Monday, August 23, 2010

Gender Balance

I’d say that almost every male writer I know has at some time said to me, “My wife is my harshest critic,” or “My wife reads my first drafts as I write,” or something to that effect.

I had a great weekend with fellow-writers Dorothy (D.L.) McIntosh and Madeleine Harris-Calway this weekend. Madeleine has just finished her first book; she’s been working on it for years. Now, she is almost ready to let her husband read it.

All the books I have written and all the critiquers I have had, and it occurs to me that I have never had a male early reader. My editor at Rendezvous Crime is a guy, and that’s about it.

What brought this to mind is that on the way to Dorothy’s on Friday I listened to a radio interview with the British writer David Mitchell. When Mitchell said, my wife is an early reader of all my work and she helps me with the books, I rolled my eyes. But then he went on. Men, he says, can’t write women well, but women can write men because they grow up paying attention to men’s behaviour, whereas men really don’t notice or care the way woman act or think.

I’d expand that thought a bit. Women not only grow up having to closely observe the men they encounter in life (primarily a safety issue, but still our model of ‘success’) but women are constantly exposed to men’s world-view in movies, TV, books. Men might pick up a book written by a woman with a female protagonist, but not often. Remember that Harry Potter is a boy so that boys would read the books and Joanne Rowling is J.K. so they don’t know the author is a female.

So, nice that men have wives to help them with their work, but not nice that they need them.

To carry on that theme, if I may make an affectionate little dig at Peter: I hope you realize you are lucky to have someone making you that lunch and looking after all the other household things while you’re locked in your study.

Somehow, whenever I guest blog of late I seem to be talking about food. Today is no exception and I’m over at Dames of Dialogue discussing growing your own tomatoes, with recipes.

12 comments:

Charles Benoit said...

Really? Men can't write women but women can write men? I've read plenty of books by woman that reduce men to testosterone-laden, beer-soaked cretins or, worse yet, castrated sheep. And I've read enough books by men that create real women with real lives and real emotions to let me know that it can be done and done well. To stuff us all in the same sack is silly. It all comes down to good writing and no one gender has a monopoly on that.

A.M. Guynes said...

My husband is my earliest reader. Without him, my men wouldn't stand a chance of being taken seriously. I can't agree with anything written here, and I have to commend the British author who mentioned he needs his wife to read over his work. If that's what helps him perfect his craft then I'm all for it. It's the same reason I rely on my husband.

Janice said...

So David Mitchell says, "women can write men because they grow up paying attention to men’s behaviour, whereas men really don’t notice or care the way woman act or think".

What utter nonsense! I totally agree with Charles.

David Mitchell obviously doesn't care how women act or think - but clearly he doesn't care how men act or think either, otherwise he would have noticed that not all the men in the world are just like him!

You only have to read something like Paul Theroux's "Picture Palace" so see how a man can convey a woman's character convincingly.

And I don't believe there's any evidence that women have the edge when it comes to observation. I've met many many self-obsessed, unobservant women and many men who have a delicate understanding of *people* no matter what gender.

A delightful example that proves I'm not alone, is a little short story of Graham Greene's... "The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen" (it's probably available online somewhere and well worth tracking down - it will have a lot of resonance for other writers out there).

I suppose the whole gender thing is a fertile area for stirring up controversy, but like crass generalisations about race, I don't have much time for generalisations about gender - whether we're talking about the people who are writing, or the characters they're writing about.

Every writer is different and every character written about is different.

Surely the best writers are observant and sensitive, regardless of their sex? And surely understanding the human condition, is what engages and moves a reader?

On the subject of Peter and how "lucky" he is... I'm not sure that many people would consider it good fortune - to get up at 6am, spend 12-14 hours at a desk, writing 3,000 words each day for two months, and on top of that... to endure my cooking!

Peter's probably happy when the book is finished so that he can get back into the kitchen where he normally prepares the meals during the other 10 months of the year...

in addition to all the things he's responsible for, like the lawn-mowing/gardening/tree pruning...
and the accounts/correspondence/telephone calls...
and the computer/internet/modem/sound systems/TV/DVD/Satellite/general IT problem solving...
and the motor car/maintenance/problems/driving...
and the tours/signings/talks...
and the French book festivals/radio & TV interviews in French...

To be fair, I do help him with the shopping for groceries, and the washing and drying of dishes: except when I'm writing... at which point he does all of those things, too.

It's probably just as well he's a man... being a man, he won't "pay attention" or "notice" how much he does and how little I do!

...but sssshh don't tell him!
;-)
I think I know who the lucky one is!

Vicki Delany said...

Gee, that set the cat among the pigeons. Sorry, but I didn't say men can't write women; I said some men seem to need a woman to help them write women. So unless you know that he did it himself, then giving me an example of a man who writes good female characters is of no consequence.

Charles Benoit said...

Paul Theroux is such a misanthrope I doubt he let's anyone read his stuff! But point well made, Vicki - and thanks for shaking up a Monday.

Donis Casey said...

Looks like you pushed a button, Vicki.

Janice said...

Well, you may not believe it, Vicki, but I witnessed with my own eyes during 15 years of story conferences and script meetings (where I was often the only woman in a room full of male writers) countless men who wrote stories and dialogue for male and female characters equally well. Imagine... They came up with ideas, developed stories, and even wrote emergency extra scenes in the studio, without checking with their wives first (gasp!) and I never once found myself uttering the words "a woman wouldn't do/ say/ think that".
And the funny thing was, I never thought anything of it. I just thought they were... how can I put it... professional?

You see, this is not a discussion that would ever take place in the world of plays, tv drama, or movie script writing. Dramatists HAVE to be inside the heads of each and every one of their characters or they can't tell their stories.

But even in novels, character, to me, is so fundamental to the development, structure and telling of a story that it's beyond me to understand how a few words of wisdom from 'her indoors' can fix a story written by a man who, by his own admission doesn't " notice or care the way women act or think".

Vicki Delany said...

Janice, but you have not understood what I said at all. I said that women live in a man's world and therefore understand men better than men understand women. I have also lived and worked in the real world and men have told me that over and over and over. I said nothing about men needing to run ideas past their wives. Nor did I say men didn't write good books. I said a lot of men SAY they need the help of women to write women characters realisticaly. I quoted a Mann Booker prize nominee male writer who said so on CBC radio. If you want to fight with someone fight with them. You are reading so very much more into my posting than is there. I still stand by my statement: some men SAY they need a woman's perspective in order to write realistic female characters. I have OBSERVED that men rely on their wives as critiquers more than women do on their husbands.

Anonymous said...

My protagonist, New York art dealer John Madison, is a male and I've been really fortunate to have a couple of male readers who pointed out where the testosterone could be enhanced.It seems logical to me that getting the point of view from our opposite gender mates makes sense.

Anonymous said...

A note re: the above comment - didn't really intend to be that mysterious! Cheers...Dorothy McIntosh

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Rick Blechta said...

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Again with incisive reasoning it was pointed out to you, Vicki, that you failed to include the Pandora Bangles reference that would have supported your theory with such elegant simplicity that no one, not even the sagacious Charles Benoit, would have had any comeback against your blog entry.

Thanks, Anonymous, for again contributing so much to our little discussions!