The Mixed Results of Male Authors Writing Female Characters

Authors of both genders have long experimented with narrators and protagonists of the opposite sex—but there's still debate as to whether either sex can do it right.

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David Mamet; Focus Features; Jeffrey Eugenides

If we want to investigate the way women have been "written" through the years by the opposite sex, we should return to the beginning. Eve took a bite of that forbidden fruit and pretty much got blamed for every sinful deed since. "Let's not forget the Bible was written from a man's point of view," pointed out a scholar I watched on TV recently.

This is not an awards show, of course. No winners or losers on which sex writes the other better. But there are strong opinions. When Nation magazine writer and poet Katha Pollitt learned that I was pondering whether men write women better than women themselves, her response practically crashed my computer. "You could not possibly be suggesting that! I think few men write female characters who are complex and have stories of their own. Where are the vivid, realistic and rounded portrayals of women in Roth, Bellow, Updike?"

To which others may respond, as did one friend, "I have two words for you. Anna Karenina."

Tolstoy's classic was written a long time ago, of course, and, on the flip side, evergreen female authors like Jane Austen and the Brontes managed to give us fine portraits of men alongside their memorable heroines. However, we have had a few revolutions since, resulting in a lot of space on the shelves, the stage, and the screen devoted to feminine mystiques and mistakes. For women writers, it is about finally getting, if not even, at least equal time.

"By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex," says novelist Sally Koslow (The Late Lamented Molly Marx), "because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men." For male writers, trying to navigate the evolving battles of the sexes is more challenging. To their credit, they are not necessarily shying away from tackling women in their work, but are they 'getting' them?

Two hugely popular authors, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, for example, are known for full-bodied, decade-spanning novels. But their female characters? "Franzen's women are confused and masochistic," claims Pollitt. "The female lead in Eugenides' The Marriage Plot is the least interesting of the three major characters." Literary critic and writer Sarah Seltzer is a bit kinder, but agrees that a double standard endures. "I doubt whether a female novelist who so obviously bungled/sidelined a major male character as Eugenides did, would get the same slack from readers and critics."

Bringing a complex female character to fictional life is daunting enough for one of the opposite sex. Inhabiting their actual voice is even more so. "I don't necessarily find women difficult to write about in the third person," says author Eli Gottlieb (The Face Thief), "but to write them in the first person is to make a hubristic leap. It can be done—Madame Bovary comes to mind—but the reader will often begin from a suspicious wariness." One of the most dazzling turns is Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. It truly never dawns on the reader—and in fact is a constant surprise—that there is a man behind the marvelous female storyteller.

To be fair, today's female novelists rarely take on a male voice, but when they do, their success rate seems noteworthy. This past year's "it" book was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which the author tells one story from both the male and female points of view. Hilary Mantel has also wowed critics and readers with HIStorical fiction, and Louise Erdrich wrote the prize-winning The Round House from the viewpoint of a teenage boy.

Why don't women do it more? Either because they feel men have had their say, thank you, or they feel obligated to mine their own juggling lives for rich material. "A novel takes two years out of your life, so I am more comfortable living with characters I know," explains Sally Koslow. "Before I start every book, I think of Jack Nicholson's line from As Good As It Gets. Someone asks him, 'How do you write women so well?' and he says, 'I think of a man and I take away the reason and the accountability.'"

In the theatre world, more and more women playwrights (Sarah Ruehl, Amy Herzog, Lynn Nottage) have entered the scene, which has helped tremendously in giving audiences true-to-life female characters. Their plays still tend to be seen off-Broadway, but frankly, that is where the most original material is showing up. The final work of the voice of so many women, Nora Ephron, is soon to open on Broadway—and revolves around a man.

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Michele Willens is a journalist, playwright, and the editor of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.

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