In recent years, the virus of identity politics has invaded literary publishing, with authors being told they have no business writing about Muslim characters if they are not Muslim, or Hispanic characters if they are not Hispanic, and so forth. The implications of this critical condemnation are obvious—and obviously absurd. No one today can inhabit the identity of an ancient Spartan, not even a modern Greek author; is no one then permitted to write a novel set among the Lacedaemonians? (Steven Pressfield, call your office.) No human being ever has inhabited the Shire in Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the Earthsea of Ursula Le Guin. Franz Kafka, the author of The Metamorphosis, never experienced even a moment of life as an insect of any kind. But we would not conclude that these are forbidden literary ventures.
Perhaps the matter is different when it comes to living cultures of our own time—that somehow it is disrespectful at best, and a form of imperialism at worst (if the author hails from the dominant liberal culture of the West) to attempt to write about characters from the “subaltern” cultures that are considered the victims of the West. But it is not at all clear why this should be impossible to accomplish in a richly rewarding way. Literature is an exercise of the imagination, and succeeds by dint of its verisimilitude—its “ringing true,” no matter how fantastic its distance from literal or historical truth.
Lately I have been making my way slowly, in odd moments, through Jacques Barzun’s 1937 book Race: A Study in Superstition, which makes a convincing case for the thesis indicated in its subtitle: that when we attribute intellectual or cultural characteristics to “races,” we don’t know what we’re talking about. Barzun does not deny the existence of distinctive cultures—how could he? But cultures are fluid and constantly changing, and can be entered into, in principle, by anyone. “Race,” on the other hand, as a genetic inheritance, is a cage in which each of us is somehow locked. This is the idea that Barzun pulls to pieces with care and precision. The very idea of race as a marker of identity is an imposition of imagination on the reality of things—a superstition, as Barzun calls it.
But what about an aspect of personal identity, truly rooted in biology, that is undeniably real? That is, what about the sexes?
We are bodily creatures, born male and female. No, we are not “assigned at birth” as one or the other, with some kind of “reassignment” possible in later life. That is a currently fashionable falsehood. Whatever “gender identity” we might imagine for ourselves, what is ineluctably real is our sex, from the cradle to the grave. As a man, I cannot know what it is to be female, and my wife cannot know what it is to be male.
What are the implications of sexual difference for literature? If men cannot know by experience what it is to be women, and women cannot know by experience what it is to be men, do authors of each sex have any business centering their fiction around figures of the opposite sex? Is there anything distinctive about the male voice or the female voice in literature, such that each conveys most deeply only the experience of its own sex?
About a year and a half ago, I began to read all of Jane Austen’s novels again, thirty years after reading them for the first time. (I have only Mansfield Park still to go in this rereading.) The window Austen provides into the mind and heart of each of her female protagonists can, for a time, persuade a reader that only a woman could have written with such insight about them. But then we must check ourselves. Is Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne less convincingly drawn than Austen’s Elinor Dashwood? Is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina less real than Austen’s Anne Elliot, or Flaubert’s Emma Bovary less affecting than her Emma Woodhouse?
If only a woman can be trusted to convey the thoughts and feelings of women, with a kind of exclusive insight, what are we to think of such fully rounded characters in Austen’s fiction as Mr. Knightley and Colonel Brandon? For the capacity for imaginative sympathy with the characters one creates must be presumed to be alike in men and women; either women can “write men” or not, equally as cannily as men can “write women.” Willa Cather’s career began with novels like O Pioneers! with its central female character, but arguably her best book was Death Comes for the Archbishop, which concerns two Catholic priests who come to Santa Fé from France in the early nineteenth century, one of them to be the new bishop of a vast frontier diocese. Cather was not raised in the southwest, was not French, was not even a Catholic—and of course was a woman. Yet Death Comes is a triumph.
It is a truism that writers “write what they know,” and so male protagonists dominate most men’s writing, while female ones are in the foreground of most women’s writing. Rumer Godden could much more naturally write Black Narcissus, about a group of Anglican nuns trying to establish a convent and school in the Himalayas, than could, say, Graham Greene. Muriel Spark was much more likely to write The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie than Kingsley Amis was.
Yet art knows no boundaries other than persuasive power and taste. Even a highly autobiographical work of fiction can achieve something that transcends the trivially narrow experiences of the author. Olivia Manning’s masterpiece, the “Fortunes of War” cycle comprising The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, closely tracks her own experiences during the Second World War. What her character Harriet Pringle goes through is essentially what Manning herself did during those years. But one of Manning’s greatest gifts is her capacity for description, with a vividness that transports the reader to a place and a time amid very real people. And one of the most powerful parts of her story is the experience of a young British officer, Simon Boulderstone, in the harrowing desert campaign of North Africa. Manning was never there, and could only know such an experience secondhand, at best. Her art does the rest, and it does plenty.
There may indeed be a case for distinguishing the “female voice” and the “male voice” in literature. I have not here disposed of that question, and I wouldn’t pretend to. But don’t let anyone sell you on the false essentialism of a necessary “identity” of a writer with his or her principal subject, whether it be an identity of sex, or race, or culture. It just ain’t so.