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4th February 2022

Does leaving it to the imagination really cause liberation?

Some male authors are refusing to describe women in their novels – what does this mean for the future of representation?
Does leaving it to the imagination really cause liberation?
Pixabay: LeandroDeCarvalho

Sebastian Faulks has made the bold decision not to describe the physicality of any female characters in his future writing. He claims to feel liberated by this choice, but will avoiding describing characters breed freedom, or just discrimination?

During the Cheltenham Literature Festival that took place between the 7th and 18th of October, Sebastian Faulks was asked about his recently published book, Snow Country. Unlike his earlier books such as Engleby, and the Birdsong trilogy, his protagonist Lena is described in little physical detail in this novel. 

Faulks, when asked, said this was a conscious decision. He described being asked “what makes you think you have the right to write about a woman?” in an interview about his previous book Paris Echo. The 68-year-old told the Cheltenham Literature Festival audience that “instead of getting all sore, puffy and grumpy, I thought about it a lot”. A round of applause please for him actually engaging his brain on this issue. A real feminist pioneer. He also claimed to have read many books on identity before coming to his decision to stop describing female character’s physicality. In Snow Country, therefore, Faulks has left Lena’s physical appearance to his reader’s imagination, allowing only a reference to her attractiveness when two men are enamoured with her.

In Birdsong, arguably Faulk’s most famous book, the character of Madame Azaire is described through images of her “strawberry-chestnut hair” and clothing with a “dark red stone at the throat”. This description, drawing attention particularly to sexualised aspects of this female character’s anatomy, contrasts the description of the male character Stephen in the same scene, which focuses more on his eyes. These different views of the characters in Faulk’s book can be criticised from a feminist perspective, but this is not the reason that Faulks chose to stop writing about women. He simply said he did not have the right to write about them at all. 

Kevin Maher, in an article for The Times that was published just after Faulk’s interview, wrote that he can “feel his professional dilemma” and sympathised with the Birdsong author, in that writing authentically about women from a non-female perspective is a hard feat to achieve. We have seen this in the many articles online about times male authors have got the female anatomy hilariously wrong.  From writing inaccuracies about female characters to oversexualising them according to the male gaze. A personal favourite is Jeffrey Eugenides thinking that Madeleine’s breasts “had withdrawn into themselves” in The Wedding Plot. If they did that it would certainly have made puberty a whole lot more comfortable. 

However, though these articles are written jovially, these descriptions can have an incredibly damaging effect. Novels are a highly influential form of media and carry the ability to impact reader’s own political views, even if this is subliminally. For example, if one man reads purely over-sexualised versions of females in novels then he is likely to develop, if only subconsciously, a more sexualised view of women in his life.

Despite this, not all the responses to Faulks’ statement have been positive. In response to Faulks, the Booker Prize winning author Bernadine Evaristo commented that the idea of not being able to invent characters from imagination was “ridiculous”. She stressed that character creation is what fiction novelists are required to do. Author Dawn French also commented, claiming that “the minute we start to police people’s imaginations, we go down a very nasty old route”. 

If male authors stop describing female character’s appearances, they will ultimately feature these characters less and less. Furthermore, if Faulks is making this decision because he feels he does not have the “right” to describe women because he is not one, theoretically this also prevents him from describing people of different ethnicities or sexualities. 

If other male authors were to follow Faulk’s lead, there would be a sharp downfall of female and BAME representation in the novel form as a whole. This could potentially  breed discrimination and prejudices as a consequence of underrepresentation. It is the age-old question of whether bad representation is better than no representation at all, to which I reply: is good representation really that hard to achieve?

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