Publishing

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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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.

 

 

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.

 

Publishing Contracts

An article came to my attention today through my social media feed. It is written by Kameron Hurley and has the title Traditional Publishing, Non-Compete Clauses and Rights Grabs.

In it, Hurley takes exception to certain standard contract terms offered in publishing contracts. In particular, she feels that non-compete clauses prevent authors from making a living wage and that they should be a violation of labor law.

“One of the big issues we’ve been dealing with the last 15 years or so as self-publishing has become more popular are the increasing rights grabs and non-compete clauses stuck into the boilerplate from big traditional publishers terrified to get cut out of the publishing equation,” she writes.

I can assure you, however, that these clauses– including the one most featured in her article– have been around much longer than easy self publishing has. The non-compete, as Hurley calls it, usually comes in the form of a right of first refusal of the author’s next book-length manuscript. In theory this is actually great for the author because it means the publisher will consider putting out another book and the hardest thing in publishing is not the writing but persuading publishers to take a chance on you and your book idea– and this is true whether you have written one or 16 books.

In practice, however, for a mid-list, non-celeb writer to make a living from book writing she must sell at least two books a year and almost no publisher is able to work at that pace. They want to see how the book performed before they commit to your next idea, which means waiting six months to a year for the book to come out, another three or four as per the contract to see how it performs and time to consider the next proposal. At that point, they’re just as likely to say no as yes. So the clause does, indeed, become a barrier to a writer being able to earn a living.

I have had success throughout my career asking to have that clause removed from my contracts. Sometimes you have to persuade agents to ask for what you want, because in my experience they will sometimes say a clause is standard and can’t be changed simply because no one has asked them to change it before.

I would like to play devil’s advocate here for a moment regarding another part of Hurley’s article:

When houses are investing in books and not authors, there’s less impetus to make congenial arrangements in contracts. They are buying widgets, not nurturing relationships, and every widget is a potential golden goose.

Is it not a bit unfair of us to complain on the one hand that we are contractors and should not be tied to a relationship with a publisher, and then to complain that the publishers are not nurturing relationships with us? When we want the freedom to go shopping around for the best deal on every title on our own timing regardless of what the publisher has done for us in the past, we too see every publisher as a “potential golden goose.” The fact of the matter is, the small and mid-size pulishers are struggling to stay in business these days too. I find in negotiations it helps to try to understand the publisher’s concerns as well. Do they really stand to make money from your title? What would need to happen with your book for it to be a gain and not a loss for them?

This old world where writers were nurtured in-house by publishing mentors is something of a myth. It has always applied to a few outliers who we imagine were typical because we so rarely hear the biographies of the mid-level struggling writers of the past.

The independent publishing revolution and ebooks have done a great deal to reduce incomes for writers. But writing has never been an easy profession.

It is understandable that publishers would like to have the one-sided option to hold on to an author who has a hit but not to have to publish another book from an author whose title flops or who has only one book in him. They will ask for what they want if they can get it, just as you would ask for a $50,000 advance if you thought you could get it regardless of whether the publisher stood to make that much on your book.

The truth is there are not a lot of writers out there actually trying to make a living from books, and the publishing industry is built on the premise that writers have day jobs or supporting spouses. Publishers are prepared for negotiations. But the playing field is tilted in their direction because few writers, when it comes down to it, are willing to walk away. We want our books in print– or a payday– more than the publishers need our particular title.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

I mentioned yesterday that I started writing in a journal as a teenager as a way of giving voice to my inner feelings.   I also noted that the fiction I wrote using that method was self-indulgent and horrible. I kept a spiritual journal for a while when I was 26 or so filled with what I thought were deep revelations and poetry about the meaning of life or something like that. Mostly, in retrospect, I was only studying because there was a guy who was into Eastern religion who I was trying to relate to. Sometimes there are positives that come from those kind of second-hand interests. You learn a lot about something you would never have jumped into on your own, and that eventually leads to some creative mixing of thoughts. So thank God, or the gods, or the elan vital for unrequited affection. But the point is, the spiritual journal was also self-indulgent and horrible and deserved the shredding it got.

