Women on Men

Time for some editing.

Recently I’ve gloried in the prose of some of my favorite female writers: Alice Munro, Paula Fox, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Kim Chinquee and Lydia Davis. The way they see men fascinates me.

Here is an excerpt from Davis’ novel The End of the Story. The narrator is talking about a younger man she had an affair with:

I wasn’t sure I would speak to him, because when I imagined it I was disturbed by the anger I saw in his face. Surprise, then anger, and then dread, because he was afraid of me. His face was blank, and stiff, his eyelids lowered and his head thrown back a little: what was I going to do to him now? And he would move back a step as though that really took him out of my range.” p. 7

Danger is all around in this passage, but the female character is seen as the aggressor, though the man is clearly afraid that his not loving her anymore will throw her into a rage and he lives by looking over his shoulder.

In Alice Munro’s story ‘Hired Girl,’ the narrator describes Mr. Montjoy, the owner of an island resort she is working at one summer:

His blustering was often about things that he had misplaced, or dropped, or bumped into. “Where the hell is the-?” he would say, or “You didn’t happen to see the-?” So it seemed that he had also misplaced, or failed to grasp in the first place, even the name of the thing he was looking for. To console himself he might grab up a handful of peanuts or pretzels or whatever was nearby, and eat handful after handful until they were all gone. Then he would stare at the empty bowl as if that too astounded him.  p. 241

Here, a powerful, rich man is seen as a buffoonish, perplexed, unable. How he has ever risen to such a station in life is a wonder.

Finally, near the end of  Desperate Characters, Paula Fox goes into the mind of Otto Bentwood as he looks at his sleeping wife Sophie:

He knew she must be awake. But he would not speak her name. He would not say anything at all. Sometimes, over the years, that had happened, his not wanting to talk to her. It didn’t mean he was angry. But sometimes…he simply didn’t want to talk to her. It was a very deep feeling, a law of his own nature that, now and then, had to be obeyed. He loved Sophie-he thought about her, the kind of woman she was-and she was so tangled in his life that the time he had sensed she wanted to go away from him had brought him more suffering than he had conceived it possible for him to feel.  p. 144-5

There is no obfuscation in this passage, no mystery or metaphor, no wasted word, the pattern is simple. In all the books and stories I have read no other writer has described the darker corners of my experience as a man in relation to women so well as the paragraph above.

Can women see men more clearly? What about in your own writing. Do you shy away from one gender? Would you not put a story in a woman’s voice if you are a man? Vice versa?

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17 thoughts on “Women on Men

  1. I really like these posts, Greg. It’s something I think about a lot, in my own work and working at a feminist bookstore that’s grown into a more general interest bookstore.

    I’ll preface this by saying I certainly don’t think I know anything definitive about men OR women.

    My longest relationship with a story, though, is my novel manuscript, and that’s written from a man’s point of view, but he’s telling the story of his estranged wife, who he comes to realize he either understood too well or not at all.

    I don’t know if this adds anything to this discussion.

    I’m trying to think of a story a man’s written that I felt really had me figured out though, and I one is not coming easily to mind. If I think of something, I will post it.

    • Thanks Jac. Looking forward to your novel.

      I female writer friend has told me she doesn’t find many of the women that men conceive especially convincing. This interests me. I believe she was referring to Roth/Updike.

      I especially dislike how women in many cop/gangster Hollywood movies are reduced to homemakers who are given a few lines of complaining dialogue about not getting enough attention for them and their children. Then the inevitable hug and sex. HEAT is a good example of this, though Ashley Judd does a little more, but I mean Pacino and De Niro’s women. Even SEVEN to a degree.

  2. The possible double entendre of your title here had me prepared for a different post.

    I think it’s interesting to see what happens when the gender-specific pronouns are switched in these passages. Is anything really lost?

    Davis’s:

    I wasn’t sure I would speak to her, because when I imagined it I was disturbed by the anger I saw in her face. Surprise, then anger, and then dread, because she was afraid of me. Her face was blank, and stiff, her eyelids lowered and her head thrown back a little: what was I going to do to her now? And she would move back a step as though that really took her out of my range.

    Munro’s:

    Her blustering was often about things that she had misplaced, or dropped, or bumped into. “Where the hell is the-?” she would say, or “You didn’t happen to see the-?” So it seemed that she had also misplaced, or failed to grasp in the first place, even the name of the thing she was looking for. To console herself she might grab up a handful of peanuts or pretzels or whatever was nearby, and eat handful after handful until they were all gone. Then she would stare at the empty bowl as if that too astounded her.

    Fox’s:

    She knew he must be awake. But she would not speak his name. She would not say anything at all. Sometimes, over the years, that had happened, her not wanting to talk to him. It didn’t mean she was angry. But sometimes…she simply didn’t want to talk to him. It was a very deep feeling, a law of her own nature that, now and then, had to be obeyed. She loved Sophie-she thought about him, the kind of man he was-and he was so tangled in her life that the time she had sensed he wanted to go away from her had brought her more suffering than she had conceived it possible for her to feel.

    At first, I thought I had to change the now man’s name from Sophie to something else. But no, even that can stand.

    So, for me, these examples do not illuminate what it means to be a man. And no, I don’t think women see men more clearly, nor vice versa, for that matter.

  3. i’ll never forget something Zimbabwean (male) author Chenjerai Hove said in response to a question regarding his ability to make a main character female. he said that he spent nine months in the body of a woman. i found this reply wise. and having just given birth to a son, it resonates even stronger. all men are part female. all men spend some time absolutely dependent on a female body to eat, breathe, digest, live. the chicks have taken over part of your brain circuitry.

    perhaps it isn’t “authentic” for a man to write as a woman (or vice versa) but authenticity and truth don’t always make for a valuable literary experience. besides, some sort of “objective truth” is a male construct, eh?

  4. Those are great passages.

    Men on women- Anna Karenina. I’m spacing now on anything else, but that came to mind immediately.

    I write from the male POV often. I also once wrote from the POV of a mentally handicapped teenage African American foster child.

  5. I recall the author Keith Roberts (by no means a feminist) telling me once that the problem with men trying to write as women was that they tend to concentrate too much on externals. “I walked across the room. I could feel my nylon-clad legs sliding against each other …” I can see the truth in what he says, but I am unsure whether this is because the author is uncertain of the voice (like an actor having to work out how his character walks before being able to play the part), or because they fear the readers will automatically assume the “I” is a man unless the opposite is made abundantly clear.

    Curiously, Keith himself often used a female PoV, sometimes, I thought, quite successfully, but then, I’m a man so not really in a position to judge.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, because in April I am to be on an AWP panel entitled “Cross-dressing Narratives: Men Writing as Women, Women Writing as Men.” My second novel (not quite finished) started out as the story of a guy in his mid-30s—a stalled creature whose days of fame and functioning are well behind him—but along the way, with almost a full rough draft written, I made the character into a woman. Virtually nothing else about him changed: same job, same drinking habits, same tics of speech and sentiment. A lot of stereotypically masculine qualities & behaviors get more interesting, I think, when they are possessed & enacted by a woman–and the same goes for “feminine” qualities in male characters.

    On a sort-of-related note, there is a machine on the Internet called the Gender Genie which, according to The Guardian,

    “claims to be able to tell you, with 80% accuracy, whether a piece of writing has been done by a man or by a woman. It uses a computer programme developed by a team of Israeli scientists after an exhaustive study of the differences between male and female use of language.

    “One of their findings is that women are far more likely than men to use personal pronouns (“I”, “you”, “she”, etc), whereas men prefer words that identify or determine nouns (“a”, “the”, “that”) or that quantify them (“one”, “two”, “more”). According to Moshe Koppel, one of the authors of the project, this is because women are more comfortable thinking about people and relationships, whereas men prefer thinking about things. But the self-styled “stylometricians”, in creating their gender-identifying algorithm, have been at pains to avoid the obvious.

    “The algorithm pays no attention to the subject matter of a piece of writing, or to the occurrence in it of words that might suggest a greater interest by one sex or the other, such as “lipstick” or “bullets”. Instead, it looks for little clues that both writers and readers would probably fail to notice, such as the number of personal pronouns used.” –(8 November 2003)

    http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.html

  7. Oh, gender genie (or GG) is fun. I plugged in four different stories. One in the voice of a woman, the other three by men. The former and two of the latter came out as written by a woman.

    Do people think when you read a bunch of women, that you start to write like them? At least according to GG.

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