Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pick Up Your Pencils, Boys and Girls

This morning, I went to Caleb’s school for a Writers’ Hot-Chocolate House (a coffee house for the under-eleven set.) A group of the kids had gone to the museum to participate in a writing contest where they penned a poem or story inspired by one of the pieces of art. The teacher ran the readings beatnik-style: The lighting was low, the writers sat on a stool, and we snapped our appeciation.

With a few exceptions, the boys in the class seemed to focus on plot (a robot’s head was punched off, a sumo wrestler ate some art, a stone that could blow up the world was revealed). The girls? All up in character and motivation. (But WHY were you murdered?)

Which is pretty much the gender stereotype of adult writers, too. Even setting aside the obvious spy thriller/ chick lit divide, there’s this idea out there that women writers create memorable characters and men writers create ground-breaking changes to the form. Me, I’ve mostly been of the opinion that book publishing is a weird enough creature that gender is a minor factor in whether a book is successful or not.

And yet. I’ve been thinking about character a lot. I’m better at it than plot (I say, as I’m plotting this thing I’m writing within an inch of its life). Maybe it’s the hot chocolate talking, but after this morning, I’m just a teensy bit more open to the idea that if women are better at character (a big generalization, granted) and character is less valued than form (another big generalization), then women writers might have a harder row to hoe than men writers.

Last night I was reading Bitch magazine, and there was a discussion of an article they ran on ambition. “[I]t’s harder for women to have a strong, colorful persona without appearing like a hobo,” one commenter wrote. “The range of acceptable personalities is still wider for men.” Not everyone agreed, but still.

There is a class of literature, no matter how widely acclaimed, I won’t read. It’s the tale of the older guy who, fearing his mortality, has an affair with a younger woman. I know this story. It’s called About Half the Dads of People I Know, and there are no surprises in it. But other than that, I’m pretty much open to characters of all sorts. No matter who’s writing a book, I do like a strong character. It can compensate, in my mind, for a weaker plot in a way that a strong plot can’t compensate for a squishy character.

Am I being such a girl for thinking this way? Or is my own bias—that I’m better at character than I am plot, that I’m a lady writer and reader, that I don’t think I have many biases against strong female personalities—showing through?

I don’t know the answer. But this whole strong personality thing might explain some of the reviews of Practically Perfect. There are definitely positive ones (for which I’m very grateful), but I’m always taken off guard by the negative ones that aren’t criticisms of the book but of me. One called me an “irritating personality.” Another claimed that if she knew me in real life, she wouldn’t want to spend much time with me. (Aw, please?) And the local daily may or may not have equated me with Paris Hilton (the book review writing was unclear).

Or maybe it doesn’t explain anything at all. I haven’t set up a Google alert for, say, A.J. Jacobs so I don’t know if his personality gets enmeshed in his reviews.

Thoughts, questions, concerns? What do you think?


Anonymous said...

"It’s the tale of the older guy who, fearing his mortality, has an affair with a younger woman."

You've just eliminated Philip Roth's entire oeuvre!

BabelBabe said...

and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

um, I find AJ Jacobs books fairly... didactic. I wonder what HE'S like, but I do know his wife is a saint for putting up with his crazy shenanigans.

and later, when I have more time, I will actually give you a real answer : )

A.J. Jacobs said...

Hi Jennifer -- I do have a Google alert set up for my name, and guess what popped up. This! And you can be assured that my personality is almost always enmeshed in the coverage of my books. One review questioned why my wife stays with me. (BabelBabe -- you're right, my wife is a saint. When I read the encyclopedia, she fined my didactic butt $1 for every irrelevant fact i inserted into conversation. So she made some money on the year, at least).

attiton said...

I think about this topic quite a bit. Not about writing, per se, as I am one of the worst writers in the entire world, but about gendered approaches to information access.

There *are* differences that seem to be most easily classified along gender lines. The trick is that there are many men who follow traditionally female paths to information and vice versa, making them odd-balls only if the original convenient taxonomy had any true correlation with gender.

We are now trained not to see these things as fixed and "true"...and rightly so. Nevertheless, I see it as one of the biggest challenges of this feminist generation to figure out how to toe this line.

Jennifer said...

C&B: You are now jointly responsible for making sure "Never Read a Single Word of Philip Roth" does not appear on my gravestone.

A.J.: Good to meet you, even it's only through the comments! (I tried to finagle a panel with you and Logan Ward at last year's Va Book Fest, but the timing didn't work.) I don't whether to be heartened or dis- about the reviews.

A: I totally agree. BTW, one of the other commenters on the Bitch article argued that publishing is the wrong industry to focus on, that women have achieved parity there, and it distracts from areas where we haven't.

Mom: Don't worry. I can dish it out and I can take it.

Kristin Ohlson said...

I've been thinking about gender a lot, too-- about the many insidious and even counter-intuitive ways that gender influences the way we view other people and their work. I remember a friend who had studied this telling me that an experiment was done in which mixed gender focus groups read a book. Some of the groups were told that a woman wrote the book, some were told that a man wrote it. And their reactions to the book were very different, seemingly based on their web of assumptions about the author's gender. I wasn't a Hillary supporter, but I do think her campaign highlighted some gender issues that no one has paid much attention to in a long time. Nicholas Kristoff was great on this subject.

Not quite what you were talking about! That's another interesting thought. Now you're making me want to read Bitch.

Hey, happy almost new year! For me, a quietly tolerable, unassumingly decent, adequately surmountable new year would also be fine.

[I have a Google alert for my name, too, and your blog popped up today for some reason. I was glad of the reminder to read it!]

Jody said...

Jennifer, I've said similar things about character versus plot before too. I agree that a great character can make up for a weak plot but not vice versa. Once my husband asked me about some movie that I had seen. I said, "Oh, you know it was one of those movies. One thing happens after another." He didn't quite get what I was talking about, but it was this sense of THINGS happening, instead of people experiencing the events.

By the way, as someone who has read your book AND met you, I can say that the person who said that she wouldn't want to spend time with you doesn't know what she's missing.

For that matter, I'd love to spend time with A.J. Jacobs as well, especially if he's embroiled in some new crazy shenanigans.

Katherine said...

Huh. When I read your book, I thought, "ooh, she's cool, I would hang out with her."

I'm all conflicted, for as much as I get the rejecting older man/ younger woman genre, I adore Steve Martin's Shopgirl.

Anyway, this is a great post. Thanks!

B said...

She is cool, I do hang out with her!

Anjali said...

Whoever called you an irritating personality probably sits in front of Dr. Phil and listens to Dr. Laura every day.

I'm just sayin'.

Jennifer said...

Aw, you!