a dreadful fascination

A few [not entirely precise] quotes from today’s International Festival of Authors event in Uxbridge, hosted by Blue Heron Books, where authors Jane Johnson and Laura Lippman were in lively conversation with Siri Agrell, and where the vibe was very living room, casual and writerly. The only thing missing was wine.

But, given that it was a brunch, this can be forgiven.
In no particular order, a few gems…

On writing the opposite gender and why women are better at it than men:

—The prey knows the predator better than the predator knows the prey. –Laura Lippman

—It’s less urgent for men to understand women. Historically, few men have had a female boss, for instance. —Jane Johnson

—Women have been learning to read faces since they lived in caves and stayed in groups, tending the fire, while men were out hitting things over the head. — Jane Johnson

On the secrets to success:

—Luck is what makes a book work. – Jane Johnson (meaning that’s the one thing the writer can’t control so if it doesn’t always hit the mark, don’t take it personally)

—We only make mistakes when we’re so sure we know something and don’t bother checking. – Laura Lippman

—Write a good sentence and move on. – Laura Lippman quoting Rebecca Lee

On characters:

—I once had a character change gender in the middle of a first draft. – Laura Lippman [her point, to keep writing, it’s a detail, deal with it later; first drafts are meant to allow the ‘barefoot wild child’ to just write without thinking…]

—A writer inhabits all her characters, the good and the bad ones. This is our empathy with humanity. – Jane Johnson

On process:

—When I start writing, I may know the beginning, middle and end of a book, but it’s how I get from one to the other that makes it live. – Jane Johnson

—What starts a book? A dreadful fascination. – Jane Johnson

—The danger is you can edit the life out of anything. – Jane Johnson

On publishing:

—The industry likes people who know what it is to work in an office. [versus the kookie eccentric ‘artiste’ type] – Laura Lippman

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10 thoughts on “a dreadful fascination

  1. Have to take the first section with a grain of salt. There are enough female writers who create one dimensional male characters. Those comments were laughable, and maybe were meant to be so. In the end it’s a writer’s skill and empathy (as was also mentioned above) that allows him or her to create believable character of both genders.

    1. Steve, no joke. The comments were sincere. In fact, there were more. Lots of chuckles and nods of understanding (by women). Siri Agrell, who (earlier at IFOA) interviewd Michael Chabon, said that he (Chabon) felt men have a tendency to portray women as more sexual than women portray women. (And gave some very funny examples.) No mention of how he felt women portray men. Therein, I suppose, lies the discusson.

  2. As much as I like Chabon’s books, he doesn’t write interesting female characters. Too bad no one brought up writers like Michael Cunningham (The Hours) or Matt Cohen (Emotional Arithmetic). At least they have made successful (in my opinion) attempts to write complex female characters. I think that is the real discussion. Rather than dwell on the failures (of both male and female writers), why not at least attempt to round out the conversation by citing some of the successes?

    1. What Richard Wright did in Clara Callan comes immediately to mind. And funny you should mention Matt Cohen. Every now and again I hear something about ‘Elizabeth and After’ and how well he represented the female character, and I mean to read it. And then don’t. [Am putting it on hold as we speak.] This male/female thing comes up in different forms from time to time, and is possibly meant to be entertaining [or antagonistic] but, I agree, it would be a more useful conversation if it focussed on examples where the author has nailed it. Also more useful to stop separating the genders, but separate they seem to remain. Some interesting thoughts though; the prey/predator analogy, while coarse perhaps, made sense.

      Having said all that, I do feel the number of books where men are not well drawn by women writers… or come off looking less than noble… [the classic gripe male reviewers have with Atwood’s books] are few compared with the number of books by men where men are not well drawn but are nonetheless portrayed as heroic… ;)

      Sigh. Will the twain ever meet??

  3. I expect the twain never shall (and maybe was not meant to) meet, which makes the real conversation all the more interesting and important.

    I do agree with you that the books by men with facile female characters outweigh the women writers with facile male characters. And yes, Atwood sprung to mind.

    I can’t deny the “prey/predator” quote still has some relevance, but something about it feels tired and passe. Maybe it’s just my own frustration that men and women can’t move past these stale categories.

    I have to admit the quote that rankles most is “It’s less urgent for men to understand women.” I’m reading that as “Men feel it is less urgent for them to understand women.” The unspoken inference seems to be that women feel a greater urgency to understand men. (If you think I’m misunderstanding the quote, by all means correct me).

    There may very well be a portion of the male population (probably a large portion) who think it is unimportant to understand women. As a person and as a writer, I don’t count myself among them and I think there is quite a large (and growing number) of men who feel the same as me.

    It’s a bit insulting to be lumped in with the latter group. The statement seems as old-fashioned and narrow-minded as the men it is trying to repudiate.

    And for the record, I’ve had a number of female bosses and supervisors and, for the most part, prefer them to men. I suppose it’s not surprising that I have more female friends than male. In the grand scheme, I may be in the minority, but that minority has grown over the last 30 years or so, and continues to do so. It’s time we were included in the conversation.

    Sorry for venting and thanks for giving me a platform to do so. Not sure why this touched a nerve (full moon?), but I have no more to add here. Hope you have a happy Halloween.

    1. The problem is that there aren’t enough of your sort, Steve. Really there aren’t. And so, unfortunately [and you’re right to be insulsted] it just becomes a gender thing [men are all such and such] rather than a person thing. Because, truth be told, there’s plenty of women that don’t view men, or women, beyond a certain stereotype, or portray them well in print. I’m restraining myself from highlighting genres or titles. Also, it doesn’t help that it’s a patriarchal world. The ‘not as urgent for men’ sentiment tied into the prey/predator one, the context of the exchange being that women simply cannot take situations for granted, or in as a relaxed a manner, as men can. Meaning, life in general. Beginning with walking down the street…

      What rises to the surface for me out of all this is your comment about the need to focus on what’s working, not what isn’t. A better question would have been: Who are the writers [in both genders] that do character well [in both genders]?

      It’s so easy to focus on the negative.
      Easier still to lump every guy into the same pot.
      I can tell you I’d be mightily offended to be lumped into certain pots of women.

      Thanks for this, Steve.

  4. Most interesting interchange about gender in writing in these comments above. Thanks for letting us overhear.
    On another tack entirely, I love the expression “barefoot wild child” to describe first-draft writing.

  5. Carin: The part where you got me is about women not being able to take situations for granted. I do understand that and have to admit that, as a man, I don’t always take it into consideration. I never give it a second thought to walk late at night in the city (although I’ve become warier as I get older). Women have to be more careful.

    Alice: I like that phrase too. Similarly, I tend to think of my own first drafts as compulsive finger painting.

    1. Gee, Steve. If I thought of my first drafts as compulsive finger painting, I’d have even less of an idea how to proceed than I do already.
      But what fun to collect all these metaphors for how we imagine the process.

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