Whose stories do we tell? The choices we make at the start of a story – narrator, protagonist, first or third person, point of view – all flow from this initial decision. The default throughout most of history has been to tell the man’s story, or the story of men.
Kings, heroes, warriors, statesmen – men had all the best parts. It took the witty and wise female writers Jane Austen, George Elliot, the Bronte sisters and Mrs Gaskell to make the case for depicting women’s lives in fiction. And despite this, it seems, books about women are still taken less seriously than books about men.
This does seem extraordinary. Women writers often – perhaps by default – write about women. And we have many fine women writers, writing across the whole spectrum of literature. Yet to be a ‘proper’ writer, to be in with a shout of the Booker or a Pulitzer, do you need to write like a man? Which means writing about public life, big themes, and – above all – about a man. The domestic scene might be interesting to us girls, the implication goes, but out there in the big world, men have more serious matters to think about.
Well, more fool them. I’ve just finished Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, a fizzing feat of invention and mischief that plays with gender, time and language, spanning the centuries. History, high art, low cunning and the intricacies of the domestic sphere jostle for space. Trust a woman author to remind you how many eggs it takes to make a 14th century fresco. And before that I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, a heady love story in which the heroine’s difficulties begin with heavy housework in the post-war, post-servant era, and end as excruciating moral dilemmas against the backdrop of an Old Bailey murder trial. Domestic, yes, trivial, no. I’m also loving Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories detective series, in which private eye Jackson Brodie (yes, a bloke) is shunted around the country at the bequest of unpredictable, justice-seeking, headstrong women – who, if he’s very lucky, might just save him from himself.
All of which made me think about the choices I make when I write. My novel (latest draft finally off to the agent) has a female protagonist, and it’s her story. But there are three other point of view characters, all male. I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of writing men. When I wrote my short story Conservation, it was a conscious decision to write from a male perspective. I wanted to write about a man from a traditional society, displaced into a harsh modern world where the only job he could find was as a cleaner, doing work he had never thought to do before. Perhaps I was using a man to illuminate the humble work which otherwise would go unnoticed. A male cleaner can be seen as an interesting and tragic figure; a female cleaner is just a cleaner.
I noticed that all of the other stories short-listed for the Mslexia Short Story Competition had female protagonists – which probably reflects the opportunity for women writers entering a women’s competition to highlight the female experience. And their themes – motherhood, bereavement, sexual exploitation, growing up in a man’s world – are important and under-explored in literature. Does that mean I should leave the men to the male writers and write like a woman? Not a bit of it.
Like Ali Smith, I want to be both. I love the freedom of pulling on a fictional pair of breeches, to try to understand what assumptions and privileges make up the male mindset (or rather, the mindset of the individual male I am writing). I want to read more books by women and men that challenge expectations of gender, that accept its fluidity and shifting boundaries. Let’s have more self-assured, capable, tough heroines, more heroes who pick up the kids from school. Let’s have a novel where a woman wins a major prize for writing a book about a woman. Or is that really too far-fetched, even for fiction?