Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Gendered) POV preference? Why?

I subscribe to a lot of e-mail lists, all related, in various ways, to my writing.  For example, I'm on a very lively anthropology e-list, full of anthropologists, naturally, who end up discussing everything under the sun, including science fiction on occasion, and prehistoric humans, including Neandertals, on more than one occasion.  Then there is a more "generalized" list, that started out as a "defend the theory of evolution" list, and "fight creationists".  That also is a lively discussion group.  Sometimes I get information, or links to information, from these sites, that I can use on The Writer's Daily Grind.  I never know, from day to day, what will pop up!  But I also subscribe to several writing-related e-mail lists, and here, the discussions, mostly writing-related, can get really interesting.  For example, on one such list there has been a recent, ongoing discussion of POV characters in fiction.  This isn't, as is often the case, a discussion about the advantages of a first-person v. a third-person POV(just to let everyone know, "first person" is a narrative from the POV of the main character; the kind that has him/her describing what happened  or happens to him/her; third person is the more common narrative style).  In this case, the discussion revolved around preferences for a male or female as the main character, particularly in historical novels(but this might apply more broadly, as well).


It's an interesting discussion, for several reasons.  First, in relation to historical novels, it seems that of those written nowadays, the majority are written about female characters.  Supposedly the reason for this is, and there's probably some truth to it, that the majority of those who read historical fiction are women, and presumably women relate better to the lives of other women.  Second, and this is where it got interesting, there is  a perceived bias against male main characters!   But here is where it gets really interesting -- some readers will read only fiction with a female protagonist, some others will only read or write fiction with a male protagonist. 


Personally, I'm really puzzled by this.  Which is odd, since I grew up in an era when the majority of "serious" writers, even of historical fiction, were men.  there were writers like Samuel Shellabarger, Lawrence Schoonover, Irving Stone, Thomas Costain, all to varying degrees, popular authors when I was young, and when I was a little older, I read many of their works and liked them.  But they didn't write about women to any extent.  There were some women historical novelists.  Norah Lofts comes to mind -- and then there was Anya Seton, of Katherine fame(though she wrote a number of other works as well).  And they wrote almost exclusively about women in historical contexts. They came later, and by the time they came along, I believe the genre had begun to change.  However, at the time, these women were not considered truly "serious" writers, though their work, especially that of Anya Seton, seems to have influenced some romance writers, in a roundabout way.  But by and large, this writing world was very "gendered": it was before anybody had heard of feminism, for better or worse. 


That was a good many more decades in the past, than I care to think very much about at this point, and since then, things have changed.  For one thing, the publishing world is pretty "bottom line" oriented, and anybody that writes today, if they're writing historical novels, has to cater to that market.  In other genres(except for romance, generally speaking), the writing world is far less "gendered" in this way; readers of mysteries, science fiction, thrillers, etc., seem not to care about the biological sex of the protagonist as much as how good the story is, although male writers still tend to write male characters for the most part, and women tend, though not so sharply, to write about women protagonists, though this is a lot more evenly split, as far as I can tell.


So what's up with people -- particularly some women, who can "only" write or read male characters, or who can "only" write or read female ones?  This is what puzzles me.  As I said, I grew up in a really gendered era in "popular" fiction, but I read both male and female POV's and enjoyed both, if the writer was good enough. This attitude informs my own writing; my works up to now have involved female protagonists, but for the next month, I'm going to start writing about a character from my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, who just grew and grew and grew on me, and I had to write (gulp!) his story.  One of my earliest stories, which, with much revision, I'll probably get back to eventually, have two equally "protagonistic" characters, one male, the other female.  I just can't write any other way. 


So again, what's with people who can "only" read or write one sex?  I have some ideas here.  First, those people who feel they can "only" write about males(especially if they are women), may, unconsciously or half-consciously, think that "only" men did "interesting" things in the past(I'm addressing readers or writers of historical fiction here).  Some of these people seem to be entirely unable to imagine a woman doing anything  -- other than standing around and waiting for her "man" to come home.  I read a novel like this, some years ago, that was like this, except, oddly enough, it was written by a man.  Which brings me to another point that seems to be the case for some (male) writers:  a fair number of them seem quite unable to conceive of, or write about, a well-rounded female character.  The late Robert Heinlein was notorious in this regard, but then, in his heyday, sci-fi was largely a "boys club".  But at the present, Bernard Cornwell has much the same problem; he has women characters, but they're mostly, well "flat", and relatively interchangeable.  I hasten to add that not all male writers have this problem; some of them are much more sensitive to nuance, both in their own sex and among women.  These male writers are concerned about what makes a person interesting, not what sex they happen to be, so they probably don't think that just because somebody happens to be female, that "nothing"  interesting happened to them.  These writers also know that there are plenty of boring men around. 