It also did absolutely nothing to improve my friendship with the guy, in part because he pointed out to me that my lovingly crafted work was self-indulgent and horrible. I remember him saying something along the lines of “if you want to be friends with me, I will destroy your ego every time.” Something like that. It sounds awful, but he was referring to the ego as a false self that was a stumbling block to enlightenment.  In any case, I’m not the one to talk to you about it because– well, did I mention the horrible, self-indulgent spiritual journal?

If I wanted to kill my ego over and over I could hardly have chosen a better career. You get knocked down a lot on a writer’s journey. Over and over. But you start out thinking that after a while you will have paid your dues and that time will pass. Twenty years and 16 books later, I feel as though I have paid those dues. Writing doesn’t seem to work that way. Not really. It is not like working in an office where you get promoted to management and now you’re at a new level, or academia where you can get tenure.  Instead authors, even best-selling authors, find themselves pursuing the “Write Great Books and Hope” retirement plan.

If you’re the type of writer who is soothed by the idea that the little indignities that come with your chosen profession are not personal you might enjoy this anecdote from the 1988 The Book of Business Anecdotes by Peter Hay:

I was director of a small literary publishing company in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Talon Books. Each spring our cash flow dried up as we waiting for bookstores to pay for shipments of Christmas past and as our government subsidy grants were always in the proverbial mail. Each spring my partners and I had to go to our local branch of the Bank of Montreal and get a loan of $10,000 to tide us over. The company had been doing this for seven or eight years… this particular spring… the company needed $15,000. But our security bond was still only $10,000. We thought that the bank manager, who saw our steadily increasing sales figures year in and year out, would let us have it. We were wrong…Finally one of my partners had an inspiration: “What about our inventory? Why can’t we borrow against our inventory?”

“What inventory?” the man seemed mildly interested.

“Well, we have a quarter million dollars worth of books. That’s why we have all these printing bills– we publish books.”

“So these books,” the banker proceeded cautiously, “have printing in them?”

“Yes, that’s what we manufacture.”

“I cannot give you a loan,” he said with an air of finality. “The paper would have been worth something, but you’ve spoiled it by printing on it.”

I often think of this anecdote when I am trying to promote books.

It is an insane product where the producer finds it much more valuable than the consumers for whom it was supposedly made.

My latest “spoiled it by printing on it” moment came this week when I donated a set of the complete works of Laura Lee to my local library. It was an entire bag full of books, and I went home feeling just a little bit accomplished for having published all those books, and a little bit proud at having something worthwhile to give to a place that I value.

The punchline, you will probably have anticipated (because I can tell you are astute) is that feeling was not mutual. A few weeks later, I was browsing the online catalog and I decided to see if my books had shown up. They hadn’t. I sent a message asking if they were going to be added to the collection and I was told that the books had been sold in the library’s fundraiser book sale for $1 a piece.

The person I was corresponding with was apologetic and said it had been a mistake and that if I wanted to I could bring my books in again and— here is the part that knocked me back– they would look at them and decide if they were worth adding to the collection and they would give me back the ones they didn’t want. In the end they decided there were two of my 16 books that might be worth stocking, but they were also my two least favorites.

So yes, I was expecting something along the lines of “Wow, we didn’t know we had a full-time author who has been so prolific right here in our town, that is exciting.” What I got was more along the lines of, “Oh man, do we have to find space for some local author’s books?”

So you see, I didn’t really need a spiritual practice have my ego crushed again and again. Life has a way of doing it all by itself. Maybe I should thank my higher power for that. But for the moment, I need a day to lick my wounds.

I am sure this is the place where I am supposed to give an uplifting message about how this has just inspired me to work harder. That’s not really the emotion I am feeling. I do not feel any sense of victory when I say I will keep writing. I keep doing it because it is what I do. That means that this is the type of thing I signed up for.

What I feel is resignation. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.

Quote of the Day: You Can Expect It, but It is a bit Cruel

When we expect young writers to get experience via unpaid internships, we’re actually saying we want only wealthy people writing about American culture in an influential way. That’s what we get, right? Or rather, that’s what we’ve gotten used to accepting as normal when in fact, it’s a kind of fiction. Diversity is reality. So, in order to do my part to support being in step with reality, I’m really excited about creating an opportunity for emerging writers to get experience and mentorship while also receiving financial support. You can’t expect someone to do their best work if they’re exhausted and broke. Well, maybe you can expect it but doing so strikes me as a bit cruel.-Saeed Jones, quoted in Colorlines