Two of my all-time favorite books were written by women pretending to be men, not through adopting a pseudonym, but by using the first person throughout an entire novel as the male protagonist. In 1817, holed up in a draughty villa on Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her companions (amongst them Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley) had a contest to see who could write the best horror story. She came up with Frankenstein, and she used not one male voice but three, that of a ship’s captain, that of Victor Frankenstein himself, a scientist, and one belonging to the monster. A little context: Mary was only 18, and she had already lost one baby, later to have two more miscarriages before finally giving birth to a son. Look at her tale––her hero basically makes a baby and then disavows it–– and it is one of the archetypal fictions of all time. We might say Victor had a bad case of womb envy and that the author projected her own wish for controlled procreation onto her hero.
My other favorite male masquerade shows up much later, in 1926 with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a tale narrated by a male doctor present at a series of baffling events culminating in murder. He deceives the reader so well, seems so entirely “male,” that when (spoiler alert) he’s revealed as the true murderer himself, and he’s been telling us the story, it’s a major narrative triumph and Christie’s masterpiece.
In contemporary novels, the narrator can be anything from a dog to a bird to a mouse, but for a female writer, here’s what’s so helpful about adopting a male point of view. She can say whatever she wants, can adopt whatever attitudes she chooses and doesn’t have to fear being identified as the narrator, nor be concerned that she in any way appears “sex crazed” or “bitchy” or “unnatural for a woman.” My new novel Sex, Rain, and Cold Fusion is almost entirely from the point of view of a male. At least in the beginning, my hero is fairly promiscuous, yet he’s also a gifted physicist, not really a bad guy at all. If I’d made this same character female, she would have been considered something of a slut, and her scientific interests might have been tainted by what happens in her personal life.
Two recent wildly successful novels written by women, The Goldfinch, and Gone Girl, use male narration in such easy, natural ways, that without being told one would never guess the sex of the author. That’s the ultimate goal, not sexlessness, but the freedom to roam wildly and freely over whatever psychological territory one wants.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
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About the Author
A. R. Taylor has published in the Los Angeles Times, the Southwest Review, Pedantic Monthly, The Cynic online magazine, the Berkeley Insider, So It Goes, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Magazine on Humor, Red Rock Review, and Rosebud, among others. L. A.’s New Short Fiction series and the Annenberg Center have featured her stories and humor pieces, and after winning a Writers Foundation of America award in Comedy for her play Up The Nile, Taylor appeared at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York and Tongue & Groove in Hollywood. In addition, she was head writer on two Emmy winning series for public television.