Sunday, September 19, 2010

Guys Who Write Gals

Two books I've listened to lately have been The Last Queen and Cold Mountain. Both books are written by men and both use a central female character's POV. Authors who write POV characters who are of the opposite sex have a challenge. Sometimes they can pull it off. Sometimes it makes you wonder how many members of the opposite sex they actually have met.

The first one I listened to caught my eye because it's a historical novel about Juana of Castile. She was Katherine of Aragon's sister, and I just watched the next-to-last season of the Tudors, so I was totally primed. Also, C. W. Gortner's area of expertise is this time period, according to the blurb on the back of the book about him.

It started off okay, though it quickly became clear that the main character was kind of a cliche. The book is in 1st person POV and Juana describes herself a lot. When a character describes themself as a free spirit, it's kind of annoying. Then, throughout, there are a lot of author-intrusive kinds of "internal thoughts" where Juana comments on a tradition or practice with a distinctly modern perspective. But, whatever, I could forgive it a bit. The part that made me groan was Juana's habit of looking herself over and talking about how gorgeous she was. Gag me. Of all the women I know, I know exactly... um, none? who like to stare at themselves in the mirror and say, "Look at what a babe I am." After the part where she discovers her husband in bed with another woman and, to paraphrase, loves him too much to be overly bothered by it because she's kind of an idiot, I stopped listening to it. Truly, I would have stopped before that point, but I was on a road trip to Denver and didn't have anything else to listen to in the car.


I watched the movie a few years ago and liked it, so I thought I'd check out the book. One of the first differences I noticed was that this one was read by the author, unlike The Last Queen which was read by a female actress. Charles Frazier's reading style is a great deal different. Instead of a dramatic reading, his voice is almost flat. He reads at a slow and steady pace, which is actually remarkably fitting with the tone & subject of the book.

I was feeling kind of neutral about the book for the first chapter in Inman's POV, but then Frazier got to Ada and I warmed up to it. Ada's in rough shape trying to get by on the already-neglected farm after her father's death. In her first chapter, there's a part where Ada crawls under a boxwood and finds she likes being hidden away from everything. Frazier writes (this is an approximate paraphrase): "Ada decided that if she could think of three reasons to leave the boxwood, then she would. However, at that moment, the only reason she could think of was that she did not especially want to die in the boxwood." I instantly liked Ada then. She's got a really dry kind of sarcasm to her and Frazier writes her like she's human, vs. like she's a daydream of what a woman's like.

One of the parts that made me really like Frazier's perspective on women, too, was toward the end of the book when Ada and Ruby (another great female character) are talking about Inman. Ruby tells Ada, "We can live on our own just fine. You don't need him."
Ada says, "I know, but I think I want him."
Ruby responds, "Well, that's alright then."
The two women have done all the heavy lifting on their own and they're at a point where neither is a damsel in distress, waiting for a man to save them. Ada's choice to be with Inman is then based completely on her attraction and affection for him, and not on the idea that him being in her life is going to make things easier for her. Cheers, Frazier.

So, two books. One pulls off female POV, one doesn't. There are plenty of male authors who can write convincing female characters, but then there are plenty who can't. I think it would be interesting to look at men who write women and women who write men and how successful each group tends to be. It makes me wonder if it's easier for a woman to write a man or if I just notice fewer problems with it since I'm not a dude.

I will end with one word of advice for guys who want to write gals. If you find yourself writing in your female character's POV and describing her body in terms of, "Oh, I'm a girl. I have boobs. Aren't boobs awesome? I'm totally hot," then you're going in the wrong direction.

3 comments:

Camille said...

Look at what a babe I am.

I couldn't stop laughing :)

And have you read Memoirs of a Geisha? There's another guy writing a female character... and of a different culture, too! I liked it, anyway :)

Jenny said...

It's such a bummer about the Juana story. Isn't she the one known as Juana the Mad who brought her husband's coffin around with her for something like 16 years? Shame that her babe-ness drove her to crazy town.

Debbie said...

When I read "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb, I kept turning the book over to make sure the author picture was a guy. He got it right.