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Writing Across Gender

In promoting A Partial History of Lost Causes, I've fielded some questions about what it was like to write across gender — to enter the point of view of a man, Aleksandr, and stay there for 30 years of his life. Those questions have made me think in a broader sense about what writing across gender means: what it implies, who is expected to do it, how it relates to some of the most vexing ontological questions about women that have preoccupied the country of late, and how, perhaps, it can help to address them.

I don't think it's terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender's consciousness in a way that men aren't.I don't think it's terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender's consciousness in a way that men aren't. This isn't to say that women don't often misunderstand, mistreat, and stereotype men, both in literature and in life. But on a basic level, functioning in society requires that women register that men are fully conscious; it is not really possible for a woman to throw up her hands and write men off as eternally unknowable space aliens — and even if she says she has, she cannot really behave as though she has. Every element of her life — from reading books about boys and men to writing papers about the motivations of male characters to being attentive to her own safety to navigating most any institutional or professional or economic sphere — demands an ironclad familiarity with, and belief in, the idea that men really are fully human entities. And no matter how many men come to the same conclusions about women, the structure of society simply does not demand so strenuously that they do so. If you didn't really deep down believe that women were, in general, exactly as conscious as you, you could probably still get by in life. You could probably still get a book deal. You could probably still get elected to office.

This discrepancy plays out in fiction, where it fuels a literary cycle which is both a cause and a consequence of the broader issue. Girls, alongside the variety of other ways in which they're confronting the reality of male consciousness, read and write papers about Huck and then Holden and then Jake Barnes. In doing so, they learn that male minds, like female minds, are complicated and weird and worthy of attention. Adult female readers then will often voluntarily read books by and about both men and women, whereas male readers will overwhelmingly, though of course not exclusively, read books by and about men. And female writers will often also voluntarily write books populated by both men and women. (If they don't, they will have to be ever-mindful of the possibility of being understood as writers of "women's fiction" — meaning fiction for women only.) Male writers will have the latitude to do whatever they want: many will write books about both men and women, but they can excise women entirely from their fictional universes, if they want to, without ever marginalizing their books. And all of this results, of course, in a re-enforcement of the initial problem: the production of another realm where taking women seriously — as consciousnesses, narrators, characters — is optional.

Male writers' hesitation to use women as point of view characters seems to stem in part from a prevailing sense — perhaps not entirely unfounded — that one simply can't win, and that the tiniest gesture or cadence amiss could spark a frenzy. But a larger fraction of the hesitation seems to me to arise from two premises: first, the notion that women are essentially strangers, their consciousnesses wholly foreign; and second, that this foreignness, in addition to being unassailable, is also pretty limited and boring. A male writer who careens around in time, deviates from autobiography, or takes liberties with realism believes in the potential dramatic and aesthetic payoffs for doing so. Writing from a female point of view seems to be generally regarded as something more like writing from the perspective of a deerWriting from a female point of view seems to be generally regarded as something more like writing from the perspective of a deer: you might get points for novelty, but it'd be impossible to get right, and who really wants to hear a deer narrate a story, anyway?

That is, of course, something of an overstatement. But I suspect that the notion that women's consciousnesses are so alien and reduced as to be generally unknowable is actually fairly widespread, I suspect it pervades our literary culture, and I suspect it explains a lot of recent political theatrics. But I also suspect that reading books with complicated female consciousnesses (any kind, as long as someone's actually driving!) can chip away at it, to some extent. If there's one thing that's unambiguously morally elevating about fiction, it's the way it forces us to confront the complexities of the brains of strangers, since all characters are strangers to us when we start a book. By engaging our attention and our curiosity, fictional people can make real people seem more real. And that means that writing female narrators is something of an ethical issue, as well as a literary one, for writers of both genders.

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Jennifer duBois is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is currently completing a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Originally from western Massachusetts, she lives in Northern California. A Partial History of Lost Causes is her first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A Partial History of Lost Causes Used Hardcover $11.95

Jennifer duBois is the author of A Partial History of Lost Causes

14 Responses to "Writing Across Gender"

    Margaret Allen April 12th, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    I can't WAIT to read more by Jennifer duBois!

    Ellen Brady April 16th, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Robert Hellenga has written from the female point of view successfully I think.
    I also am looking forward to reading your book.

