Cross-Gender Writing

As I mentioned last time, reading Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde got me thinking about what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, cross-gender writing: when an author writes a character who is of the opposite gender from their own.

Interestingly enough, both of Fforde’s series I’ve read so far, the Thursday Next novels and the Last Dragonslayer ones, feature a female protagonist. They’re great books – don’t get me wrong: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them (in fact, I’m still thoroughly enjoying them, as I haven’t finished reading either series). But one thing that stuck out to me about the Thursday in First Among Sequels is that she is, pretty much, a tough chick. Oh, she’s a loving mother and wife, very much so. But there is a certain kind of – I just have to say it – manliness about her. She’s a kick-butt leather-wearing gun-toting girl (who, at age 52 and after two pregnancies, still has a “devastatingly good figure and boobs to die for” [p. 346 of FAS]). Thursday’s calling in life is to go adventuring in the BookWorld; regularly pulling a gun with an EraserHead is all in a day’s work. Thursday is a man’s woman.

Now, one of the things that got me started on this train of thought quite some time ago was a post by Christopher Bunn on this very matter from the opposite angle. He’d noticed that a lot of male protagonists written by female writers are, kind of, women’s men, particularly when they appear in romance stories. (He then set out to write his “Sleeping Beauty” adaptation, Rosamunde, in part as an exercise in doing a female voice. Go read it and decide for yourself whether you think he succeeded; it’s a great little book overall, well worth reading.)

So when Christopher said that about female writers creating men in their own image, I started mentally sifting through some of my favourite literary characters, and I have to admit he is right. Many of my favourite literary males were written by women, and perhaps the reason they’re my favourites is that they’re idealised women’s men. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is one – he is eminently swoon-worthy, and never more so than in his romantic pursuit of Harriet Vane. Lord Peter is by no stretch of the imagination girly – but he is sensitive, cultured, caring, yet strong and intelligent… everything a woman wants a man to be, with none of those inconvenient traits like not wanting a woman to depend on him or being more concerned with the task at hand than with the woman’s feelings at the moment.

On the flip side, quite a few of the manly women written by male writers are, pretty much, what a man wants a woman to be (or so I imagine): tough, independent, beautiful/sexy (see “devastatingly good figure and boobs…” above), with none of those inconvenient traits like wanting a man to listen to her feelings or having physical issues like getting cramps once a month or morning sickness resulting from some passionate bouts of lovemaking.

Steve and Horatio – a Bear’s Bear and a Tiger’s Tiger

This “writing characters in the image of one’s own gender” even extends down to children. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching is one of the best characters he created (and he created many) – and she is one tough little girl, with an utterly unsentimental attitude to life (the very first time we meet her, she takes out one of the baddies with a cast iron frying pan. Bam!). Come to think of it, she is a childhood incarnation of another brilliant Pratchett character, Granny Weatherwax. You couldn’t imagine either of them cooing over babies or kittens (Granny has a couple of feeble cooing episodes in the first book in which she appears, but that flaw was speedily expunged from her personality). In fact, Granny’s friend Nanny Ogg, who is yet another tough broad, does coo over her pet cat Greebo – but he’s the roughest, meanest, nastiest specimen of feline you could imagine, so it’s a big joke. All of these women are far more likely to slap a crying person upside the head and tell her to pull herself together than to give her emotional support and a warm hug. They’re loving and care deeply about people, but it’s tough love – more the kind that is (stereotypically) doled out by fathers than by mothers.

Cooing, cuddling, and anything resembling emotional softness or sentiment, on the other hand, are castigated by both Pratchett and Fforde as “wet” or “soppy” – the girls (and it is always girls) who are prone to such exhibits are mercilessly made fun of. Yes, they do exist in the books – in Pratchett’s “Witches” series it’s Magrat Garlick, in “Thursday Next” it’s Thursday5, and in both cases they’re described as New Age hippie types who like to weave floral wreaths, wear unbleached cotton, and are annoyingly fond of hugging and emotional encounter groups; part of their character growth consists in getting over their emotionality – to become, in short, more of a manly woman.

