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Can a Man Ever Understand a Woman, or a Woman a Man?

The title of today's blog post best describes the question I get asked most about The World without You, though it's rarely stated so directly. It's usually stated more like this: Your book is written from the points of view of many female characters. Is that hard for a male writer to do?

My answer is that it's a challenge for a male writer to write from a female perspective but no more so, it seems to me, than for a young person to write from an old person's perspective, a poor person to write from a rich person's perspective, or a gregarious person to write from a shy person's perspective. I don't see why gender should be a more insurmountable barrier than others. I believe good fiction can transcend difference, that it can take us out of our own experiences and allow us to inhabit the experiences of others. It's what happens, ideally, to the reader, and in order for it to happen to the reader it has to happen to the writer too.

A couple of years ago, I gave a reading from an early draft of The World without You, and I was reading with a woman novelist who read a section of her novel told from the perspective of a man. When the reading was over, she, too, was asked the gender question, and she said, "Are you kidding me? I spent half my life flirting with boys. I know them far better than I know girls." She was kidding, sort of, but I think there's a real truth there. In a lot of ways it's easier to write from the perspective of someone different from you. We're so close to our own experiences that we don't see ourselves as clearly as we see others.

As a side note, and at the risk of seeming like I'm contradicting myself, you might check out Lorrie Moore's "You're Ugly, Too," which is one of her very best stories (and she has many great ones). It's in her collection Like Life. It's a story about a single woman in her 30s who's living in the Midwest and who visits New York where her sister is holding a Halloween party and where she meets a man. But the story (or at least the story's protagonist) seems committed to the idea that men and women can never understand each other — so much so that Deborah Tannen, in her bestselling self-help book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, dedicated a couple of pages to the analysis of "You're Ugly, Too."

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Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. His latest novel is The World without You.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Matrimony (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  2. The World without You
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  3. Like Life: Stories Used Trade Paper $8.00

Joshua Henkin is the author of The World without You

One Response to "Can a Man Ever Understand a Woman, or a Woman a Man?"

    Andrea June 22nd, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Back in the days of BBS's (bulletin board systems, usually reached by dialup modem) I found it better to pretend I was male rather than get hit on by what made up probably 90%+ of the computing population. Being a writerly sort (one novel seriously considered by a publisher but ultimately rejected; a couple others sitting in the drawer) I found this fairly easy to do. Fast forward about 12 years to the internet era, and one day I decided to create a male persona on a social forum just to see if I could be convincingly male to a broader range -- male, female, young, middle-aged, a few old folks, American, European, Asian. Character development practice, I thought. And it worked so well I eventually had to gently brush off a few women who got a crush on my character. "He" was a college educated, adequately well-read computer nerd, same as myself. I very much agree with Henkin that it is more difficult to write a character of a different class or age unless one were very familiar or close with those types - I doubt I could write a redneck without getting somewhat cartoony about it.

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