It’s OK Not to Excel and Other Pep Talks

There is a well known writer who has lately been getting a lot of attention on twitter posting threads about how you’re a “real writer” regardless of what you write, regardless of whether it is published or read or has any kind of public recognition or success. She has moved on now to posting about how you’re “a real reader” no matter what kind of book  you read.  “Whatever you read you are a real reader, no exceptions.”

This has been annoying me, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why.

I agree that there are too many artificial hierarchies in literature. I am someone who has excelled in writing books that are considered “unserious” from The Pocket Encyclopedia to the Elvis Impersonation Kit. I know that they take skill, and that humor is not a lesser talent. I also recognize that the concept of “seriousness” is too often used to degrade work by and for women. I agree that you should like what you like and shouldn’t apologize for your tastes. While vampire romances are not something I prefer to read, I am certain there are good examples an bad examples of the genre.

Not all reading leads to great epiphanies, and there is nothing wrong with pure pleasure reading. Not all art has to aspire to immortality or greatness. Entertainment is just fine. And there are a lot of scholars who find a lot to explore in “low culture.”

So why does the statement that you’re a “real reader” no matter what you read stick in my craw?

First of all, it is a tautology. Yes, if you define “reader” as one who can read, then if you can decipher text on a cereal box you’re a reader, but then, so what? What do you get from calling yourself a “real reader?” You must view it as an honorific if you’re hung up on being one. I don’t hear people reassuring anyone that she is a “real TV viewer” regardless of what she watches, or a “real music listener…”

Focusing on whether you can claim to be a “real reader” is strange to me as it focuses on the personal identity of the person holding the book rather than the value of the contents of the book. It is a symptom of a culture in which how one brands herself–how she is seen by others– matters more than who she is when no one is watching.

Of course the quality of literature matters, or what are we doing here?

The author in question said that she was getting a lot of replies from men who said they never use the expression “guilty pleasure.” This is a gendered concept.

Women talk about romance novels being a “guilty pleasure” whereas men discuss the merits of the various authors in their pulp genres like sci fi and westerns.

If guilty pleasures are gendered, then so too must be the reassuring response that you’re a “real reader.”

Here is what I hear in the expression “guilty pleasure.” If you feel “guilt,” it means you aspire to something better.

When I read that the idea of a “guilty pleasure” was somewhat foreign to men, a lightbulb went off. The problem that I have with the expressions about “real writers” and “real readers” is that they are person praise not process praise. In other words, instead of praising people for achievements, it praises them for their inherent qualities which are seen to be immutable.

Person praise says “you’re a real reader.” (Regardless of what you read.)
Process praise says “congratulations on reading Remembrance of Things Past.”

I’ve written about this concept quite often here. Here’s an excerpt from a previous article:

Back in May, I posted an article called Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style.  In the article I took a self-esteem program aimed at young women and flipped the genders to see how the encouragement felt when aimed at boys.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound.  Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had.  In short, they do.

When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty.  If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.

Today I was reading the BPS Research Digest and I came across a study that bolsters my subjective point of view.

Laboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called ‘incremental mindset’ – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn. Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later…The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty…Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.

Person praise values self-esteem over achievement.

To go back to the example of reading, a girl who felt “guilty” about not reading good literature sets to work to feel better about herself. A boy who feels bad that he is not well-read sets himself a goal of reading better literature.

As I pointed out in another post:

There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.

The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.

After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”

 
When I get into a writer funk, as I do from time to time, there is one thing you should never do to try to cheer me up: and that is to say that I am a “real writer” whether I achieve anything or not. That does not make me feel better, it is like pouring salt in the wound. Why? Because I am ambitious, and I’m tired of feeling that I should apologize for being upset when I fail to reach goals I set for myself. Don’t tell me that it’s OK that my book didn’t get reviews, or that I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel, because I don’t want to feel OK about that. I want to be dissatisfied with that. It hurts when you fail to live up to your ambitions, but feelings pass. The solution is not to pretend that the ambitions don’t matter. The solution is to get back up and keep working, to regroup, find another route, and keep trying. You may not get there, but you are taking the steps. If you want to get me out of a writer funk, remind me of things I have achieved. Get me fired up about what I can do next. Don’t tell me that I’m beautiful just as I am.

I want to see women succeed, and I think a good first step is to stop giving each other these “It’s ok not to excel” pep talks.

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