Our pick of the female writers who refuse to make their gender their subject
The Sydney Writers’ Festival wrapped up over the weekend, and among the conversations was a panel called Judging Women, which featured the youngest Booker Prize winner ever, Eleanor Catton, whose tome-like The Luminaries gave many critics a brow furrow when they realised it dealt very little with its author’s own gender. "We throw at female artists this expectation that their work has to speak to the female experience," Catton said. "And if it doesn’t, you’re letting the side down. Throwing this stumbling block in the way of female artists is counterintuitive." While the limitations facing women writers range from vague psychological pressure ("But we want to know how they FEEL!") to concrete sexism (see: every discussion of cover art for books by women vs books by men), there are many female writers who, like Catton, just do whatever the fuck they want – and that includes focusing on something besides being female. We count down ten of our favourite male-centred novels written by women.
In every interview with Homes in the weeks following the release of her 11th book, it seemed like there was one question journalists couldn’t get their heads around: why would you write a male protagonist? Was it hard? Homes waved them off, and it makes sense that she would; within the first 50 pages there’s an affair, a car accident, a man going insane, and a murder. Gender should be a secondary concern, if it should be one at all.
A coming-of-age written by someone in the midst of her own, The Outsiders is an example of a writer working against expectations in terms of her subject matter – class, gangs, violence – and in terms of how old the author was when she wrote it – about 16. Despite what reviewers can only call cliché lines, the book benefits from its author’s naïveté, which allows her to take risks that more experienced writers might overthink.
Last year’s possibly eviscerating critique-by-character-sketch of the particular kind of ladies’ man that populates well-educated urban circles was the talk of well-educated urban circles: is it a sympathetic portrayal? Did Waldman “get” the eponymous douchebag? More interestingly, the success of her portrayal of the central male character was less in question than how well she “got” the women who fell over themselves to be with him.
The take-no-bullshit Nobel Prize-winning writer of the sprawling feminist masterpiece The Golden Notebook examines the nature of consciousness (vs reality) from the vantage point of a possibly brilliant, possibly insane Cambridge professor who’s recovering from a stint of aimless wandering in a mental institution. The philosophical query – without definitive argument or solution, naturally – is moving regardless of gender, just as her autobiographical reflections on the heterosexual female experience in Notebook will connect with men as well as women.
Okay, to be fair, we don’t know if Frank Hinton is male or female, and many would bet the alt-lit omnipresence is the former. Still, that makes this more interesting: his or her online avatars are all pictures of superhot women (faces obscured), and s/he often gives both men and women equal representation in Frank’s work. The narrators of this chapbook are sometimes female, sometimes unclear, and its that play that fascinates people.
Taking the divergent paths of two brothers as its subject, Lahiri’s second novel is fierce, suspenseful, and uncomfortably close, e.g. after much fraught diverging of paths, one of them marries the other’s widow.
A middle-aged man experiences traumatizing losses and is forced to reckon with them, though how well he succeeds at doing this is not questionable – he doesn’t. After abandoned his lazy affair with a younger coworker, he fixates on – surprise, surprise – an 11-year-old girl as an outlet for his pent-up grief-energy. Nadzam’s terse, line-straddling portrayal of her main character’s slow descent into despicability is sickeningly believable – men certainly have feelings, too.
New York in the 1980s is a playground for some straight-edge teenagers dealing with the uncomfortable consequences of a friend’s overdose, and Henderson captures the confusion, rebellion, and intensity of both of her adolescent male subjects in a nail-biting way.
A turn-of-the-century tattoo artist is the canvas for Hall’s characteristically rich descriptive prose, but the real subject is pain, both physical and meta-. Cy, the protagonist, struggles to understand his relationship to it via an intense artist-client relationship (obviously) that blurs the lines between art and life.
Millet’s dark portrayal of the fulcrum point-of-view around which the others circulate – that of Dean Decetes, a megalomaniacal pornographer living recklessly in LA – is the kind of funny that makes you wince as you’re laughing. Although her characters – and the situations they find themselves in – are often outrageous, they’re only just so: they feel real enough to say something bigger than so much realism does.