Crossing the Gender Line

SpinsterWitch brought up Memoirs of a Geisha as an example of a male writing a female protagonist, and in doing so jogged my memory. I remember when these books were first released, reviewers and other folks made a big deal out of Memoirs of a Geisha and She’s Come Undone because they’re male-written accounts of a female protagonists – first-person female protagonist even. And while that shouldn’t be a big deal, it kind of is.

As a omg holy crap I’m seriously needing to change my pants fabulous book I’m reading currently pointed out, women are trained to read male protagonists as representative of man-/humankind, and can read across gender barriers. Men, however, are not taught as easily to relate to a female protagonist.

I asked Hubby, the nearest male with a complete vocabulary and speaking ability, whether he had ever read a book, for school or for pleasure, that featured a female protagonist. He had to think about it, and said, “No.” I asked if that was a reason he’d been reluctant to try to read one of my 6,783,642,231 romances, despite my assurances that I wouldn’t give him crap to read, and he said, “Maybe.” When I explained the source of my question, he thought it was terribly interesting and totally agreed – he had no experience reading a story from a female perspective, regardless of the gender of the writer.

Freebird’s contribution to the conversation was, “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE!” in case you were curious. There is no gender in math, apparently.

So aside from the gender of the protagonist, the gender of the writer becomes important or at least remarkable when a male writer writes a female protagonist with depth and skill. Given the number of female writers writing male protagonists, particularly in romance, should crossing the gender barrier in either direction be such an almighty big deal? Of course not. But it is.

So what’s your best example of excellence in a male-written romance or romantic storyline?


Random Musings

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  1. Catherine J. says:

    Oddly enough, my best example of a male writing a female protagonist is . . . my dad. Dad’s working on a novel about a woman who gives up modern live and joins the Mennonites, and finds love in the process. It’s a pretty good read, from the excerpts I’ve seen, and he does a great job with the female voice.

    I guess it helps that my mom is copyediting it.

  2. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. One of my favorite books ever.

  3. --E says:

    Well, it’s a romantic storyline in the same way those Top Ten Most Romantic Books were romantic, but I have always loved how Dumas handled the two female characters in The Three Musketeers. It’s not complimentary to women in general—one is a typical ditz, the other is an amoral criminal with harlot tendencies.

    I don’t know if it was the translation, or if Dumas intended something else that reads differently at a hundred and fifty years’ remove, but Lady DeWinter is a wonderful female character. She has a full range of emotions, she has a brain, and while she’s not at all sympathetic, you still rather admire her.

    Maybe it’s just my reader’s 50%, but I always got the feeling that Dumas was making the point that a woman with strength and smarts in that world would have to become a criminal, because other avenues weren’t available for her. The Queen is dependent upon, well, everyone. Constance is a victim. We get a hint that Aramis is hooked into some kind of cabal of noblewomen working behind the scenes, which is kind of cool.

  4. CM says:

    That’s easy.  Anthony Trollope.  Who wrote romances, men and women—you name it, he does it.  With ease, style, and grace.

  5. Erin says:

    Other than agreeing with—E about The Three Musketeers, I can’t bring to mind much in the way of professionally written romance done by men. I tend to focus on romance by women because I know they’re far more likely to get it “right.” (“Right” being what I consider hot and not demeaning to the participants.) However, if you want to talk non-professional, I’ve run across more than one man in the fanfiction arena who can write a very well done (and hot) romance.

    Verification word: comes15 (heh heh)

  6. Sarah Frantz says:

    From a History of the Novel standpoint, of course Daniel Defoe wrote Moll Flanders and Roxanna from the female 1st person POV.  Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela and Clarissa, and Fielding wrote Amelia.  So the Big Three canonical authors made or built their reputation by writing from the female POV and no one thought it was a big deal then, because it was just what was done.

    Which means that now, while we boggle and coo at modern male authors who write women well, literary scholars have done to death implications of how men write women (see above).  Feminists then moved to look at how women write women, and then feminism-inspired masculinity studies kicked in and looked at the way men write men as a construction of gender, but very few scholars have interrogated the way women write men.  If I’m not much mistaken (and I’m kinda trying to build my career on it, so I hope I’m not), examining the way women write men is the Next Big Thing in gender studies.  And it damn well should be, because it’s either taken for granted or ignored.  Most non-romance-reading critics, after all, still think romances are all about the female characters.  In fact, I’m giving a talk in Chicago tomorrow basically saying, No, that’s chick lit.  Romances are all about women writing MEN.

