I Just Realized S. J. Watson is a Guy. Why Does That Bug Me So Much?
When I finished reading S.J. Watson’s Second Life, I skimmed the acknowledgements and the small bio on the back book flap, like I almost always do when I’ve been reading for hours and need something to slow my momentum. Something odd caught my eye: the word “his”! Momentarily confused, I read the bio closer: S. J. Watson was born in the Midlands and lives in London. His first novel was the award-winning Before I Go to Sleep, which has sold over four million copies…
Huh, I thought to myself. I totally thought S. J. Watson was a woman.
This vaguely annoyed me, and I wasn’t sure why. I almost felt like I was lied to, although of course Watson has, as far as I know, never lied about being a man. Do I just assume all first-initial-middle-initial-last-name authors are female, like J. K. Rowling? (Ironic, seeing as publishers encouraged Rowling to use her first and, at the time, non-existent middle initial so that people would think she was a man, or at least not know she was a woman.) Is it because one of my co-bloggers here at IB goes by sj? (It could be; thanks a lot, sj.) Is it because, in his only two novels, he writes exclusively from a first person female point of view?
That…could be it.
How many male authors can you think of who not only consistently write from a female perspective, but do it well—well enough to make readers assume that the author is actually a woman? I bet you can’t think of many. My first instinct was to be impressed, particularly with Before I Go to Sleep (which, in my opinion, is an overall better book than Second Life), due to his obvious talent for writing believable women. Thinking a little harder about Second Life, though, my feelings have changed a little bit.
What gets to me is that Second Life is basically about a woman, Julia, who—in an attempt to find out who killed her sister, Kate—makes an account on the same dating site Kate had used to see if she can find/talk to some of the same people who Kate had been chatting with, because she suspects that one of these men might have killed her. Then, Julia ends up falling into an online and soon real-life romance with a guy she meets on the site, cheating on her husband and becoming pretty reckless in the process. And all the while she pretty much waves it away as “I couldn’t help it.”
Even though Julia is the protagonist, she seems to have no agency whatsoever. Instead, most of the agency is possessed by the men in her life: Marcus, her first love, with whom she ran away to be a starving artist in Berlin; Hugh, her husband, who got her help for her alcohol addiction after she left Berlin; and Lukas, the man with whom she has an affair through the dating site, and who likes to direct their online conversations with demands like “Tell me you miss me/love me/want me,” ad nauseam. And Julia is swept along in all of this, with no real remorse or repentance, until it becomes clear that Lukas isn’t who he seems to be. It’s only then, when the affair becomes truly dangerous, that she really seems to stop and look at what she’s doing and make an attempt at changing the status quo.
All that would have annoyed me regardless of the author’s gender, and I did often find myself frustrated with Julia as I was reading (still believing Watson was a woman). But having thought thought Second Life was written by a woman, Julia’s perspective seemed raw, emotional, and honest—as much as I could judge, anyway, having never been in a situation like hers. Now, though, knowing it was written by a man…it kinda skeeves me out a little bit, honestly. Like, oh, this poor little housewife who married the “safe,” well-to-do husband who helped her out of addiction just doesn’t think he’s enough so now she has this affair with a potentially dangerous stranger all so she can feel desired again, and (maybe?) ends up getting what she deserves.
Thinking about this has brought up a number of questions in my mind. First of all, why is it somehow okay to me that, of two books written by the same male author, in one I can appreciate his talent for the female perspective and in the other I’m a bit repulsed by it? In Before I Go to Sleep, Christine takes charge of her memory, feverishly writing her journal in secret, determined to figure out the truth about what happened to her. Her agency is all there. But in Second Life, like I mentioned above, Julia is almost entirely stripped of agency, going through with an affair simply because she got swept up in the currents. Christine’s agency compared with Julia’s lack thereof, I think, is what bothers me. Christine, too, is portrayed in a mostly positive light; Julia isn’t.
