No Female Bodies?
I read what I thought was an extraordinary statement in yesterday’s Times: the respected and in my view excellent novelist, Sebastian Faulks, has decided that the appearance – figure or face – of female characters should not be described. ‘The idea that novelists have a clear physical picture of their characters is pretty old-fashioned… I’m inviting the reader to guess what she looks like.’
He has apparently been moved to this view by the recent fashionable claim of denying any writer the privilege of writing outside their own experience. ‘If you’re white, you can’t write about a black person,’ and so on.
Really? Firstly, I’m sure we all pay due deference to both the recent concerns over the safety of women from marauding men, and the writer’s dogma that we should ‘show, not tell.’
But the beauty of the female form is, and always has been, a fundamental aspect of human existence. Look at art, and its concentration on female nudes. And in everyday life, we have makeup ads and Style supplements everywhere, thriving on the concentration on female appearance. Aimed, presumably, at women’s wish to be more attractive. Note: ‘attractive,’ the adjective from the verb ‘to attract.’ To deny how or why a male character is attracted to a female would seem wholly artificial.
Secondly, taking the ‘own experience’ principle to its logical conclusion, how can you write about anyone not of the same race, socio-economic standing, or even sex? (Is that the right word? Maybe I mean gender, but you know what I mean.) That would mean stories with only women or men, a rather artificial situation, as neither would be qualified to write about the other.
And presumably, in these days of strict equality, the same should apply in reverse. No description of male characters’ build. Imagine not knowing that the world’s best-selling fictional character, Jack Reacher, is 6ft 5in and weights 250 lbs. His appearance is a fundamental building block of his character, on which the stories are based. (The nonsense of ignoring this characteristic was demonstrated by the ruining of the Reacher films by casting the diminutive Tom Cruise in the title role.)
I have two WIPs on the go at the moment. In one, the wife of the white PC is of a different race (Chinese), young and sexy. This is an essential aspect of the way he views her, in the early stages of marital passion yet fearful of her suspected infidelity.
In my second WIP, the woman is again of a different race (mixed Russian and Chinese). Her appearance, both her race and the fact the white PC mistakes her for a courtesan, when she is in fact virginal, again is fundamental to the plot development.
To have to write out these essential aspects of major characters would, in my view, undermine the whole stories. Surely better to do what I am attempting, which is to drip-feed the man’s view of the woman, as he sees her and gets to know her.
So where to go, for the budding novelist? Should Harry have to update his teachings regarding description?