Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.

 

 

Mass Shootings and Narrative

The Sydney Morning Herald had an excellent article today on the complex motivations of the Orlando shooter. The title of the piece is “Was gunman Omar Mateen a political extremist or repressed gay man?” Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories. Mateen was likely some combination of both. But this does not fit neatly into any of our existing narratives.

…was Orlando gunman Omar Mateen driven by a love of Islamic State, or by a deep sense of self-loathing – possibly triggered by an awareness that he was gay?

Given that investigators have yet to come up with answers, some might have leapt on the Mateen story earlier than they sensibly should have. In claiming responsibility for Sunday’s attack, IS will be acutely embarrassed if the emerging story of Mateen’s homosexuality becomes the dominant narrative.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote two years ago after one of the mass tragedies, the details of which blur together in my mind. What I said there bears repeating.

Dave Cullen must be the most frequently invited guest to television news who no one actually listens to. Cullen is the author of the excellent Columbine. He spent ten years getting to the bottom of that tragic event, learning about the killers, the victims and the community. He gets a lot of exposure these days as he is invited to comment after each mass shooting.

He was on Anderson Cooper last night, explaining once again, that most of the narrative we create about a killer’s motivations in the immediate aftermath of anevent will be wrong. He emphasized that even the killer’s own writings can create a misleading picture. (He had pages from Dylan Klebold’s diary as a visual aid.)  The question we most want answered in the wake of a tragedy is “why” and we will grasp any clues and expand on them. We need a sensible narrative and it is difficult for the sane to be satisfied with an explanation that makes no sense, the kind of motivation that the mentally ill mind produces.

The problem of snap judgement is exacerbated by the way in which news is now disseminated. A growing number of people get their news from social media. People use social media as a means of self-expression and identity building. Thus the stories that are shared tend to be those that allow the sharer to make an identity claim of some sort. A story of a mass shooting in a gay club by a Muslim becomes an opportunity for people to express themselves on their positions on guns or gays or Muslims or terrorism and this happens well before we actually have any clue what motivated the killer, if people with normal minds and feelings of empathy can ever truly understand such an action.

 

 

Yucky Framing: Why Creators Create

I’ve been reading a number of articles on copyright today, trying to parse the complexities of the ownership of materials of various authors long gone.

I came across a quote in an article on the Nova Southeastern University blog.

Now do we want creative people to keep on creating, even when they reach an advanced age? You would think that we do. Stephen King is 66 years old. Would we like him to continue to write creepy stories? Of course we would. Neil Diamond is 71 years old. Would we like him to keep writing songs? You bet. Would they continue to do so if they knew their copyright would soon die with them? Probably not.

Now, I don’t want to wade into the larger point of this article or the debate over the appropriate length of copyright. (So you know, I am in favor of shorter copyright terms similar to the 1909 act giving creators a temporary monopoly in order that they could eat while creating new works.)

What I want to address is this rather strange notion of what inspires artists to make art. Can you imagine any reasons, besides money going to their estate, that a 71 year old song writer might write a song or a novel? I certainly can.

If you were not discussing copyright and you were asked to make a list of reasons would “so the estate will keep having money” be first or even near the top? I’m guessing you would say “to have a legacy” or “to be remembered” or “so their work might live on beyond them.” Maybe to express what they have learned over the course of a lifetime, or because they still love making art.

In essence, these discussions always break down for me when they start from what I believe is a faulty premise– that artists create the way bankers invest, motivated entirely by the profit motive. Very few of us are motivated entirely by the profit motive in anything we do.

 

Do What You Love, The Audience Will Follow

 

“Never play to the gallery,” says David Bowie in the clip above.

I discovered something interesting when I looked at the logs for my blog. (My blog logs.) Conventional wisdom is that writers need to blog in order to build “an author platform.” The way to build such a platform is to have a consistent, recognizable topic or area of expertise.

A funny thing happened. I started this blog when I branched out into fiction as a way to distinguish my fiction writing persona from my non-fiction writing persona. Initially I wrote largely on subjects that touched on the theme of my first novel.

Eventually, however, I lost interest in those constraints as I moved on to other projects. I started to post on whatever topic caught my interest on a given day, whenever I felt as though I had something worth sharing.

A number of years ago I started reading a great deal about Oscar Wilde and his circle. This had nothing to do with any book I was writing at the time (although it has come full circle as I have sold a book on this topic and am working on it now).  From an “author platform” perspective, it made no sense to post about Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and the like. It had nothing at all to do with my second novel, which is about personal identity, rock stars and online impersonation. If I was trying to create a Laura Lee brand the Wilde posts only muddled things.

Yet those posts are consistently popular. Now, I can’t say that this means that all of the people who googled “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth” and landed on my page can be claimed as “my audience.” They came for Wilde, not Lee. I get that. But they do come, which is more than they were doing before. Maybe some read what else I’ve written and find some through-line that persuades them to stay. Now that I am actually writing a Wilde-related book it has come full circle, the “platform” was built without conscious thought or effort because I wrote about what was interesting to me.

Do what you love, the audience will follow. Or maybe they won’t. In any case, it is a more pleasant way to spend your life than doing what you don’t love.

Savings vs. Profits

Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of articles that gives them meaning. A couple of days ago I recall a meme that flashed through my Facebook feed. (I tried to find it again to link to it here, but after a bit of clicking I gave up.) The idea was that when a person has 50 cats, or has a house full of newspapers, we call him a hoarder. When a rich person has billions more than he can spend, we call him a genius.

