Literary Cross-Dressing

Marianne Hauser | March/April 1990

Marianne Hauser

When I prepared to address the meting, I realized to what extent sex bias resembles old age bias. As a "senior citizen" and writer I've been subjected to either prejudice. But you may be any age to see the connection. Just watch some TV sitcom which drags in (with evident uneasiness) a gay man, or (with gross humor) a dotty grandma, and the parallel becomes blatantly clear. We are supposed to burst into moronic laughter. Old age and homosexuality are popular material for a joke.

Now in my late seventies. I'm demoted to a dispensable second-rate person. However, my professional adventure in sex bias goes back a good fifty years. I was then working for The New York Times from whence arrived a first novel for reviewing. I've forgotten the author's name, but I acutely remember the shock when I read on the blurb that the book was published posthumously. The young author had killed himself.

The plot—a thinly disguised affair between two male lovers—was treated with intelligence. And though it wasn't the greatest first novel, it deserved a favorable write-up, if only for the author's and publisher's courage. Homosexuality was among the most sacred of American taboos.

In fact it was the taboo which had driven the young man to suicide. Because of its theme—the manuscript had gone through so many rejections—he ended up rejecting his own self. I learned this from a thank-you note his agent sent me after my review had appeared. Regarding the Sunday Times, I doubt that its high-toned book editor would ever have sent the novel out for reviewing, had he bothered to find out what was happening between the covers. And since he rarely gave mine or anyone else's reviews more than a cursory glance, he probably missed my point altogether.

Over half a century has passed since then. But in the nether world of literature, ambivalence toward sexual mores or gender persists. I'm speaking now as a fictionist. Most of my work is written in the first person, often through a male narrator. To me this procedure isn't the least odd. In literature the author's gender is irrelevant—as in all art. So I was puzzled when, upon publication of an early novel, a critic asked why I, a woman, should attempt to identify with a man to the extent where he becomes her persona. This naïve question in an otherwise discerning critique was raised in 1947 A.D. and will not give up the ghost.

Unfortunately, the question is by no means restricted to the mystique of the book world. I hear it from "normal" people—students, readers. Perhaps our culture is so entrapped in literal interpretation, we tend to forget that art is by necessity and nature a magic show. The gender switch is merely one of many switches, transferences, disguises, masks—tricks, if you will—through which the writer travels to create an epiphany.

Amazingly, in our age of scientific marvels which surpass our wildest dreams, we keep counting on regular fiction to give us what's "real." And when it comes to the author's sex, that hope becomes a demand- impatient, and hostile. The truth that the fiction writer, whether consciously or not, holds the mysterious elements of all sexes, has yet to be put into the textbooks of American schools.

So we raise our children in ignorance, with singular indifference toward what we love to term "creative writing"; blissfully unaware of the complexities the term implies. Of course, an occasional fantasy trip may be tolerated, provided the story won't venture beyond the frontier into the dark, forbidden forest. And since the "fair sex" has only of late been permitted out of bed and kitchen, she'd better stay fair and refrain from acting as though she were a he.

To my knowledge, DeFoe wasn't called a queer for making Moll Flanders his mouthpiece; nor did La Fontaine raise eyebrows for speaking through birds and beasts. But today, at the turn of the twentieth century, a woman writer still runs into bias. I had a hard time getting Prince Ishmael published, to no small degree because my narrator happened to be a boy. And decades later, a recent novel went through the same rejection mill. The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley baffled or shocked our trade house editors. A "lady-writer's" weird novel whose narrator wasn't only a fellow... He was a gay fellow! Such literary cross-dressing must have disturbed the musty office routine of quite a few gentlemen. Could it be that the matter hits too close to home?


Marianne Hauser is author of many works of fiction, including The Talking Room and The Memoirs of the late Mr. Ashley: An American Comedy. Her novel Prince Ishmael has been reissued in the Sun & Moon Classics series.

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