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1. The Tweedles Go Electric – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: The Tweedles Go Electric Written by Monica Kulling Illustrated by Marie Lafrance Published by Groundwood Books, February 2014 Ages: 5-8 Themes: electric cars, early 20th century, historical fiction, inventions Opening sentences: The Tweedles don’t own a car. People think they’re behind the … Continue reading

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2. Is our language too masculine?

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As Women’s History month comes to a close, we wanted to share an important debate that Simon Blackburn, author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, participated in for IAITV. Joined by Scottish feminist linguist Deborah Cameron and feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, they look at what we can do to build a more feminist language.

Is our language inherently male? Some believe that the way we think and the words we use to describe our thoughts are masculine. Looking at our language from multiple points of views – lexically, philosophically, and historically – the debate asks if it’s possible for us to create a gender neutral language. If speech is fundamentally gendered, is there something else we can do to combat the way it is used so that it is no longer – at times – sexist?

What do you think can be done to build a more feminist language?

Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Until recently he was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1999 a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is the author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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The post Is our language too masculine? appeared first on OUPblog.

0 Comments on Is our language too masculine? as of 3/29/2014 9:27:00 AM
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3. BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Update)

Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.

If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:

Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.

The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.

I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.

I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).

JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!

You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.

I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.

God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.

I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.

KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.

I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.

Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”

JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.

I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone. :-(

KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.

There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.

JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.

It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.

All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.

Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.

Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.

It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?

I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.

Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.

The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.

KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:

1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).

I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.

Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.

JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!

1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.

Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.

I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.

Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.

The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.

I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)

KE: I have a few other comments.

We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.

Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:

“I love you, Jen—really.”

Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”

Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.

What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.

JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.

That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.

It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.

Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.

I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:

“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”

This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”

“Exactly.”

She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.

“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.

“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”

Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.

——-

So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?

Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.

0 Comments on BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Update) as of 3/13/2014 12:08:00 AM
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4. Some More on the Bestselling Womens Book Club or BWFBC

Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.

Your suggestions clarified two things for us:

1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.

2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.

We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.

Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).

  1. Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce.

0 Comments on Some More on the Bestselling Womens Book Club or BWFBC as of 3/9/2014 8:28:00 PM
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5. Happy International Women’s Day. Celebrate YOU and The Women You Love

I love International Women’s Day (IWD). I think it’s important to celebrate women–ourselves, the strong girls and women in our lives who we love, and the women we admire and know from afar–especially while we live in a sexist and oppressive society. (Think we don’t need IWD? Check out this article.)

We are making a difference together towards a kinder, more compassionate, more equal world. Sometimes the changes feel so very slow…but they are happening. I think of how social workers, police officers, and teachers are more sensitized and aware of child abuse in the home now–far more than they were when I was a child and teen. Of how women are now in some occupations that they never could get into before–even if we’re often still struggling to get equal pay. LGBT rights are increasingly growing in the world, and so is an awareness that oppression of any kind is not okay. There is a lot of cause for hope and celebration, even as we continue to fight for a better world.

dancing under the rainbow
Mara ~earth light~ / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Even if we’re “just” putting greater compassion and kindness into the world through our everyday interactions with others, we are making positive change. We are helping the world be a kinder place. And that takes goodness and strength, especially when we’ve been faced with oppression or adversity ourselves.

So I hope you take today to celebrate yourself–all the good you put into the world–as well as the women you know and love. We matter. And we are making a difference together.

0 Comments on Happy International Women’s Day. Celebrate YOU and The Women You Love as of 3/8/2014 2:42:00 PM
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6. Racism in the Books We Write

It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.

We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.

Often that is a not good thing.

When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?

First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.

Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.

Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.

We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.

What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway:

Racism and Liar

Liar was largely well-reviewed and won a bunch of awards, including one I’m extremely proud of,3 the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, which is given to a book “dealing with issues of race and ethnicity.”

It meant a lot to me because throughout my career, in every novel, every story, I have consciously written about identity and race. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking and listening and writing and talking about race and racism.4 Those conversations, that reading, shaped Liar. Here was an award from a wonderful organisation recognising my hard work. And bonus: it was named for a novel by one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler: Kindred.5

However, even if you are consciously writing about racism, in order to show how bad and wrong it is, your work can be read in ways you did not intend. This is especially likely if you are unfamiliar with the history of the people you are writing about, or the history of representation of that people.

Take a look at the outcry around Victoria Foyt’s Saving the Pearls. From reading the first chapter and looking at the promotional video I feel fairly confident in saying the author knows little about the history of blackface, or racial role reversal stories, or, indeed, of writing about race, racism and identity. Her intentions may well be good but she managed to step into every conceivable offensive stereotype. If you are unfamiliar with those stereotypes deploying them is almost inevitable.

Then again you can be familiar with those histories and debates and still stuff things up.

