2. Women can write about whatever they choose
Which brings me neatly to the second thing that gets my she-goat. When men write female characters and get it right, they’re praised for their unique insight (more on this in a second). When women write men and get it right, they’re criticised for selling out the sisterhood. And woe betide those who place those men in positions of power…
As a child I adored the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, mostly because he can do MAGIC but now he’s showing off and eeeek, he’s summoned some kind of shadow thing but he can turn into a BIRD and talk to DRAGONS. Cooooool. Rereading it as an adult, I can see balance and wholeness, rites of passage and the confrontation with the self, Jung and the Norse Gods and the Tao Te Ching, and many of the themes – human psychology, anarchism, structures of power and issues of identity – that inform her science fiction writing.
Not once, either as small me or as tall me, did I find myself thinking “I wish there were more girls in this” – if anything, the series is conspicuously right-on, with a dark-skinned protagonist and a second book focussing primarily on female characters. Nor did I ever think that the saying “as weak as women’s magic” meant anything other than that in the book, men controlled access to magic and scorned women as users of it, just as in the real world, boys sometimes wouldn’t let you near the good Lego. Not ideal, sure, but not unrealistic.
So I was pretty surprised to find that not only has the series been criticised for depicting a patriarchy, but that Le Guin later wrote two further novels focussing on female characters, and women’s magic. They’re fairly overt in their intent, and left me cold. While I hope she sleeps easier at night, no writer should have to write the world as they wish it should be. Saying that a woman who writes about a patriarchal society approves of said patriarchy is like saying that George Orwell wrote 1984 as a manifesto.
Those of us who are compelled to write don’t do it into a void, sure, but we’re also not politicians or ideologues. When I write, I am representative only of me, not of all women, all the time, or of what all those women want. Truth to tell, sometimes I write things even I don’t agree with. That aren’t even true. That’s why I write fiction: you get to lie and call it art.
And that’s why reading a woman won’t necessarily help you understand that woman.
From here on February 11th 2014.