Writing

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.

 

 

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An Odd but Charming Little Bio that I’d Like to Share

So generally I experience myself as dully and impatiently waiting to achieve anything. I spent a lot of time contrasting my life with better versions of it.

Occasionally, though, someone does a feature on me on a blog somewhere– like this one for Made in Michigan and I read my own biography and I stop and think– huh, I actually sound kind of interesting. So thank you to Tracy Gardner for the rather bouncy version of my life to date.

If you’d like to hear about the hazards of being a celebrity judge at country karaoke, the joys of being an intern at an alternative rock station, being vaguely connected to both Madonna and The Lone Ranger and being stopped on the street in London by a purported psychic who needed to deliver an urgent message from the spiritual realm click the link above.

The Attention Based Economy

We live in an attention based economy.

This realization struck me a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to a sponsorship agent. I was trying to line up a sponsor for our coast-to-coast ballet master class tours. As we talked about “markets” and “reach” I thought about all of the television commercials and the stadiums and theaters with brand names on them and I began to imagine an Uber for attention. Instead of paying networks or stadiums to carry messages that consumers might or might not see why not monetize attention directly– create an ap where a company can pay individuals directly for a bit of their undivided attention? Cut out the middle man.

Increasingly artists of all kinds are told they need to work for free in order to gain “exposure.” The Huffington Post pays writers in exposure. American Idol pays its entertainers, with the exception of the winner, with “exposure.” I think it is about time we develop actual units of “exposure” so that artists can pay their landlords with it. Maybe we could call it “FameCoin.”

Young people, especially seem to feel that this free artistic labor is worth it because exposure is so valuable. But is it really? Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester studied the question and found “The idea that being on a television talent contest is a guaranteed route to fame and fortune is not supported. While this can happen, it applies to only a minority of contestants.” Gunter points out that few winners of The Apprentice lasted beyond the first year of employment with Donald Trump and few went on to develop their own businesses.

The fashion competition program Project Runway has run for 14 seasons without launching a breakout star.  As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post:

“Project Runway” returns…with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004…

“Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.

In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.

Whenever a mass shooting gets heavy news coverage people express outrage not only at the violence but that the shooter has become famous. Even notoriety is considered valuable.

A study by Adam Lackford does implicate the importance Americans place on fame as one of the ingredients that leads to our high rates of mass shootings compared to the rest of the world. So we respond with a “don’t say the killer’s name” policy. For those who would do violence in order to earn some notoriety, here’s some sobering news: It doesn’t work. Most mass shootings do not even make the national news these days.  As Shane Ryan wrote in The Daily News:

Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.

So to the angry guy who is building up his arsenal right now with a “this will show the world” drive– don’t do it.

In the literary world authors are constantly told to get out there and blog, blog, blog. The key to success as a writer is to build up a huge social media presence. But all of this is quite at odds with the traditional role of the writer as a silent observer of life.

“It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman told The Boston Globe in 2012, when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

This is, of course, the opposite of what we are told we need to do in order to have any chance of having a writing career. So we turn to social media in an attempt to earn some FameCoin. This desire to be noticed and followed has an impact on the type of work we create.

Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed. It is reasonable to assume, then, that writers who are frequent social media users will also get in the habit of thinking and writing in more conventional, less challenging ways.

A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is actually good for the creative process. The act of being rejected can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity told Salon that a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

I propose that it is time to rethink some of our assumptions about the value of attention and exposure. We are dealing in a currency that buys very little.

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.

You Whom I Hoped to Reach by Writing

Back when I lived in my first apartment– half of the only house in a trailer park in Cadillac, Michigan. I read a book of poetry by Erica Jong. Only one poem stuck with me, and then only parts of it. The title “You Whom I Wish to Reach by Writing”  and the last line, “I write to you and someone else always answers.” It turns out even those things I remembered a bit wrong.

I remembered it because I related strongly to it. I had not yet started writing professionally. I was, however, an avid journaler and I had the notion of writing a novel about a failed relationship that was haunting me at the time. (More on that later.)

