Helène Cixous penned the now staple phrase of feminist literary theory, “Woman Must Write Woman, and Man, Man”, in 1975, decreeing that women must write their own experience, and so must men, and neither should transgress into each others’ territory. I am not here to disagree with Cixous (<3 Helène <3), but rather to consider her phrase in light of my own work, and society as we know it now, almost forty years on.
In 1975 what Cixous was saying was radical, and it was important, and it was essential. Now, I’m not sure if it isn’t a little reductive to suggest that a woman cannot know what is is like (and cannot write what it is like) to be a man, and a man cannot do so of a woman. This somewhat seems to suggest that all men are fundamentally different from all women, and this is the defining social divide that determines our outlook on and experience of the world. Do we say black must write black and white, white? Do we say heterosexual must write heterosexual and homosexual, homosexual? And yet, all that I have published is a first-person series of novels told from the point of view of the member of my own gender.
Surely, Geena Davies’ genius plan to solve sexism in film and television (you can read it here: http://jezebel.com/geena-davis-solves-hollywood-sexism-in-two-easy-steps-1482169524 seriously, I was dubious reading the title, but it would seriously work), if we take Cixous’ advice that woman must write woman and man, man, would not work in novels. Davies suggests changing the gender of some main characters in film and tv to female without changing their personality in order to create proper female characters. Great. I’m 100% on board.
Why don’t we feel the same about novels? About the process of writing? Why is it that I read, for example, Rabbit Run and think that John Updike gets the men so right and the women so, so wrong? Why is it that I have not felt the need to tell a man’s version of the story? Do we truly understand the opposite gender too imperfectly to write from their perspective?
Why don’t I “write man” in my novels? Perhaps gender roles are so tightly encoded into our society that we can’t get outside of them in our thoughts. Perhaps it’s because of the years of misogynistic tradition in literature building up behind every writer, male and female, that Cixous was wary of female experience in male hands. Honestly, I don’t know.
However, I would like to believe that we have come a long way since then. I would like to believe that, between each other, men and women might be able to – through literature – negotiate somewhat what male and female experience of the world is like. Our own experiences are not absolute truth, and perhaps we can only come to understand each other if we keep trying to write each other. This is the way, I think, for us to get closer to understanding each others’ experience of life, of the world around us. I think it’s a mistake to shut off another’s perspective, to not try to imagine.
Literature is the space in which we try to understand an experience different from our own. That is why I love medieval literature so much – it brings us just a little closer to understanding the medieval experience of the world. Surely this can be done, also, between women and men.
I would like to believe that it can.