Novels written by men with female characters that aren't crap?
June 21, 2020 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Most novels written by men have pretty awful female characters. I can't explain in what ways they are awful, except that they seem to be identified more by their sexual characteristics than as human beings. I'd really like some recommendations of male novelists who write women well.
posted by Chasuk to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I was stunned that a man could write a teenaged girl so well.
posted by emd3737 at 9:59 PM on June 21, 2020 [10 favorites]

I've really liked Amor Towles' novels Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow in this respect. I also just realised those are his only two novels and am mad now.

I also just finished reading James Baldwin's Another Country and thought it was surprisingly good at its characterizations of the women in it.

(I just looked through my last few years of books read on Goodreads and realised I read vanishly few male authors. Luckily there are lots of fantastic female and NB authors to read these days!)
posted by urbanlenny at 10:17 PM on June 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

I just finished Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, and was astonished by how much I identified with the narrator. Just pitch perfect.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:17 PM on June 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is a good list. Among those mentioned, I particularly like Ishiguro, McEwan and Shakespeare.
posted by bearwife at 10:23 PM on June 21, 2020

I just read The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead and thought the protagonist (a black woman working in a profession that was dominated by white men) was written really well.
posted by creepygirl at 10:26 PM on June 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

With the caveat that both are "immoral" and therefore, from the point of view of their male creators, necessarily tragic: Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are both extremely rich characters (and great books!)
posted by caek at 11:08 PM on June 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

In newer SFF, Max Gladstone and Django Wexler are both surprisingly good at writing multifaceted female protagonists, including antiheroes and queer people. A lot of male-written SFF lesbians in particular shade into fetish territory, so Empress of Forever and Ship of Smoke and Steel were both welcome surprises.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:09 PM on June 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

I really enjoyed the female characters in the "Divine Cities" trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett. Well-written, complicated women, including WOC. I read another set of his books, Foundryside and Shorefall. Didn't care for those as much, all action, little character development.
posted by dorey_oh at 11:23 PM on June 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

E.M. Forster is my gold standard for men writing women (Adela Quested & Mrs Moore in A Passage to India, the Schlegel sisters in Howard's End) - I just think he displays a great deal of emotional intelligence.

Theodor Fontane is also surprisingly okay actually in this regard. Can't speak for his most famours novel Effie Briest, which I haven't read yet, but I really love Victoire von Carayon in Schach von Wuthenow for instance.
posted by sohalt at 12:06 AM on June 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Came to suggest Howard's End, but without being 100% certain, as I am myself masculine, that the Schlegels don't represent simply some more-perfect male fantasy; so I'm glad Forster occurred in this connection to another mefite as well.

Also, he wrote plays and not novels, but I agree there are a lot of well written female leads in Shakespeare. My personal favorite is Imogen in Cymbeline. It's so clear that her boyfriend, the ostensible hero of the piece, doesn't deserve her at all.

Shakespeare's Beatrice -- mentioned in the list bearwife links to -- is indeed a fun character, but be warned that at the center of the plot of Much Ado About Nothing is an appalling act of misogyny. The same could be said for A Winter's Tale -- whose female lead, Perdita, is also well written. But that play takes the misogyny as a profound problem to be (only partially) overcome by the complex course of the narrative, whereas Much Ado kind of wants us to laugh it off, leaving a very bitter aftertaste, in my mouth, at least.
posted by bertran at 1:29 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. I, Claudius, by Robert Graves. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. But really, there are so many fine books by women on women. Jest of God, by Margaret Lawrence. Down Among the Women, by Fay Weldon. Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro. To name a few.:/)
posted by storebought at 1:37 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

[A couple deleted: OP is specifically looking for male authors.]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:04 AM on June 22, 2020

Stewart O'Nan, particularly in 'Emily, Alone' but I always marvel at how well he writes women in many of his books.
posted by lois1950 at 2:06 AM on June 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Ada in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

posted by runincircles at 2:34 AM on June 22, 2020

Not sure that J. Franzen should be in that list.

The "Tiffany Aching" series from Terry Pratchett is pretty good

Thomas Hardy in "Far from the Madding Crowd" gets it right, but he is pretty bleak from there on in

Total fan of Jasper Fforde and his creation "Thursday Next"

Anthony Trollope has some remarkable women as protagonists
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 2:49 AM on June 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

Seconding Trollope. Particularly The Eustace Diamonds which is (imho) the best Palliser novel and focuses on Lizzy Eustace and her fight for her own financial wellbeing.
posted by mattamatic at 4:14 AM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thomas Hardy, yes. Had to read Tess of D'Urbervilles for class and had all my emotional defenses in place because I already knew it would be balls to the walls misery porn. And don't get me wrong, that's very much what you get, it's just not _all_ you get. Because Tess really is just a great character. I had all my emotional defenses up, I expected nothing but a chore, and Hardy made me fall in love with her anyway.

