The Great Ventriloquist Act: Gender and Voice in the Fiction Workshop
Julie Brown | September 1993
1. Six men get together for a hunting trip. They drink beer and shoot animals, but the real party begins when a truck full of "babes" pulls up.
2. A male prison guard develops a friendship with a male prisoner and eventually learns that their lives have been similar—both are "trapped" by society.
3. Two men in a bar get drunk together, share their fantasies about ideal women, and become friends.
4. A man strives for spiritual enlightenment, and is later visited by God himself—disguised as a poor, innocent boy.
5. A house catches on fire. The owner saves his daughter, but must forever live with the guilty knowledge that he could not rescue his wife.
You might not be surprised if I told you the stories summarized above were written by undergraduate students in an introduction to fiction writing course. But would you be surprised if I told you the stories above—and many others like them—were written by female students? For several years, I have been studying stories by my female students and have observed that the students are, with alarming frequency, finding male voices preferable to their own. It was a colleague of mine, Robert Brown, who first brought this issue to my attention. Although I am committed to feminism and teach courses in the women's studies department at my school, I failed to notice that a large percentage of my female students write stories that privilege the male gender at the cost of their own. The students themselves, unfortunately, usually fail to notice this as well.
Many female student writers appropriate a male persona to serve as narrator for their stories. More than half of my female students last quarter used male narrators to tell at least one of their stories. There was Virginia's story, for example, about a man who hates his boss and hates his job. After he finds a new job, he returns to murder his old boss. Or there was Jennifer's story, about a death-obsessed man who plays chess with a new friend. When the chess game ends, the friend dies.
The choice of narrator does not seem to be dictated by the subject matter. In these two stories, as well as the five above, a female narrator would have worked just as well and might have been more original or more interesting. Curious, I asked these authors why they decided to use male narrators. Virginia said, "It was more challenging this way." Jennifer answered, "It was easier to do it like this." They were both right, but I suspected there was more to it than that.
If the story is told in third person, female authors will often choose a male character to be the protagonist. The protagonist is unlike the author in that he is male, but he often resembles the author in other areas: race, age, class, education, and family situation. One student, a shy, older, single woman, wrote a story called "The Loner," about a man who is shy, older, and single.
When I asked her why she chose a male protagonist, she said it was because she wrote the story as an imitation of Donald Barthelme's "The Genius," an option that I had given them. I wondered why she had chosen a male-authored story to imitate.
Like a female impersonator who fools an unsuspecting audience, these women often develop their male characters in such a convincing manner that the reader is completely taken in. When we workshop the stories anonymously, the other students assume the author is male. They rarely question the authenticity of the voice, or ask, "Would a man really say this?"
They especially don't question the author's gender when the narrator or protagonist is clearly misogynist. I read four or five short stories last winter that shocked me with the horrifying manner in which the male characters treated the female characters. One woman wrote about a man who beats up his mother in a rage because she has ruined his favorite book. Another wrote about a man who beats his daughters mercilessly after their mother dies of illness. In both cases the motivation for the male's anger was provided in order to make the reader sympathize with the protagonist, rather than with the victim. If male students had written these stories I would have been angry. Somehow, these stories made me feel sad—not for the fictional victims, but for the authors who created them.
When I ask these women why they use male narrators and protagonists, they are often unable or unwilling to discuss the thought process behind their writing. They sense that Feminism (with a capital F) is once again challenging the decisions they've made and, by extension, who they are. When I push for answers, I often get quick responses like Virginia's or Jennifer's that using a male point of view is either more challenging or easier than using a female point of view. But if this were true, it would seem likely that as many male students would use the female point of view in their stories. Of course male students do occasionally use female narrators (I still remember a brilliant male-authored story about a woman's decision to have an abortion), but these instances are rare—I would guess that fewer than one in ten has tried using a female voice. In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom theorizes that the text an author writes is actually a revision of the text(s) she has read. It makes sense, then, to see these female authors writing in response to the male-authored texts they have been reading. When I survey my students about what literature they read in high school, they still respond with canonical favorites: Huckleberry Finn, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and so on. They may wish, then, to revise the themes of the American tradition, to write stories about friendship, about courage, or about shattered dreams. Since they don't read works that show female protagonists in these roles, it must indeed be easier, as Jennifer said, for these authors to use male heroes. This tendency is tellingly dramatized by one female student's detective story: the fictional detective is a young man whose favorite author is Poe.