    So my question is, what female romance authors do brilliant jobs of writing men (whether brilliant because realistic a la Nora, or brilliant because wish-fulfillment on steroids like J.R. Ward)?  I think that’s much more interesting.  But then, it’s not my blog!  😉

    And what book are you reading that you paraphrased, if I may ask, SB Sarah?  Just curious—sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  7. runswithscissors says:

    Ooh, love this topic.  I have mulled this over more than once and wondered why more men don’t write female protagonists. 

    I like Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall books, which have romantic elements.  And actually, I think there are a few male crime writers out there whose work (maybe if they were women?!)would be categorised as romantic suspense. 


  8. Teddy Pig says:

    Author: Jennifer Wilde
    Katherine St. Claire
    Beatrice Parker
    Edwina Marlow

    Real Name: Tom E. Huff

    A very very successful romance writer who actually made hardcover for a number of books. Late 80’s early 90’s.

  9. Lizzie (greeneyed fem) says:

    I’ve been happily lurking here for a while, *almost* commenting on a couple of posts, and this one got me out of the woodwork.

    I knew immediately:
    Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins

    I read it in high school and couldn’t believe it was written by a dude. Not just the writing of the female protagonist, but the whole plot and tone is very fem-centric. Lurve it.

    (And my password is his55.)

  10. Teddy Pig says:

    Oh sorry, his writing career was cut short due to his death in 1990. He had finally started making hardcover for every book too, Poor guy.

  11. ds says:

    I mentioned mine in the previous comments.

    Peter O’Donnell (unfortunately deceased) as Madeleine Brent and I also enjoyed his Modesty Blaise books for adventure and more sex.

    R. Garcia y Robertson for his current and recent sf and time travel books.  He has a new stand alone out that I’m buying because it looks so interesting.

  12. EmmyS says:

    Well, he wasn’t really a novelist, but Oscar Wilde. The Ideal Husband was incredibly romantic. And he was gay. (Ironically the lead in the movie version, Rupert Everertt, is also gay, and yet was an incredibly smart romantic hero.)

  13. dl says:

    Nothing to add, but I remember a few years ago my Grandfather having a total hiss because he found out one of his favorite authors he had been reading for years & years was a woman…Andre Norton.  I don’t know why it made a difference, something with that generation?

  14. Estelle Chauvelin says:

    Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac.  The romantic threads in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, even though I rather want to smack Stephen’s eventual wife for about the first six books.  But the reasons for that aren’t in any way unrealistic, they’re just things that make me want to smack women in real life, and I do find her more likable starting a book or two before they get married.

    And seriously, Sarah, your husband never had to read a book for school that featured a female protagonist?  I can say off the top of my head that we read Pride and Prejudice senior year of high school (my teacher and I griped to each other about how we both would have preferred Jane Eyre) and in alternate years the AP summer reading assignment was Anna Karenina, although my class got Les Miserables.

  15. Donna says:

    Wilton Barnhard’s “Emma Who Saved My Life”.  It’s fabulous.

  16. Psyche says:

    Actually, there are oodles and oodles of classics that fit this description.

    Shakespeare wrote some very strong female characters.  Consider Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing or Rosalind in As You Like It.  I also think that Juliet is often underrated as a well-developed female character, though Desdemona I find flat and Ophelia more symbol than person.

    Eighteenth century writers have been covered above, and moving forward in time, Sir Walter Scott wrote very popular romances, though they aren’t to my taste, A Tale of Two Cities has strong romantic elements, Dumas pere wrote several lesser-known tragic romances besides the female presences in The Three Musketeers, and his son wrote La Dame aux Camilles, which is the basis for the movie Camille, and the opera La Traviata.

    The late nineteenth century featured the top two examples of men writing female protagonists, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Ibsen’s A Doll’s House seems categorically similar as well.  It’s not entirely coincidental that when men write strong female characters in the nineteenth century, they seem to come to no good ends.  The early twentieth century brings us D. H. Lawrence (blech) Thomas Hardy, (meh) and E.M. Forster writing from a female POV (interestingly Forster, a gay man, is the only one who to my ear at least gets them right), plus William James in the United States.  But after that, things really seem to dry up.  It’s worth noting that this is the point at which explicitly feminist writers start appearing on the scene…perhaps the two are connected.

