Friday, 9 September 2011

When a Man Writes a Woman

I've only worked with an editor once, and that was years ago. Back then, I suffered from an editing phobia (no, seriously, it was a phobia), so I was looking forward to someone else doing my work for me. The results were less than spectacular. Not only was she expensive, but she barely touched the manuscript except to tell me that I shouldn't use the word which too often. Wow, thanks.

However, she did leave a lasting impression on me. As I handed her my manuscript, she flipped open the first page and said, “Oh, your protagonist is female. I look forward to seeing how a man writes a woman.”

I stared at her for a moment, trying to figure out what that meant. Writes a woman? I’d never before thought about trying to write male or female. I just wrote characters that happened to be male or female or ghost or robot or...

Turns out, this is a belief that’s been kicking around for years. And it doesn't stop at gender.

W.P. Kinsella, author of ‘Shoeless Joe’ (later made into the movie ‘Field of Dreams’), came under a lot of heat for writing short stories about a fictional reservation in Northern Alberta. How dare Kinsella, a white guy, write about Native characters? How could he possibly know what it’s like to be a Native kid living on a reservation?

Arthur Golden, author of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, has been criticized for writing a first person account of a Japanese girl during WW2.  How dare he, a fourty-one year old American male, attempt to write as a girl from another time and culture?  

Pulitzer Prize winning author, Annie Proulx, wrote the short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’. How can she possibly speak for the gay men of North America?

There are two major problems with this line of thinking.

First problem: How do you write according to gender or race without falling into stereotype? How do you write ‘Native’, ‘Japanese’ or ‘gay’? How do I write ‘female’?

I once read a ‘How to’ book on the proper way to write for men and women. It taught that men are strong and silent, so you should give them very little dialogue. Women, however, are emotional and rarely stop talking long enough to breathe, so give them tons of dialogue. This way, your characters will feel authentic, and your reader can keep track of who has a wang, and who doesn't. 

But does this damage more than liberate? Fiction from the early half of the 20th century is full of female characters who swoon, shriek, and are about as smart as your average doorstop. These were written by male authors trying to “write a woman.” The result is a horrible misrepresentation, a caricature. Yes, I'm sure some women are fragile as glass, but I've met more than a few who could give Rambo a pounding. That’s because, in real life, there is rarely such a thing as a ‘type’.

Second Problem: How can you write with both hands tied? 

Imagine how dull it would be to write only according to your gender or ‘race’? Instead of allowing my imagination to stretch to its limits, I’d be stuck with White Canadian Guy. “Hmm, what should my WCG get up to in this book? Go for a coffee? Watch a hockey game? Try to figure out the appeal of curling?” I would have retired a long time ago. I don’t want to write about myself. I want to escape. Everyone loves a good escape--that’s the high of writing. How can I do that with my WCG?

A slave working on a plantation during the Civil War, a woman living in a polygamist colony, a WCG with a robotic brain ... ah, now we’re talking. Now I’m dissolving into that bliss called imagination.

W.P. Kinsella defended his position with a very simple point. He reminded his critics that what he writes is called fiction. Words on paper, not real people. If his characters don’t meet an expectation of race or gender, then don’t sweat it--after all, they never existed. His native kids aren't living on the Rez, Golden’s Japanese girl never survived WW2, and Ennis and Jack aren't up on that mountain.  

I agree with Kinsella, although I would also add this point:

When a writer decides to create a character, he or she is venturing to create an individual. Wow, imagine that? An individual. Someone with their own thoughts and feelings. Isn't that a good thing? Don’t we want to foster more individuals? Is it okay for a woman to be less feminine, or a man less masculine? Or the other way around? Or a mixture of both?

Strange, that fiction sometimes gives us a better representation of reality.