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‘Breasts loved by toddlers and men alike’: why can’t male authors write women?

Villanelle, represented in Killing Eve, who was originally created by author Luke Jennings
Villanelle, represented in Killing Eve, who was originally created by author Luke Jennings

One of my favourite parodies of how men write women finishes: “She breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards.” The organisers behind this weekend’s Primadonna Festival instead chose: Her Breasts Preceded Her Into The Room, which is the name of a flagship panel on the most egregious examples of men writing women badly. Because while those examples are funny, they are riffing off a form of writing that is almost beyond parody. ‘

I’m very tall with an expressive face and a fondness for shirts and a good laugh. However, were I a novelist I might go with, “Her face is a knife, her breasts like two clenched fists under her tight blouse,” (This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper), “Her large breasts rippled in appreciation,” (Misfortune by Wesley Stace) or the succinct “a mega-titted six-footer,” (Seventy-Two Virgins, Boris Johnson).

This curious condition, where breasts wander into everyday descriptions, is what has led to this panel in which Sandi Toksvig will chair panellists including the Killing Eve author Luke Jennings. “Obviously the panel is going to be funny and silly mainly, but under it is a serious question and that is why, in 2019 – nearly 2020 – we are still seeing women having these walk-on parts,” says the novelist Kit de Waal, who co-founded the festival with 14 other big names, including Catherine Mayer, founder of the Women’s Equality Party.

“A lot of bad writing consists of trying to describe people from the outside as a way onto the inside,” says Mayer. That can work, there are some wonderfully descriptive passages when you get a sense of character from the set of a shoulder, but basically if you’re starting with tits you’re unlikely to get beyond fleshy tissue.”

Such descriptions might sound bound to trashy novels and bad writers, but as Mayer observes, “There are a lot of very successful writers who seem to get away with that amazingly bizarre attempt to characterise women by external features and cartoon ideas of what makes up a woman.”

Indeed, the Private Eye diarist Craig Brown recently suggested that the panel visit Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls: “And all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves.”

He quipped, “Just for writing those last seven words — ‘lips that moved smally and by themselves’ — Hemingway should really have been given the literary equivalent of an ASBO. Instead, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Ernest Hemingway in 1952

“This panel is not about bashing anybody’s writing,” says de Waal firmly. “I cringe at some of the things that I’ve written. And this is not about saying men are s---. This is about saying that we have to try and be better at inhabiting people’s lives. Not just women, but people across the board. It’s a call to be more empathetic.”

Abysmal character descriptions have been popular in internet circles for years, from the annual gloating over the Bad Sex Awards nominees to Tom Chivers’ viral piece about Dan Brown’s worst lines in this paper (I send a link to the latter to Catherine Mayer after we speak; it is still dreadfully funny 10 years on). But towards the end of July, a passage from Stuart Woods’s novel Desperate Measures in which a murder victim was found with a purse in her vagina went viral after it was shared on the Twitter account @men_write_women.  

For its founder Meg  Vondriska, a 25-year-old advertising social strategist on the East Coast of America, the final straw came from a Dennis Lehane novel. “On one side you had ‘he wore his shirt like a bulletproof vest’, and then on the opposite, ‘Maggie was tall and willowy with breasts loved by toddlers and men alike’. It was laughable. The more I started to notice it in the books I was reading, the more I was frustrated and wanted to talk about it.”

Famous culprits recently aggregated on @men_write_women include Chinua Achebe, Ken Follett, James Patterson, JD Salinger and Edmund White, who writes of a woman with “full breasts that visibly strained at the breastbone like two puppies pulling on their leashes in slightly divergent directions” and, bizarrely, an “aristocratic toe”. Being gay, as White is, isn’t really an excuse. As one commenter pointed out, “And he's never seen a person with breasts walk around in public ever?”

Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh in It Chapter 2

Clearly, there is a disconnect between life and the page. The popularity of the IT film adaptations will give pause to anyone who has read what King originally did with Jessica Chastain’s character, Beverley Marsh, also IT’s only female lead. “Stephen King is hailed as a god, but his portrayal of women is incredibly offensive,” says Vondriska. Not having read IT since I was in my teens, I wondered if it might be excused by being one of the many books that King wrote while addicted to alcohol and narcotics, but no – he wrote IT while sober. 

This is not to say that horrible things should never be written about women, nor their physicality discussed – but if they exist solely to be slept with or slaughtered, then what’s the point? It’s not as though it’s common to see men introduced with glowing endorsements of their penis, or male characters admiring another man’s sexy curves, as so many straight female characters habitually do to other women.

According to  Vondriska, the problem begins in childhood. “Writing has for decades been governed by men and male influence. In America, children grow up reading American male authors in grade school, and if not, Austen and Bronte – and they’re great novelists, but there has to be more. Male writers were thought to be the pinnacle of writing and as a result we’ve been conditioned to find the female form in the pages of our books. We read it and think that it’s normal.” 

“You can look at women who wrote a bit like this too in the era of the bonkbuster, the sex and shopping novels that were all very much ‘male gaze’ even thought they were aimed at women,” says Mayer. “Some of this was to do with the culture that we are in that prizes women only for very limited aspects of themselves and serves up a story in which a woman is only completed by a man. So women are susceptive to these stories, reading this as our comfort food, and for men it’s perpetuating the same ideas.”

While some of the language is enormously funny – Robin Ince’s long-running Book Club comedy show picks out some of the best in bad writing – Mayer says that what isn’t funny is what it reveals are the barriers to women in the real world.

 “There’s a video of Reese Witherspoon giving an acceptance speech for some award and she says, the next time you watch a film, watch out for this line where a woman will say, ‘What do we do now?’” says Kit de Waal. “In every single film there is a point at which a woman says that to a man because that’s ‘our role’, to be saying we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t have the ideas, we’re helpless, we don’t have the answers. “There’s great strides being made in equality and thank God for that – I would never want to go back to the past. But my god it’s a real lesson that there is still far to go.”

So how can authors write women differently? The last words to Meg  Vondriska. After all, she spends her days sifting through bad examples. “There’s a quote in advertising that, if you wouldn’t describe your sister/wife this way, why would you describe any woman this way? I feel strongly that you should be writing women like they’re human not like they’re ‘women’. Women aren’t special because of the anatomical parts that make them different.”

The Primadonna Festival will be held at Laffitts Hall, Suffolk, from August 30 to September 1. You can share your examples of male authors writing women badly with the panel on Twitter using the hashtag #manboobs