8.29.2006

The only PC we care about is the SPCA

In a recent discussion on an online writing group, a number of women members felt adamant that if a man wrote a novel with a female protagonist, he needed to explain / justify / rationalize his reasons for doing so in the query letter.

Is this really an issue? I wonder if you have a view of it from an agent's perspective?

Yea, what the hell was that guy thinking when he wrote Madame Bovary. The nerve.
Not to mention that hooligan Thomas Hardy thinking he could write about some chick named Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Let alone that cautionary tale of SJ Rozan who writes a series that, gasp, alternates male and female protagonists. What were those Edgar judges thinking when they selected one of her books for best of the year.


This is a classic example of why I think online writing groups suck.
Justify why you chose a protagonist?
That's missing the point of good writing so badly as to be downright funny.

This isn't sociology 101 and it sure as hell isn't the O'Snarly Factor.
I don't care why you did anything.
I only care that you did it well.

51 comments:

Bernita said...

Why should he, indeed!
Why should anyone have to "justify" why they wrote anything?
This sounds like an exercise equivalent to "What I Did On My Summer Vacation."
Bleah.
Irrelevant and immaterial.

Anonymous said...

Just bragging for my pal S.J. Rozan who has won the Edgar, Nero, Macavity, Shamus and Anthony awards for Best Novel and the Edgar award for Best Short Story.

She's a damn good writer.

ello said...

Sheesh! THat Tolstoy had some explainin' to do writing Anna Karenina, of all the nerve!

I can sympathize with this writer because my novel has two male protagonists who are soldiers in WWII. My sister, who is currently in her "Masters of Fine Arts" for creative writing told me that I had no business writing about men and I should stick with what I know, obnoxious overbearing bitchy women who think they are smarter than everyone else. I told her to go back to therapy! ;o)

Kanani said...

There's nothing like a bunch of writers making up rules to back up their own creative limitations.

I hate any knee jerk rule making that is used as a billy club to try to curb creativity. To use their own logic, then these same women should never write in the pov of a man, a child, someone of a different race, age, or economic group.

Hogwash. That's a group to get out of.

M. Takhallus. said...

I've never gotten the point of writing groups. It's too easy to poke holes in someone's writing, and in a group where everyone wants to be thought brilliant, each person's motivation is to do so.

You have to have an ear for your own b.s. If it sucks and you really don't recognize it, you're probably not going to be a writer. (If it sucks, you know it, and you just don't want to fix it, well, that's different.) If you frequently find yourself reading your own stuff and thinking, "My God, I'm a genius, and this is flawless," you're probably in the wrong biz. If you can't hear when it's wrong you probably can't hear when it's right. Right?

Anyway, listen to the people who can get you a check, or write you a check themselves. There's your critics.

Anonymous said...

To be completely fair, there is a lot of talk in the Academy about appropriation and colonialization not only of gender identities but ethnic and racial ones, too. Sherman Alexie has written about this at length in relation to writers writing as / about Native Americans. Under this model, though, you're pretty much restricted to writing about the events that occurred on whatever very small patch of ground you happen to be occupying. It doesn't allow for imagination or the possibility of trying to understand an other by becoming that other.

srchamberlain said...

It's never even occurred to me to notice if the protagonist of a story is the same gender as the author.

Writing groups really are the source of some of the stupidest information anywhere. You never know if you're talking to someone with actual experience in publishing or a seventeen-year-old working on a 300,000 page novel about leprechaun princesses. Maybe it's best to just assume the latter. I know I've gotten some of the worst advice of my (writing) life out of the online writing group I joined.

Jocasta said...

Oh my god, I just happen to be a female and my book's main protagonist is a male, do I have to justify why or should I rewrite the whole thing with female characters only?

S. W. Vaughn said...

Out of curiosity, do these women feel as strongly about women writing from a male perspective? Must women justify themselves? If not, the arguement seems a bit one-sided.

Ryan Field said...

Good thing Annie Proulx wasn't in this writers group. What's-his-name wouldn't have the nice big brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.

Kimber An said...

Justify it in a query letter? Well, that's just plain silly! Most male writers I've read for really can't do female characters, just as most female writers can't seem to do male characters to save their lives. There's such a huge difference between reality and what a person wishes the opposite sex was all about. But, it can be done and Miss Snark has pointed out some excellent examples. She's write. You don't have to justify it. You just have to be able to do it.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I don't care why you did anything.
I only care that you did it well.


My parole officer keeps telling me that.

Natalia said...

I was in a writing group once, when I was fifteen.

