Gender bending is all the rage this year. With Nick Hornby, Sebastian Faulks and even the poet and scholar John Fuller choosing to write from the female viewpoint, the modern novel has entered the sex-war as never before. Cynics may wonder whether this isn't due to the simple fact that women buy far more fiction than men: according to the agent Giles Gordon, publishers aren't interested in books about men any longer because these sell so badly. Yet at some point, any serious novelist is going to try to write from the perspective of the opposite sex, because the joy of writing fiction, as of reading it, is about getting outside your own head and into someone else's. Stepping beyond your own gender takes that process further. It's an irresistible challenge, but as I discovered last year, a very real one.
It shouldn't be so difficult. Many people, writers or not, have the illusion that they know the opposite sex better than their own simply because of having been to bed with individual members of it. In the imagination, we can surely be as hermaphroditic as the seer Tiresias, whom the Greek gods turned into a woman for seven years. But to really get under the skin of a man if you're a woman or vice versa, to look at the world through their eyes and feel with their feelings is astonishingly hard. When you try it, you do start to wonder whether you can dismiss the theory that men are from Mars and women from Venus, because even the finest writers of each sex gets the other wrong.
Men have a comparatively easy time, because women have been discussing what it is like to be a woman ever since women became novelists. Over the past century, thanks to feminism, that distinction has become richer and clearer. Great novelists of the past had the inestimable advantage of being able to read their wife's diary (in Tolstoy's case) or conduct an intimate correspondence with a mistress (as with Flaubert). Now, blokes have to make do with women's magazines, not to mention all the books by women on women. They have an abundance of information about us, whereas for women it's much harder. Men seem to make it their life's work to obscure what they're thinking and feeling. Until very recently there has been no movement, analogous to feminism, to get them to unbutton the stiff upper lip. You can read the kind of writers that men love and women hate - people ranging from Joseph Conrad to Ian Fleming - and gain very little insight into the reality as opposed to the fantasy of living inside a man's head. I can't be the only woman in the world who has to work out what her partner is feeling by a process akin to tracking spoor in a jungle. Men, especially British men, tend to be so uncommunicative that it's easy to make the crass error that they have less feelings, and less sensitivity than women do. This isn't helped by the profound antagonism feminism has encouraged towards men. Vain, incompetent, irresponsible or just bonkers men have become the buffoons of the modern world, unable to juggle the outer and the inner life with any semblance of skill or enthusiasm.
When I came to write In a Dark Wood, this was one of the aspects that most interested me about having a male narrator. Men are, as Fay Weldon has said, the new underclass - socially and emotionally, if not as yet professionally. Increasingly, as women become financially independent, men have lost confidence. My narrator, Benedick, is an actor - something that allowed him to be half-way to femininity because of his vulnerability in being continually judged by the way he looks, and which made his self-awareness more credible. Originally, he was going to be an architect but that world is too full of all the Lego sets I'd never played with. What a male narrator does, I discovered, is very important indeed. Women writers can, it seems, write as adolescent boys, as doctors, as artists and as actors without too many problems (think of Iris Murdoch, Rose Tremain, Jane Hamilton and Carol Shields) because these all allow a credible degree of senistivity, especially to others. Approach a stereotypically masculine profession like soldiering, and it's another matter. Look at a soldier by Pat Barker or Susan Hill, and you find him having a breakdown. My character too is in the grip of manic depression. I now wonder whether women can only get into a male character's head when he is cracked open by anguish.
Then, there is imagining what it must be like to live inside the body of the opposite sex. Male novelists certainly never seem to get the hang of what it's like to be a woman. Brian Moore's novels gained plaudits from male critics for their deep insight into the female psyche, but failed to impress us with heroines whose femaleness largely rested on always having her period at some point. William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach also felt weird because its narrator, though satisfyingly brave, appeared to have no breasts. (Try running through the African jungle with a pair.) She was, however, peculiarly interested in her own pubic hair. The funniest thing is when men describe what they imagine what sex must be like for a woman. As with John Cleland's pornographic masterpiece, Fanny Hill, there is always a lot about the stupendous role of the penis; and no humour, or tenderness. We'd love to be like Sebastian Faulks's heroine in Birdsong and enjoy swooning orgasms at the mere prospect of penetration but alas it isn't so. Nor do their emotions ring true. My own belief in Anna Karenina, the greatest portrait of a woman by a man, wavers when she chooses her lover over her son. There are women who do this, but they tend to be as rare as Medea. Nick Hornby's Katie in How to be Good tells us about her feelings but omits to inform the people in her world about them. (And she never does the laundry.) On the whole, as Hollywood films from Tootsie to What Women Want emphasise, a man pretending to be a woman is a bit of a laugh involving the discomfort of wearing pantyhose and the agony of leg-waxing.