Caveat: The ending is absolutely infuriating, and not just, I suspect, for the reasons the author intended it to be. It's also clearly written from the perspective of someone who doesn't so much identify with the protagonist, but is in love with the protagonist and I usually find that insufferable, but I don't mind it here. Lots of male writers write about women from the lover's perspective in a way that just leaves me totally cold - but Hardy somehow makes me fall in love as a reader as well, so there has to be something he's getting about women they aren't.
posted by sohalt at 4:14 AM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

The subreddit r/MenWritingWomen which is mostly about men writing women badly have a couple of suggestions, like Terry Pratchett, Brandon Sanderson, Jeff Vandermeer and Garth Nix.
posted by Harald74 at 4:15 AM on June 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

I haven't read him for many years so don't know if I would still hold this view, but I always thought Tom Robbins wrote excellent female characters. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was well known, but I recall enjoying Another Roadside Attraction a bit more. Both have women as the main protagonists.
posted by mewsic at 4:20 AM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

William Boyd. Specifically, his novel Brazzaville Beach.
posted by fso at 4:31 AM on June 22, 2020

The Wheel of Time books were written by Robert Jordan (the last three were written by Brandon Sanderson with Jordan’s notes, following Jordan’s death). The many female characters are very complex and realistic, not to mention key to the story.

This is a welcome change for a fantasy series, compared for example with Tolkien’s works, where women often fulfill a secondary/supportive role when they appear at all.
posted by shb at 5:00 AM on June 22, 2020

A book I found especially surprising in this regard is Dalva by Jim Harrison (who was known for writing very macho books). Some other suggestions are mentioned at that link.
posted by wisekaren at 5:34 AM on June 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Daniel Woodrell, IMO. Both Winter's Bone and Tomato Red.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:54 AM on June 22, 2020

Pretty much anything written by John Irving, The World according to Garp would be a good place to start.
posted by tman99 at 5:58 AM on June 22, 2020

I thought the female characters in The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber, were written really well. They have depth, conflicting desires and values, and humanity. However, showing the sexist oppression of these women, sometimes literally through sex, is a major theme and plot point of the book. I never felt this was gratuitous. You could tell who the author really emphathised with, and let’s just say it was rarely the men.

I haven’t read Under The Skin, another of his which was made into a movie (alien takes the form of a woman to lure/devour men) but given the plot I expect it is similar. May or may not be what you’re looking for.
posted by Concordia at 6:07 AM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Norman Rush - Mating. It still stuns me that this was written by a man.
posted by attentionplease at 6:54 AM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Timothy Findlay's Not Wanted on the Voyage is pretty amazing. The Flood, told mostly from the perspective of Noah's wife and her cat.

This question has made me reflect that most of the men I have read and enjoyed have written terrible women characters - so my enjoyment is in spite of that. Something something taking on the male gaze as a reader Laura Mulvey blah blah.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:57 AM on June 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Another vote for Trollope. He's really interesting to me, because he is completely bought into the Victorian standard of how a Good Woman should behave, and so are the characters of his that he approves of. And yet, within that constraint, the women in his books are three-dimensional people who want things and feel things and behave like people. Arabella Trefoil, in The American Senator, is another kind of amazing character -- Trollope disapproves of her as much as he could disapprove of anyone, but she's still human.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:05 AM on June 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Dead Isle by Sam Starbuck is one of my favorite books ever (definitely top 10 of all time). It's a steampunk epic adventure novel about two 19 year olds in Boston who are recruited by a British spy to check out what's up with Australia, the only place on their earth where magic doesn't work.

The first half of the book is balanced between the main characters, but the story ends up belonging to one of the two female leads. Not only is this a man writing excellent female characters, this is also one of the rare books written by a white person which excels at writing non-white characters and hits non-white people's storylines out of the ballpark.
posted by MiraK at 7:05 AM on June 22, 2020

I was coming in here to recommend Max Gladstone so I'm delighted to see that I claim sanctuary beat me to it. I love Gladstone's The Craft series, which has multiple female/trans/queer main characters, all of whom are very much more than a collection of stereotypical characteristics. Max also has complicated and excellent things to say about gentrification, venture capitalism, colonialism, etc. so I do strongly recommend.