  17. Jules Jones says:

    In the forefront of my mind, because I’ve just been reading it—Chaz Brenchley’s Outremer series is a fantasy with some strong romantic sub-plots, both straight and gay. He used to write romance under a female pseudonym, and it shows. The romance in Outremer is non-traditional (and more happy-for-now than happy-ever-after), but it’s good and I like his female characters.

    And another Modesty Blaise fan here. I haven’t read the books O’Donnell wrote under the Madeleine Brent name, but I’ve heard good things about them. O’Donnell is still alive as far as I know, though no longer writing.

  18. tonithegreat says:

    I have to chime in in agreement with Lizzie who mentioned Tom Robbins above.  He’s not a romance writer, but he really does a great job with female perspective.  His female protagonist in Still Life with Woodpecker is really believable, too, and there is some sexxoring and romance in that book, too, IIRC.

    Other Dude written books with good and believable romance storylines that pop to mind:

    – James A. Michner’s stuff
    – I like the romance in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series.
    – Rober A. Heinlein’s later stuff is pretty romance heavy.  He has some female main characters, too. 

    Those shouldn’t be categorized as romance genre books, to be sure, but they still have good romance in them and well-written female characters.

    It seems like there should be more scifi stuff coming to mind. . .

    I keep thinking of great female-main character stuff that my boyfriend introduced me to, but all of it was also written by females.  I guess maybe guys who read a lot of scifi and fantasy are more likely to pick up books written by women.

  19. Arethusa says:


    Hahaha! I kid, I kid. It’s hard for me to come up with any that fit the “romance storyline” criteria. Abigail by Chris Abani was pretty mind-blowing and I guess it had a romantic story line but it was more of a wrist slitter.

    An Admirable Woman by Arthur Cohen is also outstanding.

    Andre Dubus (the father, not the son) is gifted in writing about people in general, and it extends to women. Adultery and other Stories is a great collection.

  20. eponymous says:

    Not romance, but…Reynolds Price has writting a number of books (Kate Vaiden, etc.) from female perspectives. Noah Gordon’s Matters of Choice has a female protagonist and a romantic subplot. Terry Moore’s series of graphic novels Strangers in Paradise centers on two female protagonists and the relationship between them. V for Vendetta (written by two men) has a female protagonist, and you could make a case for its being a romance, if you adopt a slightly twisted interpretation of the word. 🙂 George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series doesn’t have a single protagonist (rather, it has about twenty), but it has just as many leading female characters as male, and they are equally well drawn and drive the plot just as much. Similarly, Guy Gavriel Kay tends to do ensemble casts, but with women prominent in the ensemble (esp. in A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan). Both of these writers (esp. Kay) tend to work in romantic subplots. Three of the four books I’ve read by James Hetley, who writes “urban” fantasy (though it’s set in rural Maine, so not really urban at all), have female protagonists. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (one of my very favorite books ever) is another ensemble cast, but the main plot thread (ultimately a love story) centers on a young woman, and there are strong female characters throughout.

    And lest we all forget…Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Female protagonist, deliberately strong female supporting characters, created by (male) Joss Whedon.

    I liked She’s Come Undone, but I remember being irritated by all the “OMGWTFBBQ a man wrote from a woman’s perspective!” that rose around it. Writing, to me, is all about teaching oneself to see from another person’s perspective, and so it would seem that writing across gender lines (or any other kind of lines) and getting it right is less an astounding achievement to be bruited about the world, and more a sign of basic authorial competence.

  21. I’m glad “Madeleine Brent” was mentioned, because he was one of my favorite writers of women-oriented historicals.  The heroines were strong and capable without being cardboard characters, and the romance was real and believable. 

    And “Jennifer Wilde” was outed early on.  I always suspected it was a man ‘cause the heroines would hop from bed to bed without ever once having a passing thought for birth control or the possibility of pregnancy.

  22. NTE says:

    Perhaps this says more about me & my choice of reading material, but the two authors I immediately thought of are of the ‘based on a true story’/memoir sort:

    Deric Longden’s Diana’s Story :
    “It’s a guilt that all careers know well.  You are hobbled by responsibilities – live life in the slow lane and watch old bangers flying past and you know you could leave them standing if only…. It’s a guilt that the cared-for know also, and it hurts them far more.  ‘If it wasn’t for me.’ ‘Don’t be silly.’  It’s a guilt that is rarely brought out into the light and it can fester in the shadows.  The only antidote is love and that, thank God, I had in bucketsful.”

