Wednesday, 19 November 2014

She stepped out of her dress and locked eyes with her reflection

Yeah, not bad, she thought, squaring up to the mirror. You're doing alright for your age, sweetheart. 
She ran her hands down over her smooth, toned belly, grimacing as she encountered the tiny roll of fat, then over the curves of her thighs. All that kickboxing had paid off; her muscles were palpable beneath the skin. She moved her hand towards the centre of her being, until her exploratory fingers made contact with the first soft hairs...


Fucking men writing as women. Fucksake. Fuck off.

This post has been stewing for some time, but I was finally moved to write it by a text from a friend today who said:
You got me into Paul Auster, I usually like him but 'in the country of last things' I'm getting so pissed off with his trying to write as a woman from stuff about hairy legs, crying when she cuts her hair, and her description of her [redacted because it's so fucking unpleasant] when she was younger. Have you read it? Any thoughts?
The follow-up text said:
Soon after I texted you I got to a bloody lesbian sex scene ffs! It's a shame because it's a great novel.
For years I have been wound up by these scenes, written by men, with women protagonists. Somehow, within a few pages of a man starting to wonder 'what would it be like to be a woman?', the answer turns out to be: lesbian sex, female changing room, masturbation, or the most basic of all, grimly parodied above...'scene where woman protagonist regards herself naked in the mirror and narrates what she sees'. 

This last, the mirror scene, is everywhere. Sooner or later, if you read a lot of books, you will come across one of these. There's one at the beginning of an otherwise good Iain (M.?) Banks novel that leaves a sour taste - but apparently only if you're female. I'm yet to meet a bloke who notices or minds these scenes. The duff note that they sound is, it seems, inaudible to male ears. 

These aren't crappy semi-pornographic trash books; these are proper novels by proper writers. Not as simple as 'written for kicks', this is bloke-as-universal, (male) writer as omniscient, demonstrating his brilliance by writing a scene where by definition no man could really be present, but managing to distance the character from herself so that we can still see and judge her as a female body from the outside. The mirror, with the 'self'-appraisal and the reported internal narrative, is a prurient, perfect trick for pretending to believe that women have subjectivity while at the same time transforming them back into the object of the gaze. 

I've read male characters written by women, and quite possibly the notes they hit are equally flat. But it's not so obvious to me, as a female reader, and also they tend not to spend their time describing a solo sex scene in great detail. Margaret Atwood seemed to find better things for Zeb to do than wank while staring at himself in the mirror.

Perhaps it shouldn't be this great gulf; perhaps, as people with multiple dimensions (not just sex and gender), the specific sex/gender shouldn't be all-important. But it is. This may be down to self-consciousness; some male writers are acutely aware of the challenges of putting themselves in the place of a woman. Kingsley Amis said in an interview:
I kept a very thick and detailed notebook for Take A Girl Like You—about a hundred pages. But I think that was partly nervousness, because I knew that its theme, and using a female protagonist, was going to put a severe strain on my resources. 
Perhaps the reason that female writers are better at writing men (if indeed they are) is that the universal, unmarked, ungendered subject of - well - subjectivity, is male. As girls, we grow up knowing how to think, see, feel, hear, experience the world as men. We have to consciously unlearn that, to recognise how our ways of looking are shaped by a view that sees women as other: other to ourselves.

I remember reading Nancy Friday's brilliant Women on Top and My Secret Garden, books of women's sexual fantasies, and anticipating Men in Love with great excitement. Women's fantasies were so raw, so unexpected, so various and powerful, imagine how good the men's would be! And, I suppose predictably, it was a huge let-down. Because the men's fantasies were so familiar. They were the meat and potatoes of the erotic, the world of fetishes and desires that is materialized around us, the worlds of pornography and advertising and film and art. Of course, I realised afterwards, I KNOW what men fantasise about.

It's a shit business, but it does give us an advantage when it comes to 'cross-writing' as a male character, it's almost more natural than writing as a woman. Because that's what protagonists sound like. Because that's what people are. Women, on the other hand, are a lot like people, but spend an inordinate amount of time remarking to themselves on the view of their own naked bodies.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Art of Nature (or, what I learned in my first year of having a garden)

  1. Seeds do not grow if you plant them in the ground. If you want to see anything at all happen, plant them in a tray first or get baby plants. Plant them straight in the soil and they apparently fall down a long tube to the centre of the earth. Which is a good start for a Technicolour sci-fi story, but less useful for us up here in sky-world.  
  2. The only way to make it rain is to water the garden. See also: cigarette/bus stop, pregnancy test/period. Speaking of which:
  3. Pregnancy and gardening don't mix. In the morning sun you may feel like an earth goddess, but come nightfall you'll be frenetically googling toxoplasmosis and wishing you could immerse the world in Milton. Also, you may not be able to get up again (see #9)
  4. Yes, it is a weed. 
  5. There is broken glass in the soil. You can find it easily by simply not bothering to wear gloves.
  6. Your soil type is 'crap'. You do not need a fifty quid testing kit to tell you this.
  7. Growing stuff to eat costs about four times as much as buying it in a shop. But it feels more moral.
  8. Slugs are from hell. The way they move is horror incarnate. They leave shiny trails of evil to taunt you. Tiny parasitic worms live on their semi-permeable skin. 
  9. You will always end up on your knees. Actually, this is just a general rule for life.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Ice Cold in NW1

I’ve written before about hunting for art. That time was in a multistorey car park in Peckham. This time it was in the bowels of the University of Westminster on Marylebone Road, rattling unlikely-looking Sunday-lockdown academic doors and wandering cavernous pillared warehouse spaces before stumbling finally into the exhibition.

Entering through the exit, as we did, the immediate impression is of darkness, liquid and straight lines. A moment of adjustment, then the Knightmarish realisation that you are standing on a narrow walkway between sharp-edged pools of water.

With each minute that passes your eyes adjust, and now you see figures silhouetted against paler, flickering screens, railings and steps, a higher floor where images play on screens, and patterns of light dancing on the walls.

Gradually it makes a sort of sense.  A long bench between square pools of dark water, into which you can dip your hands, making ripples which are projected and multiplied on the walls. Screens you can walk around and behind. Upstairs, four films play simultaneously and side by side, glimpses of life among the ice: chunks of melting glaciers held up on the deck of a boat like glassy fish; men chipping icicles off the side of boats; an Inuit woman explorer; huskies; igloos; and calving icebergs.

And through it all a real coldness, a nip in the air that doesn’t match the rest of the building, a cool, damp, half-clean smell.

Out of Ice by Elizabeth Ogilvie in association with British Antarctic Survey is at Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS, until 9 February 2014.