Identity

What Does a Writer Look Like?

Today GQ posted a feature on “How to Dress Like a Writer.” My answer: stay in your pajamas all day. You are an introvert with a home office. GQ took a more dapper approach. Now, GQ is a men’s fashion magazine. So it would be unfair of me to point out the well-dressed writers they featured were all men. I came to the story through a side door and so I was struck by the absence of women before I realized what the publication was.  But this led me to wonder: when the average person hears the word “writer” what comes to mind?

I have written about gender and trends in publishing here in the past, so I won’t look up and link all the articles again, but research has shown that women read more than men, women make up the vast majority of publishing professionals, and this has been true for ages. In the Victorian era, female writers outsold their male counterparts by a comfortable margin.

Given all of this, you might expect the image that comes to mind when you say “writer” to be a woman. I’m guessing, however, that it is not. Your picture was probably more Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King than Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling.

For even though women do more reading, and undoubtedly more writing, research shows books by male writers find a clearer path to publication, books that are seen as appealing to male readers are more likely to be published, to be taken seriously as literature and to get reviews. And even though female writers were more popular than male writers in the Victorian era, we have little historical memory of them. The serious writers studied in literature courses have overwhelmingly been male.

I did a little unscientific test to see what images the word “writer” evokes when not in the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I typed “writer” into Google image search. Pictures of typewriters and fountain pens are the most common images associated with the term. More often than not, if there is a person in the picture, it is a man who is using the tool.

Writer at work

But the male images are not as overwhelmingly dominant as you might expect. At a quick glance my impression is that it is perhaps a 60/40 split of men to women. There was also one dog:

Boxer dog making note

What struck me more than the number of male images vs. female was the way male and female writers seem to be depicted. Here are three of the first images of women writers that came up in my search:

The women are in pastoral settings, getting inspiration from nature. Men are more likely to be shown in a professional setting, struggling over words at a typewriter in a book-filled office.

The overall impression I get from looking at these pictures is that writing is serious business for men, they labor and struggle over their text, whereas women write for pleasure and self-expression.

How does a writer dress? If he is a man, he dresses for the office and is correspondingly taken seriously as a professional. If she is a woman, she dresses for the beach or the forest, and probably carries a diary.

 

For more on initial assumptions about identity categories see my 2015 post What is an Identity?

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“Individuals of a Better Station in Life”

Working on Oscar’s Ghost over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to give some thought to social class. In Oscar Wilde’s England, social class was spoken of quite openly and the lines were not supposed to be crossed. Much of the circumstantial evidence that convicted Wilde rested on the idea that there was no legitimate reason for a man of his station to socialize with grooms and valets. (There is a nice scene in the movie Wilde where the audience in the courtroom gasps when an attorney brings up the working class professions of some of Wilde’s companions.)

A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Crossing class lines was suspicious. We often read passages like this with a little snicker, feeling a tad smug about how much wiser we are today. But are we? Or have we just changed the way we talk about social class?

There is a television commercial I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It is for an online dating service and one of the featured women says that she went with the service because you have to pay to be on it, and that proves that the men are serious about a relationship.

Of course, it is a luxury to be able to spend money on a service, especially one that has free variants available. So seeking out men who are willing to pay for the service is not only about “seriousness” it is about weeding out the poor. “Professional” is a euphemism we use these days rather than saying “people of my class” as Lord Alfred Douglas would have.

I would call this kind of language “coded” but that is not quite right. To speak in code is to be aware that you are conveying a hidden meaning. Most of the time when we use this particular kind of code we are keeping the class ramifications secret even from ourselves. I don’t believe that the dating service customer believed she was using code when she said “serious.” She believed she meant “serious” not “of my social class.” But the idea she has of a serious person includes certain social class markers.

Another example of this, a slightly more conscious one, is found in the romantic comedy “The Holiday.” I was so struck by something I heard on the commentary track that I ended up writing it into my novel Identity Theft.

Movies like this had always been a guilty pleasure for Candi. They were formulaic and fluffy, an insult to her intelligence, and yet who could resist the idea that we live in a world were perfect romance is possible? You run away from life, trade homes with another woman in an exotic faraway city, and no sooner have you unpacked than someone who looks like Jude Law knocks on your door and wants to make love to you. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that he is secretly a family man and totally the marrying kind. Candi suspected that these kinds of movies did to her brain what a diet of Twinkies would do to her body, and yet she couldn’t get enough of them.