They partnered me up with a convicted felon (attempted murder, he boasted. I suppose he thought that it made him seem "manly") who was more concerned with trying to grope me than he was with critiquing my writing.

Our high school creative writing club was better, but it degenerated into a place to swap cafeteria gossip and rail on the teachers in its later years. The only reason I stayed on was due to a giant crush on one of the older guys (hm, are these groups all about sex under the surface?).

I suppose there are good groups out there, but my experiences, as well as the experiences of various friends and acquaintances, have taught me to stay far, far away. I've found an escape from my loneliness in the blogosphere. If anyone tells you to "justify" anything around here, you can flame them into oblivion.

Shelly K. said...

Eric Jerome Dickey should explain having sold--I believe--over twelve million copies of his books that are mostly told from a female point of view.

S.E. Hinton might explain the nerve of she--gasp--writing from the perspective of a kid named Ponyboy.

And on and on and on...

Shadow said...

I shudder to think about who is "justified" in writing about aliens. And people complain that query postage from overseas is a hassle!

How much postage do you need for a SASE to the Delta Quadrant?

Anonymous said...

Does this mean K.Y must justify his Journey of a Great Dane (a scathing expose of why big dogs aren't always better.)?

Roselyn said...

I see this a lot in online workshops. Justify why you wrote in that POV, that tense. Justify why you chose to use that comma (or not). It's ridiculous. Just go with it. It either works or it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

What about if the choice of the protagonist's gender is a selling point for the book?

IE, science fiction with a young female character targeted to girls who enjoy sci/fi, a genre where women protagonists are few.

Ryan Field said...

Kimber An, you saved yourself with the last sentence:) Though there's one point you left out, which happens to invovle the word, "GOOD". A GOOD male writer can do it, and, GOOD female writer can, too. The problem is there aren't that many around.

Sonarbabe said...

Hmmm, yanno (pp/tm) as someone who writes romance, I think I'd look a mite foolish if I tried to justify why I had a male protagonist in my query. Being that there's a heroine as well, it seems like a given that there would be a hero. But then, what do I know?

BuffySquirrel said...

What excuse for cramping someone else's style will they come up with next?

Think how many genres we'd lose if anybody actually listened to these idiots.

Feisty said...

I get tired of the Rules Police. They're in critique groups, they're on writing boards, they're in chat rooms, and they're virtually everywhere a writer goes.

Maybe if we figure out all the rules, we'll be good writers? Ugh.

I had a crit group or five a few years back. I finally opted to go on my own with a few trusted readers. I'm much happier now.

wonderer said...

I'm surprised to see how many of the commenters are dead set against critiquing groups. Sure, there are bad groups, but there are also groups that are invaluable - yes, even online ones (hi, Elektra!).

Plenty of writers need the experience of critiquing and being critiqued before they can start to look at their own writing with an editor's eye. I know I did, and I still do.

bookfraud said...

this is more prevalent than one thinks, and isn't limited to male/female protagonists. i have a friend who, upon telling someone she was going to write a novel set in the dominican republic, was informed that as a whitey, she had no business writing about that country, it was a form of cultural imperialism, blah blah blah. i hate hate hate that kind of pc b.s. it doesn't matter if you got the chops.

Writerious said...

I've seen the same argument about Caucasian writers trying to write from the viewpoint of people from different ethnic or racial backgrounds. Granted, there are some serious arguments about adapting Native American tales, because the tales belong to particular families and appropriation of someone else's tale is taken as seriously as copyright issues. But to say, "You can only write from your own viewpoint" discounts the role of research in writing. Must I actually be a Leprechaun princess to write about one? Would the League of Leprechauns come after me if I did? Or could I do sufficient research into Irish folktales, geology, geography, history, and more to imagine the world from the viewpoint of a Leprechaun princess? It's deep research that allows writers to write from another viewpoint and do so without resorting to cliches and stereotypes.

I respect the cultures that make up the U.S. and world. I also respect the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Anonymous said...

What about the houses and imprints that publish African-American fiction that only buy from African-American authors? Could be their marketing research tells them A-A readers won't buy the books unless they're written by A-A authors, but it still feels weird and wrong to me.

dorthygale said...

Critique Groups are a lot like shotguns. Used properly, a shotgun can get you a nice venison dinner. Use it wrong and it could take your head off.

In defense of the critique group, bounce thoughts off other people can often get you out of a corner you've written yourself into, or help spur you out of a fit of despondent nonproductivity. But they should be used catiously, with a grain of salt. These are other amaturs, after all.

