I had been trumpeting the 8 November 2013 launch of my international political thriller, Deep Deception, on Twitter and Facebook for weeks when I ran across a blog which I thought might be relevant to the subject I wanted to address, “men writing female characters.” The blog I am referring to is The Year I Stopped Reading Men, by Anna Szymanski. The reason my eyes landed on this piece is because I was looking for a way to introduce my Facebook and Twitter followers to Caroline Dupré, the “incidental” protagonist in Deep Deception, The Last Chameleon, and other planned books in my Vanguard series. The Szymanski blog, I thought, would give me an up-to-date opinion on this still controversial issue. The piece wasn’t, however, quite what I expected. Instead of helping me gain an objective 360 degree perspective on how my novel might be received and whether views about men writing female characters had undergone significant change, it raised considerable concern.
For years, and long before I began writing, I listened to a chorus of criticism about male authors’ inability to create female characters in general and in particular, to accurately write from a female’s point of view, whether in literary or commercial fiction. Over the years, my visual and auditory senses were pelted with book reviews and comments from critics on highly regarded radio shows who rebuked male authors, somewhat diplomatically I should add, for their failings. The Szymanski blog, however, offered an undisguised and strongly feminist critique—a critique, with only a few exceptions, that hurled charges of misogyny and gender bias at a list of male authors who had written about women or from the female point of view. Like Szymanski, I too read Hemingway, Twain, Pound, Salinger, and the “great American novel,” either when I was a student or later in life. However, unlike Szymanski, I believe that my personal experiences and the milieu in which I grew up prompted me to view these literary works somewhat differently. My experiences and environment led me to believe that those writers were among the privileged few because they were given near exclusive rights to write about, describe, portray, and propagate their views and perspectives. This select few had a voice; because of their exclusive and privileged position, challenge was all but non-existent. This, in and of itself, was an education for me because it prompted me to ask a question similar to the one she raises: Why aren’t there more writers like this or like that?
As my eyes moved toward the end of the Szymanski blog, it became more of an eye opener, if not an outright eye-widener. As I neared the end, my palms became sweaty and what fuzz there was on the back of my neck stood on end. Alarm bells went off. Here I was reading a scathing feminist critique of men writing about women and I had elected to write a woman as the protagonist in not only a single novel but in an entire series. I now knew for sure that I had opened myself up to glaring scrutiny. Then I remembered what a female editor at one publishing house had said to me: “It isn’t always easy for a man to write a woman effectively—often they either become stereotypical ‘girly’ sorts or act like men with skirts!”
After pondering this statement, my anxiety began to vanish and my concern dissipated. Reconsidering what Szymanski was saying, I realized that my concern was unnecessary. It had been diminished by the fact that my female protagonist reflects a complete character—a character developed with an objective eye and ear. Caroline Dupré is a well-rounded and well-balanced character—one who exudes strengths and weaknesses—a woman who is just as capable of showing confidence, strength, intellect, cleverness, and determination as she is of showing compassion, uncertainty, vulnerability, and fear—all unmanufactured, normal human behaviors and emotions. By the time I reached the end of the Szymanski blog, I remembered that the same editor who had told me that it isn’t easy for a man to write a woman, told me that “You managed to get it right.”
After taking stock of these things, I read the blog a second time. This time I realized that what I was reading was neither profound nor new. I also realized that Szymanski had overlooked something very important: that the literary and commercial works to which she referred, as well as many subsequent novels written by men about women, tend to be heavily pregnant with an artifact—a pseudo-taxonomy, a socio-cultural stratification scheme or bias—based on race, gender, class, etc. And while these books may be worthy of the criticism she delivers, they are also worthy of a much closer examination—one that extends beyond the scope of the usual “men can’t write on women” commentary and charges of misogyny.
As a trained political scientist, and without judging the right or wrong of the way in which male authors write about women, I contend that the way in which women are reflected in novels written by men throws light on whether over time there has been change or stagnation in the roles of women in society (Western and non-Western). In addition to criticizing how men write about women, observations and critiques should be used as tools; not solely for crushing the testosterone-driven misogyny out of males who write ineffectively about women. They should also be used as mechanisms for understanding the authors’ observations, experiences, and beliefs and to uncover reasons why they have or have not changed over time. In other words, observations and critiques should look beyond the usual misogynistic explanation and to broader society. But in order to do this, the critic must first ask a trite but important question: does society behave toward some of its members in a particular way because of author bias or is the author merely writing about what he is observing or participating in?
As things usually tend to go for me, and as perfect storms are created, Deep Deception and Caroline Dupré are right in the eye of the storm. Deep Deception is the confluence of female protagonist and political deceit—a convergence that creates challenges from which there is no hiding place. And like most human beings faced with danger and despair, she will either rise to the challenge or cease to exist. And though one editor and several female readers of Deep Deception have tried to assure me that I have gotten it right, I am reluctant to declare success, as I am aware that only a much bigger and broader range of readers can truly tell me if what I hoped to have accomplished remains an elusive quest.