    & Brendan Halpin’s It Takes a Worried Man
    “I meant it when I said for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, but I kind of thought that meant, you know, we wouldn’t have any money for a while, I’d buy her lozenges when she had a cold, and then listen to her complain about her arthritis when she was 80.  I never really thought it meant shaving her head while she fights for her life at age 32.”

    A bit melancholy, but sincere and deep love was evident in every page of those books.

  23. mutantreptile says:

    I agree with Jennifer Echols, E.M. Forster usually had a female protagonist I could totally identify with. 

    Tess of the D’Urbervilles is very romantic and horribly tragic at the same time – my favorite kind of book.  Thomas Hardy was the only one who truly understood poor Tess.

  24. Bron says:

    D’Arcy Niland, an Australian author from the 1950s-60s, wrote, amongst other great books, Call Me When the Cross Turns Over (the cross being the Southern Cross constellation of stars, and nothing to do with religion). It’s a strong, beautiful book, set in the outback, about Barbie Cazabon who ‘was brought up in a man’s world. She was dug out of this country and she’d be dug into it.’ Barbie is a fantastic character, and a main focus of the book is the relationship between her and Jack ‘Fascinatin’ Kippilaw. It’s not a typical romance, but the romance is a strong theme, and there’s a beautifully done love-triangle as well. And while written in a more literary voice – the language use is wonderful, in a simple way – the end is positive.

    Anyway, it’s a great example of a man writing a woman (and a romance) well. Aussies can probably get a copy at a good secondhand bookshop; overseas folk might be able to get it on ILL from a uni with an Australian studies/literature program (if any still exist).

  25. C. Diane says:

    I really liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is written in first-person perspective from a woman.

  26. DS says:

    Wow, Peter O’Donnell is still alive.  That’s what I get for believing everything I read on the internet.  Wait—I just read this on the internet. 

    I could not believe in Robert Heinlein’s later female protagonists.  In fact I wanted to slap them.  I could not understand how the same person who create Podkayne of Mars could create some of his later female characters who reminded me of intellectual sixties male wetdreams—Playboy Bunnies with doctorates. 

    Monica Barrie was David Wind. 

    A number of prolific PBO gothic novel writers were men using female pseudonyms.  I think that was when the idea that a lot of romance novels were written by men was given currency.  And they were pretty bad for the most part which is why, thankfully, most of them have been forgotten.

  27. NC says:

    Guy Gavriel Kay

    He’s one of the only sci-fi/fantasy guys I will consistently read.  It is not uncommon for him to focus on a female character (The Lions of Al-Rassan comes to mind)in ways that seem particularly female-perspective like.

    Gregory Mcquire

    Now I don’t particularly like all of his books but you can’t deny most of his primary characters and narratives are female (Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror Mirror).

    There’s others (Greg Iles springs to mind) in popular fiction but they just don’t do it for me.  I’m constantly sitting there thinking that a chick would never do that.  I never feel like that with Guy Kay.

  28. Lisa says:

    If we can count comics, I’d say Fables, by Bill Willingham. His romance between Snow White and Bigby Wolf was better than quite a lot of “real” romance novels I’ve read.

    Other than him, I genuinely can’t come up with anyone else, or at least anyone else who’s work I liked.

  29. Rachek says:

    Fanny Hill by John Cleland. It’s incredibly vivid and captures the fear/appeal of sex from a woman’s perspective. And it’s funny. Obviously, it helped that he was gay …

  30. ADK says:

    Honoré de Balzac

    “Honorine” is my favourite (although lesser-known) story with a female protagonist, but practically any book from the “Human Comedy” wii do.

  31. MeggieMacGroovie says:

    Charles de Lint. Its constantly brought up that not only do almost all of his books and stories have a female lead, but, that he writes women, like a woman would ( I agree with that). If anyone wants to give those a go, I would say, start with his short story collections, in order, and fall in love with Newford!! (Huge fan of those books)

    I third (forth) Guy G. Kay.

    Jasper Fford! Tuseday Next, the Literary Detective.

    Jamie and Gilbert Hernendez’s, Love and Rockets comics.  Wonderful, full charactered women, good, bad and ugly. Love those guys!