I spent this morning with a quick read of the news, first glancing through an article on the World Press site focusing on tax avoidance.  The article opened:

When Donald Trump was recently asked what his tax rate is, he irately responded, “It’s none of your business.” And Trump has repeatedly stated that “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”

One of the big questions in the presidential campaign at the moment has to do with Donald Trump’s tax returns.  There has been rampant speculation as to why he is not willing to share them with the public. One of the main reasons, the pundits guess, may be that it will show that he is not nearly as rich as he pretends to be.

While still thinking about this admiration of wealth, which at its most basic level is just holding on to big piles of money, I read an article on the Independent Voter Network on how Americans are becoming savers and how this is bad for the economy.

“Under all circumstances, personal consumption is always the primary driver of the economy,” the article says.  “So how do you convince a nation to start spending again?”

It struck me that the “Americans” here who are being asked to start spending are folks like you and me, not folks like Donald Trump. When I put money into a savings account instead of buying a new TV, it is taking that money out of the economy. When a zillionaire parks millions off shore there seems to be little discussion about how to instill confidence in that person that it is OK to spend that cash on cool stuff like higher salaries or whatever rich people could be buying with all their savings. We don’t usually use a word like “savings” to describe the big piles of money rich people keep in their Swiss bank accounts. Savings are what people of modest means put aside. Rich people have profits.

The question “how do you convince a nation to start spending again?” does not bring to mind the uber-wealthy who are hoarding most of the cash. See for example this CNBC article: Rich hoard cash as their wealth reaches record high. It seems it is not “a nation” that needs convincing, it is the small percentage of the nation that is holding most the cash who need convincing.

An interesting element in the IVN article is that wile it worries about the effect of (presumably middle class) savings on the overall economy, it is also critical about the level of debt average Americans carry.

Americans are carrying fairly large credit card balances. As some commentators note, Americans are probably willing to put up with a government drowning in red ink because they see the same pattern in their own finances. We live in a ‘pay for it tomorrow’ society — from Washington D.C. to Main Street, nobody wants to pay the piper.

What does it mean that an article is on the one hand concerned that we might be saving too much and also concerned that we are spending more than we have?

This is a horrendous double-edged sword. Paying down the debt, from the personal perspective has the net effect of saving, yet paying the debt down also destroys wealth in the system (the debt is held as an interest bearing asset by a bank).

Even worse, the consumption from this debt took place long ago; the debt service is no longer driving the economy (and yes, the interest paid is still a part of the current GDP, but consumption drives the economy — not borrowing).

In other words, when you pay down your debt, that is less money that the banking system has, and if you then put the money you saved by not paying interest to a bank every month into a cookie jar, that is money that, say, a car dealer or Wal Mart is not making from you.

This is all true, but when we conceptualize the middle class and poor as having savings and the rich as having profits, doesn’t it change the meaning of a question like “how do we convince people to spend” into something else? If we ignore the people with the most to spend in this, are we not essentially asking “how do we persuade the people who have less to keep less of it for themselves?”

 

 

Restroom Anxiety and Verbal Violence

“I asked Mercedes to explain to me one of the great mysteries of modern shamings— why they were so breathtakingly misogynistic. Nobody had used the language of sexual violence against Jonah, but when Justine and Adria stepped out of line, the rape threats were instant.”-Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Perhaps I should see it as a rite of passage. I’ve often read about how often women who challenge men online suffer this kind of verbal abuse. I’ve managed to write on line for years and it was only a few days ago that it happened to me.

“I hope someone comes into the bathroom in a dress and rapes you.”

The crux of the argument, such as it is, was that I was not taking the issue of women’s bathroom safety seriously enough, whereas my male counterpart understood how dangerous and fraught it was to be in a women’s room. If I didn’t see it, well, then he hoped I would get a first hand demonstration so he would be proven right.

One particularly odd thing about this whole exchange is that I had been wondering out loud why men were not offended by a lot of the conversation surrounding transgender bathroom laws. All of the discussion seems to focus on the fear that a penis might be in the women’s room. It seems to me that the underlying premise here is that people with penises are rapists. I am surprised more men are not offended by this assumption. So “I hope you get raped” seems like a feeble answer, unless his point was “yes, we’re all rapists, here’s some verbal violence to make that clear.” Perhaps it was, but I don’t think so.

Actually, what set off the most angry part of the exchange had little to do with this. I had abandoned the whole transgender rights vs. safety frame. My simple question was whether the law as it was written would solve the problem it was designed ostensibly to solve. That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through. Does pointing this out mean I don’t care about safety? Well, my conversation partner felt so. I gather he had passionate feelings about safety.

I read an interesting story in the Atlantic a day or two after this happened.

In a study published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2012, Moore, along with Simon Breeze, observed 20 public toilets in London and Bristol, and interviewed the men and women who used them. She found that though both sexes had plenty of complaints, women’s were more about the cleanliness and quality of the facilities than anxiety about other occupants. They were more relaxed and social overall, chatting with strangers in line, watching doors for each other, sharing makeup.

Men, on the other hand, were on edge. Moore goes so far in the study as to say that for men, public toilets are “nightmarish spaces.” The anxiety they reported was centered around “watching”—being watched by other men, or being perceived to be watching other men—and that this watching was linked to the possibility of sexual violence.

The theory Moore lays out is that, in public, the gender hierarchy makes women the ones who are watched (under the “male gaze,” as it were). But in the bathroom, sans women, men worry about being the object of another man’s gaze, a feeling they don’t often confront in other places. This can make them fearful, even if there’s no real threat present.

This may explain why my male counterpart was much more spooked by this issue than I was when the danger is supposed to be in the women’s room. It seems it is the men who are really anxious, and they are projecting because it is more socially acceptable for them to make the case that women and children must be protected than to say that they are kind of freaked out.

If this is the real issue, maybe designing men’s rooms for more privacy is the answer.