In 1938, Zora Neale Hurston was living in the Jacksonville area, collecting folklore, and working on another novel. It’d been a productive few years for Zora: her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, had been published to great acclaim and she had just ended a second stint as a Guggenheim Fellow. She wanted to write about a man this time. She wanted to tell the story not just of a man, as she had done in shorter pieces like “Spunk” and “The Gilded Six Bits,” but about the Ur-man, a primordial understanding of maleness and all of its attendant myths. What comes out of this period in her life is her third novel: Moses, Man of the Mountain.
This book is at times confusing and phantasmagoric, full of the magic and fearsome poetry of the Bible and the blues. It’s sodden with post-modernity, lousy with allusionary brilliance, and could probably stand with Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the better adaptations of myth in novel history. Yet, it’s very likely you have never heard of it. When the book came out, reviewers were merciless. If the reaction to Their Eyes Were Watching God could be called laudatory if not ecstatic in some corners, the notices for Moses spoke of hubris, of apprenticeship, of someone trying to bite off more than she could write. The crux of many of the reviews was that Hurston had failed to capture the full grandiose nature of Moses. They boiled down to Hurston having not so much failed to write a good novel, but having failed to write a novel about a man.
When women write about men, as Hurston did, the question of whether they are able to write them successfully comes up in gendered, historically-fraught ways. There is an assumption, not present in the criticism of the work of men writing about women, that fiction written by women about men is necessarily speculative, a work of impossibly difficult imagination. In an article about the critical history of books by women, Elaine Showalter relates that early and modern critics of novels by women focused generally on the femaleness of the authors, imposing morals and judgements on the propriety of the authors, what she called ad feminam criticism. In reviews of works by women with male protagonists, reviewers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras (universally male) generally came to the same conclusions that the reviewers of Hurston’s Moses did: that writing about men was neither a woman’s place nor within a woman’s capabilities.
Of course as the demographics of literary critics changed, so did attitudes about cross-gender narratives. The idea of making judgements about the quality of a work based mostly on the gender of the author is now outré, the reserve of the unreformed neanderthals who still stalk the halls of English departments and book review pages. No person would dare now say that a woman was incapable of accurately portraying a man, at least not without significant blowback. And yet, even now this problem of writing about cross-gender fiction in sexist ways continues in subtle but present ways.
It still exists because as Meg Wolitzer noted an essay in the Sunday New York Times, fiction written by women is still relegated to a critical ghetto, distinct from the LITERATURE produced by men. In the essay, Wolitzer isolates the conundrum that women writers face: to either write about men and/or ensembles and get noticed in exalted places; or write about women and women’s issues and be ignored or otherwise marginalized. In a later book, Showalter recounts the early reception of a new novel, Jane Eyre, by one Currer Bell. Critics lauded the precision of the the writing, the evident genius of the author, and the deftness with which the book related the story of poor Jane and her Rochester.
When the truth came out, that the book had been written by a woman in Haworth, a not small number of reviewers retracted their earlier praise. As other novels appeared with male pseudonyms, though written by women, a new (not very fun sounding) parlor game arose, in which books with obviously false names or anonymous books were dissected for evidence of the gender of the author. From this came gendered literary classification, with books written by women purportedly possessing a femaleness in the language, plot, and emotional content. Books written by men, the reviewers thought, would show a superior understanding of the world. The male books would concern themselves with more than marriage plots and drawing room farces. While this was an obviously misguided attempt by reviewers to try to figure out the sex of authors before forming opinions on the books, the method that they used, that of an almost tabular system of gendering a book based on subjective factors, is still the one in place today. As Francine Prose wrote about in Harper’s, even contemporary critics continue to see books by women as “limited to the rather brief run ‘between the boudoir and the altar.’ Men write sweeping, phone-book-size sagas of the big city, of social class, of our national destiny, our technological past and future. They produce boldly experimental visionary fiction that periodically revives the moribund novel. Women write diminutive fictions, which take place mostly in interiors, about little families with little problems.”
Consider the recent novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman, published last year to great acclaim. The book concerns the romantic travails of youngish, handsome Nathaniel Piven, Brooklyn-resident and writer of the kind of articles people pretend to read (“The Moral Cost of Consumption”). When the novel starts, he’s thirty-one and has just sold a book for a six-figure advance. He’s single, and because of his recent success, highly attractive to the young female “editorial assistants and assistant editors” who populate his corner of Kings County. Most of the book centers around his relationship to a less-established but extremely-talented writer named Hannah. On the surface, the book is a retilling of the field plowed by Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men, a story of modern love and heartbreak foregrounded by youth, money, whiteness, and the kinetic glory of New York City. Its literary antecedents include Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. In its plot, approach, and slightly ironic tone, it most closely resembles Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, with Nate Piven shown as a less parasitic version of that book’s Julien Sorel. What separates this book from other “Young Man in the Big City Dates Women” novels, however, is the way in which Waldman explicitly performs Nate’s maleness in ways both caustic and searing, both honest and brutal.
In an interview with Gawker, Waldman talked about the dissociative process she went through writing the book, writing more easily from the perspective of Nate than her own. She says she “felt like I could separate myself from the character,” avoiding “auto-biographical” pitfalls because she did not feel as emotionally identified with the character. She told Brooklynbased, “I thought that if I, as a woman, could accurately depict a male writer’s inner life, it would present a challenge to all of our assumptions about the likely limitations of a woman’s imagination and intellect and humor,” in an interview with multiple female authors about sexism in the literary industry. Her goal, of accurately writing a man almost as an act of defiance, speaks to a history of women countering narratives about their cross gender literary efforts. It also speaks to what Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, called the “persistent impersonation that passes as the real” which creates and defines our gender categories. In centering maleness, in investigating its contemporary iteration in the wake of postmodernism, feminism, and Marxism, Waldman makes visible the “performative construction” of men in fiction.
