Long ago, I used this very blog to air my complaints about one of my least favourite living writers, a one Mr. J Franzen. I dislike Franzen for several reasons, all of which I will not bother you with now. We'll gloss over those, and go directly to my #1 gripe with J-Franz, which is: the way he writes about women.
Male writers, I know it is not easy to imagine what it is to be a woman. Many male writer-friends have told me they avoid writing women, or leave them out of their work altogether. It's often for the most honourable reasons. Perhaps you're afraid to get women 'wrong'. Or you're sensitive to the fear of undermining female perspectives, because you might steal women's stories and mistell them through the prism of male experience. Worst of all, women like me might read your stories, become enraged by your lack of understanding, and write a whole series of blog posts about what a massive misogynist you are.
So how does a writer like Franzen - somebody who is frequently hailed as being the greatest writer of his generation - get women so wrong? For me, as a reader, the answer is really simple. In trying to use his female characters to explore the problems of sexism, Franzen ties them up in knots. His female characters often are used as mirrors to extrapolate the dilemmas facing his male characters. They don't jump off the page; they don't have needs, wishes, desires. Their needs only exist as a means of irritating or servicing (delete as applicable) the needs of the men in the book. They have no volition, save when it serves the men for them to do so. They have no complexity, no depth, no sympathy. In short: Franzen writes about women as though he has never met any.
Men, here is what I suggest: if you want to get women right, there's a lot you can do. The more you do, the more your feel for women will improve. You can do as little as much as you feel able, but I recommend doing as much as you can. It'll all serve your work in the end.
A good place to start is by reading women writers, and lots of them. You might find that women writers see the world differently, that they write differently. It might surprise you how different the female perspective is. There are plenty of amazing female writers to read - my personal favourites are writers like Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark, Amy Tan, and Claire Massey. Don't just leave it at one book. Read many, and widely. Women write a wide range of fiction as do men - do yourself a favour, and check their work out.
Fiction an easy place to start, but needs to work in tandem with actual experience. This is where you really need to put your back into your research. Be ready to go places you have never been before. Stay calm, it's all in service of your art.
To really write women well, you have to get to grips with good characterisation. Your reader will believe your characters if they seem real; and poor characterisation always results from drawing on too little. Write a character based on only one or two people, and it will always come across thin. But write based on many, and you'll have something believable. It's as true of female characters as it is of males.
It will help to start meeting new people. If you only really ever meet women as a means of dating them - if you only know women your own age, say, or if you only know women who are dating your friends - this isn't really a wide enough pool to draw upon. You need something outside your social background. You need to meet women of differing educational backgrounds, and of different heritages. Always think about expanding the range of your experience, and most importantly, of doing it deeply.
There are tons of good ways to do this. A good way to start is by meeting women of different ages. You'll find you can learn a lot from older women. They'll be able to tell you how women's status has changed over the generations, and the struggles they faced when they were young. If nothing else you'll find their stories fascinating. Where do you meet them? Well, that's up to you. Older women are all over. Join a book group. Start going to a knitting circle. Seek them out, hear their stories. Seek out that which is outside your immediate experience. Find it and soak it all up, and write it down in your notebook afterwards.
But the best way of all to learn about women - and I know many of you will baulk at this - is to do what has become women's work. Low paid, low status jobs in the health and care industry are crawling with women. Why do women do these jobs? Go and do one yourself, and you'll find out. It's not just one answer, but many. The hours might suit for childcare; or perhaps this job is the only one your colleague has the skills for. Perhaps it's a stopgap between graduating university and finding something better. In amongst doing this low status work, during which you'll have the chance to find out what it is to do that work - literally what it is to be a woman - you'll have the chance to meet women from a whole range of different backgrounds. You'll find out why they do the work they do; you'll hear them talk about their home lives, their domestic arrangements, their wishes for the future. All of this is stuff that you can draw on for your female characters. As always, make sure you do it with respect. Be mindful that the women you're working with are real. They're not just somebody you're going to take the piss out of later to get a cheap laugh when you come to write your novel. They're real people, with real lives, and most likely many of them will still be doing this work when you are long gone. Tread carefully and you can represent them and their lives well. Giving accurate voice to someone who can't speak up for themselves is a big responsibility.
Above all, my advice would be to pay your female characters the same amount of attention you would your male. Give them backstories. Know where they come from and what they want. If your characters are drawn from a range of experience in life, they will have that much more of a ring of authenticity. Don't assume that you can make it all up in your head and get it right. You won't. Listen to women; collect their stories, blend what you know from life well into believable characters, and you will get it right.
Best European Fiction 2012 Ed. Aleksandar Hemon
The Shipyard Juan Carlos Onetti