The Living Room

If I have any non-writer friends left by the end of November, I’ll be extra post-Thanksgiving grateful. As NaNoWriMo winds down, I find myself talking increasingly about the novel I’m writing this month, and its characters. I love a few of these characters more than any other ones I’ve written. I love the world that I’ve created. I feel as audacious as Jonathan Franzen sometimes because I am attempting to take up so much space with this story. I love the way writing a novel has allowed me to learn about so many things I never knew existed and it has given me a vehicle to understand American history a bit more.

The dicey thing about novel-writing is that a writer’s talents aren’t always a match for his or her ambitions. My writing ambition has always varied somewhere in between “writing something I’m not ashamed of,” in the low moments, and “writing something that gets published,” when I’m feeling more optimistic. With this NaNo novel, I didn’t really care much about either of those things. My older sister summed it up this way: “There are those novels out there that appeal to everyone, but they’re so generic. Women will read those books because they maybe feel that the subject matter relates to them, but it really doesn’t.” Better to write for a specific population for whom the story will resonate, she said.

With these words, she landed on an issue that’s troubled me ever since I read Jane Elliott’s article in Bitch, “O is for the Other Things She Gave Me”: The male novelist is assumed to represent both male and female readers. While female novelists are often decried for writing novels that are not “large” or “sweeping” enough, the living room, or family, dramas of male writers are considered to be of great worth and wisdom. And these novels are bought, read, chatted about in living rooms and book clubs, and the novelist is duly awarded.

I adore a bunch of male writers who write some iteration of David Foster Wallace’s absurdity. I’ve never found a female version of his great humanism and neurosis, though I’m certainly looking for it. For my editing class’s final project, I ventured into attempting to developmentally edit his unfinished novel, The Pale King, and was shocked by the sexist language the book contained, albeit in its minimally edited state. Other male writers whom I adore also have shards of sexist language in their nonfiction and fiction, as well. (This may include, but not be limited to: characterizing a female character according to her physicality, describing her as having animalistic attributes, demonizing/creating creepy female characters over the age of 60, and writing completely fantastical sexual encounters between a young vixen character and older repugnant male character.)

I never have understood how male writers can be both brilliant and so out of touch with reality as to write these characterizations of the women in their stories. When I was a young writer (in my first fiction-writing class in college), I was not a big fan of men. (If you had attended Marquette University with me, you would feel the same way.) My male characters were brutish and rather unskilled at romance. Lucky for me, I had a great writing teacher who noticed this absurd depiction of men and wrote a comment in the margins of my paper that made me realize what I was doing.

A few years later, I happened to write a story from the perspective of a guy named Matt, who was a decent and complicated human being. Then, I wrote a story with only male characters of various ages called “Bear Rocks,” and the lovely writers I wrote with in D.C. told me that I really had nailed down the older male character’s voice. Looking back at the men in those early stories, I am very grateful that I was made aware of this limited depiction of male characters. Nowadays, I would think it insane to depict my male characters to be jocks or Lumberghs or various other domineering stereotypes of masculinity. Still insane, however, are many of the female characters that most male Great American Novelists can’t seem to imbue with working brains or believable motivations.

I do wonder how long the living room will be occupied by male writers, though. I’d like to sit in there a while.

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