Still, [Junot] Diaz admits that writing in a woman’s voice comes with certain risks. “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck,” he told me. “The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women’s representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.”
For one of the most lauded writers of his generation to say he needs another decade of practice to write better women is no small thing. But Diaz told me that he’s often appalled by the portrayals of women in celebrated novels.
“I know from my long experience of reading,” he said, “that the women characters that dudes [write] make no fucking sense for the most part. Not only do they make no sense, they’re introduced just for sexual function.”
He gave a high-profile example, though he wouldn’t name names.
“There’s a book that came out recently from a writer I admire enormously. A woman character gets introduced. I said, ‘I promise you, this girl is just here to throw herself at the dude, even though the dude has done nothing, nothing, to merit or warrant a woman throwing herself at him.’ And lo and behold. This brilliant young American writer, that everybody sort of considers the god of American writing, turns around and does exactly that. When I asked my female friends, we all had a little gathering, and I was chatting. I was like, ‘Have you heard of a woman doing this?’ They’re like, ‘Are you fucking nuts?’”
On the other hand, Diaz said, “I think the average woman writes men just exceptionally well.” He cited Anne Enright, Maile Meloy, and Jesmyn Ward as examples of younger writers who write great male characters—and pointed to two of his idols, Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison, as timeless masters. But he also detects an across-the-board improvement even in woman-penned books that are less than high-brow, especially in Young Adult fiction. “Look how well the boys are rendered in The Hunger Games,” he said.