If we cast back a decade, readers of all ages and genders around the world were pouring their way through two series: Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. Interestingly, each have authors that are of a different gender to their main characters – J.K. Rowling and Harry; Philip Pullman and Lyra.
Does it matter?
In Rowling’s case, it’s difficult to find either criticism or praise for her tackling of a teenage male protagonist. Considering she carries and develops Harry from the ages of eleven to seventeen – his entire adolescence – it seems surprising that there is little in the way of attention given to how she writes him over seven books. Indeed, there is a lot of discussion of Harry as a character, and his progression through Rowling’s plots, but not much on Harry as a male character, written by a woman.
For Pullman, however, almost every interview or profile mentions his ability to write ‘strong’ female characters – a badge of honour, it would appear. He also writes Lyra through her adolescence, but only across three books and over a shorter period of time in the character’s life. Pullman, to his credit, sees nothing much in his choice of gender for a protagonist, stating that he’s always glad to find strong female characters in his books, so clearly the story delivers the character, regardless of gender. Additionally, Pullman says:
‘I’ve always thought that in order to show girls being strong, you don’t have to show boys being weak. I try to maintain a balance and to depict strong and weak, good and bad, men and women, boys and girls.’
So why are Pullman’s efforts worthy of highlighting, and yet Rowling’s not?
Do we hold a different standard to men who write women than women who write men?
I suppose it’s still novelty enough, or at least infrequent enough, that when an author chooses to write a main character with a different gender to their own it warrants a mention. The implication here is that most follow the write what you know rule. But then again, it possibly also comes down to how much one subscribes to the idea that there are fundamental differences between the genders, particularly when it comes to perspective.
A study from 2011 looking at the gender of central characters in children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 found that male protagonists were almost twice as common as female protagonists. Granted, this is only a section of written fiction, but considering the demographic of readers it targets, it’s worth the point. I don’t want to get too much down a rabbit hole of gender priorities in reading, but there is a clear dominance of a male point of view, at least in this area of fiction.
Does this then explain the difference in reaction to Rowling as to Pullman? It is possible that Rowling’s effort was hidden somewhat, in the sense that a male protagonist is more expected, therefore an author adjusting to a male perspective doesn’t warrant as much recognition. But an author presenting a less-established perspective, and one that is not their own, clearly becomes something worthy of mention, even of praise.
(This is also on top of the fact that Rowling had to initial her name as a means of not upsetting potential male readers even though the central character was already male.Apparently male readers’ egos are so fragile we couldn’t handle it. The shock. The shame. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a bendy straw in a guy’s drink.)
Clearly there are many excellent books by excellent authors that don’t fret over what gender their character is and whether it’s the same as theirs. Obviously, an author’s name needs to be central to the promotion of the book. It would seem ludicrous not to include it. Not only for the obvious and all-encompassing reason of crediting the creator behind the words, it’s also necessary for a reader to identify who they’re reading, hopefully with the goal of reading more from that name. But how much does the gender of that name challenge how we read it?
Or even if we read it at all?
Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen female authors who at one point or another have written using a male pseudonym. I cannot think of one example of the opposite. I’m sure there is, but nothing’s coming to mind.
To return to Pullman’s quote above, he insists his approach is to write a balance, and write equally. He never raises one gender above another, or any other facet of life. To him, they’re all just details in among a billion details, any of which could be chosen as part of a plot, or the identity of a character. It matters not whether boy or girl, man or woman. As he says elsewhere, ‘you cannot change who you are, only what you do.’ And if what you do involves writing stories, creating characters, surely you’re free to do it how you like?
And for us readers, does it really matter what gender we are when we read a book? Does it really affect the process that goes on between the page and our imagination?