A while ago I promised you a post on Charles Dickens, which I have yet to make good on. However, for now, here’s one of the points I wanted to make about Dickens: he can’t write female characters – they’re either perfect angels of light or corrupt, demonic slatterns. Dickens is in good company among his fellow Victorians in that; in fact, I have yet to read a male Victorian writer who could write a good woman. Sickly sweet, or evilly corrupt, those seemed to be the only two registers male Victorians had at their disposal for writing females; all the believable literary women were created by woman writers. (That’s not to say there aren’t well-written women that sprang from the pen of a male writer in the 19th century – just that I haven’t run across them. I’ve yet to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles – perhaps she meets the requirements? But then, she dies. I’m not sure that qualifies her for well-written – if you can’t be believable and live, well…)

I can’t really speak much to the issue of the believability of males written by females – I’ll have to take Christopher’s word for it that many of them don’t quite read true. But I think I know what he means, because I can see it in the mirror image of the female written by the male.

However, none of this means that I have a problem with those literary heroines. I love identifying with Tiffany Aching’s frying pan prowess or Thursday Next’s accuracy with an eraser gun (which reduces bad guys down to their phonemes). BAM! POW!

But it’s something to keep in mind, particularly as a writer – do I create my characters in my image, even just the image of my gender or of what I wish the opposite gender was like? Perhaps, to a certain extent, it can’t be avoided. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing – maybe in reading about and identifying with what an author of the opposite gender imagines or wishes a character of ours to be like, we can come to a deeper understanding of their perspective. Perhaps in having characters of one gender created in the image of the opposite one the gap between the genders can, in one spot or another, be bridged.

Life, the Universe, Manly Women and Womanly Men. Pass the frying pan.

Thursday Next: Stories About Stories

IMG_20150409_121001I just finished Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next: First Among Sequels – book five in a series which is, incidentally, included on the Goodreads’ “Cosy Fantasy” list I mentioned last time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been quite a few years since I read the first four books (starting with The Eyre Affair), so I’d forgotten a lot of the story – and even if I had remembered it, I don’t know that I appreciated Fforde’s work quite the same way then.

Just to briefly bring you up to speed, Thursday Next (that’s her name, not a reference to a day of the week) is a literary detective. She lives in an alternate-reality England, where part of the secret service’s job is to make sure nothing goes wrong inside the realm of fiction, otherwise known as the BookWorld. She hops in and out of books, interacting with the characters, who are actors putting on the story whenever a reader picks up the book – in their off time, they might be quite a different person than they appear to be when we read their stories – and Thursday’s role as JurisFiction agent is to keep order in the BookWorld.

Fforde’s stories are a feast for book nerds, especially if you’ve done any formal literary studies. That’s what I mean by possibly not having appreciated Thursday Next quite the same way when I read the earlier books – for one, I don’t think I was nearly as familiar with literature then as I am now and so would not have known as many of the books as Fforde is referring to (now, I get about 75% of the references); and for another, I wouldn’t quite have got the allusions to literary theory, or understood just how postmodern the stories are, let alone got as much of a chuckle out of that as I do now. They’re heavily self-referential – stories written about stories about the writing and reading of stories and so on; and they most emphatically do not take themselves seriously (for example, in the BookWorld, there are occasional chunks of back-and-forth dialogue without speech tags – and the characters themselves lose track of who’s talking: “Wait, who just said that? Was it you or me?”).

One of the aspects of First Among Sequels and the book that follows, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, is that they’re great commentaries on literary theories. Here, take this part:

“Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work – the writer might have died long ago.” (p. 52, First Among Sequels. New York: Viking, 2007)

In the story, that refers to the fact that the BookWorld isn’t real, and only becomes so when a reader picks up a book and imbues it with their imagination. But actually, this is an excellent description of Reader-Response Theory (my favourite lit theory), and presented in a context which is a heck of a lot more interesting to read than dusty academic papers.

But don’t worry – you don’t have to have spent the last three years wallowing in capital-T Theory or have read your way through hundreds of linear shelf-feet of literary classics in order to enjoy Jasper Fforde’s stories. They are, above all, cracking good (and hilarious) stories.

Now, what I really set out to write about here, sparked by Thursday Next, was something entirely different – namely the issue of writers creating characters not of their own gender. Males writing female protagonists, and vice versa, and the effects thereof – Fforde writing Thursday Next, Pratchett writing Tiffany Aching, Sayers writing Lord Peter Wimsey… But I think I’ve drivelled on enough today, so I’ll save that for some other time.

Life, the Universe, and Thursday Next. It’ll make you think differently about reading.