As a freelancer I love learning new tricks of the trade, even after all the years I’ve been in it, as well as thinking of new applications for older ones. Teachers say they learn a great deal from their students; I’m often editorially refreshed by new assignments.
A review of a client’s novel brought up fascinating issues of gender in fiction: how does a male author convincingly portray a female protagonist fighting for her place in a man’s world?
Let me point out upfront that I am doing a little fictionalizing of my own to respect the client’s privacy. And whenever I comment on issues like gender identification in a novel, my goal is always to help the writer create a wholly credible world on the page, with characters that ring true to readers; I have no “agenda” separate from that.
My client’s story, set a bit in the past, is a detective story whose central character is a female cop working in a robbery unit on a big-city police force. The theft of a set of rare jewels from a high-end hotel was well-conceived: the credibility of the main character was the defining factor in the rewrite I advised. After all, women buy most of the novels published every year, even crime novels; and strong female protagonists are key not just to book sales, but also to the dramatic adaptations this writer clearly envisions.
One of the first things I noticed as I took notes were the frequent mentions of the main character’s physical appearance in a way that distracted from her efforts to solve the crime. Yes, we want to “envision” the physical appearance of the main characters in a tightly paced crime novel to keep them straight as the twists and turns in the plot pile up. But when the character’s ethnic origins (in this case, Puerto Rican) and body type (J. Lo is a role model) are mentioned every time she seizes the reins of the investigation, it’s as if her very desirability is being used to undercut her competence in this very macho workplace. And when in the sight lines of her potential love interest, a fellow officer in a competing unit, she releases the tightly-wound topknot that holds her unruly curls in place, a gesture reminiscent of romantic comedies in which the bookish female lead releases her chignon.
One of the reasons my client’s tough-as-nails protagonist lacked credibility was that she had no believable female friends or family members in whom she could confide: Wouldn’t an ambitious protagonist in a story like this have a girlfriend on the force, I asked, even a colleague in a lab or front office--someone with whom to share war stories about the obstacles in her path to a promotion?
Most female leads in crime novels defy the stereotype of the “loner” crime fighter, even forging alliances of varying intensity with male partners like Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s bestselling books, which also rely on his eventual relationship with his daughter to bring out a more rounded dimension to the character.
In The Black Echo, the book that introduced Bosch to readers, Harry meets an F.B.I. agent known as E.D. Wish, whom he’d assumed was a man: “She was tall and lithesome with brown wavy hair about to the shoulders with blonde highlights. A nice tan and little make-up. She looked hard-shell and a little weary for this early in the day, the way lady cops and hookers get. She wore a brown business suit and a white blouse with a chocolate-brown western bow. He detected the unsymmetrical curve of her hips beneath the jacket.”
Bosch is surprised to see a Luger at her side, since he’s always known lady cops to carry their guns in their purses—a detail that tells you all you need to know about these two characters, in Connelly’s economical prose. The lady is lovely, but she is a pro. And we are seeing her through the eyes of Bosch, who takes her measure aware of her feminine charms, but also of her strong stance.
Wish turns out to be a highly conflicted character of considerable complexity. We don’t need to see the world of the novel through her perspective, because we have Harry to show us. In the case of my client’s book, the heroine was less compelling as an officer of the law because as each male character encounters her, from a pizza delivery man to her supervisor on the force, the reader hears about some aspect of her appearance, often in similar terms: this is the view of the author, superimposed as omniscient narrator.
In my editorial letter, I found myself writing, “All this is from the male gaze,” though I view “political correctness” in fiction overall as a form of self-censorship. True, our heroine fights to solve her cases and advance on the force in a realistic manner: but in the details of her private life, and in the prose in which she is described, the male author showed a lack of access to a realistic female perspective.
All this got me thinking: how often do writers of one gender really get inside the mind and heart of characters from the other?
In fact, how often do writers truly “know” characters outside their own experience? In the New York Times Book Review (6/3/18), novelist Victor Lavalle points out that in Stephen King’s new book, some of the characters are better realized than others. The king of horror doesn’t presume to be “an insider” when writing Mexican American characters, for example: “King doesn’t imply that he knows them with the same authority, yet he writes them as vital members of his cast. This strikes me as the very definition of the difference between appropriation and inspiration: presumption versus humility.”
