When a Man Writes a Woman

by Ester Bloom

When men write women, the results are tiresome. Reading at random, you will occasionally come across a Lisbeth Salander, a Maria Dmitryevna Akhrosimova, or a Ma Joad, a character with interiority and what feels like her own life off the page. Far too often, though, when you open up a book by a male writer — even a good male writer, and occasionally even a great male writer — you encounter ladies who are a variation on one or more of four themes: virgin, whore, mother, bitch. Sometimes, the ladies begin as one (usually “virgin”) and progress through the others by the end of the book, because character development! Emma Bovary holds the distinction of kind of being all four at once. (And, as I’ve argued, Daisy Buchanan does too.)

The Manic Pixie Dream Girls of fiction — sometimes virgins, sometimes whores, depending often on the point of view of the author or narrator — existed long before the MPDGs of the screen added twinkles and quirk to the lives of boring dudes everywhere. Enough already! Where are the Queen Elizabeths of male narratives, the Eleanor of Aquitaines, the Sei Shōnagons? Why is there only one Becky Sharp and why does Thackeray seem as repulsed by her as he is fascinated?

If you want to deliberately seek out an author-guy with the revolutionary understanding that women are people, you do have choices. You can pick up almost anything by Larry McMurtry or Michael Cunningham. You can turn to the much maligned but insightful Jonathan Franzen, who pays his women the compliment of being just as fucked up as the men, or, if you like women warriors and don’t mind the questionable consent bits, George R. R. Martin. (I wanted to name my daughter Arya, but my husband said no. MEN.)

The point is, it’s not impossible to find good female characters in male writers’ books. It’s just much harder than it should be. Which is why it is was refreshing to read in the New York Times Magazine recently a profile of Norman Rush, who said about the brilliant, complicated woman at the heart of his brilliant, complicated novel Mating, “I wanted to create the most fully realized female character in the English language.”

According to the profile’s author, though, “a few outliers didn’t buy Mating. … Among the male writers I spoke to who were not taken with the book, the reason given was that they didn’t believe this could be a woman’s voice.”

Charming, right? Seems like those “male writers” think along the lines of Jack Nicholson’s male writer character in As Good As It Gets:

(Q: “How do you write women so well?” A: “I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability.”)

Those “male writers,” who were presumably scared to put their names to their admission of A-level misogyny, may not agree, but the consensus seems to be that Mating’s unnamed heroine is one of the most fully realized female characters in literature. Years after I first read the book, things she said and did still bubble up to the surface of my mind, as though she were a real person I was once friends with.

Here are some others to keep her company: not the funniest or the “strongest” female characters written by male authors, but the most successfully human.

Dolores Price, She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)

It takes guts to start a 20th-century novel with a pre-teen heroine named Dolores. Lamb pulls off her voice perfectly and creates around it a story that captures the lust and hunger, sadness and confusion of adolescence and its aftermath. Towards the end, when life delivered Dolores yet another setback, I remember throwing the book against my bedroom wall in fury at the unfairness of everything — and then crawling over to retrieve it because I couldn’t stop reading.

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth (Shakespeare)

Not an archetype for nothing. Lots of Uncle Willy’s ladies, especially the ones in the comedies, are awesome — they had to be, to impress Queen Elizabeth — but Lady Macbeth is an enduring figure, compelling and tragic. Without her and Hecate, there would be no play.

Ora, To The End of the Land (David Grossman)

Perhaps the ultimate book about a mother, one that deconstructs the myth while at the same time conveying the incomparable intensity of maternal love. The Timesreview of this anti-war novel calls Grossman a “genius” and says, “Ora’s level of self-consciousness, her alertness to the emotional contours of things, her exquisite introspection, give this story the depth and privacy of an Ingmar Bergman film.”

Betsey Trotwood, David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

Possibly the only character in the Western canon to storm away in anger when a child turns out to be a boy and not a girl, the stubborn, principled Miss Betsey Trotwood reappears in the narrative to do what’s right, including save her great-nephew, make us laugh, and show that there was at least one generous, good-hearted person in David’s childhood, which is otherwise as scummy as a prison shower.

Little Bee, The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)

Raw, vital, vivid, absolutely engrossing — the character and the book both. A necessary story about the post-colonial world as seen by a scarred Nigerian girl who refuses to accept the unfairness of life as she knows it.

Winners in the Young Adult Category:

Charlotte, Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Matilda, Matilda (Roald Dahl)

Violet Baudelaire, Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket)

Lyra Silvertongue, His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)

White Queen (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

Previously: Daisy, You’re a Drip, Dear: Detestable Literary Characters Who Are Not Technically Villains

Ester Bloom is currently working on an update of The Canterbury Tales, so she gets to spend a lot of time with that best-of-all female characters, the Wife of Bath. Follow her @shorterstory.