On wanting to be a woman

The other day, at the end of the leadership development programme I had been running, I took a taxi ride to Godalming station. As we passed under the oak leaves along the Surrey roads, the driver reached for his clipboard and brushed his hand against my thigh.

‘It’s okay, I’m not on the other side,’ he apologised.

It reminded me, with a jolt, that there are still people out there who find being gay unacceptable.

He drove on and I dreamed on, and, in a somewhat loosely linked way, his remark started me thinking about writing on the other side: in other words, from a different sexual perspective. I’ve always been a little wary of books where the author takes the point of view or the voice of someone of the other sex, even more wary when they try to be a dog or somesuch. My rather narrow-minded stance has been that if I want to read about what it’s like to be a woman, I would do better to read something by a woman. Of course, this reasoning breaks down in the case of the dog. I take a similar attitude to historical fiction: why read period pieces when I could be reading Jane Austen? Please forgive me, you hist fickers.

But everybody’s doing it. Writers seem to be magnetised by the idea of cross-writing. Nick Hornby did it in How to be Good, and according to The Guardian, who know about these things, “the shift in gender opens new possibilities for him: of more sustained psychological insight, and a bolder narrative rhythm.” Well, that’s got to be worth a try. And it’s been going on for a very long time: Henry James tried to know What Maisie Knew, and that’s often quoted as a classic of viewpoint, not just female but child too. I enjoyed What Maisie Knew, although I struggled with the long, complex, interwoven sentences. Many of the nuances were lost on me. Hornby is a slightly easier read.

When it comes to the female to male gender jump, the most recent example I’ve read is Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. It's an engrossing read but I didn't find the protagonist entirely convincing as a male. So, everyone’s done it, and everyone’s doing it, but I still wasn’t convinced.

Then I read a couple of Colm Toibin’s. In both The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn, his most recent offering, the main characters are women. In Toibin’s case, he pulls this off to perfection, (in the opinion of this male). Certainly my experience of his characters tallies with my experience of other women. Many of the scenes in Brooklyn, such as the sexual tension of two women whilst trying on swimsuits in a closed department store, are daring examples of cross-writing. I kept reminding myself that it was written by a man.

It’s irresistible. I’ve got to have a go for my next attempt at a novel. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time (plotter not panter) and the prospect does come with some trepidation. Perhaps it’s a bad idea, but I think I can pull it off. My credentials are that most of the people I relate to easily are women - I'm more at home with them than in the company of men. I started a business on my own and ended up working with fourteen women – it’s surprising no blokes ever took me to a tribunal.

At times I’ve felt like a gay man trapped in a heterosexual’s body. My girlfriend constantly ribs me about being gay. Now, before you all jump on me, I’m not saying that gay = female. I do understand that. The fact is, I’m not gay, not even a little bit, but I do believe I’m more in touch with my feminine side than many men. So it’s high time for a sex change. I’ve tried it in short stories and now for a novel. For ages I’ve been collecting examples of what it's like to be a woman – there's fun research to be had asking about this.

So, do you write on the other side? A million examples spring to mind. Anne Brooke springs to mind. What are the pitfalls I should avoid? Am I gay?


Susannah Rickards said...

Fascinating post, Rod. I cross over unconsciously more than I realise. So many times I've thought of entering a short story to a competition then read the small print and realised they are after illustrations of the experiences and strengths of women, and my protagonist is male.

I must say it would never occur to me to distinguish. But then, I don't think men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, or that we can never fully understand another culture. I think we're all from earth, dogs included, and the enormous variety of common ground is worth writing about. But I'm aware I'm quite a masculine woman (despite appearances.) Ring finger almost a centimentre longer than index finger always wanted to be a boy as a child, so don't find it difficult to enter what i think of as a masculine viewpoint. Whether it's authentic or not is a different matter, but let's not forget there are women who write unbelievable female characters. It comes down to psychological insight, perhaps, common to all?

Why do we still love Austen? Because despite social and sexual freedom, we all feel about love the way her heroines do. We ache for the lost lover to still want us when we bump into them in the street (Persuasion) We fall for the cad or the energetic ditz in favour of a more suitable companion (all her other novels.)

So...go for it, Roderina. You have a host of fellow writers here to mine for insights. Cept me, I'm a bloke in a dress, really.

