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The fiction of “women writers” - Scarlet Letters

Feb. 11th, 2014 12:03 am The fiction of “women writers”

I am a woman. I write. Like many, I baulk at being called “a writer”, as if that's a thing that I live and breathe and embody and do with every waking hour (see date of last blog entry. Ahem.) I'm actually much more comfortable being referred to as a sporadically ambulant caffeine repository.

But I do spend a lot of my time reading, and thinking about writing, and reading thinking about writing, and I keep coming up against this same constellation of ideas:
“It's important to read women's fiction, to get a different perspective and an insight into how they think.”
“Her book is totally set in a patriarchy! And she calls herself a feminist!”
“Help! I'm a man - how can I write strong female characters?”

And what I read from all this is “women are different from us, and near impossible to understand”.

And, y'know, this bothers me. Not because I don't believe in women expressing themselves in writing, because, obviously, I do. Not because I don't believe there's an imbalance in the publication and review of male and female authors, because, clearly, there is, and there shouldn't be.

It bothers me because I don't think any of this is helping women to write, with freedom and confidence, and promote their work, and have it published. I don't think that treating females as uniquely difficult to understand is helping us out with the whole empathy/ shared human experience thing either. In fact, I think it's holding us back.

And here's why, in three fluffy little mini-rants.

1. Women are not a sub-category; we do not all think alike

Time for a quick pop quiz, kids!

What was the profession of the following people? Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain

Male writers
Dick literati
Men with pens

Admit it, ladies: who here read Dickens for the insight into having a cock and balls? I know I did. Sad to say, a quick Google search reveals that "men's fiction" is woefully underrepresented, and "men writers" links mostly to articles about the conception of Mad Men. No, these men are simply "writers", defined by what they accomplish, no prefix needed, no niche occupied, qualified to speak for the human condition (and willies, too).

The danger of treating women's fiction as “women's fiction” - like a minority voice, like a sub-category - is that it pigeonholes women and burdens us with the responsibility to represent our experiences as women in our writing. Thus you freight our work with expectations, denying us creative freedom. Let my soul soar whither it will, and then shall you see the true me. Shackle it to an agenda and it won't even limp to the starting line.

Besides which, what do I know about every woman who ever lived, or who never lived? All I have to go on when writing about a Mongolian orphan girl, the two crinkly-faced Japanese women making scandalous jokes at the next table, or a Bride-Warg in moon-blood exile off the Rouge Alliance world of Hoth-G'Hah-Aaargh, is my imagination. We all have one of those, whatever other equipment we've been given. Despite popular opinion and the continuing efforts of the Bride-Wargs of the Rouge Alliance, there is no oestrogen hivemind.

And that's why reading one woman won't help you understand all women.

2. Women can write about whatever they choose

Which brings me neatly to the second thing that gets my she-goat. When men write female characters and get it right, they're praised for their unique insight (more on this in a second). When women write men and get it right, they're criticised for selling out the sisterhood. And woe betide those who place those men in positions of power...

As a child I adored the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, mostly because he can do MAGIC but now he's showing off and eeeek, he's summoned some kind of shadow thing but he can turn into a BIRD and talk to DRAGONS. Cooooool. Rereading it as an adult, I can see balance and wholeness, rites of passage and the confrontation with the self, Jung and the Norse Gods and the Tao Te Ching, and many of the themes - human psychology, anarchism, structures of power and issues of identity – that inform her science fiction writing.

Not once, either as small me or as tall me, did I find myself thinking “I wish there were more girls in this” - if anything, the series is conspicuously right-on, with a dark-skinned protagonist and a second book focussing primarily on female characters. Nor did I ever think that the saying “as weak as women's magic” meant anything other than that in the book, men controlled access to magic and scorned women as users of it, just as in the real world, boys sometimes wouldn't let you near the good Lego. Not ideal, sure, but not unrealistic.

So I was pretty surprised to find that not only has the series been criticised for depicting a patriarchy, but that Le Guin later wrote two further novels focussing on female characters, and women's magic. They're fairly overt in their intent, and left me cold. While I hope she sleeps easier at night, no writer should have to write the world as they wish it should be. Saying that a woman who writes about a patriarchal society approves of said patriarchy is like saying that George Orwell wrote 1984 as a manifesto.

Those of us who are compelled to write don't do it into a void, for sure, but we're also not politicians or ideologues. When I write, I am representative only of me, not of all women, all the time, or of what all those women want. Truth to tell, sometimes I write things even I don't agree with. That aren't even true. That's why I write fiction: you get to lie and call it art.

And that's why reading a woman won't necessarily help you understand that woman.

3. Women are people too

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars? Sorry mate, but you pulled that from Uranus.

Men and women are biologically different, yes, but women don't think with their ovaries any more than men think with their... well, you know what I mean. And in a recent poll of a representative group of my friends, equal numbers of men and women had experience with either a) hunting sabre-tooth tigers, or b) using carefully whittled bone chips to sew sabre-tooth tiger pelts into attractive and functional clothing. Which is to say nobody said yes to either, because it's 2014 and we are not, apparently, hard-wired to live in caves.

So, men, here are two tips for writing female characters from past masters:

1. The Gaiman Infiltration Technique

Why not try getting to know one or more of these women, perhaps by engaging them in conversation at a family or social event? Let's err on the side of more than one, as women will tend to demonstrate a baffling array of differing wants, ideals, goals and values. But fear not, here's a fun fact: there are 3.5 billion women in the world – chances are at least one of them was your mother!

So let's now take this woman – easy tiger, I don't mean literally. What are her defining characteristics – I'm going to steer you away from breasts and menstruation here, because an excessive focus on them in your prose may detract from your seriousness as a writer (“she opened the door not with her magnificent breasts but with her hand, the hand she always used to buy tampons”). Think about what makes her her. Change some of it, and watch a new person take shape. When creating your character, try mixing and matching the interesting parts from a number of your female acquaintances – again, the key point here is not literally.

2. The Martin One-World Approach

That's all very well, I hear you say, but what about those of us writing in gender-segregated societies, or living under a craggy hunk of hyper-masculine granite-RAWK? How are we to collect enough bits of women to make a character if said women run screaming every time we take out the cleaver of character creation?

Another feted male writer of female characters gives the following advice:

"I've always considered women to be people" - George R. R. Martin

And there you have it, really. Write humans, with an eye for what humans do, from walking on the moon to walking their dogs to moonwalking... to just plain walking, because that's frankly a freak of nature in itself. Write humans as they are, as they think they are and as they wish they were and as they wish they could have been. Write humans as they live and breathe and breathe their last, as they stumble and falter, as they cry and lie and reach out their hands and hearts to others who may or may not reach back.

And do me a favour? There's room for more than Madonna and whore. No woman is all good. No woman is all bad. True heroines trip up and fall flat and overcome, just as true heroes. Multi-dimensional trumps cookie-cutter strong, every time.

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