Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Beyond Boys and Girls: continuing the discussion with Jenna St. Hilaire and Mr. Pond

"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."


  1. Thanks, Masha. I agree that we tend to get over-clinical or silly about our physical experiences, and I miss the simpler and more communal side of things. Also, I hate clinicalism outside the clinic--you'll notice that I used the word 'barrenness' rather than 'infertility' (*shudder*)--so I sympathize with your thoughts.

    I think you've misread my second point. Now, I'm working anecdotally, just from my own observations at The Hog's Head and similar places, and such things can be dead wrong. But to take from it the idea that I claimed we were slaves to our emotions and had to feel good about a book some way... That's a far cry from what I meant. I was trying to point out, gently, that women seem to be kinder to men's 'fun reads' than men are to women's. I couldn't get into Tom Clancy, but sure, I'll admit he appears to be well-researched. How many guys will even read chick lit, let alone say anything nice about it?

    But that was not meant to be an all-encompassing, no-exceptions rule. And as noted, it may still be wrong.

    I agree that humanity comes before gender. But I do like gender. I like strong male and female characterizations (not stereotyped He-Man and giggly girl ones--I'm talking about artistic portrayals that speak to the heart of what it is to be male or female), and more props to the man or woman who can write the opposite sex with understanding and empathy.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Masha. What's my Russian nickname, eh? I find myself suspended between responses. My initial reaction is to say I don't think a woman writing primarily "as a woman" has necessarily failed artistically, but then I'm not sure what you mean by this phrase. Can you elaborate?

    There's a distinction to be made between not attempting to portray something (combat, childbirth,) because you don't have experiences to draw on and don't feel comfortable cobbling something together, on one hand, and portraying these things in an arrogant or stereotyped or otherwise lazy way on the other.

    I'd say that the first is not necessarily an artistic failing, but the second is. On a mysteriously sprouting third hand, there are authors (and critics) who dismiss certain subjects as unworthy of attention, and that's how you get late 20th-century critics trying to reassure their readers that, yes, strange as it may seem, someone who writes exclusively about the marriage plots of the country gentry can in fact be considered a great novelist. That hand is holding a lot of nonsense, but I felt it would be rude not to mention it, since it was right there.

    Can anyone "create fully?" I'm not trying to ask an Unhelpful Rhetorical; I want to hear a little more about what you think that means.

    Hope your weather stays nice!

  3. Jenna,
    I see, I think I did mis-understand your second comment. I also can't read Tom Clancy, though really, that might be because I've never had the desire to try. :) It may be because women's lit is so exclusively "women's" while Tom C. and the like can appeal to anyone who's interested in Law-type things, there are often "strong" if 2-demensional(sp) women walking around, where as in women's lit (I'm guessing, I don't read a lot of that either) the men tend to be eye/emotion candy..though again, the women in Clancy might be "I-like-high-powered-chicks" eye-candy..maybe that's why they're two-demensional(Sp).

    I agree with you entirely on the clinical nastiness of "infertile" vs. "barren". I always avoid "infertile" its implications are so cold, and so permanent. "Barren" allows for alteration, like a field being given time to lie farrow, building its nutrient and growing into it's creativity. Applying 'infertile' to a person is like a cures, it says 'never', while 'barren' says, 'not now'. At least that's my experience.

    I Did want to go in somewhat to masculine and feminine aspects, not just into humanity in general, but I didn't have time, or direction at the time, I do agree that drawing out masculine and feminine elements is Good, just often over-blown and then limiting..hope this is all clear.

    Blessings! And thanks a lot for your thoughts, they were fantastic!

  4. Jam-for-the-ladies,

    We could call you Anka, or Annushka, or Lena...or LUBA (like the DOG :)!!)

    When I said, writing primarily as a woman, I ment, putting her sex ahead of her humanity, limiting the ability of her writing to appeal to both men and women..does that make sense?

    There is a difference in unwillingness to portray something because of a lack of experience, I was not refering to this so much as the second, rejection of an experience. I think that men can write well on things like childbirth - having not experienced it, by entering into the experience with women. It's different than a woman writing on the same experience, but not in a wrong way.

    No, I don't really think anyone but God can create fully, but I think everyone should be striving to. Dare to dream! :)

    (Have you seen the Icon of the 3-handed Virgin?? speaking of mysteriously sprouting 3rd hands.)

    You still haven't told me how to get to Your blog.