Shakespeare did it. Flannery O’Connor did it. Jonathan Franzen does it all the time. Every playwright, short story writer, and novelist does it as a matter of course, yet there is still plenty of debate over the writer’s right to do it. Unless I’m going to write a novel in which all the characters are white Jewish men of a certain age from the Northeast, I’ve got to do it. Write about the other.
When Shakespeare writes in “Romeo and Juliet,” in Juliet’s voice, “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet,” he is summoning Juliet’s youthful optimism that calls for him to shed his logical male point of view.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor, after the grandmother tells the man who has stopped to help her that she “just know(s) you’re a good man,” writes “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters.” A rough point of view character that appears a far cry from O’Connor’s Savannah, Georgia roots. O’Connor was roundly criticized for the brutal harshness of her stories perhaps in some large measure because she was a woman.
And in “Purity” Franzen’s main character is a young girl, Pip, who, as the novel begins, lives with her mother in near isolation. Two women with no males to be found. Franzen writes, “The problem, as Pip saw it…was that she loved her mother. Pitied her; suffered with her; warmed to the sound of her voice; felt an unsettling kind of nonsexual attraction to her body … found her dear.” Only by allowing himself to drift off in a writerly reverie, imagining this complex and specific relationship he has invented, can the novelist approximate the fullness of human interaction.
So when the conversation begins about whether a white writer needs permission to write about people of color, or a young woman author inhabiting the skin of an older man, a male writing a woman’s point of view or vice versa, it seems to me a moot point for the novelist writing about the world in all of its diversity. It is in that exact desire and ability to step outside her own, by nature, limited experience, that the writer finds joy and satisfaction.
All of this by way of saying that in my own new novel-in-progress, I have created a female protagonist who ages from seventeen to seventy and you may be right in asking what the hell I know about that. Well, I suppose as much as these writers knew about their characters, which is everything they can bring forth from their imaginations. It might be argued too that writing about the other frees the novelist to move from what he thinks he knows about his characters to dig deeper, truly looking. The novice draughtsman draws what he knows about the still life (a table’s round top is a circle, regardless of the angle at which it is perceived) rather than what he actually is seeing. So too there just may be more to the female psyche than can be intuited in a casual glance. And besides, nobody wants to read a novel populated in full by white Jewish men of a certain age from the Northeast.