I was fairly certain when I wrote Liar that I had not stuffed things up. The book was vetted by many smart, knowledgeable writers, black and white, who I trusted to point out said stuff ups. For instance, we had long discussions about whether Micah would use the word “nappy” to describe her hair and if it was okay for me as a white writer to deploy the word. We agreed it was absolutely the word Micah would use.

It’s a word that many black people have come to embrace, which is why there are salons like Oh My Nappy Hair. However, just as many hate the word. It has a long history of being used as a negative, derogatory descriptor of black hair. Just think of what Don Imus said. It is particularly problematic when used by a white person.6 So while Micah is black, I’m not. I kept taking the word out and putting it back in right up to publication.

I’m proud of what I achieved and Liar is a book that has been important to many people. More than any of my other books people—of colour and white—have written to thank me for writing it, thanked me for representing them in ways they had never been represented before. Being thanked like that is extraordinarily heartening. It makes me feel like what I do is worthwhile.

But Liar also hurt people. If I take credit for the people for whom it worked then I also have to take blame for the people it harmed.

They, mostly, do not write to tell me so. I know about it because I have found, or others have pointed me to, blog posts about my book, which talk about Liar‘s racism. These are reviewers who know nothing about me or my politics, who have not read my blog where they would find that I write often about racism, that I think about it. They’ve picked up my book randomly with no context for me—other than my author photo—or the kind of books I write, and found it racist.

But, you know what, that’s how most people read books. Hell, that’s how I read books too. I rarely have any idea about the politics or ethics of the author. Not unless I’ve met them or have been reading them for years and read their blog, essays, interviews. But a brand new book I picked up? Not so much.

Books have to be able to stand on their own. I am a white woman who wrote a book about a black teenage girl who is a liar. There are a whole set of obvious assumptions about the book that stem from that fact. Assumptions that I was conscious of while writing the book and that I worked hard to counteract.

But for some readers I failed.

As we predicted my use of the word “nappy” was criticised. But not nearly as often as I thought it would be. Even so when I see people saying that the word hurt them I wish I hadn’t used it. Even though I still believe that it is absolutely the word that Micah would use.

Sapphires, Jezebels and the Tragic Mulatto

Some people were enraged by the cover image with the word LIAR emblazoned across a black woman. That’s one of the many reasons I did not want a representational cover for the book. In fact, that was the main criticism the book faced. Liar has an unreliable, lying, sexually active, possible-murderer protagonist who is a black woman. Here we go again. Why is it always black women who are liars? Who are violent, angry, and highly sexualised? Why are they always Jezebels or Sapphires?

Those are question I thought about a lot while writing the book. That’s one of the reasons all the main teenage characters are of colour. The murdered boy, Zach, is Hispanic. His best friend, Tayshawn, is African-American. So is Zach’s girlfriend, Sarah.

I also made sure Micah, Liar‘s protagonist, was not highly sexualised. When the book starts she’s (maybe) had sex with one person: Zach. Sex is important to the story, but I was very careful to make Micah no more sexualised than most teenage girls. She thinks about sex. She’s attracted to some people. She’s also way less sexually active than the two main male characters, Zach and Tayshawn. If anyone is slutty in my book it’s Zach, not Micah.7

I ran into the problem that he bar for being considered sexualised is way lower for a woman than for a man. And even lower for a black woman.

There is also the running metaphor about Micah and her family being an animal/beast. Again this has a long horrible history in depictions of black men and women. Which is why I made it something that comes from the white members of Micah’s family and why I made her mixed race. The other members of her family who identify with animals are her white grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts. Not her black father. There is in particular one white character, not a relative, who also identifies with animals in the same way that Micah does. I wanted to be very clear that this animality is not because Micah is black.

I also wanted to make it clear that part of her understanding of her sexual drive comes from her identification with those animals and how she imagines their sex drive to be. Again it’s not because she’s black.

But despite the fact that I did what I could to address those criticisms there were still those who read Micah as a racist caricature in a direct line of descent from the Jezebels and Sapphires.

There have also been a few readers who were struck by Sarah, the official girlfriend, being lighter-skinned than Micah the unofficial girlfriend. Except Sarah isn’t lighter-skinned than Micah. I worked hard to make it clear that Sarah is darker skinned than Micah for precisely the reasons those readers outline. I absolutely was not going to feed into the noxious notion that the darker your skin the more animal you are; the lighter your skin the more virtuous you are.

But they did not read the book that way despite my efforts.

When I first saw that criticism I was inclined to roll my eyes and complain about their crap reading skills. But is it their fault?

In Liar I was writing against centuries of racist misrepresentations of sexually-active, strong black women. We’ve been taught to read those women as having darker skin than the good girls. To value them less than the light-skinned girls.

To turn that on its head I had to be very, very careful and very, very clear. I went far enough for some readers but not for all. I’m the one who needs to do better. When you’re working on toxic ground created by centuries of racism you have to be very, very careful.

