Here I am, reading a scifi novel. Let's call it The Graffiti Artist by Joseph Franzen. In The Graffiti Artist, there's a matriarchal society established on another planet. I felt at first ill at ease. At page 60, I'm now cringing. I don't think I'm going to read much more than another 40 pages.
But the thing is, if on the cover it said The Graffiti Artist is written by Josephina Franzen rather than Joseph Franzen, I'd have been willing to give it a much more extended chance.
So my question is: would an own voices novel avoid any misunderstanding regarding what the writer tries to convey?
SPOILER WARNING FOR: The Power, by Naomi Alderman; In the Mother's Land, by Élisabeth Vonarburg.
In The Graffiti Artist, the matriarchy is a dystopia: men can't vote, unless they accept to do hazardous jobs, they can't have a family and they are valued for their sexual prowesses and good looks only. Women decided their off Earth colony would be like that because of what men did on Earth and how, according to them, men are responsible for the sorry state it is in.
In a sense, The Graffiti Artist isn't that different from The Power by Alderman (review here). Alderman, at the beginning and at the end of her novel shows also a matriarchy in which men have little or no power, where they are patronised, and during the course of the novel, they are frequently and randomly sexually assaulted.
But the first difference, to me, is that The Power shows how this dystopian matriarchy comes to be. It is a slow build up that starts with contemporary women (who have little or no power, who are patronised and who are randomly sexually assaulted) until we arrive at the complete reversal of the situation. Because of this, The Power holds a clear and definable message: violence against women are only caused by power; if women held power, they wouldn't be much better because human beings are inherently flawed when it comes to being powerful.
Such a book couldn't come at a worse time. When women finally find the strength and support among each other to reveal the extent of the harrasment and violence they have been the victims of during their lives, to publish a book about a society that got its "revenge" on men by making them sub-citizens feels like the worst scheduling ever. Of course, the publishers couldn't know what would happen, but still, worst scheduling ever. But it is as if The Graffiti Artist said: "Women are on top there. They didn't share power with men, they crushed us."
And it is probably this "us" that is so bothering to me. If The Graffiti Artist had been written by Josephina Franzen rather than Joseph Franzen, I have no doubt that I would yes, still feel ill at ease, but I would be willing to give the novel more than just a hundred pages to show me where the writer wants to go. I had no such qualms with The Power: the beginning established the matriarchal dystopia but because a woman wrote it, and that the situation was so instantly recognisable as what a woman lives nowadays, it immediately seemed to me that the novel was leading somewhere.
In a sense, The Graffiti Artist doesn't send the right signals. So far, the only signals I can see are: "This is an unfair society, but happily some of these poor men have allies" so I suppose they will fight for a fairer society. But the problem is that to put men as the victims to convey a message for a fair society is just as ill advised as a white writer writing about a white person being taken as a slave by an African tribe to denounce slavery. To use the unfair dominant power as the victim to denounce this dominant unfair power when you actually belong to it boggles the mind, especially when this dominant power thinks that they are the wronged party... (in case you don't see what I mean, please check how women are still shamed and belittled or even harassed for speaking up, or how Black people are accused of being divisive when they denounce the inequality in the US society.)
Another real problem in The Graffiti Artist is that Joseph Franzen's matriarchal society is barely believable. Take In The Mother's Land by Vonarburg or "Houston do you read me?" by Tiptree Jr, both describe matriarchies with dystopian undercurrents, quite visible very early on in Vonarburg's novel as Lisbeï, the main female character, can't access to her birthright because she's barren (thus being an accusation against people who think the only way a woman can truly be a woman is by being a mother).
But where Vonarburg writes believable female characters, Joseph Franzen only writes female characters who are nothing but current toxic men with breasts. The main character in The Graffiti Artist is nonetheless a "good woman": she does believe that men should have more rights. But she's nothing more than the depiction of what a "good man" is. These characters aren't women, they are men masquerading as women. And here I go back to The Power: at the end, the female patronising character behaved like some men do currently behave, but she still felt like a woman.
Does it mean that Vonarburg and Alderman could write believable women in matriarchal dystopias because they are women themselves? Because, in short, their novels are own voices?
The problem is I don't believe for a second that only female writers can write convincing female characters. One of my favourite female character is Emma Bovary who was written by Gustave Flaubert (who was very much male) and the list of female characters I enjoy and who are written by men is pretty long.
On the other hand, I'm all for own voices novels: first because it brings to the fore voices that aren't heard enough (or at all), also because it will always take a situation by a completely different angle from what the non marginalised reader would expect (in short, yes, it educates, whether marginalised writers like it or not), finally because own voices should always be the first ones to tell the stories that belong to them.
I think that it's more that Joseph Franzen didn't have the literary chops to pull off what he intended to do. That there was no one at his publishing house to say: "hang on... It doesn't work!" That there was no sensitivity reader to say: "There are many problems."
Yes, non marginalised writers can write successfully and believably main marginalised characters. You only have to check Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood, After Atlas by Emma Newman, The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone... Once again, the list is long. But it takes literary chops, empathy and research. Probably, if Joseph Franzen came and explained to me "I tried to do that..." I would say "Ah, yes, indeed... Now I see what you meant."
But if a writer has to explain his novel, that it doesn't speak for itself, then there's a real problem with it and it's not because it's own voices or not, it's because it's poorly written.
I will keep on reading another 40 pages. I will be happy to add a disclaimer at the top of this post if within these 40 pages it turns out I was very wrong. But, honestly, I'm not that hopeful.
"While we were reading" is an irregular feature in which C. shares thoughts with friends Leigh, Ian, Azzie , Amy and other guests about reading science-fiction and fantasy. Nothing fancy, come as you are.