    A little Heinlein story, since he was mentioned..when he and his second wife were in Tahiti on holiday, and he had an stroke, far from where anyone else was. She picked him up, and carried him on her back for miles, to get help..she was the basis for many of his early female characters. She had served in the WAVES during WW2! Not a fan of his though.

  32. Flo says:

    I’ve never really come across a female writing a male that hasn’t stuck out as “Oh wish fulfillment right there!”  I know the gals try.  But in the end the men NEVER EVER act like… well men.  They act like cardboard cutouts of men while their female counterparts revel in their girliness.

    Which is fine but it still shows a decided lack of strength on many a female writer’s POV.

    The one that has seriously seriously stuck out though… Rob Thurman author of the urban fantasy novels Nightlife and Moonshine.  It’s a gal writing from 2 male brothers POV.  And it’s actually really and truly believable.  I wouldn’t have guessed it was a gal writing (even if the name wasn’t a give away) if I hadn’t checked out the whole she-bang.

    Granted she’s not a romance novelist.  But I really can’t think of a single one I’ve read over the years that made me think “Yeah she’s got the guy spot on.”  But my romance novel reading isn’t as extensive as my fantasy reading.  And even THEN there are males who write ridiculous male characters when they know better.  And don’t get me started on their portrayal of females (ROBERT JORDAN THIS MEANS YOU! *sniffs at him*).

  33. MeggieMacGroovie says:

    ~And even THEN there are males who write ridiculous male characters when they know better.  And don’t get me started on their portrayal of females (ROBERT JORDAN THIS MEANS YOU! *sniffs at him*).~

    David Eddings is just as bad. Lots of stomping of feet, tossing hair and pouting. The men who “love” them, treat them like children…grrrrrrrrr……

  34. Lisa says:

    I’ve never really come across a female writing a male that hasn’t stuck out as “Oh wish fulfillment right there!” I know the gals try.  But in the end the men NEVER EVER act like… well men.  They act like cardboard cutouts of men while their female counterparts revel in their girliness.

    How about the SwordDancer series, by Jennifer Roberson? Those are written in male first-person, and I think they’re utterly convincing. Of course, I’m not a guy, but I don’t usually hear men complaining about the series, either.

  35. Curt says:

    Dan Ross had a very successful career in the sixties and seventies as a gothic romance novelist under the pseudonyms of Marilyn Ross and Clarissa Ross.  I review one of “Marilyn’s” novels here, with links to further info.

  36. Estelle Chauvelin says:

    How did I forget Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan?  Dog may be my favorite romantic hero of the past ten years (can’t put him and Cyrano in the same catagory).

    And as far as women writing men go, Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies are written in first person with the same male protagonist, and I’m about as sure as I can be that she pulls it off, though I guess a male reader’s verification of that would be usefull.

    I think Heinlein’s only fault was that he made his women a little superhuman.

  37. skyerae says:

    Not romance but Stephen King writes a few female protagonists.  The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Dolores Claiborne stand out for me.  Susan Delgado and Susannah Dean were also a good female characters.

    I also have to admit that I originally believed the premise that Sayuri was a real woman and a man was writing her memoirs because it was a man writing them.  In my defense I was quite young at the time.

  38. I don’t really have much to add, but wanted to respond to a few things:

    “I guess maybe guys who read a lot of scifi and fantasy are more likely to pick up books written by women.”  I actually think that’s not as likely, but I do think that there is a different type of boy/man (the average scifi target audience tends to be about 14 and male) who is into scifi.  I also think there is a growing understanding that girls and women are a larger audience than had previously been supposed.

    “Charles de Lint. Its constantly brought up that not only do almost all of his books and stories have a female lead, but, that he writes women, like a woman would ( I agree with that).”  I love CdL, but his women characters always piss me off.  They are, typically, elvish (thin, tall, somewhat waifish, with long flowy hair) in their presentation.  Being a woman who’s never met that standard, I always thought there was a lot of “wish fulfillment” going on.  Still, you can’t beat him for urban fantasy…until you start reading Neil Gaiman, that is.

    A woman who crossed gender lines: S.E. Hinton.

    I think that there is a valid argument about a change in writing around the time of the feminist movement, but I would wonder at how feminism and the backlash against it worked together to form ideas about gender today.  It’s actually a fascinating question…hmmm.

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