Thursday, June 18, 2009

'Women...write better novels than men'

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century - one of Gertrude Stein's three geniuses (along with Picasso and herself). And Stein didn't praise easily.

When I find myself in disagreement with Whitehead, I check myself: if he demurs, perhaps I need to think again.  (Though I'm still unsure about Plato's 'unparalleled genius'.)

Today I read a Whitehead comment that still has me wondering.  'Women, it seems to me,' he said in conversation with friends, 'write better novels than men.'

Whitehead's point was a straightforward but controversial one: men try to fit the world into abstract ideas, whereas women 'give us the intimacies which make life and character vivid to us.'

This is unlikely to be true - or it's a partial, fleeting truth at best.

Yes, it rings true for Woolf and Austen.  But Henry James, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway? They weren't 'men in search of abstract ideas', however intelligent their prose.  (Whitehead himself cheekily called Dickens 'one of the best women novelists'.)

Perhaps Whitehead was fumbling for a genuine truth, but wearing the spectacles of an earlier epoch; glasses scratched and fogged by unwritten gender rules. (And he'd be the first to admit that philosophers are men of their age.)

If there's an enduring truth in Whitehead's words, it's something like this: novels are expressions of intimate, poignant detail.  They're at their best when they're partly inside minds and relationships; when they give up perfect abstraction, and accept the incomplete, unstable pageant of life lived.

Whitehead believed women were better at this.  I can only disagree: neither sex has a monopoly on the artful psyche.


Elisabeth said...

I'd like to agree with Whitehead, Damon, but I also agree with you.

Maybe it is more about a particular sensibility that determines the success or otherwise of storytelling, rather than a gender specific aptitude.

Damon said...

Yes, exactly.

Perhaps in some societies, classes or ages, women were more likely to have this sensibility. An interest in intimacy, relationships, 'inner life' (and the language to go with it) might, for example, be seen as effeminate.

But it's nothing innate, predetermined. It's a possibility available to each sex.