Women writing as men appear equally uneasy. Like Patricia Highsmith's talented Mr. Ripley, they're just a bit too aware of particularities that heterosexual men fail to pick up on. Apart from Sherlock Holmes, no man created by a man ever notices how somebody is dressed: male characters by women always do. They notice smells and tastes, whereas men in books by men are apparently all suffering from heavy colds. Blokes see and hear, but touch all seems concentrated in a single portion of their anatomy. (Guess which.)You really would think they didn't even have hands if they weren't so busy getting on with their manly jobs of pulling triggers, steering cars and writing memos.
Even stranger is what happens when these man-women or woman-men look in the mirror. Male novelists never seem to grasp how wracked by self-doubt and insecurity most women are. Women writers fail to understand that when a man looks at himself in the mirror he tends to actually like what he sees. So women created by men don't ever worry about their bums looking to big or the zit on their nose, any more than they feel shy about taking their clothes off. Men created by women, meanwhile, are tortured by humility. From Rose Tremain's Merivel in 'Restoration' to Jane Hamilton's adolescent narrator in 'Disobedience' they are somehow just too humble. Aren't there any men with a sense of humility? Well, yes - I'm married to one. Prolonged scrutiny has led me to conclude, however, that this is highly unusual.
It's that admixture of strength and weakness that each side finds so curious, and fascinating. Men are undoubtedly stronger, yet no point of a woman's body makes her so vulnerable as testicles. We have a higher tolerance for pain, and can hide sexual arousal or fear. At one point I had Benedick confronting his bullying father, and feeling his own penis shrink and crawl. A (woman) critic in The Spectator found this implausible. Yet men's genitals do display a continual barometer of how they are feeling. All that shifting and hitching and worrying and comforting - well, no wonder they fantasise about having something as reliable as a gun or a sports-car.
All my life I've got into trouble for insisting that women can be just as brave, active and intelligent as men. Yet the men and boys I asked about what it was like to be them were not like my received ideas of manhood. I found I learnt most about this from having a small son. For a girl, it's easy to see boys as thuggish and excessively physical; for a woman, easy to see men as heartless or obtuse. But real boys, and men don't feel brave, but try desperately to project courage. They need sport not just to work off their energy but because they can't make contact with each other any other way. What struck me most was how lonely they are. It is heartbreaking to see how quickly small boys learn to grow shells of indifference under which the poor tender self can shrink and hide. Even the most articulate and sociable don't really talk to their friends. They don't know things about each other, because they never ask. Compared to the intricate complexity of women's lives, boys and men seem so Spartan. Yet there is a joyous side, that loves jokes (especially rude ones), that goes directly to the point, that is free of a kind of convoluted malice girls and women suffer from. These are large generalisations, and of course I know that they break down when confronted with individuals, real or imagined. However, after living inside a male character for two years I do think I see things - situations, quarrels, subjects - with a kind of double vision. No doubt I, like every other woman novelist writing as a man, have got things wrong, all the same.
I put what I discovered about men into In a Dark Wood, and some people (particularly men) have found its narrator violently objectionable as a result. I love poor Benedick, and I also love the opposite sex, or at least the members of it whom I know. I love their vanity, their sense of humour, their inability to find things, and their very real courage, which isn't the comic books sort but to do with endurance and overcoming fear. I love the way men are sane about the things that women tend to be neurotic about, and vice versa. However, since writing as a man, I also pity them. The Greek gods who changed Tiresias into a woman asked him afterwards whether men or women enjoyed more pleasure. Guess what he replied.
Author Magazine 2001