Anya Lipska wonders why literary cross-dressing gets us so hot under the collar…
There’s a great moment in the movie As Good as it Gets when a breathless fan-girl buttonholes Jack Nicholson, playing the curmudgeonly writer Melvin Udall.
‘How do you write women so well?’ she gushes.
‘I think of a man,’ he replies, ‘and I take away reason and accountability.’
Whether an unreconstructed sexist like Melvin could actually write a believable woman is perhaps questionable, but in the real world, how successful is literary cross-dressing? Can a male author capture authentically how a woman talks, and more importantly, feels? Equally, can a woman convincingly reproduce a man’s inner world?
I’ve written three books in which the dominant voice is that of Polish fixer Janusz Kiszka: a man’s man, and one with no qualms about using a bit of ‘justified’ violence. My current project is a standalone written from the viewpoint of a middle class, middle aged professional woman – in other words, someone quite a lot like me. Guess which character has caused me the biggest grief? You got it. I found it far easier to create Kiszka than my female character, who ought to be a breeze, right? (In fact, his Polishness posed a far bigger challenge than the gender switcheroo – although I’m lucky enough, if only from the research point of view, to be married to a grumpy Pole…)
I suspect that inhabiting a gender 24/7 isn’t the advantage it might seem: perhaps information overload makes it harder to whittle a character who is compelling and authentic. Writing is, after all, an act of imagination, and the writer’s first and most important job is to put ourselves in the shoes – or size ten boots – of people who are nothing like us. I’m not a Polish man, but neither have I beaten the crap out of a villain, taken a good kicking, dodged bullets, suffered interrogation by Communist milicja, parented a teenage boy, lost a best friend to murder, or confessed to a priest… I am, however, a human being, and therefore have some understanding of the fundamental forces that drive us, whether we are male or female.
So which sex is better at crossing the literary gender divide? In crime fiction, female writers certainly appear to have no qualms about creating male characters – possibly because we’ve been brought up on novels written primarily by men and about men. The successes include Patricia Highsmith with her brilliant creation Tom Ripley, PD James’ Inspector Dalgleish, and more recently Val McDermid’s Tony Hill, and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie. Men appear to be less inclined to make their central characters female – and some have argued that they struggle to get women right. In The Silkworm (by Robert Galbraith, aka J K Rowling), a male author is described as creating women who are ‘all temper, tits and tampons’, while a recent Guardian article complained that although Tolstoy and Flaubert created terrifically authentic heroines, they then went on to ‘kill’ them for being sexually adventurous. Perhaps the reluctance I sense among some male author friends to attempt the female perspective is an (understandable) fear of getting it in the neck?
And yet it was Stieg Larsson who created Lisbeth Salander – a candidate for the most memorable female character in modern crime fiction. Then there’s Ira Levin’s Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Precious Ramotswe from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith, and above all, Thomas Harris’s outstanding Clarice Starling – perhaps my favourite fictional woman in any crime novel, ever.
So my advice to all the talented male authors out there who back off from creating female characters?
Come on boys, grow a pair.
Anya Lipska writes the Kiszka & Kershaw books, a detective thriller series set in East London.
Her latest book is A Devil Under the Skin