The Atlantic this month says that there are few books about women that are not about their love lives. I know this is a big topic to start on, but I have just jotted down a few thoughts on it. Probably, I will never revisit it.
Scanning my book piles (and piles, and piles some more; book piles is a literary affliction that is caused by sitting on one’s ass reading to excess), from what I can presently see most of the books are about men. For fiction and non-fiction alike – that’s just the way the genitals crumble. I ought to count up those whose subjects are people, however I will estimate as I have just been running and I’m actually mid-post-run-eating, feeling pretty lazy. So my sample, as follows, is a teetering sixteen books.
Edward Gorey’s unstrung harp: Clavius Earbrass (male)
Dylan Dog collected comics: Dylan Dog (male)
My Name is Red: Various narrators, including female, but mostly men. Let’s say both
Doctor Faustus: Doctor Faustus (male)
Christopher the Crazy Frog: Christopher (male)
The Complete Crumb comics Vol. 16: both
The Master and Margerita: Both
Great SF stories Vol.4: Haven’t read all of them, but the ones I have read are male.
The Gashlycrumb Tinies: both
Foundation’s Edge: ugh, making this exercise difficult. Male, I guess. But really so much more than that
Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth: male
Uncle Lubin: male
Naked Lunch: male
Dead Souls: male
The Wizard of Oz: female
So there we go, the truth. All fiction, but a mixture of adult and children’s fiction, and comics (for adults that like to be children). I hope it’s not too shocking. When I enter the challenge of engaging my brain to think up great female protagonists, they are mostly in their teens, on a voyage of self discovery etc etc, or yes – having a tragic affair. Dorothy Gale is obviously one of those few great female leads, and she has her own minions to boot. If we look at the world of film, Studio Ghlibi (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc.) consistently provide female characters that are not only not being saved by the boys, but are the ones putting in the legwork.
The Bell Jar is another. Another seemingly understated example is one of my favourite recent books, I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. Charlotte Simmons is a little bit like an extended version of the Bell Jar, minus the feast of masterful imagery that the entirely under-appreciated Plath hands us (e.g. ‘his face, spotlighted like a three quarter moon’). However, Charlotte Simmons does get under your skin, and it provides more of a landscape of highschool life as well as, importantly, being about a woman yet not about her love life. And, because it’s Tom Wolfe, it is very funny. Very Funny indeed. Male writers have been warned about their sloppy writing of female characters in the past, but I can relate to Charlotte Simmons in a big way. So cheers to you, Tom Wolfe in a crispy cream suit.
It is always uncertain ground that one treads when accusing an author of writing an unconvincing female character. Although statements such as this may well have been made by female critics, to me it simply denies the variation in women’s characters in the real world. Some women really are like Thursday Next (Jasper Fforde’s witty and clever female protagonist), contrary to the criticisms levelled against her. More accurately, many women have elements of her. Yet these women tend to do other perhaps more girly stuff as well, because they are not (a) a flat character in a plot-driven linear narrative and (b) they don’t have to save the world, so they have the spare time to do other stuff.
In a plot or philosophy-driven story, and in other cases, personality is not really a consequence of gender, and the lead could be either. The father in Wild Strawberries, for example, could have been a mother, were it not for the fact that women in those days were more rarely academic. Although there are still significantly fewer female than male professors, these days a female professor character would not be so outlandish as to draw attention away from the main purpose of the story (or require a stereotypical explanation, such as ‘she’s a lesbian renegade’ or ‘she’s a genius freak of nature’). Nurture, as we now know, is nature, and vice versa.
And Anna Karenina? You might say that it does not pass the test. But this is a great book that serves to illustrate the pitfalls of reduction in the manner of my list above. Yes, the basic bones of the story are about a woman having an affair. But if it were simply about a love affair it would be no greater than your average Barbara Cartland yarn. It is about a woman, because the questions that society faced at that time – particularly in relation to women – were very big and difficult. Like War and Peace, it is as much an account of a period in history as anything else. From a more humanistic standpoint, the novel addresses many elements of behaviour that are somehow at odds, and this is the timeless element of the book – the antagonism between the Dionysus and Apollo within us has by no means gone away simply because we are 150 years older. Anna Karenina is a behemoth: who refers to her as anything else but that, with no hint of the man who created her?