S x

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Brilliant post, Roderina :):), and great response, Susannah.
In my last novel, I found myself enjoying writing the POV of the male characters more than I did the female. Will be interesting to see what happens with this one. Its a fascinating process imagining yourself into the other gender's body, mind and heart.

Keren David said...

Great post - I've just written a book narrated by a 14 year old boy, and am working on a sequel, so this is close to my heart. I was daunted at first, but also found it very liberating. I felt less self-conscious because there was such a clear difference between him and me. It was an absolute joy to think about how teenage boys are in general and apply it to my boy in particular. And an absolute triumph when the book was accepted for publication by a male editor!
I liked writing as a boy because I felt he'd be less introspective than a girl narator - more likely to act first and think second, which suited the plot.
I love Nick Hornby as a writer, but felt that the narrator of How to Be Good was very distant from her body, unlike most women.

Sheila Norton said...

Yes, interesting post and lots there to ponder and debate, especially as I've just picked up a Nick Hornby book to read ('High Fidelity' - starts off explaining how all his ex-girlfriends dumped him), and have been telling my husband how interesting it is to read the man's POV on the sort of things normally written about by girls. I've written some short stories in the man's POV but haven't had one of those published yet so maybe that speaks for itself as far as I'm concerned!

Caroline Green said...

Very interesting post, Rod. I think I'm quite drawn to books written across gender. If it is pulled off successfully [I thought it was in The Road Home, but I'm not a man so I bow to your greater knowledge] it can make for a very satisfying story. I've just finished The Little Friend by Sarah Waters and she writes as a man for the first time...a rather starchy, post war man, and does it excellently.

emmadarwin said...

I write across gender - it never occurred to me that it's an issue, though gay male sex scenes present a challenge which to date I've largely ducked - and the consensus, even among male readers, seems to be that my male narrators are convincing.

And yes, I'm fairly male on the ring-finger count and so on too. I think good writers (good artists in general)do have to be androgynous, to some degree, in their art if not in their lives.

On the other hand I didn't find William Boyd's two female narrators in Restless terribly convincing, though on the whole I enjoyed the book. They weren't male but they didn't seem to be female either, as if he'd successfully extracted maleness in their attitude to their bodies and other people of both genders, but not, in some way, managed to replace it with femaleness: they were neuter.

Anonymous said...

But I think Caroline's point that she doesn't jugde Tremain's men as a male reader would is important. And, equally, a man might judge Boyd's women as convincing, because Boyd has made them be as a man thinks women are, whereas I don't. And I know that my male narrators are how I think men are and so no doubt doing lots of animus-projecting as a result. So they're me, as well as 'other'.

A small case in point from a writing workshop. A woman, writing a man, made him look down and notice (after a fight) 'there was blood on my thighs'. All the men in the workshop agreed that a man would say 'there was blood on my legs'... Of such tiny things are gender differences built.

Administrator said...

Great post, Roderina:)

i suppose we all do it to a degree with our minor characters - or, in my case, with romance, there is always a hero figure who takes up a large part of the book. So, whether the book is written ominiscient 3rd POV or just from the MC's POV or multi- PO or not, you are still having to think how you male characters would behave in certain situations.

I remember writing a very purple prose sex scene in my first book and my husband enjoyed it cos he said i really got into the head of the man and what would turn him on. I'm not sure i could completely cross over for a whole book, though, and write from a male MC's POV.

What a challenge though.

If you want any info about women just don't come to me - i hate shopping, high shoes and say 'cheers mate' a lot:))

Very interesting.

Roderic Vincent said...

Hi all,

Thanks for the comments.
Sam, I think there is a vast difference between showing the behaviour of characters of the other sex and showing their thoughts. I can witness how women behave every day and can show that in fiction. That's all I need for secondary or minor characters. More challenging is to report the thoughts of a woman, in losing her virginity, or having a baby, or thinking about men. That's the bit I'm relishing. Patrick Gale also does a lot of that stuff in Rough Music. For example, how it feels to move from being a mother to a grandmother, neither of which I suppose he has actually done.

Administrator said...

I dunno Rod - surely a character's behaviour is propelled by their thoughts, so logically, to portray their behaviour in a believable way you need to know how they would be thinking? Don't all people behave differently to different situations and thoughts?

sarah fox said...

Just go for it, Rod - might be a liberation!

Susannah Rickards said...

I agree with Sam. So long as you are particular enough in your character, it should ring true. No two women will feel the same about giving birth because no two births are the same, and regardless of gender, the experience itself will colour a character's response to big events like loss of virginity. Generalisation doesn't come into it.

