There is so much talk about gender in writing. Many claim women shouldn’t or even can’t write believable male characters. Furthermore, women shouldn’t even attempt to write a narration from a male’s point of view. The converse is true for males and women characters.
This theory was challenged last year with the PS Books publication of Stripped: An Anthology of Anonymous Flash edited by Nicole Monaghan.
Now authors are being “stripped” of the anonymous status and on February 9th some of the authors from the collection will be reading their own stories.
I wanted to talk with Nicole Monaghan to discuss what impact this book had on her and those who partook in the challenge of identifying the authors. Below is our interview.
Wittle: You do a lot of work in flash fiction. You even have a literary journal devoted to the 25 word short story. What appeals to you about this genre?
Monaghan: I love that we get deeply into the characters’ desires and motivations within a short space of time by exploring their tiny but significant experiences.
Wittle: When you thought of the idea of a collection of flash pieces with the author’s identity and gender “stripped” away, what was the key that unlocked this idea?
Monaghan: I was blogging about how amazed I was at how well flash fiction writers were writing from the perspective of the opposite gender and how it would be a cool thing if we didn’t know who wrote what for a year. Marc Schuster, then-Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, suggested I put together an anthology.
Wittle: Now that the authors are putting their clothes on and claiming their stories, what do you think is the most important thing you have learned from this experiment?
Monaghan: I’ve learned that we really are all the same. We all want to matter. That’s why we, as writers, can create characters of the opposite sex. And that’s why readers have trouble figuring out if the author is a man or a woman.
Wittle: What reactions have you gotten from readers? Has anyone been very vocal about knowing which author wrote what?
Monaghan: Most people who have told me how they fared in their guessing have said they didn’t guess much better than random guessing would yield: about 50% correct.
Wittle: The first time I ever heard of the playwright Tracy Letts, I thought Tracy was a woman. When I found out Tracy is a man, it changed only the inner voice of his plays and not the plays or material itself. How much of a role do you think gender plays into how a reader interacts with the material?
Monaghan: I think it’s impossible for a reader not to feel the author lurking. I think when we read anything, there are an infinite number of factors affecting our experience of the read: our mood, what we had for lunch that we did or didn’t enjoy, what we’re anticipating that evening, whether the character reminds us of our favorite aunt, the fact that the character has an identical emotional wound to our own, and on and on. My point is that I believe we bring quite a lot to our reading, and we impose ourselves onto it, naturally. This includes what we perceive the author to have “meant” and those assumptions are extensions of how we imagine them. Is it a man or a woman? Are they in their twenties, forties, sixties? Do they have a family or are they an independent traveler? Are they also athletic, interested in politics, or do they have a bent for all things scientific? I think we cannot help but let these things bleed into our reading and interpretation of the work, unless the author is anonymous.
Wittle: I once got criticized for writing a male character. I was told I needed to have my male friends read the story because no guy would do what my character did in the story. Do you think the gender of the writer means he or she cannot write from the opposite sex point of view?
Monaghan: Nope! See my answer to number 3.
Wittle: How has creating this book, stripping away the gender and identity of the authors, played into your own writing?
Monaghan: It was liberating to work really hard on a story, draft for longer than I normally do, and then not tell anyone (except my best friend, after months, when I just had to tell someone), which story was mine. It made me feel excited to fully step into a male character, figure out who he was and say exactly what I thought he’d say, and do exactly what I thought he’d do. Perhaps with other work I’ve written from a male perspective, I wasn’t as brave.