Men Writing Women

My novel with a male narrator

I was doomscrolling through Twitter, first thing this morning, as you do, even though you know it's bad for you, when I came across a thread by a writer who had started a novel by a gender neutral sounding author, only to realise on the second page that it was written by a man. How did she know, she asked. The answers, mostly from women, were many and varied, although all of them were accurate. 

There were a few dead giveaways.

Someone neatly summarised them as (1) female protagonist young enough to be ugly male protagonist's daughter or grand-daughter, but still fancies him. Instantly. Hops into bed with him at the first opportunity.  (2) Female protagonist has no idea how beautiful she is. (3) Answers her door wearing next to nothing.(4) Gazes at herself in the mirror and (5) Always, always fondles her boobs. 

Even more accurately summed up as 'she breasted boobily down the stairs'. Young women, as written by men seem curiously aware of, not to say obsessed with, their own chests. Also, they absentmindedly caress them with the back of their hands. Not easy. Try it. There are many examples, and male critics never notice.

Mind you, the other dead giveaway is when the female protagonist casually puts her hands in her pockets. I put a perfectly good pair of trousers in the charity shop bag only the other day, because it had the abomination that is MOCK POCKETS. Sometimes the pockets are only stitched up. I had a jacket like this for about a year before I realised that it really did have beautiful, useful deep pockets - once I had unpicked the stitches! 

A few things occurred to me about all this though.

It works the other way. When I read a book by Fred Vargas, my best discovery of lockdown, thanks to a recommendation from a friend, my first thought was - wow, what an interesting and perceptive writer this is. What believable characters. Then, I realised that Fred is female. I began in the middle of the series with The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. There is one particularly wonderful passage in one of the later novels where a big, brilliant female character hides the hero in a very unusual way. You'll know it when you read it. 

Do men feel the same about these novels? Do they read them without a second thought assuming that Fred is male? Does that predispose them to enjoy them? I have no answers to these questions. 

All I know is, I read more fiction by women than by men these days. There are plenty of exceptions. I think Winston Graham writes absolutely believable female characters for instance.  But my tendency is always to enjoy female fiction more. I can't help it. Recently, seeking to escape from the doomscrolling and the gratuitous violence, I went back to Mary Stewart and Rumer Godden for the sheer pleasure, the recognition, the comfort of the female perspective. It's why I love Barbara Pym too. And Jane Austen. And the Brontes. 

You do, though, as a writer, start to wonder if you're writing believable men yourself. I wrote a whole novel in the voice of an elderly Scottish narrator remembering his youth in late 1700s Glasgow. (The Physic Garden) I think he was credible. But how would I know? He was a grumpy old bugger, and I liked him a lot. 

If men won't read books by women, and women don't much like books by men, where does that leave any of us?  

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