But when female writers or readers can "only" conceive of male protagonists, I begin to wonder.  I know that, when I was growing up, it was quite normal for girls to wish they were boys, at least as children.  Oddly enough, though I grew up in "sexist" times, I never wished I was a boy.  I think what is or was going on here, though, was a desire by a lot of girls, to be able to do the things boys did or do.  There's less problem with this nowadays, at least in many of the more "developed" parts of the world, but this is a pretty recent development, and there's still plenty of pressure on women to "succeed" in only one way.  There are two ways women who feel so pressured(unconsciously, perhaps), can react.  One way is to "identify" with the "male"; if they're readers or writers, whatever a man, fictional or real, does, is perceived as "interesting", women, well, a lot less so.  On the other hand, I discovered on this same list, that there are women who will "only" read or write a female protagonist.  I think these women are actually(again, whether consciously or unconsciously) reacting to a perceived "male bias" here, and possibly feel they can "identify" more readily with a female character, whether they're writing or reading one.  Either way, I think such readers and writers may be limiting themselves.  If they're writers, limiting oneself in this way or any other way, is, in my opinion, absolutely deadly. 


I think, in my own case, I have been blessed with a very good imagination.  As I was maturing, but long before I started writing, I started half-consciously training my mind to be "open" to the possibility that other people, in circumstances different from my own, may see the world in ways different from the way I do.  This is, I might add, partly a function of my "anthropological" background; different cultures have different ways of conceptualizing the worlds they live in, sometimes quite startlingly different, but often, surprisingly the same.  And so, in my travels through the world I knew, I gave myself "thought exercises".


Let me give you an example of one of them.  Some years ago, when my daughter was small, I planted a small garden every summer.  In late April or early May, I would go to a particular gardening store to buy tomato plants.  This gardening store was located in a part of Seattle which had, by then, become populated by various "minorities", and to get there, I had to take a bus.  Now what was very interesting was, when I got on the bus, just about everybody on it was "white".  But when I got off the bus, in the neighborhood of the gardening store, I was just about the only "white" person!  Nobody was rude or unkind; not a deplorable word was ever spoken.  People just wanted to get wherever they were going.  But this experience got me to thinking.  What would it be like for one of those "nonwhite" people to do the reverse, e.g., be the only "nonwhite" person in a "white" area.  And I tried to let my imagination flow here, tried to imagine my life in someone else's skin -- literally.  It was an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable experience.  But I persisted.  I also began trying to imagine what I'd be like if I'd been a man rather than a woman.  Would I have turned out more like my brother, a gentle, quiet person, or more like my father, who liked to be the center of things, or something else entirely?  That, too was an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable experience.


But as a writer, the cumulative effects of these thought exercises have served me well, I think.  For one thing, it is impossible for me to conceive that a woman(or a man) would necessarily be "uninteresting" simply because of their biological sex.  It's true I've started out with female characters, who are, at least to me, very interesting, but I hope I've made my male characters interesting, too.  They are all individuals, and while, in my Invaders trilogy, the men and the women usually have different "trajectories", and they tend to be people of their time and place, with the general expectations of their time and place, that doesn't mean they don't do interesting things getting to where they want, or ought, to be.  That is how I think writing should be done, and while I don't claim to be a "superior" writer, whatever that may mean, I strive to follow this.  Again, in my opinion, if a writer doesn't try to do this, to stretch their imaginations in some way, then their limitations may be their shortcoming as a writer.

Anne G


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I think we both hang out on that same list Anne. From my own personal point of view I agree with you. Goodness, I spent half of my childhood being Champion The Wonderhorse, so what does that say about my preferences!!
My father in law won't read anything written by a woman whatever the gender or species of the protagonist because he doesn't empathise with the general style and yes, he's nearly 88 and stuck in a rut. I know one person who only reads about women and books by women because she was raised in a family of domineering men and forced to read books by dead Victorian men at school, so by association, books by men create bad vibes for her. I do say each to his or her own, but I also say that you are missing so much if you choose to put on blinkers and walk a narrow corridor.

Anne Gilbert said...

Jeez. From the time I was about 9 years old, I was reading my brother's science fiction! At that time, s-f was most definitely a "guy" preserve! And I grew up in a household with a somewhat domineering and very opinionated male! So you'd think I would be one of those people who "only" read women's stuff. But I don't. I'm just more interested in the character than the sex of the person. I just think as a writer, if you can't at least try to imagine whiat it might be like to be something "different" from what you "are", whether it be some type of animal(I've tried to imagine myself as a cat or a wolf, my two favorite creatures), as some other "race", as a man, a person of another religious tradition than the one I was brought up in, etc., etc. I think this has helped me as a writer, and I think it kind of impoverishes you as a writer if you don't, but as you say, to each his or her own.
Anne G