Can men really write about women?

I’ve just read five books in a row written by male authors. I’ll freely admit that this doesn’t qualify as a statistically significant sample. And yet I feel compelled to wade right in and share with you my thoughts on the abilities of men to really really understand their female characters. We’re not talking Nicholas Sparks here, so Buckle Up. It could be a bumpy ride.

The Dreams of Bethany MellmothIn my fantasy “authors I have a bit of a crush on” life, for some reason I have William Boyd pegged as a Big Game Hunter type of a man – leaning nonchalantly against a muddy Landrover, smoking a Camel. As a result I’m always taken by surprise to rediscover that he writes really well about women. In The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth  the portrayal of Bethany herself is very finely wrought. However, not to move the goalposts, I think that Boyd is trying to appeal to a female readership here, I just can’t picture male readers taking to this book at all.

Colin Cotterill gets round the problem of writing about women by simply excluding them, if not altogether, in the main. In The Rat Catcher’s Olympics there are really only two female characters and they are like male characters only with female names and husbands. This doesn’t deter me from Cotterill as an author, as his male characters have quite well-developed feminine sides anyway. Colin (I feel we are on first name terms) is the only author I have ever tried to meet: in Chiang Mai at The Blue Diamond Cafe which I had heard he frequented. The Rat Catchers Olympics is a hard novel to recommend to others. Dr Siri is an acquired taste and you need to have a high tolerance level for all things Laotian and in this book, Russian.

The Flight AttendantChris Bohjalian in The Flight Attendant, takes the cliché of a promiscuous air hostess and weaves an unsettling murder mystery out of it. Like a lot of male authors he’s really better at vampish/bad girl females – chances are you’ll not easily recognise yourself in Cassie.

Deon Meyer in the brilliantly dystopian Fever gets round the whole issue by paring the female presence in his books right down to the bare minimum – the very beautiful and the very sporty. Post an apocalyptic disaster, guess what?  It will still be a man’s world!

Cover of Adventures in modern marriage

Only William Nicholson in Adventures in Modern Marriage comes even close to trying to get under the skin of females you might meet in your everyday life. One woman at a time he does this really well, but he too has a problem with interactions between women – which , let’s give credit here, he does at least attempt to portray.

This seems to me to be a major problem area for many male authors. They struggle to write about women in groups, they have no ear for dialogue between women.

There, I have said it. What do you think?


We need to talk about …

No, not Kevin this time, but … the homeless. I think it all started for me with the Christchurch quakes raising our levels of anxiety about our homes, the having or not having of them, that is.

Around about quake time I stumbled on William Boyd’s novel Ordinary Thunderstorms, in which the main character – someone just like you or me – ends up living rough in London.  Ever since then, the homeless have slowly but surely insinuated their way into my very living room.

And there is no escape, because the subject of homelessness has really hit its straps at this year’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012 where book after book has the homeless jumping off the page at me.

In Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, author Martin Edmond – in an attempt to better understand McCahon’s Sydney walkabout – goes homeless for one night in Sydney. It is amazing how compelling it is to read his account of this. You can’t help but wonder how you would cope with a life lived out of a supermarket trolley.

Charlotte Wood also incorporates the homeless into her excellent novel Animal People. Pet owner Nerida is described as someone who would:

feed a stray cat or fret if Balzac had a cough, but the homeless were as intolerable as vermin.

In Snowdrops by A.D Miller, the homeless have a spectacularly bad deal. Not only is Russia a freezing cold country in which to have no front door to close, but homeless people are often murdered and lie under piles of snow all winter only to emerge like snowdrops  in the Spring thaw.

Only Kathy Lette, in The Boy Who Fell to Earth, doesn’t flirt with the topic. But if she had, I bet she’d have made it laugh-out-loud funny.

It is a subject that seems to be in the air right now. So I wasn’t the slightest bit taken aback to open  The Press  the other day and read of a pensioner who is going to sleep in her car for a week in a show of solidarity with all the Christchurch people who have no homes right now.

It could all be quite depressing – being homeless or feeling homeless. But as a Chinese proverb so succinctly put it:

You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair!