Gender Bender

Some of the most enduring female characters in literature were created by male authors—Miss Havisham and Madame Defarge (Charles Dickens), Becky Sharp (William Makepeace Thackeray), Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy), and Daisy Miller (Henry James). Almost any list of memorable literary heroines is top-heavy with female-centric titles written by men, from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders to Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo filling in the gaps between Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and Harper Lee.

If you want to switch the gender up and enumerate the great male characters written by women the list seems to be a lot shorter. There’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and there’s not a lot in between. (And even those women whose male characters would make the list often wrote under a male pseudonym or their initials to disguise their sex like S. E. Hinton and George Sand and James Tiptree, Jr.).

I’ve been thinking a lot about perceived gender in writing lately because I have a client who has written a terrific paranormal romantic adventure. The story is told from multiple points of view, three of them female. The writer is male and he’s very, very worried that female readers will not give him a chance because he’s writing in a niche where most writers are either women or men hiding behind female pseudonyms. I have tried to reassure him that his fears are groundless but … are they?

There’s a lot of talk in the crime fiction community about the bias against female writers and yet some of the most celebrated mystery writers of all time were not only women, they were women who created male series characters. The list begins with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and continues with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth, and Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache and beyond.

It seems to me that crime fiction readers are more open to inclusive points of view than readers of other genres, but maybe I’m biased because I write a lot of crime fiction and have never felt discriminated against because I use my own name. I’ve never really wondered if using a more gender neutral byline like K. Lee Tomlinson (borrowing my brother’s middle name) might have widened my reading audience. Maybe I’m the product of a generation for which gender is irrelevant in a way it never was before. Maybe I’m a cock-eyed optimist.

Is it presumptuous of a writer of one sex to use the voice of the opposite sex? Do you find it distracting if a narrator in a first-person point of view is not the same sex as the writer? Would you read a paranormal romance written by a man? Would you read a techno-thriller written by a woman? What do you think?