The Great Divide: Writing Across Gender

February 25, 2011 | 12 books mentioned 20 7 min read

The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination.  Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own.  Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know.  Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.

Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender.  Are they successful?  How does one measure?

coverAnnie Proulx comes to mind immediately.  More often than not, her main characters are male.  And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail.  The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself).  One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.

And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all?  Who can forget:

Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock.  Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither.  A one-shot thing.  Nobody’s business but ours.”

At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking.  Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman?  Or perhaps less?  It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:

The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie.  He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls.  The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx.  The “E” somehow stuck.  (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.)  The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.

In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman.  Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)?  Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?

Do we ever really “forget” the author?  Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works?  Do we necessarily want her to?

coverThere is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author.  With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:

Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate.  He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”

Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible.  I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”

Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman.  Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”

Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:

“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman.  I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”

coverWith the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.

What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea?  He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic.  Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester?  Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life.  Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you.  Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.

A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:

Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep,
stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor,
the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake,
a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories

On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.

In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved.  (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)

coverDaniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women.  The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends.  What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way.  The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits.  There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling.  I somehow have the urge to thank him.

coverFinally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed.  Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations.  In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself.  This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life).   At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.

How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist.  In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer.  The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.

In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author?  Do we necessarily want to?  Predictably: yes, and no.

(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. I never–ever–consider the sex of the author. It doesn’t matter to me in the absolute slightest. I know, for example, that George R R Martin is a man, but I don’t think about that other than checking that my book is by the author I’m after–his writing of hugely masculine testosterone battles, and then the care and empathy of a mother has no joins and once I’ve opened the book, what’s between the author’s legs or who she or he sleeps with has as little relevance as if I started wondering how the hell Black Beauty mananged to write with hooves, or managed to dictate his story in the first place.

    Some men can write excellent women, some can’t. Some women can do the same (or not) with me. Some gay writers can write good gay characters (not all) Many straight writers can do the same. There’s good and bad fiction from all genders and sexual persuasions.

    I find it incredibly baffling when I hear readers say “I could never read romance written by a man” and it’s this attitude, which is becoming more rare–i hope–that has encouraged authors to hide behind pennames which are opposite to their own gender, and for publishers to encourage them to do so. I’ve read marvellous “women’s fiction” written by men, and I’ve read ghastly chick lit written by women. Some of the most schmoopy and romantic gay romance has been written by men, and some straight women can write the most masculine of gays.

    People should just try books–regardless of gender. Put their pre-conceptions behind them and just read. They might be pleasantly surprised.

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  3. It’s interesting too I think that male writers are less likely (at least it seems to me) to write female leads than they used to be.

    Many of the great novels from the late 18th and 19th Centuries were men writing women: MOLL FLANDERS, MADAME BOVARY, MAGGIE GIRL OF THE STREETS, ANNA KARENINA and on and on.

    It’s extremely difficult to come up with an equivalent 20th C list: MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis? SISTER CARRIE by Dreiser?

    And what of Toibin’s BROOKLYN? Seems a more substantial example than the one short story from EMPTY FAMILY, though I haven’t made it through this collection yet.

  4. All this discussion ignores one crucial fact – the reader is a collaborator in the creation of every story, NOT a passive receptacle. It is s/he who brings the story alive in hi/r imagination. Until then it is dead words on paper or view-screen. It is ultimately hi/r limits and skills which decides whether the gender of the characters are convincing.

  5. One of the most interesting novels of 2010, confounding many of our easy assumptions about gendered fiction, is DEEP CREEK, which was named a Best Novel of 2010 by the Washington Post.

    It is written by ‘Dana Hand,’ the unisex pen name of a pair of Princeton writers, Anne Matthews and Will Howarth.

    Heard them talk at Yale about their collaboration, which they describe as a tennis game: he serves, she returns, and they’re off, for 6, 8, 10 drafts. He does the romance. She does the violence.