It is certainly true that more women are writing than ever before, and that their works are being published with greater frequency. One might even argue that women have an easier time being published than men do in literary journals that are consciously trying to recognize marginalized groups. But somehow, this new sensitivity to gender hasn't trickled down to my working class, non-traditional, first generation students yet. Their literary role models are still largely limited to the dead white western males they read in their public school anthologies. When I ask them to name female authors who have influenced them, Emily Dickinson is one of the few "literary" female authors they can name. And she didn't write short fiction.
It may be that the female appropriation of the male voice has less to do with influence than with acceptance. Joanna Russ has suggested that because our culture is dominated by the male perspective, our cultural myths and literature are, too (Russ 4). She believes that women writers who wish to gain recognition in a male-dominant literary world have historically had two options available. One option is to write about the adventures of men; the other is to write about the women who love them.
And this is what beginning female students write about—men. Perhaps they are already sensitive to society's double standard that writing about women is "women's writing," while writing about men is "writing." Are they afraid that stories about women's experiences will not be taken seriously? Can it be that these women are writing about male adventures in an attempt to please the audience they are writing for? In a workshop situation, is it their male peers whose approval they value most? How far are they willing to go in order to gain that approval? Are they willing to swallow their own voices?
The writing workshop, like any other group, develops a dynamic that is partly based on the gender of its members. It has been my observation that when a male student or two begins to dominate the discussion, the females say less and less. It only takes one such remark as "I can't stand stories about girls getting their period" or "who cares about this character's sewing project" to convince young authors that they'd better find new subject matter—if they want their work to be accepted by "the group."
Writing about male experience through the gendered lens of a male perspective is indeed challenging for women authors, as Virginia explained. It is also costly. As Russ points out, when the female author ignores female culture, the female physiological experience, and her own female history, she places herself in a position of falsification:
She is an artist creating a world in which persons of her kind cannot be artists, a consciousness central to itself creating a world in which women have no consciousness, a successful person creating a world in which persons like herself cannot be successes. She is a self trying to pretend that she is a different Self, one for whom her own self is Other. (10)
I remember the first short story I wrote for a creative writing class as an undergraduate, twelve years ago. It was about a young man who was a writer and a painter, using both media to create the essence of a perfect woman. Against his will, the love-object begins to determine her own fate, both in the story and in the portrait. Eventually, she erases herself from his typewritten pages and from his canvas. Naive, I admit.
Derivative, I confess. But why did I use a male protagonist for this story? Why did I relegate the female character to the position of object? And a self-destructive one at that? I suspect I may have had ambivalent feelings about my "right" to see myself as an author.
Russ maintains that only one other option has been historically available to women authors who wish to gain literary acceptance. That is to invent female characters who fit into the traditional heroine pattern—The Woman Who Fell In Love—including such variations as "How She Got Married. How She Did Not Get Married (always tragic). How She Fell in Love And Committed Adultery. How She Saved Her Marriage But Just Barely. How She Loved a Vile Seducer And Eloped. How She Loved a Vile Seducer, Eloped, And Died in Childbirth" (9).
Thus, when a female student does create a female protagonist, the character is often developed in relation to the male characters of the story—she is the wife, daughter, or mother of an important man, and this is how her characterization unfolds. Younger authors are especially prone to this. When I examined several dozen short stories written by local high school girls, I found that nearly every female character was somebody's girlfriend. Her identity is so intertwined with her boyfriend's that her very survival sometimes depends upon his existence. In "Mercy," for example, a young girl meditates on an earlier breakup with her boyfriend. At the story's close, she commits suicide. Has this author been reading Flaubert? Tolstoy? What message has she learned from these literary giants about the options of fictional heroines? While many terrific stories and novels have been written about women and the human relationships they are involved in, I believe it is also important for women to read and write works where women have careers, goals, and dreams that do not revolve around the business of being someone else's caretaker or appendage.
