One reason I prefer to read women authors is that they generally don’t feel the need to ‘explore’ the genitalia of their characters in order to fully inhabit them.
I’m not saying all male authors do this – but when I come across a female character coyly prospecting her bits for the benefit of the reader, I am usually confident the writer is male. Here’s a passage from ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by S.J. Watson:
‘Can I enjoy sex? I realize I don’t even know that. I flush the toilet and step out of my trousers, my tights, my knickers. I sit on the edge of the bath. How alien my body is. How unknown to me. How can I be happy giving it to someone else, when I don’t recognize it myself?
‘I lock the bathroom door, then part my legs. Slightly at first, then more. I lift my blouse and look down. I see the stretch marks I saw the day I remembered Adam, the wiry shock of my pubic hair. I wonder if I ever shave it, whether I choose not to based on my preference or my husband’s. Perhaps those things don’t matter any more. Not now.
‘I cup my hand and place it over my pubic mound. My fingers rest on my labia, parting them slightly. I brush the tip of what must be my clitoris…’
All right, I’m sure you get the gist. I actually can’t bear to type any more of it, it’s just so, well – NO, EWWW, STOP IT. Book hurled aside in derision, author Googled – yes, what a surprise, S.J. Watson is a bloke. Knew it. Because this just reads like – well, some might call it writing one-handed, but let’s say prurient titillation. Though I think S.J. must have had a male reader in mind, if he had one in mind at all, because my feeling is that most women would just think, Huh? All right, she has amnesia, but she forgot where her CLITORIS is? Did she also forget about her bellybutton? Her breasts? ‘Good Lord, these must be my breasts. Crikey, that’s going to take some getting used to.’
Here is Will Self, talking about how he gets into character for a female protag:
“I always start with physicality when I’m writing as a woman. So I always have a vagina and think about having periods. I always start with an embodiment. And I think when I read men writing about women, they never seem to have thought about that. They’ve never thought: actually, you’ve got a cycle, you’re different. So if I do succeed at all, that’s what it’s down to.”
Most of this statement terrifies me. Will Self thinks the key to women is their vaginas! Not only that, he thinks this insight gives him the edge over other male writers! (Who presumably ignore the vaginas of their less-successfully-realised female characters.) Arrrrgh!
I have a theory – bear with me – that the reason men think this way is because they are OBSESSED WITH THEIR BLOODY COCKS. It could well be that this is, in fact, the key to understanding men – that for a woman to write a male character successfully she must first fully imagine and engage with externalised genitalia and all that goes with it (chafing? More complicated grooming? I’m a little hazy on the details). Anyway, fellas, I am here to tell you that Women Don’t Think Like That. With our sexual parts, I mean.
But Will does approach something of what I personally believe to be the deeper truth about the differences between men and women. He rather loftily cites the cycle (i.e. periods), and is no doubt thinking of the attendant mood swings and occasional monstrousness that afflict some of us in the run-up to Aunt Mary’s Visit.
And yes, the cycle IS a huge difference between men and women. But it’s easy to point at mood swings and monstrousness and forget the crucial point – it’s the HORMONES, innit. Women’s hormones fluctuate, sometimes wildly; men’s, generally, don’t. Men are kept topped up with a more or less steady supply of testosterone for much of their lives, and can therefore maintain the levels of aggression, competitiveness and focus that they have made requirements for success in ‘their’ world. Women are often at the mercy of moods and emotions that can be completely overwhelming – but can also be transformative, enriching experiences. At least two days every month, for example, I find myself in a state I can only describe as emotionally flayed: empathic connection is instantaneous and unmediated by thought, grief and joy so close to the surface that I will careen from one to the other and back during the course of a single ad break.
How can this NOT affect who I am? It’s like that first ecstasy blissout (as I understand it), the discovery of a fundamental, beautiful connection to your fellow man – the effect wears off, but the experience stays with you. You’ll always remember what it was like to love EVERYONE.
So this is my second theory. Again, bear with me – this one is about why the stereotype of woman as being the more caring, compassionate sex exists. Erm, it’s sort of because we ARE more caring and compassionate, at least some of the time, and that is because we have these incredibly intense emotional experiences where we empathise with all of humanity EVERY MONTH. Well, I’d hate to be accused of generalising. Maybe it’s just me. I do drink quite a lot of rum.
Anyhoo, all I wanted to say was this: what makes us men, or women, is much more interesting than whether we have an innie or an outie between our legs. There’s a whole complicated stew of biological, psychological and environmental factors, some of which are connected to physicality, many not. Guys, there’s more to us than our sex organs. Is there more to you than yours?