“You Can Just Tell…”

A couple summers ago, I got the chance to share some books I love with my older brother and sister. When I asked each of them separately how they’d liked their individual selection, I got opposite (and therefore mirrored) responses: from my brother, “You can sure tell it’s written by a woman,” and from my sister, “You can tell it’s written by a man.” I was a bit put-out. Was that all they’d noticed about the books? Had I missed the part where the author’s sex became relevant to or distracting from the stories? Was it because the male author had written a female main character and the female author had written a male main character? The books were, respectively, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, and Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.

When I asked my brother what about the writing made it obvious that it was a female author, I got a vague response about the amount of detail about the food. Confused as to how this distinguished the writer as female, I said, “Clearly you’ve never read The Pickwick Papers by Dickens, where almost every second page they’re putting on a massive spread that takes three pages to describe.” I added that I thought Turner’s descriptions of food and eating furthered the plot because stopping to eat when travelling was an obvious moment for some important dialogue and incidents to take place. Not to mention, specific types of food can contribute to world-building, although, like anything else, it can be overdone. But I didn’t think it had been in The Thief, and frankly, I still don’t see how it has anything to do with the author’s sex. I think a possible reason for my brother’s judgment was the result of him not being overly impressed with the story, rather than rooted in anything specific. But he went on to give the rest of the series a chance and became considerably more interested and invested in it as, admittedly, I did myself when I first read them.

So when my sister came out with a similar and yet opposite comment so soon after, I had an immediate desire to combat it. I asked her why she thought it so obvious that a man had written the book, and her response was along the lines of, “There were a lot of sweeping statements about how women behave and think, as if he’s just written off the sex as a whole.” I couldn’t argue that there were a lot of generalizations, so I countered with how I thought of them more as relating directly to the main character Bathsheba and the way she personally was, than as a serious commentary on women as a group. I added more about how you can’t necessarily judge an author by what is put in the narration because voice does not equate the author unless directly stated, and also (having just read Jude the Obscure) how I thought Hardy had some very different views on women expressed in other works so you couldn’t really pin him down by just one of his novels.

Inkheart (2008), Helen Mirren as Elinor

But, upon further thought, these rationalizations of mine, while valid, are also a dodge for something unnoticed that had been going on in my thinking. When my sister brought up the sweeping, not-so-flattering statements in Hardy’s narrative about “the way women are,” I immediately knew what she was talking about despite having read the book only once three years before, because I had actually written some of these quotes down at the time as meaningful and clever observations. Now, I won’t deny that they have some truth to them, especially as they apply to the context of the story, but there’s a tainting effect they can unintentionally have and did have on a young unformed mind. The particular quote that I remembered was, “Perhaps in no minor point does woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false—except, indeed, in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true.”

This quote isn’t strictly speaking unfair or inaccurate, especially as it is directly connected to an instance of the character Bathsheba doing the very thing described. However, I didn’t save this quote just because I thought it terribly clever, but because at the time it fit perfectly (in my mind, anyway) the behaviour I observed in a woman close to me, which then seemed to validate the quotation as a just portrayal of women in general. However, a clever quote can’t encompass life, as much as its succinct wit may pretend to. (Oscar Wilde, for example, provides an abundance of incredibly clever and insightful, while simultaneously shallow and generally inaccurate, summaries of how life and people work.) The fact is, women aren’t the only people in the world who choose to believe what they want in the face of evidence to the contrary, but statements such as Hardy makes in the narration of his book could lead us to assume that they are.

Honestly, this is mostly about me coming to realise how impressionable I have been (and may still be) when it comes to reading fiction. A potentially benign observation, turned inadvertently into a generalization, can result in divisive and dismissive attitudes that don’t need to be fed and shouldn’t exist in the first place. And it can and does go both ways—far be it from me to suggest that there are no generalizations made about men that are harmful. My point is, we should be aware of these tendencies when we read them, and think long and hard before perpetuating targeted generalizations about either sex (or any other “subdivision” of people), even in fiction writing. Instead, we should focus on shared experiences and humanity in general.

I don’t propose we ignore differences between people, but that we realise them in the context of the individual’s personality and experiences (which experiences may sometimes be a result of their sex, granted), and present them in an objective, truthful, and gracious way—a way that informs others and inspires understanding and identification rather than disdain and division. So we don’t dismiss books because, “Oh, you can just tell it was written by a _____.” 

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