On men writing women

Perspectives from the March Literati meeting

I was a little worried that taking our March Literati meeting online would limit the wide and varied discussion of our book-ish club, but the screen-based format couldn’t hold us back! With a focus on male authors writing female characters, we shared some examples well-written, fully fleshed out ladies in literature along with a handful of way-less-than-good ones. And, of course, we got a little off topic and talked about other books, podcasts, and films that sparked our interest.

I’ve collected the titles we talked about below along with a few editorial remarks. Feel free to comment if there are any exemplars we’ve missed—and happy reading/watching/listening!

Points to the good

There There by Tommy Orange

The large cast of characters features several women, all with intriguing complexity and agency. In keeping with Impromptue’s admiration for Rebecca Solnit, this is one of her recommendations.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Honest portrayals of Vuong’s mother and grandmother prompted two attendees to highlight this poetic first novel. And Roxane Gay vouched for it when she was in Zürich last year participating in the Openair Literatur Festival.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe

Set against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum, the wide cast of characters (spanning multiple generations, but still more male than female) are portrayed sympathetically and with a sense of humor.

Revisited with regrets

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love & high adventure by William Goldman

When re-read through a feminist lens The Princess Bride feels a less magical than it did in memory.

Paper Towns by John Green

The main female character is more nuanced than in Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, but that doesn’t escape the manic pixie dream girl clichés.

Comme çi, comme ça

Red Sparrow Series by Jason Matthews

Something of a female James Bond, the main character is not always convincing but she certainly is kick-ass. Extra points for a female protagonist that has extra-marital sex, enjoys it, and is not punished because of it.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

True that there are a female characters with varied personalities, but we weren’t all sold on Golden’s inside look at the world of geishas.

Riding rockets : the outrageous tales of a space shuttle astronaut by R Mike Mullane

A change of in perspective about female astronauts, begrudging as it might be, keeps this from being a run-of-the-mill white-men-in-space story.

Lolita by Nabokov Vladimir

Hard to imagine a discussion about men writing women that doesn’t include this one! We were in agreement that the mother is one dimensional, but couldn’t settle on whether Lolita herself got real depth.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The women are a bit weird, but all the characters are a little off in this fantasy/horror novel—nice of Hawkins to treat the sexes equally!

Not recommended

Artemis by Andy Weir

He got away with less-than-stellar character portrayals with The Martian, but there’s noticeably little nuance or depth in the female lead of this crime story set on a lunar base.

My Dad Wrote A Porno, hosted by Jamie Morton, James Cooper, and Alice Levine

This podcast involves cringe-worthy readings of terrible erotic literature written by Morton’s father. The physically impossible descriptions of anatomy are mind-boggling.

Slightly off topic

As often happens with the Literati discussions, we veered from the theme into a broader discussion of wordsmithing. Yes, that means female authors snuck into the discussion… and we also touched on the controversy surrounding American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (which none of us had read).

Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit

One of Impromptue’s favorite authors approaches a classic fairy tale from a feminist perspective.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie
(Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy)

A space opera with an empire that does not distinguish people by gender, meaning Leckie uses female personal pronouns universally with powerful effect.

The broken earth trilogy by N K Jemisin

Science fiction/fantasy in the hands of another skilled female writer. Jemisin’s interwoven stories challenge the status quo and massively break from stereotypical fantasy writing.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Fully-fleshed out characters make this witty satire of white woke-ness relatable and way less heavy than the tale of the aftereffects a young black babysitter accused of kidnapping her white charge might otherwise be.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A deeply felt book (with a strong female main character) about racism, prejudice, hope, love, and regret—and hair.

The Tale, written and directed by Jennifer Fox

Described as the kind of story that could only be told autobiographically, Laura Dern stars as a documentary filmmaker (Fox herself) who starts to question two formative childhood relationships.

A bite-sized history of France : gastronomic tales of revolution, war, and enlightenment by Stéphane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell

A pleasant bedtime read, these food-focused chapters are soothing and interesting, but-not-so-engrossing to keep you from sleep.

The Memory Palace, hosted by Nate DiMeo

A monthly podcast presenting the history of stuff you might not know or remember. There’s a big back catalogue as they’ve been broadcasting since 2008—dig into the archives for Eugenia Kelly (ep. 66), Ann Lowe (ep. 157), and Florence Chadwick (ep.93).

Next up on Thursday, May 14 is a Literati meeting where the focus is ‘Coming of age’ in all things literary (books, poetry, podcasts, theater—anything wordy!).

Wishing everyone good health and good reading!

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