Part Two: The Unimportant Voice (To Men–Straight Or Gay)

Hello! I’m back from my blog vacation. I apologize for the delay on this post. There were life circumstances that got in the way. And, yes, this post is a bit long winded, maybe a little rambling, and I might be trying to cram in too many points, but I had a lot of feelings, okay, and I had to get them all out. I think it’s worth reading. At least, I hope it is.

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1. VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen

2. Writing Across Gender by Jennifer Dubois

3. Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters by Christine Hsu

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From Writing Across Gender by Jennifer Dubois:

I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender’s consciousness in a way that men aren’t. This isn’t to say that women don’t often misunderstand, mistreat, and stereotype men, both in literature and in life. But on a basic level, functioning in society requires that women register that men are fully conscious; it is not really possible for a woman to throw up her hands and write men off as eternally unknowable space aliens — and even if she says she has, she cannot really behave as though she has. Every element of her life — from reading books about boys and men to writing papers about the motivations of male characters to being attentive to her own safety to navigating most any institutional or professional or economic sphere — demands an ironclad familiarity with, and belief in, the idea that men really are fully human entities. And no matter how many men come to the same conclusions about women, the structure of society simply does not demand so strenuously that they do so. If you didn’t really deep down believe that women were, in general, exactly as conscious as you, you could probably still get by in life. You could probably still get a book deal.

One of the main messages received by women from birth onward is that what they have to say isn’t important. If a woman values it? It’s just not all that significant. Especially if men in general place value on something different. Women are told that they are overly sentimental, that they are hysterical, that they are crazy, or lacking in logic, or are far too worried about those ridiculous things known as emotions.

As I mentioned in the last post in this three part series, our voices are deemed ‘less than’ simply because they are not the same as men’s, but no one seems to question whether men’s contributions might be lacking because they are not the same as women’s.

From Writing Across Gender by Jennifer Dubois:

Writing from a female point of view seems to be generally regarded as something more like writing from the perspective of a deer: you might get points for novelty, but it’d be impossible to get right, and who really wants to hear a deer narrate a story, anyway?

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Who me? A deer? Aw, shucks!

Recently, as gay men are finding a louder and louder voice (hooray!!), I’m hearing a lot about how they are not women, thank you very much. Which is absolutely true but certainly smacks of some misogyny, too, doesn’t it? Because if it wasn’t so horrible to be compared to a woman, then perhaps they would not mind so much. These kinds of comments always make me imagine a gay man standing on a woman’s face, saying to his straight brothers, “Hey, I’m not a girl! That bitch down there under my shoe? She’s a girl! Hahaha! I’m just like you! A dude! With a dick! Wanna see it?” It’s not a pleasant visual. (For what it’s worth, it also makes me squirm uncomfortably when a heterosexual person is accused of being gay and they deny it like they’ve just been accused of murder or worse.) But it seems clear that many gay men react so angrily and urgently to any accusations of being like a woman because in our society there is really very little worse than being a woman.

In the web series, Husbands, the more effeminate half of the newlyweds made it quite clear at one point that he was not a girl. Normally, this would have offended me — is it so very bad to be a girl? But in the way that the line was written and how the actor, Brad Bell aka Cheeks, delivered the line, it was made clear that it’s society’s problem with the feminine not the character’s own.

The scene in question is at the very beginning and rather funny! It’s worth watching!

But, in general, when gay men say that they are not women, it is with much more distaste, anger, and horror which is focused, not at society for not valuing the feminine, but at women themselves. And I thinks that’s sad for everyone involved.

Because of this lack of value for women’s voices, the silencing of women by men — straight or gay — is a very pervasive thing. It usually involves Gaslighting in multiple forms. And, in my opinion, the commentary that women can’t write as well as men, or don’t portray life as men know it in ways that men appreciate is yet another form of gaslighting. “Sorry, ladies, but the way you see reality and relationships and men and yadda? The stuff you find important enough to write about? It’s all crazy-cakes nonsense! We do not approve of or care about that! Not to mention, it’s all NOT EVEN REAL! Yes, that’s right! It is invalid! Move along!”

