Sunday, July 17, 2011
She Says, He Says: Gender and the Writing Craft
We do know there is such a thing as “Women’s Literature” and it is known that romance fiction targets a feminine audience. Does the author’ sex influence its characters? Are male novelists guilty of stereotyping female characters? Are their feminine counterparts still hooked in idealized masculine protagonists?
In a near future, gender might become an obsolete term. Until then, we accept that men and women (regardless of their sexual preferences) react in different ways to situations and emotions. Just as religion, family life and past romantic history reflect on a particular writer´s work, gender does play a part in his/her craft.
Indeed, certain genres are associated with gender. As much as I try, I cannot remember a war novel written by a woman. Women can describe the effect conflicts have on civilians, but they don´t write battlefield scenes. Perhaps because until recently few women were on the battlefield and none was too eager to fictionalize her experiences. Think of how Margaret Mitchell describes soldiers in Gone with the Wind. They are either in hospital beds, on leave or marching away form Atlanta. She doesn´t show them actually engaged in war games as Stephen Crane does in The Red Badge of Courage.
Wounded Confederate soldiers in Gone with the Wind
There are hardly any women writers specializing in thrillers, adventure novels, epic fantasy or science fiction. I don´t know if there is a predisposition against them doing it or if those are not subjects women care for. This is why the few women who have achieved success in those genres (e.g. Ursula Le Guin) are twice as famous. Precisely why Nicholas Sparks is much lauded for being one of the small number of men who dare to write romance. In fact there are plenty of male romance authors but they hide under pseudonyms. Just as Nora Roberts signs her futuristic murder stories as “J.D. Robb.”
Beyond the question of prejudice in the publishing universe, I’m interested to know if readers notice a difference in voice when comparing genre written by novelists of either sex. Do women authors “feminize” their science fiction and mysteries? Do men authors rely on negative archetypes when it comes to feminine protagonists? Just think about those wonderful hardboiled detective classics and their femme fatales, as dangerous as tarantulas.
Barbara Stanwyck playing femme fatale in Double Idemnity based in a James Cain story
Nineteenth-century literature was full of novels with feminine names as titles, all written by men, all depicting nasty protagonists: unfaithful wives like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina; prostitutes like Camille and Balzac´s Nana; fallen women like Tess of D’Urbervilles and ambitious schemers like Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. Thank you gentlemen, but you did us a disservice. Only Dickens stepped aside from the Scarlet Women-Makers Circle, but he used a worse stereotype: the victim, the damsel in distress that always needs a knight to fight for her virtue.
Women writers are also guilty of stereotyping. In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger creates a leading man who is a metaphor for guys unable to commit and who drift in and out of their women’s lives. At least, Henry De Tamble has an excuse. He suffers a genetic disorder that forces him to time travel, but that’s little comfort to Clare, the wife he is constantly deserting. Although the novel should be about Henry, we are hooked on Clare and her plight. He is just a nuisance, an object, and although Niffnegger alternates Henry and Clare’s perspectives, sometime he feels like a cardboard character.
Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana in The Time Traveler's Wife
It might sound as a generalization, but biographical data shows us that most romance authors base their masculine characters in “The Man that Got Away” (a former lover), or some approximation to the ideal man they dream to find. Sometimes they combine both and give an impossible happy ending to their botched down affairs. Although it´s legitimate to draw on our own emotional experiences to create characters, sometimes we concentrate so much in developing a leading man or woman that their counterpart ends up being a one-dimensional shadow.
Afraid to fall into that trap, many men writers have qualms about delving too deep into the feminine universe, and some female novelists wouldn’t dream of writing from a man’s point of view. This is particularly true in romance.
When I first started to write “seriously”, my story had a supposedly dead protagonist who resurrected around chapter fourth. Therefore, the first three chapters were written from her bereaved husband’s POV. My Beta Reader wisely said that no woman reader would care for a romance written from a man´s perspective. I went over my collection of bodice-rippers and saw her point. And yet we now have romantic bestsellers like Water for Elephants with a powerful sensitive hero, and he comes from the imagination of a woman, Sara Gruen.
Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants
Ideas such as “real men don´t read romance” (so far I haven’t met any who dare come out of the closet and confess to enjoy that genre) and women readers shying away from “masculine” genres are hard to kill. That is why to attract female viewers, movie versions of Jules Verne classics or Conan Doyle’s The Lost World insert token ladies that never existed in those books.
What is Arlene Dahl doing in the Center of the Earth? Certainly Jules Verne didn't put her there
I must confess I am an odd duck that don´t need girls in a tale to appreciate it. I have watched the Band of Brothers miniseries about twenty times and never minded the absence of female characters. Moreover, although I concede that women are at their best in the creation of female characters, some men authors are masters in that same craft.
Band of Brothers. Wo needs girls with such gorgeous soldiers?
I enjoy the Sookie Stackhouse Novels (The Southern Vampire Mysteries) but I hate her! She is irksome, silly, and loud. Vampires, get her! On the other hand, I have fallen in love with the women in George R.R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire since as characters they are vigorous, varied and they hold up their own in a world terribly biased against their sex.
Sookie and one of her vampire paramours
However, I constantly hear men complaining about the manner in which female writers portray their sex. They say that most male protagonists penned by women are feminine fantasies or nightmares. Even when it comes to “macho territory” such as detective stories they point out to me that Patricia Highsmith‘s Tom Ripley is homosexual and Agatha Christie´s Hercule Poirot is a fuzzy old bachelor, far from the manly private eye epitome created by men authors. I happen to think that P.D. James’ Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is a pretty strong masculine character, but then as a woman, my judgment could be clouded.
Could you give examples of authors who are experts in developing characters of the opposite sex? Do you find it hard to create them? As a reader, do you notice how the author imposed his/her voice to the text? Do you think gender dominates certain genres?