    Elizabeth Archers April 19th, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    The first author who stunned me with the sense that anything is possible for a writer, was John Hersey, in his novel, "White Lotus." An allegorical slave narrative from the point of view of the teenaged protagonist--a girl!--that so completely captured my imagination with her authenticity and compelling story that I had to re-read it immediately upon finishing it. I loved that book like no other. I loved the character and identified completely with her weaknesses and interests. Hersey not only wrote from the point of view of a believable teenaged American girl, but he appealed to one as well.

    From that point on (the late 1960s) I have remained convinced that a good writer writes credibly from the honesty of their own experience and perceptions regardless of the gendered orientation of their protagonist or subject. Maybe I'm just a naive poet, but Hersey's skill formed the foundation that has served me well as a reader and a writer.

    Wonderful essay, Jennifer duBois!

    James Mitchell May 7th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    As a struggling would-be writer(male) whose unfinished story has a female protagonist, I have to say that I rue your words. There's much truth to them, and to the "getting jumped all over" if one gets things wrong. Writing a plausible, "organic" female protagonist has been extremely frustrating -- clearly female minds are fully sapient (duh), but I find not knowing feminine experience from the inside to be a real handicap. If a male character's projected feelings are off, this's probably no big deal at all: by and large the generic masculine weltanshauung isn't concerned about how people feel, but what they do. The women I've talked to on the subject regard this as a barren desert, and as a result I find a large chunk of anxiety over not writing something completely "tone deaf" on that means. (I continue, because the gender imbalance in my milieu simply won't admit a male protagonist). From my sample size of one person, it might not be so much a lack of interest on the part of male writers, but a lack of return on the effort. One can write a male protagonist and get on with one's plot without most of the male world giving a hoot how well the character's portrayed.

    Just $0.02.

    Amy McLane May 16th, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Some points for James and other aspiring writers;

    The anxiety about getting a female voice "right" indicates belief in a monolithic female voice, which doesn't actually exist. So yes, it is impossible to get right. Just as it would be with a male, your female character's background is far more important in determining voice; is she blue collar or white? Southern, Midwestern, Coastal? White, black or asian? Gay, straight, or bi? Religious or agnostic? Phd or high school dropout? A healthy childhood or a history of abuse? Be aware that the further you stray from your own experience, the more research you will need to do to steer clear of cliche... By, at minimum, reading work written by people who have that quality that is "other" and/or featuring characters displaying the quality that is "other" to you. Which shouldn't be too hard if you are genuinely interested in the first place.

    Get nuture nailed down, then explore natural temperament and personality, which is going to vary just as wildly. Women don't universally call their BFF in a crisis, or cry over a tub of ice cream. Some might drink, or bury themselves in work, or go out to the shooting range, or just walk out the front door with no idea where they are going. Everyone's different.

    Then finally, ask yourself, does my female character have agency? Does she move the plot with her actions, or does she only suffer through things done to her? Giving your female character agency will go a long, long way towards correcting any voice "flubs" in your story.

    Hope this helps.

    JB May 20th, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Agreed, Amy - all good points. Also, James, you do just have to go forward despite the fear of 'getting it wrong.' Do the best you can, but if it's not perfect, then try to do better next time. Overall what needs to happen is more and more men trying their hand at this and not giving up. Practice will help you, even if you have to take a few blows along the way. No-one promised that this would be easy, but it's important, and good on you for stepping up to the plate to do it.

    Soukup May 20th, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    "If there's one thing that's unambiguously morally elevating about fiction, it's the way it forces us to confront the complexities of the brains of strangers, since all characters are strangers to us when we start a book. By engaging our attention and our curiosity, fictional people can make real people seem more real."

    I haven't yet read your book, but I'd just like to seriously thank you for reminding me why it is that I'm trying to learn to write fiction, why it's important to me and feels necessary. This is a terrific and very simply written (in a good way) little essay for a lot of wider reasons, but in a purely personal way it's really helped me, too.

    Jen May 21st, 2012 at 9:14 am

    I'm going to second what Amy said above and say that agency is extremely important. I've read too many books with female characters who lack real agency. And yeah, I'm not sure you can get a female charater 'wrong'...you can have a poorly developed character of any gender or a well developed character of either gender. There is nothing right or wrong to get.

    One of my favorite movie previews (didn't actually make it to the movie) recently was for Haywire. After I first saw it, I sat with my mouth wide open in astonishment. It is an action movie featuring a female lead, and in the preview, you could swap a male for the lead and see no significant difference. There was no "OMG a girl!" stuff or stripping or whatever. It was so....normal. I wish directors and writers would stop paying so much attention to gender and drawing these huge gaps between men and women.