Finally, it may be that the young woman who sits down to write her first story writes about the experience of a man because the society she lives in valorizes male experience over female, and she herself has internalized this value system. When she hears men discussed on the evening news, sees men on the cover of Time magazine, and reads about men in her history books, she receives a message-that only men and their exploits are worth writing about. She may feel that her own experience is trivial, not worth recording or sharing. Josephine Donovan discusses this concept in terms of "the masculinization of women's minds" that occurs when "men hold power and define women in relation to themselves" (98). Thus it is not usually a conscious decision to use a male hero in her stow. The author is merely reduplicating the larger text of her culture.
I am reminded here of a well-known psychological study that tested a roomful of children by offering them two dolls to play with: one black, one white. Not surprisingly, the white children all chose the white doll to play with. The majority of black children, however, preferred the white doll as well. The message of this study is chilling: that minority children who grow up surrounded by the media and culture of a dominant group will, for a time at least, perceive images of that group as desirable, even preferable to their own. And so it is with female authors who find themselves surrounded by androcentric media and culture: they speak through the internalized voice of the dominant group, leading to what Donovan calls "psychic alienation that is fundamentally schizophrenic" (100). This alienation is further revealed by stories where the male hero turns against the females in the story-the author identifies more strongly with her oppressors than with her fellow oppressed.
After my "male author" story, I went on to write a series of love stories. It wasn't until Cream City Review's editor Val Ross pointed out to me that my stories always depicted women in relation to men that I became conscious of what I was doing. Her comment awakened in me a new sensitivity to fiction by and about women. It also challenged me to begin searching for other kinds of stories to write—stories about women who work, buy houses, travel, and develop friendships similar challenge.
For when they toss away the ventriloquist dummies and begin to search for their own voices, exciting things happen in their writing. They remember what they surely must have known all along, that their own gendered experience—rooted in female physiology, culture, and history does indeed provide a richly varied and interesting subject matter, worth writing about. They learn that a female voice can enable them to sing, to mourn, to express what they could not express with a male voice. They also gain a sense of community with other women writers and with women who might someday read their works.
Gaining a sense of community is a vital step toward reclaiming the female voice in student writing. Donovan theorizes that banding together is an important first step for any oppressed group that seeks to free itself from oppression:
For the silenced Other to begin to speak, to create art, she must be in communication with others of her group in order that a collective 'social construction of reality' be articulated. Other social witnesses from the oppressed group must express their views, to validate one's own truth, that one may name it. (101)
This is one reason why I like to give creative writing assignments in my women's literature courses. In a class that is usually most if not all female, women have an easier time writing about female issues without fearing the groans or rolling eyes of male students.
I believe we have a responsibility to foster a learning environment in which all students feel comfortable writing about and sharing their own gendered experience. It isn't an easy task, and there's no guarantee our efforts will uncover the next Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. Still, there are a few steps we might consider taking that would enable all of our students—male and female—to recognize the role that socially constructed gender plays in the production and reception of literature.
1. Assign a good deal of fiction reading to the students—especially works by female authors.
2. Share essays with students about the challenges of writing—including essays about struggles that female authors face.
3. Give an assignment that asks students to write a fictional account of an experience that happened to them, using a narrator of the same gender. Then, ask all of the students to rewrite their stories from the opposite gender's point of view. Discuss the difference in the writing process for each version.
4. Encourage female authors to write about their own gender, and let them know that their own experiences are valuable and worth sharing.
5. English departments should make sure there are women in the department who can teach creative writing, and should bring in female guest readers to serve as role models.
6. Recognize that beginning writers often search for an authentic voice by first "trying on" and discarding a multitude of voices. Eventually, the writers who stay with it will find a voice that comes from the self, one that has a greater measure of authenticity.
Julie Braun is an assistant professor at Youngstown State University. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, The Indiana Review, and other magazines. She recently completed her second book of stories, Debris, with the help of a grant from the Ohio Arts Council.
- Donovan, Josephine. "Toward A Woman's Poetics." Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomingdale: Indiana University Press, 1987.98–107.
- Russ, Joanna. "What Can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write." Images of Women in Fiction. Ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press, 1972.3–19.