First person feminine

Men have been narrating novels through female heroines ever since `Clarissa', but the idea never fails to cause a stir. Hester Lacey reports on the latest cross-writers
SMILLA Jaspersen, Hope Clearwater, Mike Houlihan and now Alison MacAteer: all heroines of modern novels, and all heroines who are doubly fictitious. Each is a female persona adopted by a male novelist. Miss Smilla with her feeling for snow is given her voice by Peter Hoeg, Hope Clearwater narrates William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach, Mike Hoolihan, despite the name, is the blowsy blonde female cop who tells her story in Martin Amis's Night Train, and Alison MacAteer is the protagonist in Luke Jennings's new novel, Beauty Story.

But why try to become a woman, if you aren't one to start with? Surely it's hard enough in itself to put together a convincing novel without having to think yourself into the opposite sex as well? And critics tend to be particularly ready to snipe at sex-changers. Reviewers leapt with glee on Martin Amis's Mike Hoolihan. "Mike Hoolihan is a woman who talks like a guy. Who talks like Amis in fact," observed the Times. "Why has he made the narrator of this mystery story woman?" asked the Mail. "It doesn't work. She talks like a man. Worse, she talks like a man who has swallowed a Martin Amis novel." "First the good news - or bad, according to taste," announced the Telegraph. "Just because the narrator of Martin Amis's new novel is a middle-aged, recovering-alcoholic American policewoman does not mean that the narrative voice is any different from his usual one."

William Boyd did not escape scot-free either. Again, critics suggested that Brazzaville Beach's Hope Clearwater was a bloke in drag. "The decision to entrust the first-person narrative to a woman is, for a male writer, always an odd one, and, it must be said, Hope spends a disproportionate amount of time taking off her bra, rubbing herself down with a towel, or even, God help us, going on about thick tangles of pubic hair and moist gussets," sniffed the Independent in an otherwise favourable appraisal.

Luke Jennings has written his new novel from the point of view of tabloid journalist Alison MacAteer, and was, he says, warned by other writers of the perils and pitfalls of creating a woman narrator. "There is a certain kind of critic who will make a point of taking exception to the attempt. Some women consider that the female personality is fundamentally impenetrable by a man. I don't think men are proprietorial about the male psyche in the same way - women are welcome to march in and help themselves to all the old lumber they can find. Most male authors who have created female narrators have been criticised for doing so, and it's an extraordinary thing, it doesn't happen the other way round."

As he points out, nobody batted an eyelid at Donna Tartt's Secret History, which is supposedly written by a young male student, Richard Papen, and was a best-seller. His own book, Jennings says, would simply not have worked with a man in the central role. "I wanted to write about the world of this particular kind of journalist, and a woman journalist would get to go where a man wouldn't in that world." (An experienced journalist himself, it is evident that he knows what he is talking about; the paparazzi chases and doorstep-surveillance scenes are all drawn from life, and the portrayals of day-to-day office ghastliness ring horribly but fascinatingly true. Alison herself memorably says, "I was loosed almost daily into environments of grief and betrayal; a woman - or a woman's voice - was felt to be less intrusive, more likely to produce a forthcoming response. `Send the girl in,' they'd say, and I'd be slipped in like a ferret.")

Alison lived in Luke Jennings's head, he explains, for at least a year before he started writing about her, but she is emphatically not his alter- ego. "The business of fiction is creating new characters. She works in the world I work in but she's not me. Nor is Mike Hoolihan Martin Amis, nor is Miss Smilla Peter Hoeg. Their novels would be unreadable if they were. To confuse the writer with the protagonist is to misunderstand the way writers create characters."

Bravely, Jennings even tackles a lesbian sex scene, though, erm, in not too much detail (probably sensibly). "I don't think it helps to get too technical," he says cautiously. "You can get stuck in the choreography of the whole thing so there is no room for the imagination. It wasn't planned at all. I started off as I always start off, with a character and a situation and nothing more, nothing mapped out, and once you have created the characters you have to let them do what they will do."

Historically, there is a long tradition of men narrating as women. Take the Wife of Bath (Chaucer) or Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe) or Clarissa (Samuel Richardson) or Henry James writing in The Turn of the Screw, all acknowledged as classics. Though of course it has to be said that women were once discouraged from writing at all - hence the male pseudonyms adopted by writers like the Bronte sisters and George Eliot. Dr Richard Francis, novelist and teacher of the highly successful creative writing courses at Manchester University, observes: "There is a sense that women in the past have been underrated as artists, hence there is a heightened political consciousness about these issues." He recalls the Anglican vicar, the Rev Toby Forward, who submitted a book of short stories purporting to be written by a teenager called Rahila Kahn to the feminist publishing house Virago a few years ago; when the ruse was discovered, the book was pulped.

But Dr Francis certainly does not discourage his students from cross- writing. His own novel, Taking Apart the Poco Poco (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99) is written from five points of view: two men, two women and a dog. "The essential element of fiction is a leap of the imagination," he says. "Personally I did'nt find it hard to write from a woman's point of view. Gender is not necessarily the biggest divide: there are women I understand as people better than I understand certain men."

He believes that writing should not be confined to the limits of the writer's own experience. "In the end, clearly one does bring to bear one's own world and experiences on what one writes, but the writer learns to break these up into tiny fragments and reassemble them. If the pieces are small enough you can make them into anything," he says. "If you say `Don't do this, don't do that' then the result will be rather pedestrian writings about one's own direct experience."

Kathy Gale, publishing and joint managing director of The Women's Press, is less convinced. "In my view, men writing with female narrators and vice versa can work with varying degrees of success; part of the difficult business of being a writer is creating characters and situations and I would hate to say it would never be a good thing to do. But we have always found when we have had books by men on women's issues that they don't really understand the issues or what it is like to be a woman. There is always an agenda going on."

An agenda, maybe, but perhaps a purely creative one. "I think you couldn't go through the whole process of writing a novel if you didn't believe the characters you'd written were capable of having life," says Luke Jennings. "If you create characters by numbers you give yourself an impossible task. Alison became a very constant presence in my life. She is a real character to me, and that's as much as I can do."

`Beauty Story' by Luke Jennings is published by Hutchinson at pounds 10 on 21 May.


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