The longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction came out yesterday, and the feminist literary blogosphere is very excited. But, as is their wont, the feminist literary blogosphere is also reflective and occasionally cynical.
As columnist Kira Cochrane tweeted this morning:
To which writer Kate Long replied,
And this made me a bit concerned, because most of my protagonists have been male. Three novels I wrote at university had female protagonists – one was Mary Magdalene, and one was a projected version of my future self. The third, who was one of the heroines of a novel I wrote with my best friend Catherine Martin, was blatantly an idealized version of myself. She was a compelling character, who developed her own flaws along the way, but there was a certain element of wish fulfilment in there.
Of these three, only one still really resonates with me – Maddy Harrigan, the MI6 agent in the novels I wrote with Catherine – and I’ve written a few stand-alone stories using her, one of which can be read here.
But both A Merry Requiem and the new series I’m working on have male protagonists – the female characters are many and varied, from writers to wives, actresses, mistresses, villains, political activists, nurses, and so on. But the stories don’t revolve around them. The three times I’ve tried since the Maddy Harrigan stories, I’ve abandoned the book partway through because I’ve found it’s become too hard to separate the female main character from myself – where in the past I could base someone on myself as a starting point and then find her going off in her own direction, in the last ten years I’ve found I just get muddled up and lose my objectivity.
I do think it’s important to have books out there that tell women’s stories, but I seem less able to write them than I used to. Is this a betrayal of feminism? Do I have a duty to write novels with women at their centre?