Writing right – about sex and gender.
Not a young man, I noticed long, long ago that positive female role models were few and far between. Somehow I was exposed early to certain macho prejudices and learned to despise them, rapidly growing in the conviction that anything a man could do a woman could do – if she chose to – no less effectively. I decided that if I ever got to write, the females in my stories would be those I would want my daughter to read about.
I tried a children’s book which, in its draft form, a great many older female readers thoroughly enjoyed, but it was of a kind – my prospective publisher told me – that people no longer bought except as picture books, but it was in writing erotica that I seemed to find my real opportunity. I am wondering, still, if I haven’t taken some steps in the wrong direction.
The character Susanna, in my first novel, ‘Aphrodite Overboard’, set in the late 18th Century, describes her ‘assets’ as “a body barely twenty-one years of age and of comely proportions very appropriate to the latest fashions come from France”. She is blonde, has a blonde haired ‘quim’, and from the illustrations on the covers of the paperback and later ebook editions is clearly slender and lovely. I am not sure, now, how much I wrote her ‘slender’, how much it is assumed from other things in the text and how much it derives from our conventions as to how sexy heroines should look.
Zuri, the girl who will turn up in my second novel, ‘Islands’, due for imminent release, is black and African, is described by a male observer in the following words: “Even so one could tell even then that this was a girl who was normally plump and rounded and that her face, if not beautiful, was really quite pretty.”
Susanna and Zuri are strong, capable, courageous and intelligent women and, in their particular ways, sexually liberated women – the one because she’s given the opportunity to escape the conventions of her time, the other because those conventions have never been inflicted upon her.
I am not sure, at all, that I have managed in my writing to avoid following the conventional ideas of ‘beauty’ and ‘prettiness’ which Charlotte Bronte found troublesome so long ago, encouraging her to write ‘Jane Eyre’. I am not sure that I have not added to the conventional perceptions which currently drive girls and women to painful extremes in their attempts to emulate them.
What I would like to know – from women, for whom I principally write – is what their own ideal heroines would look like?