Pronoun Troubles

In the roughly two and a half months since the publication of Margin Play I’ve received some very positive press. A goodly portion of that has come from female readers who can’t seem to find enough good things to say about Amber Eckart; “I wish I could be more like her,” said one reviewer. Another called her “One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a female protagonist written by a male author”. I’ll admit this has made me quite relieved, considering the bad case of pre-launch jitters I had back in July.

Recently though, I got an interesting comment from a male reader. It wasn’t anything major but it did put a new spin on things. Said reader made the following statement during a Facebook discussion;

“If [Amber Eckart] were real, I’d like to have a beer with her.”

I count this as success equal to Amber’s warm reception from the women in my readership. Why? Because all too often female protagonists are either dismissed by male readers, or relegated to the status of sex object. Rarely are they respected alongside their male counterparts. I’m glad to have averted that problem, at least so far. It wasn’t really that hard. I just set out to write a clever, professional protagonist who solved mysteries, beat the bad guys and oh yes…happened to be a woman.

The result was a character women respect and admire, yet men wouldn’t mind sitting down to chat with her either. It is a success that is hard for me to parse, considering I’ve spent my entire dating career being baffled by women – as much as I happen to like them.

A bit ago I put together the following bit of prose as an exercise. Actually, in truth it was a joke project taken on in a state somewhere between whiskey-fueled whimsy and sleep deprivation. It goes like this…

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong woman. But down these mean streets a lady must go who is not herself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a woman. She is the hero, she is everything. She must be complete and common, and yet unusual. She must be, to use a rather unweathered phrase, a lady of honor…by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. She must be the best woman in her world and a good enough woman for any world. I do not care much about her private life…she is neither a nun nor a nymph. I think she might seduce a duke and I am quite sure she would not spoil a virgin; if she is a lady of honor in one thing, she is that in all things.

She is a relatively poor woman, or she would not be a detective at all. She is a common woman or she could not go among common people. She has a sense of character, or she would not know her job. She will take no money dishonestly and suffer no insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. She is a lonely woman and her pride is that you will treat her as a proud woman or be very sorry you ever saw her. She talks as a woman of her age talks…that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is her adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a woman fit for adventure. She has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to her by right, because it belongs to the world she lives in. If there were enough like her, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not be too dull to be worth living in.

For those of you who don’t recognize the source material it’s from “The Simple Art of Murder”, a seminal essay on crime fiction penned by Raymond Chandler; this excerpt is considered by many to be the definitive breakdown of the private-eye archetype. The original was written with the assumption that an author’s private-eye would be a man, and in the mid-40s when Chandler wrote this such would have been a more or less correct assumption.

But in a moment of inspiration by way of inebriated arrogance Chandler himself might have appreciated, I decided to gender-flip the passage. It was not very hard to do.

Since writing it up I look at it any time I wonder at how best to keep Amber true to her hard-boiled roots. Suitably altered it serves to represent her pragmatic brand of heroism as accurately as Chandler’s original represented the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

What is the difference between my version and Chandler’s? What did I have to change? Pronouns mostly, and three other gendered nouns. The incisive meaning and evocative poetry present in the original and its value as an archetypical description remains intact; all the things Chandler was trying to say are still getting said. They just happen to be getting said about a woman, and they are all still relevant and applicable.

I plan on tacking this little project to the wall next to my monitor for ease of reference. It says a good deal worth remembering, and not just about private eyes.