Posts Tagged ‘differences between male and female writers’


August 22, 2014

So, following on from my previous post, I tried to think of a couple of texts to compare, and came up with Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, and Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy. Both texts are set in the First World War, both were written in the 1990s. What differences are there to observe between a male and female novelist?

The central characters in the main part of Birdsong are male: it’s set in the trenches. The overture to the story features the hero’s passionate affair with the wife of his employer several years earlier, and the hero’s story is being researched by his granddaughter. There are rather more female characters in Regeneration, and more completely integrated in the structure of the story. Both novels contain graphic details of warfare, injuries, death and destruction. The mental effects of warfare appear in both.

In many ways, Birdsong feels like a more ‘traditional’ novel, with a fairly conventional structure, although the central narrative is framed by earlier and later years. The Regeneration Trilogy – which is therefore rather longer – is more complex, more diffuse, with a number of plots loosely converging and intertwined: treatment of shellshock at Craiglockhart, the relationship between Owen and Sassoon, the relationship between Sassoon and Graves and the former’s protest against the conduct of the war, various political intrigues during the FWW, the work of Rivers the psychologist, the relationship between the shellshocked Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb, women’s work during the war… Home Front and Western Front take on equal importance, it seems to me.

The central relationship in Birdsong is that between Stephen and his friend Weir, and we are constantly aware of Stephen’s distancing himself from what he is experiencing. The horrors of combat are foregrounded, and graphically described; the enduring and psychological horrors are revealed as his granddaughter gradually uncovers more and more of his story many years later. Although Barker can match Faulks in terms of graphic details of conflict and its consequences, it’s not her primary focus, which is the mental and psychological effects of combat and the stress of the frontline on officers and men, and the attempts to treat it, to rebuild the men who are suffering (so that they can then be shipped back to the front!). She explores a range of different relationships – peer to peer, superior to inferior, male/ male and male/female.

Both writers clearly researched their subject-matter in great depth; both adopt a no-holds-barred approach to unpleasant detail: there is not much to choose between them here. Yet, in a blind reading, if asked to decide which of the two was written by a man, I’m sure most would go for Birdsong. If asked to read Regeneration and then identify the gender of the author, I’m not so confident about readers’ ability to identify a female writer. Why? It’s very difficult to nail down. Is the tightness of Birdsong’s structure, and of Faulks’ writing, self-evidently masculine? Is it the openness of Barker’s treatment of both characters and subject-matter, the looseness or freeness of scope, structure, direction a more female trait?

If you’re interested in exploring these issues, I recommend these two novels, and will just append two others for you to think about: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, a classic from 1929 that most will have heard of, and Not So Quiet, a response by Helen Zinna Smith, from 1930, which is largely undiscovered. One recounts the FWW from an exclusively male perspective, the other from female one. Which is better/more powerful/more effective?


Men and Women as readers and writers…

August 19, 2014

Not an elegant title for a post, but it sums up what I’m currently thinking about…

A friend prompted me to read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf‘s feminist lecture from 1929, in which she reflects on why there are so few women writers and poets; it’s basically because they lack the mental, physical and financial freedom or space. It’s impossible to disagree with her analysis, and it’s also one which can be equally well applied to all sorts of other groups which are un(der)-represented in the world of literature. It’s a lively, and at times humorous piece which is at once of its time and still totally relevant.

So Woolf got me thinking again about an issue that I have often considered: the differences between men and women as writers and as readers. And, obviously, these thoughts are from a man. Woolf says that male and female minds are different, their perceptions differ, the ways they frame sentences and structure a flow of ideas in a text or a story are not the same. At one level, obvious, at another, worthy of much thought. If I were forced (totally artificial example, I know) to choose between the novels of Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad (both of which I really like), why, exactly, would I opt for Austen?

I’ve spent some time looking at my bookshelves as I’ve been thinking: in novels, men outnumber women writers, but not massively; in books on history, culture, religion, politics, males completely dominate. That’s not from my conscious choice, but perhaps reflects the continuing power relationship between men and women in the world: men dominate the public sphere, still. Is it accurate¬†to say (or is it sexist) that women are more tuned to the internal world of the feelings and emotions, men to the external? Even in fiction, do men wield or exert power in ways that women do not, or are not interested in? I’m taken back to some of the texts I studied as I worked on my MPhil thesis more than thirty years ago…

Choices in reading provide more food for thought. I have known women who made a deliberate choice not to read books written by men. This has always seemed to me to be rather limiting, but then you might say ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ I have also known women who just seemed never or very rarely to choose to read books by men, and wondered why, since I have always felt there are lots of really good books by men that it was a shame they didn’t read… and yet had little success in persuading them.

Equally, I’ve often got to the end of a book which I’ve really enjoyed, and felt ‘that’s a boy’s book’, realising that I probably wouldn’t persuade a female friend to read it, or, if I did, her response would probably be very different from mine. And no, I’m not talking about obvious examples such as hard SF with cardboard characterisation or books with a certain sexual content; I have subtler women friends who can make rather subtler distinctions…

I don’t think I’ve got anywhere clear yet, other than being reminded of some very real differences that do exist, that x years of feminism haven’t ironed out even if they could be ironed out, or it were desirable; I would be very interested in others’ thoughts on this issue.

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