"I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs."
~Flannery O' Connor
I had a different post prepared originally, but Jenna's thoughts on male and female views in writing gave me a good deal to think about and respond to, so I'm going to run my mouth a bit instead. She makes three points which particularly require a closer look: The first, that men are uncomfortable discussing the bodily experiences of women, such as menstruation, barrenness, and childbirth; the second, that men are more likely to reject a book for flaw which women will gloss over in the pursuit of something to love in the story; and finally, that men deal with broader themes, while women deal in the intimate and personal.
I do actually agree with her on some level in the first point. Men are often uncomfortable discussing women's experiences in the bodily sense. But as Jenna points out from her own experience, so are many women. This is less of a gender issue than an issue we have as a culture with our own physicality. The world is so clean, so sanitized - our bodies and their less-than-attractive elements are kept out of sight and out of mind. We are so distant from our own bodies that it's no wonder we don't know anymore how to discuss our own bodies without discomfort. Men and women both struggle with discussing bodily experiences, there is a tendency to become either too clinical or too "silly" - hiding embarrassment behind jokes or technicalities. If women are too uncomfortable to be open about their experiences, men can't write with any understanding of those experiences - nor can women, because they've lost a communal understanding of what women experience, they are too wrapped up in a singular experience, with no way of knowing if it's in any way a shared experience.
The second point Jenna brings up is amusing to me, as a woman who violates this rule so completely in my own reading. I'm amused because while I, and most women I know would fall in as readers with the men in her assertion, a decent number of men would fall in with the women, reading and forgiving everything for the sake of a "fun" read or an attractive heroine. I suspect it's a completely personal trait, but I'm a little disturbed at the ease with which she assigns it to women. Are we really such slaves to our emotions that we can't read a book without needing to feel good about it in some way? Are we really so incapable of clear judgement? I don't think so, and I think the tendency to apply this idea to women encourages a market already full of badly written books, and designed to make women read casually, respond emotionally, and cultivate an unhealthy attitude towards reading - requiring it to produce a certain feeling in order to have value to her as an activity.
It's her third point I want to spend the most time on. She's right in some ways, in that many people do have an impression of men caring "more about the big, overarching matters of the world," while women care more about the intimate, personal details of life. There is sometimes belief that men are really writing about big issues, when they're dealing in the intimate, and women are being too personal even when addressing larger issues, but this is more an issue of projection. Because we assume women write about personal details, we can't see the bigger picture, and because we assume men are dealing with wider issues, we miss the intimacy and emotion. In good writing, as in any other art, the intimate and the universal come together, just as the masculine and feminine elements of the writer come together. A woman who writes primarily "as a woman" fails in that she puts her gender ahead of her humanity. While it's true she writes out of her experiences as a woman, they are experiences in the world, with men and women, and unless she can enter into the mind of the men in her experience, she can never create fully. In this area, I can't help but think of two short-stories by Hemingway - often considered one of the most decidedly male authors - in which he enters into the mind of his female characters in an intimate way: "Hills like White Elephants" and "Cat in the Rain" are short, intense explorations of experiences of women he interacted with, and they indicate that, for the artist, the point is to experience everything, not merely as a man or a woman, but as an artist - to move beyond limitations and become "like the seraphim, all eye."