I also really like James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series for having complex, well-rounded female characters with both history and agency. Leviathan's Wake has only male narrators but Caliban's War splits between male & female narrators, as do the rest.
posted by athenasbanquet at 7:15 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding Kazuo Ishiguro, 'A Pale View of Hills' in particular.
posted by remembrancer at 7:58 AM on June 22, 2020

Seconding the recommendation for Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist," especially if you're looking for books by Black authors.

Off the top of my head, a couple of other recommendations:
"The City and The City" by China Miéville
"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith
"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese
posted by wicked_sassy at 8:30 AM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the 80s and I disagree that Tom Robbins and John Irving write good woman characters. Maybe they got better later but their early books reeked of male wish fulfillment. I also didn’t like Super Sad True Love Story because I was skeeved by the white guy/Asian woman dynamic. But your mileage may vary.
posted by matildaben at 8:41 AM on June 22, 2020 [16 favorites]

I would like to dis-recommend Franzen's books (I often enjoy them, but this is not his strength), Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (I found the female characters actively awfully written), and Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (again, beautifully written but Isabel is an archetype more than a person, IMO).

Not a novel, but Stories of your Life and Others (specifically the title story, which was made into the movie Arrival) by Ted Chiang stood out to me for having female characters who are people.
posted by momus_window at 8:42 AM on June 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

So glad to see other people mentioning Trollope. I still remembering stumbling on one of his scenes where they talk about a mother showing her child to a friend as "a regular service of baby worship" and it just made me grin from ear to ear.

I love Thomas Hardy's women as well, though they pretty much never get happy endings.

I'd add Isaac Bashevis Singer to this list.
posted by Mchelly at 8:55 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Next series.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 9:07 AM on June 22, 2020

Grady Hendrix. My entire AFAB book club was very impressed by both My Best Friend's Exorcism and The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:36 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I thoroughly enjoyed Robin Sloan’s Sourdough. The main character, Lois, is an intelligent, witty woman who is warm and likeable but (at the beginning of the book) unfulfilled and lonely. I really liked her voice and kept forgetting the book was written by a man. Which is funny, because in the author’s previous book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, the female characters were similarly very strong, smart, and talented, but also too one-dimensional Manic Pixie Dream Girl for my taste.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:40 AM on June 22, 2020

The Queen's Gambit
posted by metadave at 1:38 PM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was really impressed with Andy Weir's depiction of the main character Jazz in Artemis. She's sassy, smart, and imperfect. He did a lot of work to write as a female narrator and thanks 6 women in the Acknowledgments for helping him tackle it.

Note, this book is completely unrelated to his first book The Martian other than it also takes place in space and is also quite funny.
posted by danapiper at 1:50 PM on June 22, 2020

Came in to suggest Stewart O'Nan as well. His Songs for the Missing has several main characters who are women.
posted by book 'em dano at 2:07 PM on June 22, 2020

Off the Top of my head (this shouldn't be as hard as it is)

Marlon James is a master at this. His women in both Book of the Night Women and Brief History of Seven Killings were incredibly well written.
Colm Toibin (Brooklyn, Nora Webster, Testament of Mary)
Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, The Intuitionist)
Vasily Grossman (Life & Fate)
Edward P. Jones
Tom Drury (The End of Vandalism)
Daniel Woodrell

Seconding Henry James and Jeffrey Eugenides
posted by thivaia at 3:22 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Roddy Doyle's 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors' and the follow up, 'Paula Spencer'. The books deal with domestic violence, just so you're aware.
posted by h00py at 5:30 AM on June 23, 2020

There were so many useful answers here—so many books to track down!—that choosing a best answer was nearly impossible.

Thank you kindly, everyone!
posted by Chasuk at 6:53 AM on June 23, 2020

Not a novel but Tom Siddell's webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court comic has incredible fleshed out believable complex likeable female characters. The single best male writing females I'm aware of today. (Two female main characters! Who are friends! I'm not sure I can think of any other male author writing female friendship this in depth, let alone this well. And there's dozens of other great female characters)

Wildbow writes dark, grim webnovels. His novel Parahumans and its sequel Ward both feature female main characters who are very complex, interesting, likable, and believably female. I actually didn't initially realize Wildbow was male because he didn't have any of the "man writing woman" tells*. (but please note the "dark, grim" as a warning. Every novel thus far has had a sort of bittersweet happy ending but the road to that ending is full of body horror, violence, death)

*which even not-bad writers like pratchett, sanderson, and gladstone tend to have. (Pratchett in particular is reallly borderline, its like, "I shall poke fun at how women get sexualized in fantasy by sexualizing women a lot". He got a bit better over time, but it was always still there)
posted by Cozybee at 7:16 AM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older Depressed partner, crush on a friend, what to do...   |   Western MA – outdoor swimming season Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments