Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Engendering stories - N M Browne

While the world holds its breath and the citizens of the US vote, it seems hard to avoid some of the issues raised by the interminable campaigning. In real life it is rare for individuals to be seen as an embodiment of their race or class or gender – except perhaps in US presidential elections. In novels it happens all the time.

I am a simple-ish soul. I usually write stories with a male audience in mind. I grew up reading ‘Biggles’, ‘Just William’ and SF which, back in the day, was pretty well all about men. I went to a male dominated college at a male dominated university and worked in the oil industry. I have three sons and a daughter and spend much of my life on touch lines, in the rain, watching blokes slam into each other at speed. (I am a regular at our local A and E department.) Much of my life is conducted in a reeking smog of male sweat, testosterone and ‘Deep Heat’ (and that is just my living room) My default writing voice is male. I write a lot of battles and even my non historical settings tend to be patriarchal and extremely hostile to women. Am I a gender traitor?

I hope I’m not. Until recently it wasn’t a question I considered over much. The women and girls in my books tend to be pretty kick-ass, often more so than the men. While I am no feminist pioneer, Lancashire in the seventies was no haven of pc attitudes and I come from a long line of stroppy women. It never occurred to me that my books could be read as reinforcing stereotypes. A couple of recent critiques have shown me that they can and that has really got me thinking. Is it OK to say: ‘this is just a story’? Is it OK to point out that stories are about characters and not gender representatives? It is surely OK to note that Palin is a nightmare not because she is a woman but because – well because of everything she believes in? Yet, at least to begin with, the fact that she is a woman trumped all else. The Obama v Clinton battle was presented as a race and gender one. This great US political drama has illustrated the human tendency to extrapolate the general from the particular in stark and often crude terms.

So how much should gender and race politics influence what we write or its interpretation? I don’t have an answer; it is a question I am still pondering. No doubt we all come up with different answers and I’d be interested in hearing some of them. Isn’t it fun to be writing in such interesting times!

1 comment:

Nick Green said...

There was an interesting article in The Times about Anthony Horowitz, and how he's never until now written a female heroine - partly because, he says, he was so put off by the cruel girls he knew as a child. Hence his main characters have been overwhelmingly male (and even his new heroine, Scarlett, hardly seems the girly-girl type).

I do find this odd, actually; this tendency to define characters by their gender, as if that was the most important thing. All girls are not alike; neither are all boys. So what does it mean if we say someone has written a convincing male/female character?

I once read that there is more genetic variation within a 'race' (e.g. black/white) than can be found between them. I think the same is true of gender. And as a matter of interest, writing female characters comes to me far more easily than writing males. Boys - especially adolescents - are really difficult! They're an enigma to me, and I was one.