Narration and the Gender-fluid Writer

gender-fluid half man half woman performer

Standing in Two Worlds: Collage by Mary Bowen, using vintage photo from Tumblr.

What I mean by Gender-fluid

Today I’d like to talk a little about gender-fluid writers but right off the bat I have to say that I’m borrowing the term gender-fluid to make a point about writing: I do not refer to writers who identify IRL as gender-fluid, but rather I mean writers fluid enough in their emotional and intellectual skill-set to effectively and believably write from the POV of someone with a gender not their own. I realize I could be opening up a can of worms here, as some folks bristle at the very notion of male and female voices, or any kind of gendered categorizing or stereotyping for that matter. In response I can only say that as a writer, and as someone who has taught writing in both co-ed and uni-gender settings, I recognize a difference in communication styles between men and women by and large that is reflected both consciously and unconsciously in one’s writing. There are of course exceptions to the rule –some writers are more androgynous or gender-fluid than others, but I would argue that the cisgender male writer who really excels at giving voice to a cisgender female character, and vice versa, is rare.  Note that I specified “cisgender” because I really cannot say if the ideas I’m mulling over can apply to writers who are trans or otherwise gender non-conformative/non-binary, but that is definitely an interesting topic worth pondering and writing about. I recently read the FANTASTIC memoir I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted by literature professor and trans-activist Jennifer Finney Boylan and in Ms. Boylan’s narrative nonfiction I definitely detect a blend of the classic male and female voices. To me it makes sense that as a writer she would unwittingly master a dual-voice; it reflects her experience as a woman who for years lived with a male body at odds with her inner self and the pains she took to conform to society’s expectations of masculinity. I encourage anyone with an interest to seek out trans writers to judge for themselves.

She By He

I’ve enjoyed legions of female characters penned by men, but only twice in my reading life have I been so impressed with the authenticity of a female narrator that I found it hard to believe the author behind her was male. Those books were She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and How to be Good by Nick Hornby. I read She’s Come Undone in my late teens, an age when I was especially ripe to pick up on the angst of the young female narrator. I was blown away by how emotionally raw and true-to-life the main character adolescent Dolores Price is –who told him our secrets? Wally Lamb somehow managed to look inside the heart of female experience at its most confusing and fragile and I will forever take my hat off to him. Lamb’s She’s Come Undone remains for me the gold standard of gender-fluid writing. According to Lamb’s Wikipedia page, “He credits his ability to write in female voices, as well as male, with having grown up with older sisters in a neighborhood largely populated by girls.” In short, I can only surmise that Lamb’s achievement can be chocked up to these two essentials: keen powers of observation and sincere empathy.

Hornby likewise has the beat on people and what makes them tick –the narrator of How to be Good Katie is a complex, conflicted, wholly realized and very funny woman. I must confess, however, that my praise for Hornby’s skill with female protagonists is born out of surprise that he has this skill at all. Nick Hornby has so successfully trafficked in the roundabouts of male romantic angst (most notably in High Fidelity and About a Boy) that it was a shock to discover his deep insight extended to the other side of the relationship coin. I can only say that like any good writer Hornby is always listening and observing.

He By She

No way have I mastered the art of male narration/characterization. I struggle with making my males authentic and I suspect a lot of women do –largely because writing demands you get to the emotional guts of a character and in our society men are largely defined by the absence of emotion. I don’t think it is happenstance that many of the most successful and celebrated female crafters of male characters are writers of fantasy fiction and children/young adult fiction. From Anne Rice’s Lestat to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to S.E. Hinton’s Pony Boy, fantasy and youth both provide gateways to worlds where it is permissible to explore the emotional lives of boys and men. I think the pitfall many female writers succumb to when writing males is to avoid any sort of emotional adornment, removing the proverbial skirt and hair bow from the stick figure as it were, and thus rendering the character too neutral. I’m still trying to muddle it all out but I suspect one should just keep returning to square one: OBSERVE!

He & She: What say you?

In conclusion, I hope I’ve introduced you to some new thoughts and some new books. I’d love to hear from folks in the comments section about what books you’ve read that are skillful examples of gender-fluid writing. What men have written really outstanding female characters? What women have mastered the masculine voice? I also welcome fellow writers to share how they approach writing as/about the opposite gender.

As always, happy writing & reading!

Reads for Writers: Characterization in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

characterization, books, Dickens, writing

Characters come alive both in the mind and on the page! Few images capture the magic of characterization as well as Robert William Buss’s Dickens’ Dream (Public Domain).

Characterization Observations of a Writing Reader

I’ve been reading a great deal of fiction lately, perhaps because I’ve been feeling it is high time I write more of it after so many years of focusing on blogging and journalistic pieces. Leisure reading for the writer isn’t just fun –it is also instructive. We read to absorb, to learn the writer’s craft. While I don’t suggest looking at something too analytically (we want to enjoy ourselves after all) it is good to keep an eye out for what things are happening in a piece of fiction that ring true to you or that you find are especially effective and enjoyable.  Characterization, or the crafting of a character (and the myriad ways a writer goes about crafting a character), is something that’s been uppermost in my mind as I’ve been reading lately. I first became aware of my covert characterization suss-out last week while I was finishing up the bestselling 2009 novel The Help.

Confessions of a Book Snob: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

characterization, book snobI must admit that this was a book I initially resisted reading because I am a shameless book snob. Specifically, I am snobbish about those books that become such commercial hits they are embraced en masse by those people who are most certainly not readers but like to think they are. There are lots of those people. Especially in Boston. I think you know who I mean –and I think you know which books I mean. I’m talking about the titles you see everyone struggling to read on the subway during the morning commute, their recognizable dust jackets pounding your eyes in tsunami waves. These are the tomes young women who generally read little else but gossip mags and Twitter feeds cart around for a few weeks with the best of intentions. All too soon, these texts are abandoned: first finding sanctuary on the main shelves of the used book cellar then, having multiplied like tribbles, are deported to the dollar bin. A little while back the hot title was The Girl on the Train. Other past literary plums include The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Life of Pi, and of course The Help. And while I am sure they are all worthy reads it is their very ubiquity that turns me off them. Call me a lit hipster if you will; I’ll wear the title proudly. But I digress…

The Help, book

One day a few weeks back I saw The Help at the library and got a sudden yen to read it, despite its past annoying popularity. The premise is intriguing: a young white woman in the Jim Crowe South secretly collaborates with a group of black maids on a tell-all book about what working in domestic service for white families is really like. I’d seen the film adaptation and thought it was okay in an overly feel-good, faux-progressive Hollywood sorta way (but that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were fantastic, far better than the film as a whole in fact) and I was curious to see how the book was different. Specifically, I wanted to see if Stockett, a white woman, had managed to write something deeper than an arrogant celebration of a white liberal savior (I think she did) and if the justified feelings of resentment, anger and mistrust the black characters feel towards the white establishment are explored more candidly in the book than the film (I think they are). That’s not to say the book isn’t free of racial problems; The Help (both book and film) has ruffled feathers as well as garnered praise. I can also concede that readers of color have a legitimate beef with any white writer attempting to narrate black experience (thought provoking piece on that here), but I still maintain Stockett pulled off something very difficult for a white writer: she crafted two characters of color that never get conflated in the reader’s mind.


Shared Circumstances, Separate Spirits

About 3/4 in I found myself contemplating how distinct from each other the two black maids who co-narrate the book (along with a white character) are and that’s rather impressive. I don’t think I could pull it off if I tried to write characters that were so culturally different from me, even with people in real life to base them on as Stockett had. The two women share highly specific life circumstances, ethnicity/cluture, and a dialect yet at no time did I say, “Wait, is this Abilene talking or is this Minny?” The third narrator Skeeter, a white woman of a higher socio-economic class who speaks with a different dialect (Yes, Stockett does indeed write the white characters in US Southern dialect as well. It is just different and perhaps less perceptible.) easily contrasts with both but that’s the point: it’s no big whoop for Stockett to build a strong contrast between a character she can relate to well (the white, middle class Skeeter) and someone very different from her. In other words, she could have gotten lucky writing one good, complex, believable maid character –but two who are  so distinct from one another? Nah! So if you’re looking for an example of strong multi-narrator characterization, that dodges a very real risk of conflation, then take a look at Abilene and Minny from The Help.

Tools of Characterization: Description & Dialogue

I would have to re-read the book to pinpoint exactly what technical devices helped achieve this but off the top of my head I’d say Stockett’s use of descriptive detail in regards to the women’s physicality, mannerisms, dress, etc. and dialogue choices are key. Note I said dialogue –not dialect. She assigns the characters a dialect but does not fall in the trap of letting that choice “cookie cutter” their speech.  The women each have their own particular vocabularies and vocal rhythms which allow their personality to come through despite the grammatical and syntactical status quo dictated by the author.

Anyway, that’s just my quick take… what are some books that you think have effective characterization? What do you struggle with the most when building a character? I’d love to know in the comments.