The poem (or the idea of it) came back to me the other day as I was reading about social media and context collapse. (See the previous entry). The experience of writing with one audience in mind and having someone else answer is not reserved for poets or professional writers any more. I imagine everyone has had the experience of posting something on Facebook and having the last person on earth you expected to hear from chime in.

What is interesting to me today is how infrequently I have the experience with my creative writing. I no longer “hope to reach” a particular individual when I tell a story. There was a time, for example, sitting in that apartment in Cadillac, when I did. In my twenties I used writing as a way to soothe my hurt feelings. Maybe I couldn’t make a particular relationship work, but one thing I could always do was express my feelings about it very well in writing.

It took me much longer to learn when not to.

In my twenties I imagined the novel I was going to write, a barely fictionalized version of my life. I would write it. He would read it, and he would understand the depth of my emotions and how I had been hurt. He would form a new image of me. (The idea that his own version of history would contradict mine and that I would probably not win him over by airing my version of events in public somehow failed to register with me.) In any case, I would write the book and I would have the last word.

This notion was motivating. It did drive me to complete my first novel a few years later (about a different someone I hoped to reach by writing). The novel, if I do say so myself, was horrible. Really, really dreadful. I have often given God a prayer of thanks that self-publishing was not easy in those days. Only that saved me from humiliation because I was convinced I had written something great. I went back to that novel recently to see if there were bits I could salvage for other projects and I found about four paragraphs that I might use someday.

Maybe someone else can make something meaningful out of this energy, this “yes, I’m speaking to you” mindset. Maybe Erica Jong can. I never could.

It was only when I completely moved away from myself and the events of my life as a subject that I was able to write any fiction worth reading. My first published novel, Angel, was from the point of view of a male Christian minister. By standing at a distance I gave myself more permission to control the narrative, to tell the story in a way that resonated most strongly. I was not hindered by what had happened in life or how I had reacted. Entirely fictional people gave me the space to explore the real conflicts and emotions of living in the world.

There are autobiographical elements to everything I write. I often use a setting with which I am familiar. I worked in a church office and know that world. In Identity Theft I have been on the road as the character of Ollie/Blast is and I have worked as the low man on the totem pole in a musician’s office (and in other entertainment tour offices) as Ethan does. Of course I have the experience of trying to carry on relationships mostly over the internet, as Candi does. But none of my experience directly translates into the story. There is no “you” whom I hoped to reach by writing it, except for you, dear reader. And that, I have found, is the only way that it works. At least for me.

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.

Story Telling and Modern Technology

I was recently talking to a friend about how I had been working on a story set in the late 1980s, when I was in college. I told her I was trying to get back into the mindset of a person who did not have the internet and instant access to information. She laughed at this. “You’re old enough, you remember those days.”

Of course I do. And because I remember, I have a feeling that there is a way of interacting, a way of thinking and thinking about ourselves that is associated with a purely analog world. No technology or change in lifestyle alters basic human nature, you can read texts as old as the Bible and recognize different types of characters you still see today. Yet the way we live our lives has changed quite a bit, and I am certain there are habits of thought that come with it, that are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine life any other way.

An article in The Millions today discusses writers lamenting some of the narrative possibilities of being cut off from the world without cell phones and instant access to information.

I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters.

I agree with this entirely. In fact, I think George Bernard Shaw summed it up when he 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.”

Indeed, Identity Theft relies on technology for its plot line. While it is an entirely modern story, as it deals with catfishing and relationships conducted through online chats and social networks, it is also an old story, a tale of mistaken identity and characters questioning their places in the world.

But the narrative limitations imposed by technology were not what I was talking about to my friend. Each age has its own mind-set, its own set of assumptions and its own ways of being in the world. A lot of it is invisible to us while we are immersed in it, it is only looking back that we can see that Oscar Wilde thought like a Victorian. Much as we can only recognize what is American by traveling abroad and coming face to face with our own assumptions. (Not everyone does it that way.)

I am sure that there were ways that we thought and felt before the iphone was invented that have shifted subtly, assumptions we didn’t know we had. It was not long ago, but it is hard to remember.