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Speaking of this kind of thing, a major complaint that I have often seen gay men make about women writing gay male relationships is that the women are writing it wrong. To me, that’s the same old noise that VS Naipaul was spouting in his statement that women writers are not equal to men writers because he can always spot that something was written by a woman within a few paragraphs. In other words — anything that has the taint of woman about it is automatically wrong and less. This remains true whether or not the men reading the writing are straight or gay.

The fact is — some women are good writers, some are bad writers. Some women can write good stories about gay men, and some women write unimaginative and bad stories about gay men. It is not a matter of writing ‘like a gay man’ so much as it is a matter of writing something well. And yet what is ‘writing something well’? Writing like a man? Like a gay man? Like a straight man? I would argue that a woman’s way of expressing characters, no matter their gender or sexuality, is relevant and worth hearing.

When it comes to women writing gay men, there is a lot of discussion of fetishization (which does sometimes happen) and heteronomative fantasies where one of the men is a ‘stand in’ for the woman in a relationship (which also happens). We also hear a lot of noise about how, as a minority group, women should be sensitive to misrepresenting or exploiting another minority group (and they should).

But the main thing that I see over and over is that women too often write gay male relationships in a way that betrays the author’s own ‘feminine sensibilities’, and thus it is ‘wrong’. In other words — women write like women.

There could be an equivalent complaint that men do not portray women in ways that women fully recognize as accurate representations of womanhood, and yet one hardly ever sees males putting forth arguments that men write women ‘wrong’ and therefore should stop writing women altogether or strive harder to achieve an authentic female voice. (You see a lot of feminists saying these things about the media we consume, but usually only when the portrayal of women is so horrendously sexist that something must be said about it. Usually, if the portrayal is sensitive enough — meaning the women aren’t presented in some utterly vile manner — women don’t mention it at all.) No, instead we assume that the best books written by males are the epitome of literature and of what humankind has to offer.

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Shh, babe. Just shut up. If you’re not giving me a perspective that feels authentic to my experience, I don’t want to hear it.

I’d argue that telling women who are not writing vile portrayals of homosexual men that they’re writing gay men (or reality) ‘wrong’, because it does not fit with how gay men (or heterosexual men) view the world is ultimately silencing and damaging. Because what is really being said is that if a woman’s voice or writing isn’t saying what men want it to say, in a way that men value, or exactly as men would have said it themselves, then the woman has no business writing it to begin with and should shut the hell up until they either write like a man, think like a man, or suddenly become a man.

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Thanks Beekman Boys for being awesome.

Sure, it would be ideal if we were all so incredibly in tune to each other that we could know exactly what it is like to be in someone else’s skin, to live someone else’s life, and feel their feelings, and know the world as they do. We could write incredibly realistic stories then. Heck, screw stories! Maybe world peace could be achieved if we really knew what everyone else on the planet went through and how they experienced sensations, emotions, and life in general. But, at the very least, men would no longer be writing women in ways that feel alien to actual women. Women would no longer write gay or straight men in ways that feel alien to actual gay or straight men. We’d have so much empathy for each other and tell gorgeous stories that went to humanity’s very heart.

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We could all buy the world a Coke.

Until then, maybe we only have our imperfect representation of other people. We only have stories that are told in our human female or human male voices, and told with our human gendered understanding of the world. And maybe, just maybe, the question isn’t whether or not women are writing gay men ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but what this human being is saying about their life, their world, their experience through the use of characters, male or female, and maybe that is the important issue here. And maybe, just maybe if we all valued women and their experience of the world a little bit more, we wouldn’t be so damn offended by the stories they choose to tell with male or female characters.

And, yes, sometimes what someone is saying about their life or their experience is that they’re objectifying and fetishizing a group of people. Sometimes they’re saying they’re ignorant, or bigots, or too lazy to do research about the topic they are writing about. Sometimes they’re saying that they’re crap writers, but they have these sexy fantasies and they want to share.

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Sometimes, though, what they’re saying is worth listening to, even if it doesn’t sound the way a man — straight or gay — would’ve said it. The fact that the ‘voice’ a person uses sounds ‘like a woman’ does not make what they’ve written wrong. The fact that they may inaccurately represent the male experience is not inherently wrong either. Racism, homophobia, etc, should be called out, yes, but telling women to just shut the hell up unless and until they can write like a man is not the answer. And, women, trying to write like a man isn’t the answer either.

