Gender and fiction: So, can a man create women?
Television producer Daisy Goodwin commented this week that 'you can't have a seriously written romantic book written by a man'. Below, Boyd Tonkin debates this proposition, while seven women authors select characters that work - or not - for them
Thursday 14 September 2006
I don't know whether such a grand member of the broadcasting elite as Daisy Goodwin would know much about the novels of E V Thompson. A favourite pick of pensioners in libraries, they often feature feisty-looking, period-costumed heroines on their covers: farm girls flouncing at gates, ambulance drivers caught up in the dramas of war, fearless fisherwomen hauling nets from stormy seas. The Tolpuddle Woman, Blue Dress Girl, Paths of Destiny, Chase the Wind... with settings that stretch from China to Cornwall, these romantic sagas delight a large and loyal band of readers, among whom women will vastly outnumber men. And according to Ms Goodwin - if she has been correctly reported - men simply lack the equipment to deliver the female-friendly pleasures of romance. Tell that to Mr James Munro, a former Royal Navy seaman who later served for many years in the Bristol police force. He it is, after all, who writes under the pen name of "E V Thompson".
The current Seventies revival is all good fun, but surely it's taking things too far to resurrect the dreary and discredited biological determinism that Ms Goodwin's quoted views suggest. These arguments briefly flared and died a generation back. Now, they sound utterly antique. Whatever their gender, most good writers will sweat blood in order to create characters who live on the page in the context of the story that they serve. They aim to fashion individuals who make sense in their setting, not identikit images to be measured against some yardstick from psychology or sociology. If a male writer of realistic fiction comes up with women characters who fail to persuade as credible figures in that story, then he falls short as a writer and can't shift the blame onto biology. How weirdly reactionary to argue otherwise.
Presumably designed to drum up an audience for her series Reader, I Married Him, Ms Goodwin's polemic conflates two overlapping questions. The narrower one concerns male writers' interest in or competence in romantic fiction - a broad-brush term that usually refers to heroine-centred stories of contested passion and challenging suitors in which the course of true love never runs smooth until the final chapters of matching and (implied) hatching. In Britain, it begins as a genre in the 1740s with - well, a man, as it happens. Endlessly parodied and plagiarised, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela - those moralistic but lascivious tales of rakes reformed by virtuous heroines - won so many female readers that preachers and moralists denounced them for corrupting girlish minds.
Later, in its Gothic form, romance discovered the windswept moors and gloomy castles where it still in many places thrives. But when an undisputed genius turned to these much-loved conventions - as Jane Austen did in Northanger Abbey - she sent them up something rotten. A proud author of romances, Sir Walter Scott felt dismayed that Austen (whom he admired) should poke fun at the form. Already, the notion of a rigid gender distinction in fiction that sets romance-minded women against blundering, insensitive males is looking pretty fragile. Austen's own inspirations, by the way, included the deeply anti-romantic prose of Samuel Johnson, the equally hard-edged poetry of William Cowper, and the wonderfully crisp, clever diarist and novelist Fanny Burney, who should be much more widely read by everyone, regardless of their physical endowments.
Later, the genre did pass for long decades into the keeping of women novelists. But other women novelists castigated them for it. Beyond the peaks scaled by the unique, ground-breaking Brontës lay a vast terrain of upper-crust ChickLit. George Eliot famously scoffed at "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" in an essay in 1856. Eliot is most concerned with class prejudice - truly, a taboo notion in polite BBC circles these days.
She attacks privileged women writers of romance who have "evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as 'dependents'... and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister. It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen." No doubt the Goodwin tendency would view a romance-hater like Eliot, who celebrated the dignity and humanity of working- and middle-class women and men alike, as a deluded traitor to her sex.
Later, romance returned to popular if not critical favour thanks to a variety of virtuoso specialists, from the Regency pastiches of Georgette Heyer and the neo-Gothic mysteries of Daphne du Maurier to the battling but triumphant Tyneside lassies of Catherine Cookson. If male authors never again led the genre, they certainly learned a lot from it. To take a simple example, almost all the moody, wounded aliens of male science fiction ultimately descend from that great hero of romance: the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But behind Daisy Goodwin's scattergun statements, a wider challenge lurks. Can male writers create convincing women characters at all? Evidently, it won't be enough for anyone who wants to answer "yes" to reel off a list of immortal grandes dames, from Antigone and Medea through the Wife of Bath to Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth to Becky Sharp and Anna Karenina and Natasha Rostova and every leading woman in Anton Chekhov or Henry James or E M Forster... We're dealing here with doctrine, not with evidence. You can't hold a grown-up discussion with someone who pretends to believe that the Y chromosome of her creator makes Isabel Archer from James's The Portrait of a Lady innately inferior to Anne from Enid Blyton's Famous Five. But one way to start to dent that dogma might be to look at the extreme case of a male author often denounced for his literary failure with women.
Thirty years ago, when arguments like Daisy Goodwin's most held sway, the brilliant feminist novelist and journalist Angela Carter wrote a savagely hilarious essay on D H Lawrence. It mocked his efforts to explore the emotional differences between the sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love by waxing lyrical about their taste in coloured stockings. For Carter, Lawrence's laboured attempts at female psychology amounted to no more than a sort of hairy drag-queen's fantasy. She concluded that the Nottingham sex god "probes as deeply into a woman's heart as the bottom of a hat-box".
