by Joshua Henkin
I’ve done a number of interviews for my new novel, Matrimony, and I’m beginning to notice a recurring question. Is it hard/how do you feel about/does it take guts to write from a female point of view? What the interviewer is referring to is the fact that I am male and my novel is told first in alternating points of view from the perspective of my two protagonists, Julian and Mia, and then, as the book goes on, from both their points of view, moving from one to the other, sometimes in the course of a single paragraph. In the reading group guide that Pantheon has printed (to download it, and for more information about reading groups for Matrimony, including a contest for free books, see my website, (http://www.joshuahenkin.com/readinggroups), one of the questions is, “Novels about relationships are usually the terrain of women, but Matrimony is written by a man. How does the gender of the author influence the narrative?”
Although no one has yet said this explicitly, I think the question is motivated least in part by the fact that not only do I write from a female point of view but I write about female anatomy. (Here I would encourage you to skip the next couple of sentences if you don’t want to have part of the plot ruined for you.). Specifically, when she’s a senior in college, Mia learns that her mother has breast cancer. Later in the novel, Mia has her own breast cancer scare, and because both she and her sister are Ashkenazi Jews they have to decide whether to test for BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, the Ashkenazi Jewish breast cancer genes. Matrimony could by no means be called a breast cancer novel. The pages devoted to the subject are relatively few. And yet it’s there, and it’s important to what happens over the course of the novel. Should a male novelist be writing about such things?
Why not? Why should a man’s writing from a woman’s point of view be such a hard thing (Flaubert seemed to do it pretty well in Madame Bovary), or any harder than writing from any other point of view, which is to say it’s hard as hell, but then nothing in fiction is easy. I’ve written from a woman’s point of view before, and it wasn’t a matter of going into my “female” mode any more (or less) than it’s a matter of going into my rich person’s mode when writing about the wealthy, my doddering mode when writing about the elderly, or my lunatic mode when writing about a lunatic. Yet it’s gender (probably along with race) that fascinates people most, and that makes them most anxious. I’ve had people actually say to me, “Do you think it’s allowed for a man to write from a woman’s point of view?” Allowed? Anything’s allowed if you do it right. That’s the pleasure (and the burden) of fiction.
In my writing classes (I teach undergraduates and MFA students at Sarah Lawrence College and MFA students at Brooklyn College), when someone writes from the point of view of the other gender, a good deal of discussion usually ensues about whether the character sounds believably male or believably female. And while this discussion is far from pointless (believability is extremely important in fiction), it’s no more relevant in the case of gender than it is in the case of anything else. It’s hard to get your characters right. It takes years of work. Even if the novel in question is autobiographical, the writer is presumably writing about more than one character, so there are always going to be characters who aren’t the writer. For me, fiction—the writing of it, the reading of it—is about getting outside your own experience. That’s why fiction writers are universalists at heart. They believe it’s possible to communicate what it’s like to be someone else. Otherwise, the enterprise is doomed to failure.
Posted on October 10th, 2007 Filed under: Guest Posts |