Friday, 13 March 2009


There’s an interesting piece on the Guardian’s literary blog questioning how much impact the author’s gender has on a reader’s experience. I’d like to think none, but this may be naïve. Would your favourite novels remain so had they been penned by someone of the opposite sex?

I’ve read anonymous competition submissions, noticing how I make assumptions about the gender of the writer, usually determined by the narrator. I enjoy being wrong.

What irked me about the article, though, was a comment left beneath it, its contributor suggesting men can’t write female characters well, and vice versa. I have an obvious interest in this being spurious, as my novel’s main narrator is a woman.

And so I set about my bookshelves looking for tomes that render this argument ridiculous. I didn’t have to look far as both William Trevor’s Death in Summer and Felicia’s Journey have compelling female narrators. But the male writer what does women brilliantly is John Irving, as I’m sure anyone who’s read A Widow for One Year will agree.

I can think of plenty of bad novels where the author has got the voice of the opposite gender so wrong, but I don’t regard this as inherent in the writer being a man or woman; they’re just poorly written.

Any thoughts?


CathM said...

I think I agree with your comments and thoughts in this post. At the end of the day, a good writer should be able to write any convincing character (male or female)... although, I suppose due to possibly limited experience and exposure (on the other side of the gender fence) folk might find it tricky writing across genders convincingly. Anyway, hope this makes sense as it's a bit rushed because I've got to dash.

Anonymous said...

Men have been writing about women since forever. Richardson managed to write from the perspective of a female protagonist very convincingly in Pamela.

Though the patriarchalism he perpetuated via that novel was quite despicable.

But the thing is, if Pamela had been written by a woman, I think more emphasis would have been given by critics to the ways in which the novel actually subverts patriarchal privileging of men, whereas because it was written by a man the novel is taken more at face-value for being inherrently patriarchal.

I think it is impossible to not let the gender of the writer influence the way we perceive a book. That's why J.K Rowling had to use her initials to disguise her gender. She was afraid little boys wouldn't want to read her books if they knew it was written by a female. But the harry potter series is a really good example of a woman writing abotu a boy successfully.

Other examples incude Ibsen, who created compelling female characters in his plays. But as a feminist he probably has a better understanding (than most men) of the experience of being female, and how it differs from the privileged experience of being a man.

TOM J VOWLER said...

I agree, Cath. Writing a character of opposite gender should be no more challenging than, say, someone from a wildly different social or class background. I have female friends who will soon put me right if the voice is wrong.

Interesting points, Anon. A misogynist writer probably won't pull off female characters very well either, I imagine.

(So, is Anon a man a woman?)

annie clarkson said...

Yes, I agree. There are some very convincing female narrators written by men. Recent ones I can think of are Jon McGregor's 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things' and Ray Robinsons's 'Elextricity'/ Both very convincing female protagonists.

As a writer, I do think it is more difficult writing a male character as opposed to a female one (I am a girl, so I know more about being a girl). Writing from th epoint of view of a male character involves a lot more research...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Why does writing as a bloke need more research? I'm fascinated. Unless one is writing sex scenes, and even then, arguably, if one has had sex, (and most of us-barring celibates - probably have at one point or another) we can imagine ourselves into the opoosite role, whatever that may be can't we... life experiences tend to be similar, dont they?

My most successful characters are male. And I'm not. Maybe Im just odd.

annie clarkson said...

I think I meant it is more difficult for me to write a male point of view than a female point of view. For instance I am writing a first person story as a 10 year old boy, and I realised I didn't have a clue about how a 10 year old boy might react to the situation, whereas I know exactly how a 10 year old girl might feel/respond.

I am sure some writers feel equally comfortable with either gender... but, for me, I need to quiz my male friends about certain things, perhaps do a little research about something... like read a lad's mag, find out about a certain kind of work that I'm not familiar with, etc