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?
Annie 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?
There 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.”
With 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!)
Daniel 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.
Finally, 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)