What is the answer? I think it’s learning to value women. As for women, I think the answer is to do your research, be as accurate as possible, while letting your own voice come through, because you’re not speaking for anyone else but your characters. So, no, don’t try to write like a man. The way you see the world is no more ‘wrong’ than the way they see the world. We’re all wrong. No one gets it entirely right. But your wrong is just is important as their wrong. Your words have value. Your words are important even when inaccurate. Ours are not unimportant voices simply because we are not male. We shouldn’t be silenced even if men — straight or gay — declare our words invalid.

To be continued….

Part One: Writing As Well As A Woman

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1. VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen

2. Writing Across Gender by Jennifer Dubois

3. Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters by Christine Hsu

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So, I’m going to take a leap here, one I will likely regret, and do a series of posts over the course of a month or so, and interspersed with unrelated posts, which address some fairly controversial thoughts about women, writing, women writing male characters, and women writing gay male characters. At the beginning of each post, I’m going to refer to the same set of linked articles and quote from one or more of them, but reading them entirely isn’t necessary (though perhaps helpful).

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

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I read a lot of retorts to this last summer when these quotes were first released. Everyone seemed to want to weigh in on it, many times arguing that it was sexist to claim that one can tell within a few paragraphs if a book was written by a woman or not. To me, that wasn’t the problem. I actually concur that, in general, women write in ways that are different from men, and that I can usually tell within a few paragraphs whether an author is male or female. (There are expections to this rule; Ursula LeGuin comes to mind as a rather ‘masculine’ writer, in my opinion.)

What bothered me about the quote and most people’s reactions to it was the implication that there is something inherently less or wrong about ‘writing like a woman’ or ‘having a woman’s voice’ or ‘having a woman’s view of the world’. The verbs that Naipaul used to describe women’s writing — sentimental and feminine — are problematic not because of the words themselves, and not because women’s writing may or may not reflect these attributes, but because there is a negative stigma attached to them, and the implication that anything different from ‘masculine’ or ‘unsentimental’ or ‘master of the house’ is, therefore, less than.

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The problem isn’t that women don’t write as well as men, the problem is that the ways in which women exist in this world (and the way they write) are not as valued by the world at large. The fact is that I can pick up a book and tell Mr. Naipaul pretty quickly whether or not it was written by a man. Why? Because it is often brutal, void of connection or emotion that relates to the intimacies of my life and mind, often depicts women in ways that are alien and foreign to me, and that means, in general, I find most books written by men to be less fulfilling much of the time.

I’d hypothesize that if the world were a different place and it placed value on different things, it could be argued that men are the ones who often lack a great deal of understanding of the world in their writing. Unlike Naipaul, however, I will not generalize to say that in my opinion women are better writers than men. That is likely because I’ve lived my life as a woman, in the shadow of men, taught from insidious input delivered silently and covertly to my mind from birth on that what men do is good, it is the ideal, and what they do and want and believe is what matters. In some ways, I’m lucky. At least I’m able to understand that men are fully rational, functional, valuable creatures with much to offer to me as a woman and to the world. Naipaul has never lived in a world that fed his mind from birth with messages that told him the same about women. And this is to his disadvantage, even if he doesn’t see it that way.

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If nothing else, I value men for being sexy mother-fuckers. I am happy to objectify them even if their books sometimes seem ‘lacking’ in some vital feminine ways. Look at Captain Von Trapp. And bite your fist at his hotness!

I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my lifetime. Most of them written by men. Most of these books have female characters. Many of these books, though not a majority by far, feature a part of the book written from the point of view of a female character. Is it my experience that the majority of men get the actual nuances and world-view of human females ‘right’ in their books? No. It is not. In fact, I can tell you that there has only ever been one book written by a man which so captured what I understand as my own female experience that I kept flipping the book over to stare at the author’s picture in order to confirm that, yes, Wally Lamb really is a man.

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She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Instead of asking whether or not a woman can write as well as a man, I’d like to submit Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone as an example of a man writing as well as a woman. And that is not an insult.

To be continued….