There, that got your attention, didn’t it? There’s a school of thought, and to a great extent it’s one I subscribe to, that the main purpose of sex in any novel other than the kind shelved under Erotic, is exactly that: to get the reader’s attention.
But today, aside from that initial grab, which has got you reading this far, I don’t mean sex as in naked bodies and heavy breathing. I’m contemplating the other meaning, the one which is more accurately referred to as gender. It’s a subject which must surely be in a lot of people’s minds at the moment, what with the leading political lights in several countries being of the female variety, or about to become so. (You know who I’m talking about there, so I won’t spell it out again; I’ll just say please, please, please!)
It all began... well, with Adam and Eve, I suppose, if that’s your creation myth of choice. If it isn’t, feel free to substitute appropriately; all creation myths must surely address the issue of the gender divide. Male and female. Masculine and feminine. Mars and Venus. Man and woman. Until medical science progresses to a point at which women no longer have the job of carrying the human young around in their bellies for nine months (and I find medical science which meddles with natural processes more than a little bit creepy, to be frank), it’s never going to go away. And probably not even then, since men and women are quite simply wired differently. (Oh, yes they are! And thank goodness for it!)
Which can only be a good thing for writers of fiction.
There was a time when women in crime fiction, leaving aside the blessed Miss Marple, were there largely for decoration, or as victims to be rescued by Our Hero. I’m delighted to report, though I imagine most crime fiction readers have noticed by now, that this is no longer the case, though maybe the high proportion of female senior policepersons in fiction is more an example to be aspired to than an accurate reflection of reality. But it has to be said – well, no, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s true all the same – that some authors are more skilled than others at portraying the opposite sex accurately. Or in a way which allows the reader to believe in them as people, not just ciphers who help to move the plot along.
So what set this train of thought in motion? Something always gets things moving around what passes for my brain, else I’d never have anything to post about. This time it’s easy; I can pinpoint the remark, the very moment in a conversation, which planted a seed that some part of my brain appears to have been watering and tending ever since. Ever since a Saturday back in June, in fact, somewhere between three and three-thirty in the afternoon. I met up with an old friend, someone I haven’t seen for years, and we started discussing the one-woman play we’d just seen. The one woman was Annabelle Harper, wife of Detective Inspector Tom of that name, the protagonist of my good friend Chris Nickson’s series of police procedurals set in 1890s Leeds. Chris describes her as a force of nature, and has been heard to claim that he doesn’t write about her so much as channel her. And that’s how she comes across, in the books and in the one-woman, one-act play he has created around her backstory. Annabelle is a one-off.
The remark which gave rise to this train of thought was ‘He’s really good at writing women, isn’t he?’ The rediscovered friend is almost as much a fan of Chris’s work as I am, so she’s familiar with his other female characters too. And she’s right; good or bad, major or minor, the women in Chris’s novels are memorable, and invariably have the ring of truth about them.
That remark has resurfaced each time I’ve picked up a new book ever since. I don’t know why some authors can pull it off and others can’t: this stepping into the shoes, or maybe even the soul, of someone of the other gender (and let me just add that sometimes the ones that can’t are women writing about men). If I start speculating we’ll be here all week and I’m sure you have other things to do. But I will say this: a novel whose author makes me feel that characters of both genders are real people with lives outside the fiction is a novel which is far more likely to pass the fifty-page test, and to make me inclined to seek out more of that author’s work.
As Annabelle Harper might say: think on!