2hrs 37mins. That’s how long it took for a woman to speak in my latest audiobook. A tenth of the whole story without a female speaking part. More than that: only one other woman was mentioned in the first three hours, and she a nameless ‘wife’.
This post isn’t about this book in particular; it’s as much about the way this struck me as strange. See, I’ve read other books with heavy gender imbalances. Catch-22 has very few female characters. Jane Fletcher’s ‘Caelano Chronicles’ are entirely man-free and I love them. Hell, even Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all time favourite books – has only one prominent female character and the supporting cast is resolutely masculine. So why did I particularly notice this one book above all the others? Why has it prompted me to write about it?
I’ve touched on politics in writing before. Elsewhere there’s been great reams of metaphorical ink spilled on the lack of people of colour and women in fiction. Maybe the difference is simply my awareness: exposure to issues raised by others has sharpened my awareness of the imbalance.
The thing is this: it is perfectly justifiable to write a novel without (many) women or men or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri. Certainly this particular book is set in a very male-orientated world and the absence of women is not irrational. I believe that people should be able to write what they want; I don’t believe in quotas or that people should be forced to write in a spot of diversity just because it’s the prevailing culture. My wife – who is a woman – defended the novel when I said how strange I found it. Why shouldn’t an author be able to present a masculine culture from a masculine point of view?
‘If you’re a man, in general, it’s harder to write female characters than male ones. Fact.’ This is from Joe Abercrombie’s blog, the author of the book in question. Now before you go and make your snap judgments based on that I should say that the quote was posted in 2010 and the blog has a coda in which he says that he now winces at some of the things he said. So don’t rush out to hang him.
I enjoy writing female characters. I can’t honestly say that I write women as well as I write men (or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri) because I don’t know, but no-one has said that I don’t do it with at least equal incompetence. Is it fear that stops us from being diverse? The fear of doing it badly?
That doesn’t stop me finding a lack of diversity a little odd. I’m used to fiction containing many different notes, perspectives and tastes. Maybe the strangeness I feel is more of a reflection of my own experiences and the fact that – as I first began this post – the story seemed a little one-note and needed more colour. Since then the novel’s been growing on me as the characters have developed.
It’s an author’s right to describe a civilisation in which I don’t feel comfortable. It’s an author’s right to add or omit elements that strike me as uncomfortable or unreal. But it’s the reader’s right to find it all a little strange. Ultimately it’s their right to put the novel to one side and never pick it up again.
The title of this blog, incidentally, is stolen from Jacky Fleming’s book, which is excellent.