“Rules of Civility”

There’s an interesting debate about cross-sex writing, isn’t there? It seems to me the popular wisdom is that a man can’t write as a woman, but a woman can write as a man.

No. That’s too simplistic.

Perhaps is should be qualified: it’s easier for a woman to write as a first-person male narrator than it is the other way around. Maybe being told you can achieve this other-sex perceptiveness [and actually, I have] is one of the greatest compliments that could be paid to your writing. For me, Amor Towles makes a pretty decent first of writing as the first-person heroine in “Rules of Civility”. In the entire 300+ pages of my edition there were only two occasions when I wondered ‘is that the male in Towles saying that, rather than the woman in Katey?’. It was interesting how those two small fragments jumped off the page.

“Rules of Civility” is very good. I read it on the strength of “A Gentleman in Moscow” and am glad I did. Towles’ writing is intelligent, well-paced (more like the end of “Moscow” than the beginning), and the characters are engaging. It would be easy for them to slip into caricature, but they do not. And beyond the glitz and wealth and privilege of some of it, the story is wholly about ‘life’ and how it just happens to you: one drink too many, the knock at the door, the misjudged remark…

I think it’s worth a read.

I also think that the aforementioned popular wisdom is to a large degree hokum. It’s very difficult for a man to write as a woman and to be accepted as such by a woman reader – and vice versa. A man knows how a man thinks, obviously; and a woman, a woman. As writers, occasionally we like to think we’re clever enough to see into the psyche of the opposite sex, and sometimes we’re arrogant enough to try and demonstrate as much in a piece of fiction. Inevitably, not always successfully…