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Who Reads Who …and what?

One of my favourite writers is Anne Tyler.

She is someone who seems to make writing look effortless and easy – which, of course, shows what a great writer she is.

To write simply, accessibly, and yet still  convey depth of character and emotion and say all you want to say – well, it’s very, very far from easy. In fact, it’s the most difficult thing in the world to do

Rather like the best of actors who don’t appear to be acting at all, but simply are their character. Or dancers for whom steps and sequences seem to flow so there’s no sign of the endless hours and hours of rehearsal and considerable pain behind the eventual performance. Have you ever seen how misshapen ballet dancers’ toes tend to be?

But back to Anne Tyler and her books.

This week I heard her interviewed by Jane Garvey and Fi Glover – all about her new novel and writing in general. She was as lovely and warm as one expects, but she said something that really surprised me.

She expressed surprise that any men read her books.

She said that, although she had been told that some did, she found it hard to imagine.

And I immediately thought of how it would be impossible to hear any male writer of Anne Tyler’s calibre and success express similar sentiments of surprise that any women read their books.

It wouldn’t even occur to them.

Because male writers have not been told that their novels belong to a sub genre called ‘Men’s Fiction.’

Whereas women writers are often told that theirs belong in ‘Women’s Fiction’ with the implied suggestion of their inferiority.

If it’s women’s fiction, after all, it’s not worth taking seriously. Not worth even suggesting that it is appropriate for a man to read …

So why this division, a kind of imposed censure on female writers who are made to feel that they write for a largely female audience?

Some years ago, there was a discussion that, whilst men wrote about ‘important’ subjects such as war and battle and violence and suffering,  women novelists wrote about ‘minor,’ insignificant subjects like birth, families and relationships. Trivial stuff, you see, with so little relevance to half the population and their lives …I believe Carol Shields (another of my absolute favourite writers who I re-read and re-read constantly and who so very sadly died far too young) responded appropriately to the jibe at the time. At a book fair at the end of last year, a man stopped to ask me what one of my novels was about. When I started to say it was about ‘the complexities of relationships and families’ he pulled a face and said, ‘oh, soppy women’s stuff, then.’ With as much restraint as I could summon, I replied, ‘I believe it is known for men to have relationships and families that may well be rather complex.’ The irony was lost on him – he’d moved on to try and find something less flippant and trivial!

Yet women have always written about crime. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham are among the women belonging to what is called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, predominant mainly in the 1920s and 1930s. So quite a lot of violence there.  And currently there seems to be a great swathe of women choosing a form of crime writing – psychological crime, detective fiction, domestic noir, mysteries, cosy crime (as it’s called)courtroom, police procedural etc.

And men have also always written about families and relationships. Take one of the most famous openings of all time:

All families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 

And it would seem that Tolstoy’s success with ANNA KARENINA wasn’t impeded by actually including the word ‘family’ in his first sentence.

So can men write successfully about women and women write successfully about men?

Some contemporary male writers more often than not have female characters for their lead protagonist – William Boyd, in particular, comes to mind and I loved his novel Sweet Caress which so convincingly and authentically charts the life of a woman, Amory,  over the course of the 20th century.  Then there’s Carol Shields with the wonderful LARRY’S PARTY – a prime example of an utterly enthralling portrayal of a man by a female writer. (you’d have to ask a man who has read it whether he shares my opinion of its conviction, of course …)

In the past, male writers did seem to have a little more trouble with female characters. Thomas Hardy does tend to romanticise his women – in fact, he seems to be in love with most of them – but it doesn’t stop me wanting to read about strong-minded Bathsheba Everdene and poor Tess and mildly infuriating Eustacia Vye. Dickens’ sentimentality over Little Nell and Little Dorrit is renowned – but who doesn’t shed a tear when reading about their fate? And if I’m accusing Hardy of being indulgent over his heroines, it has to be agreed that Charlotte Bronte goes to town with her Byronic hero, Mr Rochester – somehow the man gets away with being rude, duplicitous and scheming yet still possesses a charisma and renown as one of literature’s great male figures.

So, in the pursuit of equality and fair-mindedness, let’s aim to be rid of the term ‘women’s fiction.’

Which means, of course, that I shall have to start with a little self-correction as it’s a category I slip into far too willingly when trying to define my own novels.

My next novel – currently at the editing and proof-reading stage – has several male characters, one of which insisted on taking a more major part than I had originally allocated him. I have enjoyed writing these characters just as much as I have the female ones – and hope that they are as convincing.

But to find that out, I shall have to ensure, once the novel is published, that men as well as women read it.

Although, if the wonderful Anne Tyler still expresses surprise at such a notion, who am I not to follow in her suit?




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