Last year, I discovered a new (to me) author when Amazon put the Kindle edition of Fathomless on sale. Jackson Pearce’s retelling of “The Little Mermaid” is told in first person, alternating between Lo, the mermaid, and a human girl named Celia. I was impressed that Pearce had written not one, but two female characters. In fact, there’s only one male character who sticks around for more than a few lines: the prince-equivalent. A nice guy, but definitely a secondary character. Now I knew long before reading Fathomless that male authors can get female characters right. Guy Gavriel Kay is my favorite fiction author in great part because of his ability to create distinctive characters, both major and minor, both male and female. But good characterization skills are not the first thing I associate with male authors, so I was happy to think that I’d found another one. Then I got to the end of the book and the author bio, and learned that Jackson Pearce is a woman.* Oops.
Not all that long after this misunderstanding, a FB friend passed along The Year I Stopped Reading Men by Anna Szymanski. A few months later, the same friend led me to E. Catherine Tobler’s The Women We Don’t See. Both articles talk about not reading books by men or women for a year or more. After only reading women authors for a year, Szymanski became sensitized to how male authors, both historical and contemporary, portrayed female characters—usually unrealistically. At the time Tobler posted her article, her friend hadn’t yet broken his unintentional 2-year fast from women authors, so I don’t know if he had been made equally aware of some common feature of women’s writing.
These two articles got me thinking about how many male and female authors I’ve been reading. Beyond that, though, why do I read the books I read? When I tallied up the authors of each gender, I lumped fiction and nonfiction together. I’m not going to run another count right now to see if there’s a noticeable difference in the gender balance between the two, but I’m wondering: do men have as large a presence as they do now only because I read nonfiction? I’m guessing my tolerance for female characters who are mainly “male anxiety wrapped in a vagina” is almost as low as Szymanski’s. So if I read only fiction, I suspect I might be reading more women authors than I have been.
I’d like to think I choose my books based solely on book descriptions that sound intriguing. I really did think that was what I was doing, and that the author’s gender was only a secondary consideration at most. I know it isn’t true that only women writers can write believable female characters. I know there are female authors who can’t seem to do more than make utterly predictable two-dimensional characters. But obviously I haven’t been assuming that men writers as a group do better, or I wouldn’t have been so pleased by Pearce’s characterizations. After realizing that she was a woman, I still like Fathomless and want to read some of her other books, but I haven’t been giving her credit for centering her story on two girls the way I had when I thought “he’d” been comparatively radical. Nothing about Fathomless has changed, of course, just my perception of Jackson Pearce. So there I am, stereotyping authors, but so often those stereotypes prove true. Life is short: why spend time on books I may be able to predict I won’t like?
Okay, I’ve just made it more difficult than it already was to choose my next book. I suppose reading only nonfiction for the rest of my life really isn’t a practical solution. Besides, I haven’t even really begun to think about what different expectations I may have for male and female nonfiction authors.
*Probably obvious from the get-go to anyone with the print edition.