In every female-dominated writing workshop I’ve ever taken, there are always the same stories. There’s the rape story, the abortion story, and the mother-daughter story. There’s the adolescent unrequited love story, the eating disorder story. There’s unrealistic sex. There’s abundant self-questioning. There’s a series of circuitous therapy sessions, flawed reconciliations, or more often, 100-Vicodin endings.
The boys, what few of them are, never write about abortions or eating disorders. What they write is harder to categorize. It’s wilder; it’s less (to use a hackneyed phrase I despise) "painfully self-aware." It’s uninhibited by default tropes. I don’t expect the boys to write about war or corporate America. They just write. And to me, it’s so much better.
Okay feminists: arrest me for being a woman who prefers men’s writing. But I just can’t help it. If you ask me to name 3 female authors I’ve read in the past two years, I struggle to come up with 2. Lorrie Moore, Karen Russell, and...can you come back to me? I don’t remember much Judy Blume of my childhood, even if I did read her books. I remember The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, a story about a young boy and dog who go on an academic adventure to save the princesses, Rhyme and Reason.
I was, like many girls, a wannabe princess as a child. So my unlikely preference was even more surprising when I trudged my way through Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Apologies to Ms. Brontë, but I actually cried not from being moved, but out of boredom. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to like women writers, I just didn’t like the ones I’d been exposed to. In college, I was inundated with female writers like Harriet Ann Jacobs and Louise Erdrich, both of whom I should have loved. Though they were of course talented storytellers—great even—for some reason, I couldn’t connect to their narratives. I realized the problem wasn’t them; I just didn’t want to read about women anymore.
I didn’t have an abortion story.
Or, not that I didn’t want to read about women, but I didn’t want to hear a woman’s voice. I'd heard too many of them in my own life, including my own. There were plenty of books I read about women written by men that I loved, like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But my favorite stories continued to be those narrated by boys for boys: A Clockwork Orange, Infinite Jest, This Boy’s Life. Even in film, I found I could relate more to the boys in Dead Poet’s Society than the girls in Mean Girls. There was something so foreign about these male narratives, something that I couldn’t find in female narratives.
In stories, when read or written, my goal was not to be completely indistinguishable from the narrator. I wanted anonymity, privacy. The first "male-narrated" story I wrote was about a young boy who develops a phone relationship with a suicide hotline correspondant. I wrote about punks, soldiers, killers. Maybe my rendition of boys wasn’t as accurate as if written by a male, but this was where I felt most comfortable. I didn’t want to write the same stories that every girl had already written. I didn’t have an abortion story.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the many excellent women writers there are today who totally beat up those old tropes with panache, but it’s a difficult expectation to get past, even as a woman. At the same time, I don’t want people to have expectations about my writing before they read it, just because they see my name. I don’t want them to expect a “female” story. It’s a prejudice, I admit it, and one of which I am guilty. But it’s not because I don’t think women writers are as good as men: it’s just that I prefer the male voice.
But reading “only male” writers is just as bad as reading “only white” writers or “only English-language” writers. While it’s comfortable and familiar, it is limiting. It is not a crime to have a preference. Some people don’t eat meat, even if it’s good for them. I don’t read many female writers, but that does not mean I am forever averse to them. I just want them to keep surprising me.