By Features Editor, Meghna Pant
As an author, I have often times been commended for my ability to write stories from a male point of view. I find this disconcerting: why is it surprising that a female author can write well about men? Are only men allowed to write about men? Should women write only about women? Does gender make a story worth reading or is it based on whether it’s written by a man or a woman?
What signs is the writing industry giving us when the world’s most famous female author, J.K. Rowling, decides to publish her crime novel debut under the male pen name Robert Galbraith? Worse still, Rowling has never published under her real name: the very feminine Joanne Rowling, but chosen the androgynous sounding J.K. as initials. Even the Grande Dame of erotica, writer of the supposedly bold Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James, has not published under her real name: Erika Mitchell. Can you imagine the permanence of this issue?
I recall V.S. Naipaul’s statements in which he called all writing by women as steeped in female ‘sentimentality’ with a ‘narrow view of the world.’ He was in possession of such blatant misogyny, despite the fact that the works of George Eliot and Mary Shelley have had a far more profound impact on world culture than his has. This despite Hilary Mantel, AS Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor.
Sadly masculisation of literature is not a Naipaul-led phenomenon. For centuries female writers have been forced to use pen names or androgynous pseudonyms to afford them mystery and, worse, authority. Charlotte Bronte published under the pen name Currer Bell. Her sister Emily hid behind the signature Ellis Bel, whereas Mary Ann used George Elliott. Is it a mere coincidence that Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor could well be mistaken for male names by the uninitiated?
Unfortunately, the male bastion in writing doesn’t end with names. The top bestselling authors in the world today are all men – Stephen King, Dan Brown, Jeffery Archer and James Patterson. In India it’s the same story as the bestselling authors are Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi. Female writers, barring a few, do not find themselves on the bestselling bracket in the world or in India.
But what can one label as ‘women’s fiction’. What does it even mean? Is it fiction that has a common theme? Is it the embroidering of trivial themes? A concern with the mere surfaces of life? Is it a lack of range—in subject matter and emotional tone? A lack of humour? Or is it merely fiction that clubs together anyone in possession of a uterus?
What then of Hilary Mantel’s two Bookers for writing about a male protagonist, Thomas Cromwell? Or Rowling’s unbridled popularity due to her wizard boy? Even our most sentimental writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, wrote a fierce and raw tale about two brothers in her last novel. Can this vast diversity of work be clubbed under one bracket?
The sole purpose of literature, if it must have a purpose at all, is to transcend the fallacies of social constructs like gender, and show us the world that we should strive to become. A story must therefore be read not because a man or a woman writes it, but because it is written well.
Feature Image: The Awl