Kimber An said...

Yes, Mr. Field. 'Good' is the operative word here. The ability to get behind someone's eyes, regardless of gender or skin color, makes all the difference in the world.

Kimber An said...

I won't bash all critique groups either. There are some excellent ones on-line which make it easy to find compatible critters. And there are others rampant with Grammer Goddesses who will vent their wrath on you for every little dangling participle.

Anonymous said...

I can't see why men writing (well) from a female perspective would have to justify anything. If you write first-person fiction, you're automatically writing as someone who isn't you. The question isn't how not-you they are; it's how well you can do that.

What drives me completely bananas is male novelists - and, even worse, male playwrights - who claim, often proudly, that they don't write female characters because they 'don't know how to write women'.

Say what? Have you never met a woman before? Have you lived in a n enclosed monastery since birth? Has it truly never occurred to you that there's no such entity as 'women' - there are just individual human beings? Or do you really believe that women aren't individual human beings, just like men are, and therefore equally easy or difficult to write well? Or what?

I'll get off my soapbox now. Pass the gin, please.

Jude Hardin said...

I don't know how most agents feel about this, but the one I pitched to at a conference this year did ask me why my novel is from a female's POV. Maybe it's because a lot of male writers can't quite pull it off. Everybody who read that novel said the protag seems like something of a tomboy. LOL.

overdog said...

I don't know if writer's groups are necessarily bad, but I hesitate to try again. Mine was helpful in motivating me and critiquing my work for a while, until it degenerated into bi-weekly girl-talk sessions. It took an hour and a half just to get around to the work.

The others are still at it, which is fine for them. For me, it was 90 minutes of missed writing time, so I quit.

Five more words: Wally Lamb, SHE'S COME UNDONE

Sherry Decker said...

Good grief. I refuse to explain why I have a 30 year old virgin in my novel, and why I alternate between her viewpoint and that of the antagonist (male). If someone doesn't like the story, or my writing, that's they're privilege, but it's my right to write whatever I damn please, and in any POV that I please. However, I will defend writing groups - mine is a blessing. They are not mean or too blunt; they are helpful. They identify weak places, confusing places, spots where I need more detail, etc. I love my group.

Anonymous said...

In response to Writerious:

I've noticed that your argument is one that is frequently used against the advice of "write what you know." Yet in most cases, the argument uses a fictional character or setting as an example of how someone doesn't need personal experience to write about a subject. Neil Gaiman, in particular, is fond of this example.

The key word, however, is "fictional." It's quite easy to write about a Leprechaun princess as there are, realistically, no Leprechaun princesses to claim that you're wrong. In essence, it won't matter what you research or don't, you cannot be wrong.

When writing about people, places, or events that have a basis in reality, personal experience weighs in more heavily. Careful research and a good imagination certainly can take you far, but I'm inclined to believe that if you have two writers of comparable ability writing about a subject, the one with more personal experience in that subject will produce the better work. After all, there are some details and experiences research simply won't convey.

Case in point: I would personally take a novel written about the events in New Orleans during Katrina far more seriously by someone who was in the city at the time than someone who was sitting comfortably at home a few thousand miles away.

The whole matter probably gets more focus than it should, really. The submitter's anecdote is a good example of that.

And you're right. Saying that someone "can't" write a particular thing is utter nonesense. Write away, as good writing is always in demand.

Chumplet said...

I'm not a hockey player, or a man either, but I'm writing about one. Members of my writing group tell me that I have a great handle on the man's POV - they can really get inside his head.

I'm in a closed forum, and although we tend to get off track once in a while with our personal lives, we participate in great writing challenges to improve our skills and provide new fodder for our WIPs.

They are a great second (third, fourth, etc.) pair of eyes. They aren't cruelly blunt, probably to spare my feelings, but they aren't blowing sunshine up my ass, either.

Some of them are published authors, and others, like me, are still in that agent/publisher hunt.

And yes, don't forget our dear Elektra, who has a great bunch of 'Meter Readers. They've been extremely helpful.

Edyta said...

About 30 years ago when my father retired from his civil service job, he decided to devote himself to his real love, writing. He had 5 romance novels published during his retirement; but here's the kicker: the publisher insisted that he use a female pen name. They explained to him that their female audience would never believe the stories if they were written by a man. That belittles both men and woman, doesn't it? As a result, my father never lived to see his real name in print...

BertGrrrl said...

I'd say this is a cautionary tale about to whom you give your ms for beta reading--that's not exactly the same as, you know, that whole regretable "for whom the bell tolls" bad vibe, but whenever you see "whom" (especially from moi), feel free to get majorly creeped out.

(It can't help that. It's just become a creepy word.)

People will nitpick. Nitwits will . . . umm, "peep-twick"? You get the idea--there are those who walk among us, cleverly disguised as normal citizens, taxpayers, good spellers and those-who-know-about-grammer, who would like nothing better than to *rip you freakin' heart out*! It is their sick, sad Destiny to do so--to crush the spirit of those-who-dare-create, to pulverize imagination!

AVOID THEM. You don't usually see all caps from me--that was actually a typing mistake, but I like it, so I'm not fixing it--but I can get that way about artist vs. pinheads stuff.

So--don't let the pinheads get you down (ummmm, give me maybe a few martini-free hours, I'll translate that into Latin . . . ).
Just write the story.

That's worth repeating: Just write the story.

Fugedabout the critics--let them slowly stew in their own nasty juices.

Honestly, pre-Discovery Channel, how much could Mr. Kafka really have known abut the secret life of beetles? And yet--damned good story! There ya go!

Write the story (or, possibly, allow the story to use you to write itself).

Win/win, either way.

Kanani said...

Most people don't enter into creative endeavors to curb their own imaginations or try to do it to others.
However, coming across such traps is unavoidable. I've seen axioms and pack mentality at conferences, workshops, messaging boards, writers groups and universities. It's everywhere.

Take it in as an opinion that means something to them for whatever personal reasons, but not necessarily for you. It's hard enough to write with our own baggage, we don't need anymore.

Virginia Miss said...

AGHH! Critique groups! You can't live with them, you can't live without them. Most of us need readers, readers who know the craft, to give us feedback. I'm indebted to my critique partners for some of the stuff they've pointed out or suggested. But to get to those nuggets we must wade through a lot of crappy advice.

tygacat said...

And let's not even get started on that Jack London fellow; writing from the POV of a dog. The nerve.

Anonymous said...

If you ask for opinions, you'll get them: good and bad. If you don't ask for opinions, you're on your own: good or bad.

I suggest there is only one rule for being the subject of a critique group - take from it what is useful to you and ignore the rest.

Chumplet said...

Go ahead and nitpick. I can take it.

M. Takhallus. said...

I've never belonged to a writer's group. Editors are enough trouble, why would I take grief from people who can't even write me a check?

We (my writing partner and I) have a triage system for dealing with editors: 1) stuff that's actually helpful, 2) stuff that's neither here nor there, 3) stuff that's stupid.

We do (1), fight (3), and do something we call "phony compliance" on (2).

The point is, everyone will have an opinion or a critique. Send the same book to 10 editors you'll get 10 different sets of notes. So why are you going to jump through hoops for the lady next door when the first editor who sees it will want exactly the opposite of whatever she suggested?

The writer needs to know what's right. You need to have an ear, you need to have some convictions, you need to have some flexibility. Someone in a writer's group is not going to teach you how to write. It's the writer's job to develop a capacity for self-criticism, you can't outsource that. Otherwise the first 24 year old associate editor Bryn Mawr girl who says 'boo!' will have you in a panic. You need to know yourself if it's right or wrong.

MTV said...

As I've said before: As an author you need, yes need, to have a vision of your work. Otherwise, you are at the whim of every critic. And, yes, getting inside a man or a woman's head can have it's challenges as others have noted here. Jude said his female POV did have some tomboy characteristics. Did it work for the story? - that's all it needs to do. In a similar way, as was noted, Jack London wrote from a dog's POV. Did it work for the story?

So, to me how well the author portrays that is his call. Is there bad writing - yes absolutely horrid. That has more to do with the author being unaware of many other elements of writing vs. being able to be *in the head* of that particular POV.

My character is female - was I able to get into her head as a woman? My observation is as follows: There is a wide a variation in female energy. That variation goes from almost male to totally feminine. The male energy is similarly expressed. So who is to say how far you should go as an author? My answer is: far enough to serve the purposes of your plot and develop your character arc. And, as Ms Snark has said may times - write well - it will get attention.

One beta reader could only get through the first 100 pages of my work. Others couldn't put it down and cussed me for making them lose sleep. I'm reminded of Rick Nelson's *Garden Party* Song.

So dear author - please yourself!!!

Anonymous said...

Shadow said: How much postage do you need for a SASE to the Delta Quadrant?
LOL!

DorothyGale said:
In defense of the critique group, bounce thoughts off other people can often get you out of a corner you've written yourself into, or help spur you out of a fit of despondent nonproductivity.
I agree; that's been my experience as well.

