Annabel Lyon adds a penis
Hey, don’t blame me for that title—she’s the one that said it. In an interview with The Tyee, on the topic of how she writes men so well: “I thought of a woman, and added a penis.” I’m just repeating it, as one of my usual desperate attempts to attract inappropriate traffic.
She’s riffing on one of my favorite movie lines, as Melvin Udall, the misanthropic romance author of As Good as It Gets (played by Jack Nicholson) responds to a fan’s gushing question as to how he writes women so well: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
(Because we are a society of half-wits, this line is usually attributed to Nicholson, instead of to Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, who wrote the frigging screenplay. Because who’s ever heard of them?)
The facetious part of her answer attracts all the attention, but I’d rather look at what else she said: “I don’t know. I don’t think intellect is gendered in any way. I don’t think with my vagina, I have a brain.”
This recalls a remark by Jim Harrison on the question of male writers writing women:
I don’t see gender as the most significant fact of human existence. It’s that old idea that when you suddenly wake up at 3 a.m., what sex are you? I don’t get that. It’s sort of the flip side of male chauvinism. It’s a female chauvinism or refusal to think that anyone can have any solid form of empathy of any sort.
Both writers hit what I think is the essential point: the secret of writing the other sex is to discard the idea that it is really so alien. It’s in that idea that we find the dessicated, wooden cliches of gender: men are from Mars, women do not reason, etc. These will not lead you to a rounded, human character.
Harrison’s further remarks aren’t entirely accurate, I think; it’s not “female chauvinism” that insists men can’t understand women, but a widespread assumption embedded in our culture. Men have been, until recently, encouraged not to understand women. You’re supposed to stand around in the garage, wiping your hands on an oily rag while you tweak the valvy thing connected to what you hope is the carburetor of your 1966 Mustang convertible, and say, “Women. I’ll never understand them.”
Whereupon your buddy is supposed to say, “Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth.” Then you both swig your Labatt Blue, from the bottle, and the subject turns to hockey.
This attitude is, for obvious reasons, something of a roadblock for the male writer: you can’t write people who you insist you’ll never understand.
We make the opposite assumption about men: men are supposed to say what they mean, and to have internal lives no more complicated than, say, empty inkwells. So we encourage women to think they understand men all too perfectly, which to the female writer is an obstacle of its own: you can’t make a compelling character out of something that permits complete understanding.
I like to compare this gender question with racial research of the Philippe Rushton kind: in our rush to define differences, we ignore variations. Not all men, or all women, think the same way. We are more alike than we are different; as Lyon has it, intellect is not gendered.
More on this topic anon.