Yet, for all the scorn, hers is a thrillingly vital, witty response, a passionately engaged reply that shows the deep mark Lawrence left on her. And, a few years later, you can find Carter paying tribute to Lawrence's "moving and profound" novels of social change and class division; novels "that I read and re-read... again and again looking for clues, not to how I should live my life, but how it came to pass that my life has been lived in this way".
That is the true voice of the committed reader. And with it dull textbook questions of "convincing" characterisation will often take second place to a search for an underlying authenticity that links the author then with the reader now, however wide the span of culture, history - or gender - that may separate them. The shameful secret about gender and fiction is that innumerable women routinely and happily make this leap of imagination, often finding their own reality in male writers who would totally flunk Ms Goodwin's insipid Birdsong test of "crossover" empathy. By and large (and of course there are exceptions), male readers do not reciprocate. Perhaps we really need a television series that aims to close that gender gap.
Becky Sharp William Thackeray
For the most part, men cannot write female characters convincingly. The exception is Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Becky Sharp was a literary antidote to all the wet and wimpy female fictional characters of the time; heroines who were polite and one-dimensional and invariably got rescued by something tall, dark and bankable... With tongue in chic and lashings of chutzpah, Becky Sharp was the Madonna of her day, flaunting tradition and challenging hypocritical sexual mores. OK, she had a few minor faults - snobbery and sexual kleptomania (Becky climbed the social ladder lad by lad); husband-hunting (she wasn't interested in Mr Right, but Lord, Sir, Marquis Right at the very least). But we're talking 1810. With no vote, no union, no fixed wage, no welfare state, no contraception, what options were available to women? Apart from governessing or domestic service, it was prostitution or marriage. (Often a tautology in those days.) And what a survivor. After the nuclear holocaust, all that will be left are a couple of cockroaches and Becky. Now that's a real woman!
Sophie Aubrey Patrick O'Brian
Patrick O'Brian was a fantastic portrayer of intimacy. He produced the most tender romantic scenes and really got under the skin of his female characters. In Sophie, Jack Aubrey's romantic interest in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, he captured the complexities of women, showing the maternal feelings women can have towards men and the fact that women don't expect constant heroism from them - men can have their failings. O'Brian was fantastic at characterisation - very, very good at reading people, whether male or female. There are a lot of men who know a great deal about women but aren't able to convey this on paper. But not O'Brian.
I think the theory that men can't write romantic fiction is wrong. A lot of men are very romantic and would go to the ends of the earth for the people they love. Women can often be more pragmatic.
Anne Louvet Sebastian Faulks
The Girl At The Lion D'Or is an exceptional book. It really touched me - far more so than any of his others. It is remarkable because it shows how a man is able to understand Anne Louvet's sense of utter resignation and her acceptance of her lot in such a bleak situation, which is such a complicated female predicament. You feel as if you are inside the girl and are with her in all her problems. It seems to me a two-way split. It's just as hard for a woman to write about a man in romantic fiction. Men do often make women too hard and forget their vulnerability but it is achievable for a man to get inside a woman's head and really convince you. The gulf isn't too great.
Charlotte Gray Sebastian Faulks
I don't think men can write romantic fiction. Charlotte Gray is a beautifully written book, but I was never transported by the love affair between Charlotte and Peter, despite her quest for him driving the narrative of the plot. When they finally got together the emotional impact seemed dulled by an analytical quality which didn't reflect the all-encompassing way in which many women - and romantic heroines - experience love. I was far more moved by the fate of the children in the book - that moved me to tears.
Bathsheba Everdene Thomas Hardy
As someone who has written half her books from the male point of view, I really dislike such gender distinctions as saying men can or cannot write romantic fiction. Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd is the most romantic book I have ever read. I love the line where he says: "Whenever you look up, there I shall be - and whenever I look up there will be you." It is very simple and understated, but also incredibly romantic. I like the fact that Hardy portrays a woman who is completely in touch with her emotions. I don't think it is about male or female writers, it is about good or bad writing, a good imagination or a bad one, about imagining yourself inside the skin of someone else.
Emma Bovary Gustave Flaubert
The reason I think Emma Bovary works is that the in-consistencies in the character make her seem really plausible. While some writers indulge in too much mouth-piecing, you become involved with Emma and you get the sense of what real people are like. Despite the fact that she is maddening and annoying, we feel sorry for what happens to her. It is a romantic story because romance is just not about the sex and love, it can be messy and complicated as well. This is a character who experiences all aspects of it. It is a fantastic portrait of a real person, which to me is the sign of a great author. Good writing is about understanding emotional truths, irrespective of the gender of the writer.
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
There is a clear difference between what we call "ChickLit" and the broader sense of romantic literature. But in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy got totally inside the mind of a woman who is prepared to lose everything for the sake of man and who is so much in love that she commits suicide. I don't like her as a woman, but I think it is a brilliant portrait, unequalled in literature. However, while many male writers, such as Nabokov, can write wonderful love scenes, I do not think they ever get how important love is for women and how their entire life hangs on it.
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