  6. Annie Proulx pulls off her characters so convincingly in part because she has spent time hanging out with people in Wyoming, Newfoundland and elsewhere. It’s more than her ability to get out of her own gender; she can capture the cadences of language and the culture of places where gender lines are more stark. I’ve read enough of her work to hear ‘her’ voice, yet there’s no dissonance because it’s authentic.

    I’ve found that much of my fiction focuses on male characters, in particular the two main ones in my novel, In the Lap of the Gods. Early on in the process, fellow writers latched on to the character of the abandoned baby girl and assumed I would develop her character – because I’m a woman. Perhaps I’m drawn to male characters, especially in my stories set in China, because of my father’s reticence as a survivor of civil war (he would get along well with Annie Proulx’s characters). Writing is a way of probing into hidden truths — things I don’t know about. One discovers, in life and in fiction, that people are more complex and don’t fit neatly into stereotypes, and here’s where few of us are just ‘male’ or ‘female’ in our tendencies.

  7. I can think of another fascinating example from “the converse side of literary gender-crossing,” though it will understandably strike some readers as being rather downmarket or pulpy: Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
    The book shares absolutely nothing with the Roger Moore film beyond the title–Fleming was so embarrassed by the book’s hostile reception (from mostly male critics, female critics such as Daphne Du Maurier were far more positive) that he forbade any straight adaptations.
    The book is told entirely in first person by a young Canadian, Vivienne Michel, and two thirds of it is devoted to chronicling her unsuccessful past affairs. Fleming does not introduce 007 until the final third. As Ann S. Boyd has written, “Although The Spy Who Loved Me is written in the style of a true-confession type of novelette on a soap-opera level, it presents a devastating parody of the misuse and manipulation of sex.”
    Most notable is Michel’s retelling of the loss of her virginity, which was based on Fleming’s own experience. Looking back, but from his partner’s standpoint, he renders the male unattractive and callow–with the exception of one character, the book is a very unflattering portrait of the male sex. As for Fleming’s “literary transvestism,” aside from a few silly remarks toward the end of the book, his attempt at writing from a young woman’s perspective is mostly convincing.

  8. I also just listened to Molly Giles’s “The Writers’ Model” on the Feb 21 edition of “Selected Shorts.” It’s a kind of satire on “trying to write female characters.” Relevant, funny, and worth a read/listen.

  9. And don’t forget Edith Wharton writing largely from Newland Archer’s perspective in “The Age of Innocence.”

    Nicely written and focused essay. Thanks.

  10. Fascinating post, but am I the only one who did a double-take at the illustration?
    These two people seem to be crossing not only gender lines, but planetary lines: otherworldly nose on the outside, bizarre chest on the inside?

  11. Paula, I’ve heard mixed reviews about Patty (I haven’t read it) from female readers. Thanks for weighing in. It makes me think of the mixed reviews from female African American readers of THE HELP (and the controversy now broiling about that). Laer’s comment above would seem at the heart of these complexities, i.e. the countless combinations and layerings of writer/character/reader.

  12. Mark Salzman’s Sister John of the Cross from Lying Awake was another stunning example of cross-gender writing. I never would have believed that book and especially that character were written by a man without his name on the cover.

  13. One of the funniest things I’ve ever read on this subject is Terry Castle’s account of being called out as an anti-feminist for her reading of Defoe’s Roxana: A male prof yearning to be a feminist hero thought she-Terry was a he-Terry and a dreadfully piggish critic of female ingenuity. It’s in the Intro to Boss Ladies, Watch Out!

    And in my own reading life: I picked up Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and was utterly convinced that the first-person narrator was a man throughout–couldn’t shake the impression–though the novel is clearly a first-person account of a life of domestic violence written in the voice of a battered woman.

    Joyce and Woolf were also very interested in the idea that the artist’s imagination must be ambi/omni sexual. And have you read Helene Cixous on “ecriture feminine”? I haven’t in ages–but she’s sort of the go-to girl for this question in academic literary studies.

    A good read! Thanks.

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