Writing

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?

Advertisements

Creativity from Constraints: The Dr. Seuss Edition

People tend to think of creativity as complete freedom, but often it is not freedom but playing within constraints that creates art. This example, about children’s author Dr. Seuss, comes from Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt.

Besides made-up words and rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s biggest trademark is the simplicity of his writing. Even compared to other children’s authors, Dr. Seuss pushed the limits. We can partly thank his Houghton Mifflin editor, William Spaulding, who after a string of successes presented Seuss with a list of just a few hundred simple words in the mid-1950s. Seuss had already published Horton Hears a Who!, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. But, as detailed in the New Yorker article “Cat People,” Spaulding wanted Seuss to go after an even younger audience: “Write me a story that first graders can’t put down!” Seuss would later describe how he struggled with Spaulding’s challenge: He sent me a list of about three hundred words and told me to make a book out of them. At first I thought it was impossible and ridiculous, and I was about to get out of the whole thing; then decided to look at the list one more time and to use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book— cat and hat were the ones my eyes lighted on. I worked on the book for nine months— throwing it across the room and letting it hang for a while— but I finally got it done. The result was The Cat in the Hat. It clocks in at 220 unique words, and to this day ranks as the second-most-selling book of Seuss’s career. The one book ahead of it? It’s Green Eggs and Ham, which uses just fifty words. All but one, anywhere, are one syllable. Seuss’s two most popular books are those in which he restricted himself the most: Simplicity brought success.

 

The Happy End Requirement: The Brokeback Mountain Example

One of the common themes I have written about here is our culture’s insistence that stories have a happy end. In the first post I wrote on the subject, The Happy End vs. The Noble End, I used the example of Brokeback Mountain as one of the few examples of a popular story with a tragic ending.

Heath Ledger’s taciturn character Ennis Del Mar never does reveal the great love of his life to anyone. Only he and the audience know what happened between him and Jack Twist and what it meant to him. A character like Ennis Del Mar is a stand in for all of the people whose struggles we will never know.

Brokeback Mountain illustrates something important about tragedies. They usually have a third main character– the society that surrounds the characters. If Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist had ridden into the sunset together, it might have made us happier as an audience. Everyone could leave the theater reassured that there may have been problems along the way but in the end, people get what they deserve in life. It would not have been a powerful story that made us ask questions about society. Sometimes only tragedy can make that point.

The author of the original short story on which the film was based, Annie Proulx, agrees. She recently told the Paris Review that she is so frustrated with people trying to rewrite the story with a happy end that she wishes she had never written the story.

[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.

They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way.

Curiosity Gets Out of Control

When I was given a Kindle for Christmas and looked for a public domain (free) title to download, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey that would swallow up my attention for years.

Booklovers Book Review has the story today of how this simple act resulted in the biography Oscar’s Ghost.

A fair-minded person reading the personal parts of De Profundis naturally wonders what the other guy has to say about it all. Lord Alfred Douglas, it turns out, had a lot to say. He wrote a series of autobiographical works that all, in one way or another, responded to De Profundis. He also engaged in a heated battle with Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross over ownership and interpretation of the document. After reading Douglas’s account of the feud with Ross, a fair-minded person has to wonder, once again, what the other guy has to say about it. So I read biographies of Ross.

Follow the link above to read the entire feature.

Published Writers in Pain Part II

Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.

After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.

 

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.