Saturday saw the publication in The Times of an exceptionally interesting article by Susan Hill on the subject of whether an author's gender is relevant. I'm linking to the article, but as it's behind a paywall, perhaps I should summarise some of her argument. She contends that gender is essentially irrelevant to the appreciation of literature, and points out that, although she has often written in the first person from a male perspective, doubts are sometimes expressed about men writing as women, and vice versa. As she puts it, "A novel is the work of the imagination. Where is the gender there?"
This is a topic that I've often mused over. When I started writing, I wrote exclusively from a male point of view, but as my confidence grew, I started to branch out. I've written various short stories from female (and in one case, gay male) perspectives, as well as many scenes in the Lake District Mysteries. In the novel I'm writing at the moment, many key scenes are presented from the perspective of a rather enigmatic woman, and I'm finding these very satisfying to write, although they aren't easy (to say why would be too much of a spoiler...) As Hill suggests, part of the pleasure of writing about this woman is the challenge to my imagination - to try to think myself into her life, which is so very different from mine. Equally, I loved writing Dancing for the Hangman, when I had to think myself into the mindset of Dr Crippen.
In essence, I agree with Susan Hill. That said, she and I may not be in a majority. Plenty of people evidently take a different view - and I did find some of the comments on her article rather depressing (often true with online comments on press articles, admittedly.) One male commenter said he didn't believe, in general, that a woman writer could empathise with him. He felt that women's outlook, experiences, and sympathies were generally not the same as his. I suppose my response would be - that may be so, but why does it preclude a woman from trying to think herself into a man's mindset, different as it may be in very many respects? Isn't that element of imagination integral to the novelist's craft?
One positive comment cited the great Ruth Rendell as a good example of someone who often writes beautifully from a male point of view. I very much agree, though I'd add that many of her male characters are highly unusual people, and their masculinity is sometimes not a key feature of their personalities. Just possibly, Ruth Rendell may not know much about, or have much empathy for, 'ordinary blokes' who go to the pub and follow the football avidly, but it doesn't matter, because she is not writing about them, but about strange and troubled young men who sometimes slip into a murderous madness. It's certainly never bothered me in the least that she is a woman writing about men. There's something eerily credible about her characters, however bizarre their behaviour. The same was true of Patricia Highsmith, creator of Tom Ripley, and there are many other examples.
Anyway, I continue to mull over the arguments - and I'd be extremely interested to learn your views.