In the early days of the novel, women writers would often take on a male pseudonym, even write with a male swagger, in order to be taken seriously. Things have really evolved since then (thank God), so much so that in recent days the opposite is happening. Everywhere you look, there is another bestseller written by a man that promises to artfully reveal the inner workings of the female mind. These books are doing very well. Everyone and their mother has read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone (partly thanks to Oprah’s endorsement); Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good has a female narrator; and Clara Callan, Richard B. Wright’s book of letters and diary entries by a “rural school marm” was one of CBC’s Canada Reads titles.
I was recently at a reading given by Toronto author Michael Redhill. The girl sitting next to me leaned over and whispered admiringly in my ear, “He writes women so well.” And why not? Shouldn’t it be a positive thing that writers are trying to get outside their own experience? Thinly veiled autobiographies are fine, but as a person who celebrates diversity, it’s nice to see the boundaries between male and female treated fluidly. It’s not just about gender. Other bestsellers take on the point of view of an autistic child (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) or a famous child-wizard (Harry Potter and His Mega-Fortune). But I have to say that as far as gender goes, I have noticed that the trend has recently become rather one-sided—while there are women who write male narration, it seems more likely (or more profitable) for the man to write as a woman.
The old axiom “write what you know” tells us that when you’ve lived an experience, you have a better chance at properly describing how it felt—because, well, you felt it. Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, clearly never performed an elaborate tea ceremony where he bared his delicate wrist, but he did his homework and the book is historically rich. The movie version is currently in production.
This trend is fine—good, even—until it is not. Some books offer enlightening, compassionate accounts while others totter toward the appropriation of someone else’s experience. In Yann Martel’s first novel, Self (yes, there was one before Life of Pi), he experiments with the idea of gender and narration. Near the end of the book, there is a disturbing rape scene recounted from the female narrator’s point of view. There was something irksome about this, even though the writing was tight, clear and emotionally charged. Martel may know in some intellectual way what it could feel like to suffer such a thing—maybe he read up on it or spoke to rape victims about their experiences—but when I read this passage, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t his experience to write about.
It’s refreshing that we are coming around to the fact that gender shouldn’t be a barrier that divides us—men and women are fascinated and affected by similar things. A good book is a good book, whoever writes it. Full stop.
There are dangers in my saying such a thing. Jarret McNeill, in the new “His & Hers” issue of Maisonneuve, touches on this very topic. His personal essay “One Man’s Abortion” recounts the experience of his girlfriend having an abortion. “In theory,” he writes, “men stand on the outside of the abortion debate—mere sympathizers, unable to empathize with the decision and everything it entails.” But he goes on to demonstrate that, in practice, men are often inextricably involved.
I think he’s right. In this case, the issue has less to do with gender than it does with experience. Jarret did go through having an abortion, though not in a physical way. It has had a major effect on his life and he should be able to write and talk about it. Likewise, it’s conceivable that Wally Lamb relates deeply to the feelings and insecurities of an obese, abused teenage girl. The self is a complex and fragmented thing, and there is no reason that the unconventional sides of us shouldn’t be talked about. In fact, I’d argue that it’s healthy and helps dismantle old rules about how “boys will be boys” and “what good girls do.” We should kick those to the wayside anyway.
But sometimes people do go over the line. I went to a poetry reading recently. The headliner was an ex-Concordia student, Alex Porco, who recently got his book of poems published. He’d written a tome in dedication of porn star Jill Kelly. My friend, who was also reading that night, told me that Alex was a really talented poet who was doing all this amazing stuff with form. I tried to listen for that. I tried to see the beauty of the sonnet that included lines like “twiddle my twat”—but I couldn’t do it.
This wasn’t because I am easily offended by coarse language (I love a good swear word), but because those poems assumed a lot, like how much this porn star lived for anal sex, for example. Maybe she does, but it also sounds to me like she was a businesswoman who made a lot of money by projecting a persona. She has since gotten out of “acting” and runs her own studio. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems Porco’s poems said more about male fantasy than Ms. Kelly’s feelings or motivations.
The fellow that spoke next was plainly offensive. An old boy from Ottawa, he took to the stage and read a short story that was based on a woman giving herself an abortion in the shower. I won’t say any more because the images put in my mind that night still haunt me—suffice it to say that everyone in the place was wondering where he had got the gall.
As with anything else, there are limits to literary gender-bending. Men should be able to articulate a woman’s character and thoughts—and many are doing a good job of it, while making some well-earned cash—just as women might want to write from the point of view of a man. It’s refreshing that we are coming around to the fact that gender shouldn’t be a barrier that divides us—men and women are fascinated and affected by similar things. A good book is a good book, whoever writes it. Full stop.
Emma Appleby is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.