SMILLA Jaspersen, Hope Clearwater, Mike Houlihan and now Alison MacAteer: all heroines of modern novels, and all heroines who are doubly fictitious. Each is a female persona adopted by a male novelist. Miss Smilla with her feeling for snow is given her voice by Peter Hoeg, Hope Clearwater narrates William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach, Mike Hoolihan, despite the name, is the blowsy blonde female cop who tells her story in Martin Amis's Night Train, and Alison MacAteer is the protagonist in Luke Jennings's new novel, Beauty Story.
But why try to become a woman, if you aren't one to start with? Surely it's hard enough in itself to put together a convincing novel without having to think yourself into the opposite sex as well? And critics tend to be particularly ready to snipe at sex-changers. Reviewers leapt with glee on Martin Amis's Mike Hoolihan. "Mike Hoolihan is a woman who talks like a guy. Who talks like Amis in fact," observed the Times. "Why has he made the narrator of this mystery story woman?" asked the Mail. "It doesn't work. She talks like a man. Worse, she talks like a man who has swallowed a Martin Amis novel." "First the good news - or bad, according to taste," announced the Telegraph. "Just because the narrator of Martin Amis's new novel is a middle-aged, recovering-alcoholic American policewoman does not mean that the narrative voice is any different from his usual one."
William Boyd did not escape scot-free either. Again, critics suggested that Brazzaville Beach's Hope Clearwater was a bloke in drag. "The decision to entrust the first-person narrative to a woman is, for a male writer, always an odd one, and, it must be said, Hope spends a disproportionate amount of time taking off her bra, rubbing herself down with a towel, or even, God help us, going on about thick tangles of pubic hair and moist gussets," sniffed the Independent in an otherwise favourable appraisal. Luke Jennings has written his new novel from the point of view of tabloid journalist Alison MacAteer, and was, he says, warned by other writers of the perils and pitfalls of creating a woman narrator. "There is a certain kind of critic who will make a point of taking exception to the attempt. Some women consider that the female personality is fundamentally impenetrable by a man. I don't think men are proprietorial about the male psyche in the same way - women are welcome to march in and help themselves to all the old lumber they can find. Most male authors who have created female narrators have been criticised for doing so, and it's an extraordinary thing, it doesn't happen the other way round." As he points out, nobody batted an eyelid at Donna Tartt's Secret History, which is supposedly written by a young male student, Richard Papen, and was a best-seller. His own book, Jennings says, would simply not have worked with a man in the central role. "I wanted to write about the world of this particular kind of journalist, and a woman journalist would get to go where a man wouldn't in that world." (An experienced journalist himself, it is evident that he knows what he is talking about; the paparazzi chases and doorstep-surveillance scenes are all drawn from life, and the portrayals of day-to-day office ghastliness ring horribly but fascinatingly true. Alison herself memorably says, "I was loosed almost daily into environments of grief and betrayal; a woman - or a woman's voice - was felt to be less intrusive, more likely to produce a forthcoming response. `Send the girl in,' they'd say, and I'd be slipped in like a ferret.") Alison lived in Luke Jennings's head, he explains, for at least a year before he started writing about her, but she is emphatically not his alter- ego. "The business of fiction is creating new characters. She works in the world I work in but she's not me. Nor is Mike Hoolihan Martin Amis, nor is Miss Smilla Peter Hoeg. Their novels would be unreadable if they were. …