    Thanks for the conversation!

    ERose May 21st, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Another thought - I've read a lot of books written by men with female characters and even protagonists, but I can't think of one off the top of my head that fully escapes using a male lens in writing her. Reverting subtly to the male gaze in character development is a common crutch men use when writing women.
    I'd say a good way to avoid that is to write several scenes that develop her without picturing her appearance and avoiding any discussion or description involving a male character. Obviously, men can appear in the scene, but don't spend any time developing them - in this exercise they are placeholders. Or even write out imagined conversations between you and her.
    You might not use them in the final book, but it will be a huge help in getting to know her and a great way to train yourself to think of her as herself, apart from her function in the story. I use these exercises whenever I have a character that isn't coming naturally to me.
    When I'm writing a character that is marginalized by society in a way I am not, I also often show some of these conversations, or early drafts of key scenes for them, with someone who is of the same marginalized population. I don't take their word as Gospel, but it does give me a good sense of whether I'm writing a character that rings true regardless of the level of privilege the reader brings to the table.

    Angelica May 22nd, 2012 at 6:39 am

    I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that no character can be completely "gotten wrong," like Jen said... the only way to get it wrong is to fail to develop them. A voice also doesn't always have to be completely "feminine" to be female. I think as long as you have a believable character, you can get away with a couple of mistakes.

    Raoul May 24th, 2012 at 4:09 am

    I am sad to observe that, while there is some underlying truth to this, taken as a whole it is twaddle. Listening to many women over they years talking about men, puzzling out their motivation and declaring frequently to "understand" them and "you know what men are like", the lack of understanding may be unbalanced but it is closer to equal than the author would like to admit or seems to believe. We can and possibly do understand each other as individuals, but I have never noted more than a very few traits that can be ascribed to gender and even these are bucked by individual traits.
    The "underclass" always believes it understands the overlord and they are wrong. The overlord likewise believes it understands "only too well" the mind of the underclass, and they are wrong. Sorry.

    Jerome Francis Lusa June 20th, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Jennifer, I keep seeing your quote about a deer narrating a story and wonder if you are aiming this at my short story (which a few dozen people have in fact read)...


    I do, however, appreciate the intent of your quote...

    "something more like writing from the perspective of a deer: you might get points for novelty, but it'd be impossible to get right, and who really wants to hear a deer narrate a story, anyway?"

    Joseph Robert Lewis June 25th, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    This is a wonderful articulation of the problem.

    I certainly hope that as more books/reading becomes electronic and is no longer funneled by New York editors, we'll start to escape from "genre" limitations and labels. I think that the industry is partly to blame for calling a man's book about being a middle-aged man with man problems a "literary book" while a woman's book about women is "women's fiction."

    Mass media culture is also to blame for pandering to the lowest common denominator, for oversimplifying the roles of both women and men, for reinforcing negative stereotypes on all sides. But again, as media becomes more democratized online, perhaps we can escape those tropes as well.

    Vivian June 28th, 2012 at 4:43 am

    "The anxiety about getting a female voice "right" indicates belief in a monolithic female voice, which doesn't actually exist."

    ...And this is what always drives me crazy about this sort of discussion. There is no Female Point Of View. Or if there is one, I've never met her. There are approximately 3.5 billion female points of view. Me, I'm a chick. But I am not the same chick as Mother Teresa or Sarah Palin or Paris Hilton or even, despite agreeing wholeheartedly with her post, Amy up there. My point of view is not the same as theirs due entirely to the fact that we all (presumably) have uteruses. And the assumption that it must be bothers me.

    I had a conversation with my husband once about the imagery in Cronenberg movies. He asserted very confidently that the body-horror stuff was generally made to resemble female genitalia, and therefore be frightening by symbolizing the alien, the Other. He didn't seem to get it when I told him that, for someone who possesses female genitalia, it is neither alien nor Other. He did eventually, but it took a lot of explaining.

    That's not to say that that wasn't exactly what Cronenberg had in mind when he made the movies. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was. This underscores the point made in the article, though. A thoughtful, intelligent person like my husband simply did not consider that "female" doesn't always mean "other", even when talking to someone who has been quite thoroughly demonstrated to him to be female. It really isn't something you have to think about (if you're not female). This is not ideal.

    Of course, I don't know the answer. But you put it very, very well. Thank you.

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