Would I feel better about Julia’s portrayal if it had been written by a woman? Almost definitely. Does that make Second Life—and, by extension, Watson himself—misogynistic? I don’t know. Consider Gillian Flynn’s novels: all three are about women who, to put it lightly, have issues. I can’t think of a single female character in any of her novels who comes out looking too great. Flynn has been accused of misogyny, of animosity toward women, but I think she responded well to these accusations in her 2013 interview with The Guardian:
“Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, [feminism is] also the ability to have women who are bad characters…the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad—trampy, vampy, bitchy types—but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish…”
On to her website, Flynn acknowledges that she’s “grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas” that you find in so many books, and that she mourns the lack of “good, potent” female villains, her own notwithstanding.
So, okay, great, a female author can write about women who are simply terrible people, and we say (for the most part), “Fine.” Why is it so different when a man does it?
Consider, now, George R. R. Martin. He writes a variety of female characters, and from what I remember of the books, he writes them well. They all have distinct personalities (including some with very significant flaws…ahem, Cersei) and his narration from their point of view is believable. But I think one of the reasons I like his female characters so much is that their chapters are narrated in third person instead of first. Even though he narrates their thoughts, he doesn’t presume to be truly inside their heads the way first-person narration does.
Now I want to be clear that, while Second Life kind of gets under my skin for a variety of reasons, I think most of these reasons are somewhat minor in the scheme of things. I think as a culture we’re becoming a lot more aware of appropriation, particularly in light of the success of books like The Help and the subsequent backlash. Up until then, if I had heard anything at all about cultural appropriation, it would have been in the context of a history class—and the last time I took one of those was almost a decade ago. I didn’t even get what the big deal was, at first; I thought, It’s fiction! What does it matter? But of course it matters. Of course it matters.
Even undeniably positive portrayals of minority groups have come under fire in recent years. Macklemore’s “Same Love,” which “is the first song that explicitly embraces and promotes gay marriage to make it into the Top 40” and “had a significant hand in passing Referendum 74 in Washington State,” has still been the subject of backlash, specifically by LGBTQ rappers who feel that it wasn’t Macklemore’s place to write a song about how it’s okay to be gay. As the article I linked above points out, Macklemore is able to adopt the LGBTQ cause without the risk of being branded a “faggot” because of his “distance from gayness itself,” and that’s where we run into a problem: the same people whose cause he is championing have been saying the same thing for decades and falling on deaf ears.
Why does it take a straight man’s song to make a difference? Tyler Coates at Flavorwire acknowledges that “there are unfortunately a lot of people who need to be validated by someone who looks and acts like them,” which is undoubtedly true of a lot of us. Unfortunate, maybe, but not something that’s very likely to change anytime soon. So Coates, too, acknowledges that while the effects Macklemore’s “Same Love” are undeniably positive, it’s still irritating that “[w]hen there are queer artists striving to make interesting and thoughtful art that represents them and their ideals, feelings, and experiences, it’s a true shame to watch what feels like a calculated bid for cheery, yet benign, mass appeal outshine the artists whose community these more popular acts are apparently representing.”
Bringing it back to authors: it’s obviously unreasonable to expect them to only write about only their experiences. In discussing this post with other bloggers, fellow Bookslut Kelsey made the great point that not trusting yourself to write about any experience but your own is “as good as a death knell for the creative spirit.” She adds that “as fiction writers, our JOB is to find and portray experiences that are not directly our own.” Bookslut Sarah adds: “Authors should include characters who are women, LGBTQ, neurodiverse, differently abled, etc., as long as the story isn’t about LGBTQ, neurodiversity, etc.—unless the author is those things.”
Here at IB, we do our best to read diversely and point out appropriation, tired tropes, and unfair stereotypes where we see them. Second Life is obviously not the worst instance, but thinking, writing, and talking through the weirdness I felt about it has helped me become even more cognizant of these issues.
It’s hard to know where the line is, though—particularly when, as an author, you want to ensure your characters are diverse, but believably so, and without stereotyping or using harmful tropes. How can authors do this successfully, and what is our responsibility as readers both to notice harmful tropes and call them out but also respect an author’s creative license? These are questions I’ll continue to ask myself as I grow as a reader, and in a weird way I have to thank S. J. Watson and Second Life for bringing them to the forefront of my mind.