her looks.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:52 (eight months ago) link

It’s so fucking weird and such a tell!

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 13:58 (eight months ago) link

“Why read a woman if you don’t want to fuck her”

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lifestyle/arts/jonathan-franzen-sexism-accusations-s-816763


“I’m not a sexist,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention.”

“None of that is ever enough,” said the author. “Because a villain is needed. It’s like, there’s no way to make myself not male.”


Yeah, that’s not why people think that.

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 14:01 (eight months ago) link

“Not only am I not a sexist, but if you think about it I’m really kind of a hero, for women”

Tracer Hand, Thursday, 10 March 2022 15:21 (eight months ago) link

You don’t need to be a cis woman to write one; however you probably should know and be friends with some so you don’t write big glaring tells into your book like, for example, a character soaping her vagina.

This is spectacular failure not only of writing, but of editing. I'm not necessarily an "every written detail must advance the plot" person but not all details are created equal and I can't think of a single story that would be enhanced by knowing that a female character soaped up her vagina to little or no consequence.

castanuts (DJP), Thursday, 10 March 2022 15:43 (eight months ago) link

late to this but Mating is really good! I have never read a book that used so many obscure words, I got so mad at one point that I borrowed my friends' OED

thinkmanship (sleeve), Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:01 (eight months ago) link

i think the old adage to 'write what you know' applies here in the sense that many men don't know women very well and aren't likely to start knowing women very well. the challenge inherent in this, that is men writing from a female perspective, is to be able to know at least one woman very well, i think. maybe meaning something like, their internal experience is linked to one's own. the ability to do this in my estimation requires that a man be aware of patriarchy and then relinquish it to some degree, i.e. stop being a dickhead (which franzen seems incapable of doing) and become someone who relates, someone who feels commonalities. i think one necessary part of that process is that a man has to not be terrified of their own femininity (i think by doing this they also become not terrified of their masculinity).

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:14 (eight months ago) link

You don’t need to be a cis woman to write one; however you probably should know and be friends with some so you don’t write big glaring tells into your book like, for example, a character soaping her vagina.

This is spectacular failure not only of writing, but of editing. I'm not necessarily an "every written detail must advance the plot" person but not all details are created equal and I can't think of a single story that would be enhanced by knowing that a female character soaped up her vagina to little or no consequence.

― castanuts (DJP), Thursday, March 10, 2022 3:43 PM (thirty-five minutes ago) bookmarkflaglink

it may be "enhanced" if the reading audience is a bunch of dickheads like the author

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:21 (eight months ago) link

“Why read a woman if you don’t want to fuck her”

I don't hold a brief for Franzen's novels but the linked article is in fact a pretty decent run-through of about a dozen reasons why yes, you maybe really DO want to read Edith Wharton, because Edith Wharton is great. He's especially right about The Custom of the Country, which is every bit as good and more currently relevant than the Big Two, and which is much less read. My only criticism is that he dismisses Ethan Frome as "minor, frosty" -- nope, it's short, but it's MAJOR and frosty. I know few novels frostier.

Guayaquil (eephus!), Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:22 (eight months ago) link

that's cutting him a lot of slack. which, incidentally, is something that men on team dickhead do a lot.

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:27 (eight months ago) link

but he also avers that insecurity about her looks motivated Wharton, the kind of twaddle male writers aren't accused of.

otm about The Custom of the Country, which i reread last year.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:41 (eight months ago) link

Be interested to read a description of a man shaving from a woman's perspective.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:06 (eight months ago) link

_“Why read a woman if you don’t want to fuck her”_

I don't hold a brief for Franzen's novels but the linked article is in fact a pretty decent run-through of about a dozen reasons why yes, you maybe really DO want to read Edith Wharton, because Edith Wharton is great. He's especially right about The Custom of the Country, which is every bit as good and more currently relevant than the Big Two, and which is much less read. My only criticism is that he dismisses Ethan Frome as "minor, frosty" -- nope, it's short, but it's MAJOR and frosty. I know few novels frostier.


