Writers and “The Gender Thing”

I just finished reading an interesting author interview in The Guardian. There were several things I liked about it, one being that it was more of a conversation than an interview, in which the author was as interested in the interviewer’s opinions as the interviewer was in hers.

I’d never heard of the writer, AM Homes, and I’m not sure if I’ll like her books, if I can track one or two of them down. But she’s one of a rare breed, a woman who writes mostly from a male point of view.

“Men have been writing about women for ever. Here was a woman writing dangerously, provocatively, about boys and men, and using the male persona. That was intriguing.”

JW: Why do you write from the male perspective nearly all the time?

AM: That is my imagination. It’s the place I go. I am comfortable there so I can be uncomfortable there. I find it harder, self-consciously so, to write a female narrator.

Until recently, I hadn’t thought about the question of women writing as men. It was just something that comes naturally to me, and if it’s unusual or possibly controversial, that’s something to look into. Apparently, a woman writing from the male point of view is both unusual and possibly something of a freak. Why else would someone bother to edit a collection of science fiction short stories by women, with the requirement that the stories be from a man’s perspective?

I didn’t like the book, and after struggling about 3/4 of the way through the stories, I gave up. What turned me off was the lack of substance. The stories were, for the most part, gimmicky — clever, amusing, and unsatisfying. I find short stories in general unsatisfying, so maybe that was my problem. Or maybe most of the authors weren’t accustomed to writing as men, so chose fairly standard ways of approaching the problem.

I’m not sure there’s any real shortage of women writing from the male POV, or whether it’s actually controversial, but I wonder why those who do object have no problem with men writing from the female POV. All that’s required of either is insight.

Women Writing Science Fiction as Men, edited by Mike Resnick, 2003

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5 thoughts on “Writers and “The Gender Thing”

  1. Interesting, I suppose Mary Renault is the first example that comes to my mind and also Marguerite Yourcenar who wrote The Memoirs of Hadrian.
    I don’t know why it should be controversial, unless women are being condemned for daring to try and interpret male experience when theirs have been interpreted in some cases almost exclusively via men for millennia.
    Yes, insight is mostly what’s needed – It’s questionable whether women and men are all that different from the inside – we all have the same basic drives. Aside from that, I think it’s a matter of attending to the external and cultural expectations regarding gender behaviour and to the basics of living with a different physiology. I had to correct myself from making a male character sit cross-legged on the settee – most men are not small or flexible enough to do that naturally at least in the West where it’s not the cultural norm.

    1. It really isn’t that hard to find books by women that are from a male perspective. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and most of what I’ve read by Susan R. Matthews, just off the top of my head. I think there are different reasons for doing so, however. A male character may fit the story better, or, as with my case and AM Homes, it’s more natural for the writer. The first is probably more usual.

      Physiology, culturally determined language, emotional expression — they can all be very different. Sitting cross-legged can also depend on age, body structure, and flexibility.

  2. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I never consider the gender of an author when choosing what to read. If male protagonists seem a little different in the hands of a female author, I regard this as a legitimate second opinion. Books are meant to broaden the mind.

    1. I’m with you on that. I’ve read plenty of books by men who turned out to be women writing under a pseudonym. I couldn’t tell the difference. But there is real prejudice against women writer, particularly in certain niches, like SF. There’s a long tradition of women using pseudonyms because of that.

  3. What you say about SF authors is very true, Catana. Andre Norton is perhaps the most famous female SF writer who felt it necessary to hide behind masculine pen names. As an adventurous teen, I read dozens of her books (all with male protagonists) without realizing she was a woman. None of my SF-loving friends spotted her either.

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