Monday, 29 September 2014

Susan Hill - Who cares if a book is by a male or female author?

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.

1 comment:

Kacper said...

I think that a writer needs to have a certain sensitivity to write successfully from the other gender, but it certainly can (and should!) be done. And of course a woman can empathize with a man, or vice versa - not every woman, and certainly not every man, but gender isn't some impenetrable wall that completely blinds us to the other half's experience.

Gender in general is a lot less set in stone than it was thought to be earlier in history - many cultures have more than two genders, and in the Western mainstream we're starting to see that as well, with people who identify as genderqueer. A woman may have many traits considered traditionally masculine, and vice versa, and she may well be able to relate better to men than to women anyway. Many women and men find they relate better to the opposite gender - think of all the people one meets who have friends of mostly the opposite gender.

Gender and gender expression are quite fluid, and what it means to be a man or a woman will vary quite a bit from person to person. So in that sense I think the question of "can a woman write from a man's perspective" sets up a bit of a false dichotomy. On the other hand, there are absolutely differences in how men and women experience the world, so, as I said, it does take sensitivity and empathy to successfully from the other gender.

I think if a writer is serious about wanting to write from the other gender's point of view, he or she should read, voraciously, works by authors of the other gender - novels, memoirs, stories, poetry, whatever. I think that - besides observing and listening to the people in your life, of course - is the best way to develop that sensitivity.