Saturday 7 April 2018

All cleavage and clunkiness – why can’t male authors write women?

A writer challenged women to describe themselves as a male author would. The responses were hilarious, but sadly rang true, writes Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian. Read on: 

“She was 40 but could have passed for a year younger with soft lipstick and some gentle mascara. Her dress clung to the curves of her bosom which was cupped by her bra that was under it, but over the breasts that were naked inside her clothes. She had a personality and eyes.”

This is how the author Jane Casey fulfilled the challenge of describing herself as a male author would, which was set this week on Twitter by the writer Whitney Reynolds. It made me laugh out loud, as did many of the other responses. The alleged male inability to write women is not a new topic on social media; in 2016 a similar passage containing the memorable sentence, “She breasted boobiliy to the stairs, and titted downwards,” went viral.

Obviously, such sentences are exaggerated for comic effect, but nonetheless they contain a grain of truth: male writers do really seem to struggle to write women.

Gemma Arterton in a BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles. Photograph: BBC
Part of the miracle of Elena Ferrante is witnessing the undercurrents of femininity made explicit
My reading is interrupted relatively often because a description of a female character has been clunky, poorly conceived, or downright hilarious. Often this comes in the form of a dry laugh or an exclamation of, “How wrong can you be?” Sometimes you come across a passage where you wonder if the writer has ever met a woman at all, or is merely using the female character he is writing as a masturbatory fantasy. And yet often these novelists are widely lauded as incredible writers with a talent for conveying fundamental human truths – at least by male readers. Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Franzen and Michel Houllebecq all have notable weaknesses when it comes to female characters, as do many of the greats (Tess of the D’Urbervilles anyone?).

The question is, can you really be considered a great novelist when, in writing characters of a gender that makes up 50% of the population, you consistently fail? Women authors do not seem to have the same problem with male characters, at least not as frequently. Perhaps it is because we grow up reading novel after novel offering insight into the male psyche – or at least an outward performance of it – books that are hailed as classics, their place in the canon secure.

Meanwhile, the books interrogating the experience of being a woman are dismissed and ignored by many male readers and are not given the same cultural status. Who can forget VS Naipaul’s comments a few years ago about women writers’ tendency towards sentimentality? Women’s stories are not considered important, or at least have not been in the past, and so they fall by the wayside. Couple this with an ego that perhaps does not quite recognise women as fully rounded human beings and you end up with shoddy female characters.

But I also think there are other factors at play here. It would be easy to buy into the empathic/systematising gender dichotomy here as providing an answer – men just aren’t as good at seeing things from the point of view of others, the argument would go. And that is why male writers don’t get the nuances of womanhood. Such an argument amounts, to my mind, to a get-out-of-jail-free card. It isn’t that these male authors are unable to empathise, it is that they haven’t bothered, or needed to. You can still have your novel hailed as a work of heartbreaking genius that is somehow universal despite such a major deficiency, so why try?

Jonathan Franzen being interviewed for the Guardian in 2010. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
There is something else at work, too. Part of what made the theory that the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, who hides her real identity, was in fact a male novelist masquerading as female so laughable, aside from it being a sexist argument, is that as a woman reading Ferrante, you know in your bones you are reading the work of a woman. Why? Because so much of femininity is unspoken; moving through the world as a woman, the way you are viewed and treated, your emotions, your approach to your body (not to mention its private, shameful functions and rebellions) involve subtleties and complexities that are often unarticulated, even sometimes between women themselves.

Part of the miracle of Ferrante is witnessing these undercurrents made explicit. There they are, in front of you on the page, often for the first time. It feels like a revelation. The complexity and toxicity of female friendship has not long been considered a topic for literary novels, for example. In light of this, a male novelist’s inability to render accurately the female experience on the page starts to make more sense. For how could they know, when we are only really near the beginning of exploring its depths ourselves in (published, respected) writing? Do we expect telepathy?

Of course, a good writer will face these challenges, rather than avoid them, and there are great male writers out there who have written brilliant female characters: Kazuo Ishiguro, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Colm Tóibín and Graham Swift are just some who came to mind, or were singled out by other Twitter users when I asked for recommendations. But they remain exceptions.

A lack of imagination and a tendency to objectify certainly play a part in this. Little interest in female stories, which are not given the same status as male ones? Absolutely. But the taboo aspects of womanhood, particularly when it comes to our bodies, must surely also be a reason. When faced with such complexities, these writers take refuge in descriptions of cleavage, believing it is enough. It is not enough, and we are right to mock them. Maybe as a result they’ll try harder next time.

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