If a (loose, porous) taxonomy of cross-gender fiction could be identified, Nate P. would be called a satirical novel. I don’t mean satirical in the traditional sense, but rather in that attention is paid to the asymmetric genders of the book’s author and subject. In the most exaggerated instances, the books are sendups of the tropes and stereotypes of the other gender, but mostly they are books that simply make gender seen and an active part of the understanding of the text. Examples include the work of Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain) and Deborah Eisenberg (Some Other, Better Otto).
Ventriloquist books, like J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Nest, seek to minimize, if not obscure, the gender of the author. They are generally written in the first person, are most susceptible to pseudonyms or ambiguous initials, women writing not only about men but as men. It’s also more prevalent in so-called genre books (adventure, young adult, science-fiction, detective) where market/critical sexism is even more pronounced. Salient examples of this style are books by S.E. Hinton, Laura Lippman, and J.D. Robb.
In the sympathetic mode, what you see is an attempt to obliterate gendered portrayal. With these, you’ll see neither an obscuration nor an exaggeration of the author’s genre. Probably the most common form of cross-gender literary fiction, books like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence capture the sometimes conflicting realities of maleness, both the power and privilege it confers and the constant anxiety stemming from failing to achieve an idealized maleness, but doing so in an empathetic, humanistic manner.
Drag fiction can be defined as books written by women in such a way that the literary establishment treats them as if they might as well have been written by men. The reaction to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is instructive here. While that book’s protagonist is female, it was widely lauded for being what James Wood called “scintillatingly alive.” In other corners of the literary world, her writing was called muscular, energetic, macho, language usually used to describe the works of men. In her Harper’s essay, Prose includes the near comical reactions of male critics to Leslie Marnon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, a 700-page fictional treatise on indigenous revolution and war. While critically battered, the book was taken seriously because it was written the way a man would have written it and about things that men want to read about. Books like these include Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, or basically any book whose author could (maybe, possibly) have been named Jonathan.
The categories included above are, of course, wanting. How does one classify a novel like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with its alternating male and female narrators, or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which takes gender fluidity as its chief subject? What they do show is that the complexity, variety, and care taken by women writing men stands in sharp contrast to the flat, objectified portrayals of female protagonists in books written by men. This may come from the fact that this kind of gender performance, as Junot Diaz has said, may be easier for women because “the average woman writer……[has] spent [her] whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity.”
There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through Waldman’s book in which Nate recalls the one time he ever cheated on a girlfriend. It was just after college, and he was living in Philadelphia with the girlfriend, Kristin, who is good-hearted and smart and pretty and perfect the way soon-to-be-dumped college girlfriends are in novels. He had gone to New York to meet up with friends from college, and they end up at a house party in “Deep Brooklyn.” At the party, he meets a nameless girl with whom he goes home. They have explosively bad sex, and in the morning, he leaves without much ceremony. When he goes back to Philadelphia, back to his med-student girlfriend, the kind of girlfriend who pays for their rent while Nate collects bylines, the kind of girlfriend who wakes up early on Saturdays to volunteer as a guide in 5K races for the blind, the narrator describes Nate as being wracked by guilt. But it’s the kind of guilt that is borne out of ego, you see, because Nate resolves to stop cheating on his current and future girlfriends not because he might hurt them or because cheating is wrong, but because it would be gauche, something sad, middle-aged men in Updike novels do.
The scene is meticulously observed, so full of details it suffocates on them. We know the exact outfit of all characters; every bit of weather and decor is noted and catalogued. It abounds with intellectual and emotional description as well: we hear Nate’s inner discourse with as he convinces himself that, because his desire is “outsized, over-the-top, something that didn’t allow for reflection,” he is skirting some moral jurisdiction. And yet for all of its cultural accuracy, for all of its subtle prose, for all of its compulsive readability, the whole episode feels off.
It feels off because the way that Nate describes the encounter emphasizes all of the wrong things: he cares about what her apartment looks like, what her roommates might think. His assessment of her minor facial flaws over body type, the ease with which the encounter is arranged didn’t ring true. Like Nate, I am as fluent in Austen as I am in Roth; I read my Ensler along with my Mamet. And like Nate, I have treated the women in my life terribly. I have lied to, taken advantage of, and strung along women who had committed the offense of taking an interest in me. I’m not writing this to confess, or for sympathy, or as a humble brag. I’m saying it because multiple times while reading this book, I thought “this is brutal” while being confronted with behavior I had thought was simply part of the natural churn of relationships. Many times the thoughts “this is really unfair” and “he’s just being honest” came up. The original version of this piece was a mostly negative review of Waldman’s novel. I focused on the way in which she had demonized Nate and, in the process, turned him into a caricature of a certain kind of Brooklyn dude. I don’t want to say that time and deeper reading led to an epiphanic moment, but instead that I began to question my assessment of the book. I had thought that my reading history, my knowing Chopin and Gaskell, would somehow inoculate me from the sexism of the critics of Acton Bell and George Eliot. The encounter didn’t ring true, and the book didn’t click, not because Waldman did not achieve her goal of properly mining the male psyche. It didn’t work for me because I couldn’t see that it did.
Aboubacar Ndiaye is a writer based in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in McSweeney's and The Billfold