I read the article, if he was incapable of making the point without constant disparaging of the author’s looks then an editor should have stepped in, but maybe his crap is beyond all that. As it is, coating legit criticism in that kind of stuff tends to be off putting.

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:14 (eight months ago) link

Be interested to read a description of a man shaving from a woman's perspective.

― xyzzzz__, Thursday, March 10, 2022 5:06 PM (nine minutes ago) bookmarkflaglink

curious what you mean by this. women shave all the time so it's not like the physical sensation is foreign to them. other than that, it would very much depend on the character i would think.

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:17 (eight months ago) link

I know but still, a male character doing something everyday like this to see how a woman would write it. I don't recall reading it.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:22 (eight months ago) link

Assume he means facially. Shaving your face is ofc different because the blood vessels are so near the surface and the skin is so tender, but yeah, women shave sensitive areas all the time.

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:22 (eight months ago) link

i've always been a terrible shaver and just let my beard go because of it, so i probably know less about the ins and outs of it than your average woman

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:25 (eight months ago) link

I am trying to think of an example now but I wonder if you would just get a description that is either overly or covertly fetishising the act, it can be nice to watch a man shave.

mardheamac (gyac), Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:25 (eight months ago) link

xp

Alfred mentioned Henry James earlier ... I reread The Turn of the Screw the other day and am now thinking about it as a particularly extreme example of a male author writing female POV. It could be criticized as a typically sexist representation of "hysteria," but James' performance seems to persuade a lot of readers, regardless of how they interpret the narrator's mental state or the weird events of her story.

Brad C., Thursday, 10 March 2022 17:52 (eight months ago) link

We shouldn't reward Franzen with too much attention, but

Stopped reading this deeply stupid essay right here:

Wharton embraces her new-fashioned divorce plot as zestfully as Nabokov embraces pedophilia in “Lolita.”
makes me want to beat him slowly into gravel with a baseball bat.

dow, Thursday, 10 March 2022 18:05 (eight months ago) link

Just imagine:

"Woolf embraces her schizophrenia plot as zestfully as Bret Easton Ellis did mass murder in American Psycho.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 10 March 2022 18:21 (eight months ago) link

That sounds just like Franzen, but, not having read so much Wharton, was especially pissed on behalf of Vladimir.

dow, Thursday, 10 March 2022 18:50 (eight months ago) link

(have read enough of her to agree with this:
he dismisses Ethan Frome as "minor, frosty" -- nope, it's short, but it's MAJOR and frosty. I know few novels frostier.

― Guayaquil (eephus!)

dow, Thursday, 10 March 2022 18:52 (eight months ago) link

The world in general gets framed around men’s perspectives and priorities, so I think you could argue that women have no shortage of “insights” into what it’s like to see the world through a man’s eyes.

― Tracer Hand, Thursday, March 10, 2022

Tracer, I posited this idea on the thread (Elena Ferrante) from which this one sprang.

I think it's partially true and convincing.

But probably not wholly. 'Being a person who happens to encounter real life via a male body' is, I imagine, somewhat different from 'male POV and discourse as given to us by media'.

Further, given the vast amount of textual and narrative material out there, it would not be very difficult to find things 'framed around men’s perspectives and priorities' (you could start by picking up one of the dozens of magazines of stories and memoirs written for women readers; or watching daytime chat shows hosted by groups of women talking to each other; or reading discussion boards by and for women; or just reading tons of good and great novels written by women) -- but having done all that, I am still not sure I would feel confident writing a woman's POV. (If I were a creative writer, which I am not.)

the pinefox, Friday, 11 March 2022 08:53 (eight months ago) link

sp: "it would not be very difficult to find things 'framed around WOMEN's perspectives and priorities'"

the pinefox, Friday, 11 March 2022 08:55 (eight months ago) link

PS: I'm afraid I forgot to add: a male author, seeking insight into women's perspectives and priorities, could also ... talk to women that they know.