In the commentary track, the film’s writer and director was explaining her costuming choices. It was important, she said, that Jude Law’s character was wearing a tie when he knocked on that door. Otherwise, she believed, audiences would not relate to Cameron Diaz’s character. They would think she was a slut. Good girls only have anonymous sex with boys in white collar jobs.

In other words, the definition of a slut is a woman who has sex “not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.

 

 

 

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

The Others

This was the darker side of community. For a group to have a sense of cohesion, a sense of being “us,” it had to define what was outside of the group. It had to define a “them”— the excluded. Who “they” are changes over time and from society to society, but the process never changes. It is part of the nature of community life. To have an inside, a tribe must have an outer boundary. For most of the members of Paul’s community, young men dancing in gay clubs, people like Andy, were not “us” but “them.” Judging by his own reactions, Paul had to admit with some shame that he felt the same way. “I am not like him.”

I find that I have been thinking about this passage from the novel “Angel” quite a bit lately.

Something has happened this election cycle. It seems as though an epidemic of “othering” has descended upon us. To some extent this has always happened in election years. People dig in their heels, politicians try to differentiate between their views and those of their opponents. Republicans and Democrats try to set the stakes high and make it seem as though the people in the other party want to harm the country and only they can save it.

Then there are the pundits, covering the horse race and predicting how blocks of people vote based on demographic categories and stereotypes about them. “This area is rural and those will be big Ted Cruz voters…” “This area has a lot of students so they will vote for Bernie Sanders.” “Secretary Clinton expects to do well in South Carolina because of its large African-American population.”

The Los Angeles Times ran a story today by Liana Aghajanian in which she expressed her disillusionment with this kind of stereotyping.

After Bernie Sanders won Michigan, the media and its pundits were whipped into a frenzy, touting shock and confusion of how Arab and Muslim Americans — who constitute a healthy portion of the population in metro Detroit — could have supported a candidate who is Jewish.

The only way it felt appropriate to respond was to ask: Why wouldn’t they? Why do we so easily fall into these polarizing traps set up by mainstream media that paint and pit two communities against each other and then accept the idea as truth?

To assume anti-Semitism on behalf of an entire, very large population is not just irresponsible, but as the International Business Times wrote, “Reveals how much reporting on American Muslims is still rooted in an unsophisticated naiveté about what motivates them.”

Every four years we’re treated to this superficial analysis and asked to see our fellow countrymen as representatives of different groups.

“I can’t help feeling wary when I hear anything said about the masses,” the English chemist J.B. Priestly once said. “First you take their faces away from ’em by calling ’em the masses and then you accuse them of not having any faces.”

All of this is depressingly par for the course in elections.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people. This is not a political problem, but a cultural one and, as photographer Brandon Staton put it in his viral open letter to Trump, a moral one. (If you want any more proof of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can scan the comments on his open letter for the phrase “you people.”)

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”

What is the result of constant exposure to the idea that a group is not only “other” but “less than?” A racial empathy gap. As Lisa Wade wrote in Sociological Images:

Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

This bears repeating: Somewhere in the uncritical parts of our minds, we actually believe that dark skinned people feel less physical pain than we do.

Talking about the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ” “Instinctively we struck out for dignity first because personal degradation as an inferior human being was even more keenly felt than material privation.”

The only moral thing to do is to stand up for the dignity of other human beings, whether they are our fellow citizens or not, whether they share our religion or not, whether they speak the same language or not.

By the way, when Marco Rubio sent out a tweet in Spanish, he immediately received a predictable response.

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This is, of course, demonstrably untrue if “we” are taken to be all U.S. citizens.  More than 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. according to the U.S. Census Bureau. America has the world’s second largest population of Spanish speakers, more even than Spain. We have a growing population of Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese speakers. There are native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, Navajo, and Hawaiian. (In the latter two cases, they were here first.) There are even 1,000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. The only way to make this statement true is to define “we” as people who live in America and speak English. In that case it is true, but it is a meaningless tautology. (“We who speak English and live in America, speak English.”)

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees, assuming that she agrees with Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. (I did not ask.) When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

In fact, empathy is hard. You have to work at it. You have to examine your own comfortable blind spots.  You have to be willing to adapt to others and not only assume they will adapt to you. It matters when we dehumanize people. Language matters.