WOMEN
01/21/2014 09:34 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Can Men Write Good Heroines?

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Can men write good heroines? Most of the heroines I write about in my book How to Be a Heroine are written by women. And most of the heroines I find most problematic are written by men. It's very troubling to go back to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and find that it's a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man. And even as a girl, I was furious with Charles Dickens for letting Nancy get bludgeoned in Oliver Twist and, later, outraged that Samuel Richardson heaped pain and indignity on Clarissa and called her "an Exemplar to her sex" as though learning to suffer well made us exemplary.

It's particularly distressing to see how male writers have punished their heroines for being sexually adventurous. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; Gustave Flaubert makes Emma Bovary pathetic even before she poisons herself. It's striking that when Erica Jong wrote about an adulteress in Fear of Flying, she gave her a happy ending, in which she is reborn in a hotel bathtub, and summons her adoring husband back.

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