Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Apologies for the gap in posting. It's the shock of going back to work after a long break.

In a diversion from what I did on my holidays, I thought that I would mention Reader, I Married Him, coming to BBC4 on Monday. If you watch you may even get a glimpse of Wenlock himself. I took part in a creative writing workshop with Katie Fforde that was filmed for the programme, and Daisy Goodwin interviewed me during a break in proceedings. I also answered a few vox pop questions at the RNA Awards dinner at the Savoy. Of course these may well have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Or maybe not. Perhaps my appearance will be used to support the apparent thesis of the programme, that men cannot write romance.

Whether or not I can write (good) romance is a matter of opinion, but the suggestion that "you can't have a really seriously-written romantic book written by a man" because male writers "lack insight into the ways of women" is patently absurd, and here's why.

If the only way to write credible female characters is to be a woman, then it must be because there is some aspect of being a woman that is fundamentally different from being a man. And this must be something that all women have in common with each other (within the fiction-reading world, at least), or else women couldn't write characters that were credible to all other women.

Now I know that there have been a few books published recently in the US that claim that male and female brains are indeed fundamentally different, particularly in terms of development through childhood and adolescence. Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences is one of these, and Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain is another. Both books have been used to argue for single sex education, and they are both full of claims about fundamental differences between male and female brains, backed up with meaty looking citations of academic studies.

The trouble is that the studies do not actually support the claims in these books. They have been neatly debunked in places such as Language Log (here, here, and indeed here). There are no studies that do lend any support to there being significant differences between men and women in this respect. These books - and the Daisy Goodwin hypothesis - appear to rely on something akin to interpreting "men are taller than women" as meaning that all men are taller than any women.

ANd there's more. Goodwin is quoted as saying "female readers of romantic fiction were still generally dismissed by the men who run literary papers". Now, if men and women are so different that only women can write credible female characters, it is surely the case that only men can write credible male characters. Now most of the time this is not an issue, because female readers ("lacking insight into the minds of men" we must assume) would not spot the lack of credibility. But these mysterious "men who run literary papers" (what is a "literary paper"? Does theguardian count, or is it just the London Review of Books (edited by Mary-Kay Wilmers) and the TLS?) obviously do. Perhaps the whole image problem that romantic fiction has is due to the inability of female authors to write male characters?

Clearly this is rubbish. I would like to challenge Daisy Goodwin to read two or three romantic novels written by men and two or three written by women, without knowing who the authors are, and to declare which are which.

Not that this is really necessary, as women buy books by Jessica Stirling, Gill Sanderson, Jessica Blair, Emma Blair and many others without complaining that the authors - all men - "lack insight into the ways of women".

And if you do see me on the programme, remember that the camera adds pounds. And years. And the lighting can make almost anybody look as if they are losing their hair. You'd get a much better idea of what I look like over at Julie Cohen's site.


Jojo Moyes said...

Hi Stephen. I got asked for a quote on this exact topic today (oh god what have I done...) and I think she has at least a few points. Such as when did you last see romantic fiction reviewed on the broadsheet pages? As far as modern fiction goes, I thought of Charlotte Grey, which despite having one woman's search for her lover as its central narrative was pretty analytical and unsatisfying as far as the romance went. Anyway - I don't expect you to agree (!) but I do think it's an interesting talking point - and hurray that romantic fiction is getting a television series... All best

Stephen said...

And it looks like Jojo's quote was for the Independent, who have an excellent counterblast to the Telegraph piece. James Munro (E V Thompson) says it all very eloquently.

The issue of romantic fiction reviews in broadsheet papers is an interesting one, to which I hope to return at the weekend, armed with a couple of broadsheet book sections.

Julie Cohen said...

You mean here?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Stephen,

Interestingly enough, I've just had a guy abridge The Greatest Knight for audio CD. I didn't know it was a man when I was given the abridgement to read but I guessed. He'd left all the technical bits and fight scenes in and taken away some of the emotional set piece scenes. If you gave me 3 romances written by men and 3 by women, I would say I'd be pretty much able to tell you the sex of each writer from studying his or her work. Not that men can't write romance, far from it, but there are - generally speaking - differences. In my opinion of course :-)