Would you read a novel in which the main character is of the opposite sex? (Of a different race? From a different planet?)

At the recent Historical Novel Society conference in Denver, I attended a panel presentation, “Damsels to the Rescue: Reviving the Male Protagonist.” Authors Margaret George, Sharon Kay Penman and Anne Easter Smith discussed why, in recent years, most of the main characters in historical novels have been women, and if this situation might change anytime soon.

The panelists first described the history of the issue: For centuries, the tastes of women readers were largely ignored, and most novels featured kings, presidents and other male luminaries. This was true as recently as a few decades ago, when authors such as Gore Vidal and Irving Stone were putting out hugely successful historical novels about Abraham Lincoln, Aaron Burr, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo and other male protagonists.

With the feminist movement, and the growing incomes of women that took place in the 1970s, the market began to shift. Increasingly, female readers sought books about characters more like themselves – women with tough obstacles to overcome, difficult choices to make, and who lived in settings other than the Oval Office and battlefields.

The book industry responded by publishing more books featuring heroines. This trend steadily accelerated. Now, the pendulum has swung so completely from a few decades ago that readers of historical fiction expect a book’s main character to be female. Although there are notable exceptions – mega-seller Bernard Cornwell immediately comes to mind – a stroll through any bookstore to glance at book covers confirms that most historical novels now feature female protagonists.

David Blixt, an author of male-character novels who moderated the panel, asked the three authors, Will there be more room in the near future for historical fiction in which the main character is male? and, If someone writes such a book, would anyone publish it?

Short answer to both questions: Maybe.

One panelist said that a New York publisher told her NOT to write a male protagonist. “Write about a queen of that era, or if you have to write about a king, make the main character his maid or mistress” was the essence of the advice. A second panelist said she had never been told by her agent or editor to write only female leads, and was happily working on a book featuring a male. The third panelist said she had never understood men, especially their penchant for violence and warfare, so she didn’t feel comfortable writing them as the main characters of her books.

This last view brings up questions that are endlessly argued in writers’ groups, book clubs and book reviews. Should a novelist even try to “get inside the skin” of, and write, a main character who is different from her/him in characteristics such as gender, race and culture? Will readers believe the character that such an author creates?

Short answer to those two questions: (1) Try, if you wish; and (2) Sometimes.

Examples: Two of the three women panelists wrote vivid male characters in earlier novels that were successful in the marketplace. From the opposite side, C. W. Gortner, who was in the audience and made several insightful comments during the presentation, is an example of a male author who has successfully written and sold female-protagonist adventures novels. And let’s not forget Kathryn Stockett, a Southern white woman who wrote The Help. Although she was criticized by some readers for writing in the voice and dialect of an African American woman during parts of her novel, her book was a bestseller, and certainly provoked lots of discussion about race relations in America.

Back to the Denver panel….  By midway through the hour, many aspiring writers in the audience, both female and male, were squirming. Some of them commented that they had just spent years writing a novel they hoped to sell to a publisher that featured a male lead.

A small-press executive in the audience stood and offered them hope, saying, “With the burgeoning of small presses that has taken place as a result of the shrinking number of big publishers, the industry as a whole is now more wide-open than you would think. We small presses will happily consider submissions of stories about either gender.”

But the fact remains that the driving force in the book industry is New York. Most writers want big-press deals, and not just to earn bigger advances. Rather, the number of readers an author’s novel reaches is much greater if it is put out by a big publisher than a small one.  This is due to the national and international distributions of printed books to booksellers that only big publishers can afford to make.

Toward the end of the panel discussion, someone asked for a show of audience hands to the question, “How many women would read a well-written book featuring a male protagonist?” All women in attendance raised their hands.

To a follow-up question, “How many men would read a well-written book featuring a female protagonist?” Every one of the men, admittedly a smaller sample, raised their hands.

If writers’ preferences in their reading habits are an indication of a trend, perhaps in the future, the market will shift once again to reflect more of a balance among historical novels that feature male and female protagonists.

Yet a third option, besides featuring either a woman or a man as the main character, is to give female and male leads equal voices in a story. In my recent novel, Stevenson’s Treasure (Fireship Press), I wrote about the love affair between Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne from both of their points of view. I didn’t do this with any particular market in mind. I just thought it might be the best way to tell a particular story.

Some authors prefer to write main characters only of their own gender, and others enjoy the challenge of writing the opposite sex. Some write about people with lighter skin than theirs, or darker. Some write characters born on a different planet, or who travel through time and touch down in another reality (Mark Twain comes to mind, as does our conference’s banquet speaker Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series). Writing a character different from oneself is a valid artistic choice, as is sticking to characters similar to yourself.

Hopefully, if the writing is of high quality, both kinds of writers will be able to find publishers for their work!


2 Comments

  1. Always an intriguing topic but especially in our gender-hypersensitive age. Tennessee Williams, when criticized by a woman for daring to appropriate female characters in plays like Cat, Streetcar, Vieux Carré and Menagerie, replied, “Madam, I have three genders: male, female and androgynous.” Point being, I believe, that a good writer will strike the human chord in any character and not allow gender to become a limiting factor. Women are no less human for being women and neither are men. Why restrict either in whom they can portray?
    To suggest that women are incapable of understanding men enough to portray a male character convincingly, and vice versa, is nonsense: good writers can portray “any human heart”, male or female. A good reader is not a vigilante, ever on the lookout for inaccuracies in what is essentially gender stereotyping.
    I find that this discussion is a spinoff from the prevailing zeitgeist in our politicized culture and aesthetic: there are a million drones out there just waiting for something to be offended by. We live in the midst of a defensive paranoia that, whatever valid corrections it began with, has metastasized into a self-righteous menace. Writers must scurry to the politically correct manual before committing to a word, sentence or book. Have you noticed how unfunny writing has become these days with so many sacred cows in our midst?
    So, yes, I’ve expanded somewhat on your topic, Mark, because I really believe the gender issue is part of a new conformity that is utterly hostile to the creative imagination and to truth.

    • markwiederanders

      Thank you for the wonderful reply, Colin! I especially like the quote from Tennessee Williams. I hope thoughtful writers can resist the growing conformity-squad, and feel free to write good characters who may be vastly different from ourselves. Else what a boring world this will be! — Mark

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