Regardless of our varied experiences with crit groups, it seems that the majority of folks here agree that writers don't have to justify aspects of their work or defend the choices they made in during the work's creation. We all know that readers are fickle; we can't please or entertain all readers. There's a huge difference between (A) critiquing a work / prodding the writer to dig deeper (say, to flesh out characters or strengthen a plot point) / encouraging the writer to try something different, and (B) demanding a justification / trying to stop the writer from using a certain style cold turkey. Once that boundary is pushed, anything helpful can be lost. Writers should never have to defend their work just because a reader isn't impressed or entertained.

It's a fine line---critiquing the work (in a passionate and opinionated way) vs. letting opinions slip into the personal (such as the reader's personal view seeping into her comments of the crit, turning a crit of the writing into a crit of the writer). That situation needs to be avoided. Sometimes ignoring the crit and leaving the group altogether is the only way to shake off the negativity.
-SK

BradyDale said...

"I don't care why you did anything.
I only care that you did it well."

Ahhhh... this is why we love you.

Kanani said...

The problem isn't crit or writing groups per se.
It's what is said.

The thought expressed in the OP are opinions and won't make your writing stronger. It doesn't show you how to cut out the excess for leaner prose, doesn't correct your grammar, doesn't show you a better way to use a metaphor. Asking someone to justify what they write is akin to telling them to justify their existence.

Philosophical discussions can go on forever, but my time for writing is limited.

While writing itself can be a solitary act, my experience is that learning the craft is something that lends itself to a social situation. I've been in wonderful writing groups, both in workshops that lasted 10 weeks and also smaller ones that meet off and on. I've forged some strong friendships and there are three people whose eyes and thoughts I trust, and I consult with them when I need it.

The trick is to find the right group for you, and this can be a process that involves lots of weeding.

Gabriele C. said...

"Women can't write battle scenes."

It's one of those stupid statements I had to fight. And no, I'm no longer in that crit group. :)

The only point in gender expectation I can understand is that a publisher may think readers of military oriented historical fiction are used to it been written by a Bernard or Simon, not a Gabriele, and might ask me to pick a gender neutral pen name. It's along the same lines, imho, that makes German Fantasy writers use English sounding names, because Fantasy translated from English is more popular than German books (except those by Hohlbein). Don't ask my why, though.

But no publisher would expect me to explain why I chose to write books with male protags and battles. The only answer I could give would be, "because it's fun," anyway.

Kate Thornton said...

I frequently write from the POV of a gay man. I have written from the POV of an adolescent African-American girl. I have even written from the POV of an ages-old vampire.

Okay, that last one is closer to real life than the others, but fiction writers get into other skins for a living - and make them come alive in a way that makes the reader *care* about it.

Getting into those other skins - thats the key to writing believable characters.

David de Beer said...

A fan one asked Neil Gaiman:

"How do you do it? How do you write women so well?"

Gaiman said: "Simple. I write people."

That's the truth, really. Personally, I find it a little bizarre that there is a belief that men can write men better, and only women can write women well.

I've read plenty of women authors (published as well as on critique groups) whose female characters did not strike me as believable or realistic. Same is true of male authors.
Most of Dean Koont's early books featured female MC's.
IMO, he did a fair enough job there.
Charles deLint wrote a pretty strong article in the back of Mulengro, where he opposed the belief that he is not allowed to write non-white characters.
It's nonsense, in the end, maybe an indicative symptom of the kind of crazy world we live in where everything has to be pre-approved. And things get approved based on superficial "correctness". Most all, quality in writing no longer seems to be the main focus.
Are the publishers not paying attention? Does it no concern them that the global reading market is shrinking every year?

-sry said...

A couple of days ago, S. W. Vaughn asked:

Out of curiosity, do these women feel as strongly about women writing from a male perspective? Must women justify themselves? If not, the arguement seems a bit one-sided.

I'm female (*gasp*) and generally don't give a second thought to whether my protagonist is male or female. All depends on whose story it is. I did, however, make a mistake recently and "justify" having written in the first-person male voice. The story was for the Romance genre market, which in 2006 is rarely if ever told in the first person or male voice. Guess I should'a read Miss Snark more carefully, though. Now my Crapometer submission is going to get snarked for the wrong reasons. Or maybe just booted? :-(

:: wimpers away w/tail between legs ::
Read first. Click second. Got it. I knew my dyslexia would get me one of these days!

-sry
are these word verifications getting longer w/each post or is it just me?