Gale does write women well, though i've noticed he can't bear to let them enjoy sex, it's as though the idea of that is too distasteful for him to contemplate, so they always suffer it or are rapacious due to mental imbalance.

Geraldine Ryan said...

A few backs I went to listen to William Nicholoson and Fay Weldon talking about writing in the opposite gender. William's latest novel, which is definitely on my "to read" pile has just written "The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life" from the POV of a woman and Fay Weldon has also written from the male POV.

William talked about how he researched women and shopping by quizzing his wife about how exactly she was feeling at every point on a clothes shopping trip. He was puzzled how she could know, just by standing and looking at some distance from a rail of tops, for instance, that none of them would do.

Fay Weldon, on the other hand,said she never did any research on the opposite gender, other than living with a husband and sons, and it fact considered research a bit of a waste of time as it often stopped people from actually writing.

William N. made the point that most men have a relationship with pornography that most women prefer not to know about. I wonder what the female equivalent obsession is - I bet it's food.

Fionnuala said...

LOL Geri! It's a really interesting topic. I did write from one POV from a male perspective in my first book but in retrospect, I'm not sure I did it terribly well. I've made notes of all the books you guys mentionn here and I'm going to read some - maybe even re-visit that philandering charcter in my first book with a fresh eye?

Roderic Vincent said...

One of my friends wrote from the male POV and it didn't really work. Her character spent too much time having intense conversations with his male friends and thinking about his looks and just thinking about things. The key to writing a male is not to have him thinking anything much, apart from basic needs, envy of money and, I'd like to shag her. Hope that helps, Fionnuala. If you need any addition insights into the male psyche please let me know.

Anne Brooke said...

Oh lordy, lovely to be mentioned in an SW post! But pray, sir, why did you not pop in and see me, I wonder? I'm only a 10 minute walk from Godalming Station and I make a good tea!... I won't be hurt (sob!).

And you know me - the voice in my head is male so I'm happier writing him. Goodness knows what that makes of me then!!



Fionnuala said...

Rod, that made me snort out loud - 'I want to shag her!' That's it?! Thats where I went wrong then...

Anne, you get a regular mention in SW posts!

Roderic Vincent said...

Hi Anne,

If my client invites me to Godalming again I'll pop in for that cuppa. Thank you.

Anne Brooke said...

Goodness me - I feel quite overcome!!! Have left you an appropriate comment, tee hee - thank you!

And I'm warming the pot as I type, Rod.



Caroline Green said...

I went to see Sarah Waters last night, talking about her new book in which she has a male MC for the first time. Someone asked about the challenges of this and she talked about doing an event with another author, where this topic was raised. The other author, a woman, realised she had a scene where a male character realised what clothes his missing partner was wearing by the gaps in her wardrobe...and then she realised there was no way this would happen!

RosyB said...

This is fascinating. I don't know what to say (for once) or what I think. What's happened to me?

A piece of me rebels against the idea that men are like this and women are like that and I certainly feel very alienated from a lot of books specifically aimed at women because they always seem to have that "we all think this, girls, don't we?" subtext and - well I don't. And end up thinking there's something wrong with me. Which is never nice.

But I have had that experience of reading women written by men and not buying them at all. Sometimes you can feel the male gaze actually in the depiction of the character and you immediately think "that's not true." or "You want that to be true, but it's not true."

But, individual character apart, I think where I am aware of male writers stumbling is in understanding the culture amongst women. However individual, eccentric or otherwise any particular woman is, there is a culture of expectation - from other people - from female friends - how you are expected to interact etc that I think most women would recognise. Having an individual bead on this is one thing. Rejecting it another. But just being unaware of it makes some women written by men untrue to me.

Ooo I thought I had nothing to say. Should have known. (Mouth firmly wired shut.)

Rosy B said...

I tell you what IS a man thing.

"I'm not gay. Not that I would worry at all if I was...but I'm not. Not even a little bit..." etc

Men do this ALL THE TIME! :) They can't just leave it hanging. Or ambiguous. Or even leave it fairly obvious. They just have to make absolutely sure they clear it up. Just in case anyone had a doubt in their mind. It's the not-at-all- remotely-in-any-way-whatsoever bit that is the dead giveaway.


Roderic Vincent said...

But, I'm not.