Humility, and curiosity about people unlike yourself: are these qualities to be cultivated by readers as well as writers? Do readers of a certain gender or ethnic background or sexual orientation need to “relate” to characters in a book to find it pleasurable? I have no need to identify with Raskolnikov to find Crime and Punishment truly riveting; but I advised my client that if a piece of commercial fiction is targeted to a certain readership, yes, the central character must be fully rounded, with all-too-human frailties as well as virtues. It comes down to the artistry and intent of the writer.
These issues come to the fore when one of our literary giants passed away in May 2018. In “What Philp Roth Didn’t Know About Women Could Fill a Book,” novelist and New Jersey native Dara Horn argues that she felt unmoored when she read Goodbye, Columbus, in which she recognized every restaurant, synagogue and cemetery: “So how could this Jewish girl from Short Hills, and the many others like her who populate Roth’s books, feel so unfamiliar? Despite the years that divided us, wasn’t Brenda (the protagonist of Goodbye Columbus) supposed to be a girl like … me?”
She elaborates: “Roth’s three favorite topics — Jews, women and New Jersey — all remain socially acceptable targets of irrational public mockery, and Roth was a virtuoso at mocking the combination of all three.”
Still, Horn disavows a “culture police” perspective: “After all, if one policed literature for bigotry, there would be little left to read. The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.” In her view, Roth’s main flaw is artistic narcissism: “Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.”
Critic and novelist Zadie Smith offered a differing perspective in The New Yorker: “At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. ‘Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,’ he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself.”
Smith admits that “Like all writers, there were things and ideas that lay beyond his ken or conception; he had blind spots, prejudices, selves he could imagine only partially, or selves he mistook or mislaid. But, unlike many writers, he did not aspire to perfect vision. He knew that to be an impossibility. Subjectivity is limited by the vision of the subject, and the task of writing is to do the best with what you have.”
Still, some women felt that it was somehow “wrong” to like Roth’s work. In an opinion piece called “Philip Roth’s Toxic Masculinity” (New York Times, 5/23/18), writer Sam Lipstye quotes just such a female friend. But Lipsyte asks, wrong according to whose calculation? After all, he notes that Roth himself described his method this way: “I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into it.”
As obnoxious as characters such as Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Sabbath’s Theater, may be, he argues, Roth is exploring “how social norms about gender and sexuality deform a large percentage of our population and mire it in violence, rage, shame and a kind of zombie-fied eroticism.” In other words, so-called toxic masculinity is no picnic for men, either.
Lipstye also points out the way that cultural norms shift with time: the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus was surveying the American social landscape well in advance of the #MeToo era. Not to mention that Roth’s main theme was “not so much sex but the idea of the individual in America, the immigrant or striver, the kid straining against the confines of the kind of appropriate behavior elders consider linked to success. A possibly immature but exuberant carnality was rebellion against conformity.”
In other words, through Roth’s “wit, fearlessness, and emotional acuity,” his work transcends simple us vs. them, sexual equivalencies.
For me, ignoring or refusing to acknowledge Philip Roth’s literary achievement because you don’t like the women (or lack of them) in his books is akin to saying that you don’t like Huckleberry Finn because it contains the n-word. I once had a heated argument with a well-known writer, improbably in the locker room of a swim club, about whether Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a worthy book. She deemed it less so, because he is “a male chauvinist, like his pal Philip Roth.” I wasn’t having it.
Reading Roth as a young woman was subversive: As I recall, after my Catholic mother found my dog-eared copy of Portnoy, along with an edition of Newsweek with Sophia Loren on the cover in a wet T-shirt, she delegated both to the trash can. But it was too late.
I’m with Times reader Vera Mehta of Brooklyn, who wrote about reading Portnoy as a new arrival to London from Mumbai, India, when she was pregnant and unemployed. Up to that point in her life, she had very little knowledge of American literature: “All my favorite authors were 18th and 19th century British novelists. There was nothing in my experience that I could ‘relate to’ in Portnoy’s story, but after finishing it, I became one of Philp Roth’s most ardent and lifelong fans.
“That anyone could be so funny and write so well about the human condition and all its weirdness, absurdity and vulgarity was a revelation.”
Her last words are key: if a writer gives his or her characters a life on the page that conveys the beauty, absurdity, and even cruelty—in the case of crime fiction—of the world we live in, readers will follow—man, woman, or child.