the pinefox, Friday, 11 March 2022 09:05 (eight months ago) link

Yes, I did make that point upthread!

mardheamac (gyac), Friday, 11 March 2022 10:03 (eight months ago) link

But Tracer's point is surely not that female perspectives are difficult to find - it's that male writers would have to want to find them in the first place (the example of magazines for women's readers is relevant here - not something aspiring writers are automatically pointed to!), while female writers are exposed to male perspectives whether they want to or not, because there is such an overwhelming amount of male perspectives in the culture, and because the majority of the canon that any person seeking to be a writer is nudged towards is male. That's not an excuse for lack of curiosity amongst male writers, it's just saying that female writers would have to actively work very hard to not be exposed to male views.

This is changing ofc but I think for the time it still stands.

Daniel_Rf, Friday, 11 March 2022 10:15 (eight months ago) link

Pinefox as a male writer you could do those things, as a part of your research, I suppose, but my point is that the male point of view suffuses our reality so completely that no one needs to do special research to understand its outlines. The heroes of our world, particularly in the public sphere, the cops and fireMEN and spies and surgeons, have been male for so long that the heroic qualities we see in them tend to be male qualities, or at least qualities that "code" male. There is a bit of question begging here but I do think that's how it has tended to work. No one needs to do special research to grok this stuff. (You'd probably need to do special research just to UN-grok some of it!)

xpost ahh now Daniel has made this point.

What you say about bodies is interesting, because I don't think it works the same way for men and women. It feels quite important for men to "understand women's bodies" in order to write them but I'm not sure it's actually very important the other way around, because men so often exist in both society and literature DESPITE their bodies rather than because of them - they are public people whose words and motivations take them beyond the merely corporeal. What is the hero of For Whom The Bell Tolls' body like? I'm not sure we learn much about Harry Potter's body (thank god) because men aren't defined by their bodies the same way that women are - their thinness, their fatness, their boobness, their hiddenness, their exposure, etc

Tracer Hand, Friday, 11 March 2022 10:21 (eight months ago) link

I broadly agree with these points, or at least see why they can look persuasive.

Tracer Hand is on the right track, I think, in talking about something like "male = neutral, female = something that stands out and needs specifying".

But it ought to be possible not just to accept that but to contest it and look more closely, eg: at what a male bodily experience is like (only if you want to!).

Given that most of us (male or female) spend large amounts of our time around women, it doesn't seem quite accurate to me to say that women's perspectives are obscured or unavailable. They are all around - but in a different sphere from the one Tracer cites as containing "the heroes of our world".

"the majority of the canon that any person seeking to be a writer is nudged towards is male" -- a majority, maybe, but fair to add that large amounts of the most revered literary canon are written by women. You might well be "nudged towards" Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot; Gaskell, Woolf, Mansfield and many more. The C19 ones especially I think are so foundational that most writers should, or might, read them.

the pinefox, Friday, 11 March 2022 12:20 (eight months ago) link

Given that most of us (male or female) spend large amounts of our time around women, it doesn't seem quite accurate to me to say that women's perspectives are obscured or unavailable.


That is not what is being said, it’s that those perspectives are not considered or understood as default. Please reread my initial post in this as I wrote a little about how this relates to everyday stuff that doesn’t occur unless pointed out to many men.

mardheamac (gyac), Friday, 11 March 2022 12:37 (eight months ago) link

i don't mean to sound above the kind of casual investigative approach that the pinefox and others are taking here, that kind of discussion is a welcome part of ilb, but i just want to point out that there is a large practice and field of research that has explored these kinds of questions at great length called feminism that can really enrich one's understanding around gender, sex, bodies, etc. judith butler, donna haraway, bell hooks, others i'm not familiar with.

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Friday, 11 March 2022 13:20 (eight months ago) link

anyway tracer brings up an important point about male subjectivity in that it tends to subsume and transfigure the male body. if a man is to be properly patriarchal he needs to erase or forget about his body in certain ways.

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Friday, 11 March 2022 13:28 (eight months ago) link


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