I believe it’s incredibly important to write against these stereotypes. If we give in and make sure that all black women characters are asexual, gentle, and kind we wind up with another set of stereotypes. Plus why can’t women of colour have as wide a range of representations as white men? No one looks at a book about a white man who’s an habitual liar and assumes that it’s a comment on all white men. I’ve never heard anyone complain that, say, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley is an indictment of all white men and clearly means they’re all psychopathic liars.8. White men never have to stand for their entire community.9

Then there’s the myth of the tragic mulatto, the mixed race woman who can pass as white, who is torn between two worlds, who is constantly victimised and has almost no agency, and always dies at the end of the story. She has to give up her black family and identify solely as white, though because she is not white, she can never truly succeed: and that is her tragedy.

This myth is entirely the creation of white writers. We white writers have been unhealthily obsessed with the tragedy of passing for centuries.

Any white person writing a character who passes white, really needs to think long and hard. They need to know everything they can about the myth of the tragic mulatto. They need to immerse themselves in black writing about identity. Funnily enough in novels by black writers where passing is part of the narrative the character who passes does not always have to give up all connections to black communities and family and they don’t always have a tragic end.10 For a fabulous YA example read Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl where the woman passing does so, not because she really wishes she was white, but for practical reasons: she wants to fly. Passing is the only way she can. She does not leave her family behind. Seriously, read Flygirl, it’s wonderful.

I was very determined that Micah not line up with the tragic mulatto. Micah’s father has a black father and a white mother, but he identifies as black largely out of a desire to have as little to do with his crazy white family as possible. Micah’s mother identifies as white though there are hints that she may not be entirely. She is estranged from her family.11

Micah is relatively light-skinned, but unlike the tragic mulatto she cannot and would not pass as white. She identifies as black, not mixed race, or biracial. (This identification, like her father’s, is partly fuelled by her rejection of her extended white family’s illness and animal identification.) She is not torn between the world of whiteness and the world of blackness. She does not long to be white. She is not a passive victim. Spoiler: She does not die at the end of the book.

Yet some have read her that way despite all those lengths I went to in order to prevent that reading. Clearly, I need to go further and write clearer and better.12

It’s Much Harder for Black Writers

I’d like to point out that my black writer friends cop way more criticism for all of this than I do.13 They are constantly being asked why their books can’t be more uplifting. Why do they have to depict the negative aspects of black life? Why can’t the girls they write about be good girls? And the boys dutiful, law-abiding, and church going? Why do these black writers hate their race?

No one has ever asked me why I’ve written white characters who are not perfect: who lie and steal and murder. I’ve never once been asked why I hate my race.

No one reads Moby Dick and wonders why all white men are obsessed with killing whales.14

This is why it’s such a huge problem that there are a million more books about white people than about black and brown people published in the USA and Australia.15 It means every single character of colour bears the weight of representing their entire race. If there were more representations, more variety in those representations, and if there were way more books by people of colour, it would be way less of a big deal.16 This also applies to movies and television and pretty much all art, ever.

If we lived in that world Micah would not be read as standing for all black girl teens. She’d just be Micah.

Transphobia

One set of criticism of Liar that I did not anticipate and therefore did nothing to address was that Liar depicts a trans character who is a liar, mentally unstable, and identifies with animals and that therefore Liar is transphobic. There is a long history of trans characters being depicted as psycho killers. A famous example is Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.

This reading concludes that Micah is a trans character because early on in the book she pretends to be a boy. She does this because she is mistaken for a boy and thinks why not go with it?17 Within two days she’s found out and she only lasts that long because she stays out of most people’s way. After she’s found to be a girl—again because she’s not good at passing—she claims to be an hermaphrodite.

I intended both lies to be opportunist, plucked-from-the-air lies. As is her next lie that her father is an arms dealer. Micah gets more pleasure from people believing fantastical lies than from relatively easy lies.

She also makes this claim very early on in the novel:

I’m undecided, stuck somewhere in between, same way I am with everything: half black half white; half girl half boy; coasting on half a scholarship.

I’m half of everything.

This is the main passage that gets quoted by people who read Micah as trans.

Here’s what I intended with that passage: I meant it to be read as Micah being self-aggrandising and overly dramatic. Very much part of the m.o. of an habitual liar.

She start with the claim of being “half black half white” then moves to “half girl half boy.” Those are large claims in terms of identity: our race and our gender are two of the fundamentals. But where does she go next? To class? Ethnicity? Sexuality? Religion?

No, to the fact that she doesn’t have a full scholarship. Which is not only not the same kind of claim. It undoes the drama of the previous claims. It’s as if she were to say, “I’m strong! I’m smart! I collect tiny tea cups with lizards painted on them!” One of these is not like the others. It was meant to be wryly funny. I am aware that very few people got that joke. I failed.

A friend, who was a scholarship kid, read Micah’s claim as being very matter of fact. As shorthand for saying she was halfway between the rich kids and the poor kids. Which is a very big claim about identity, specifically about class.

I’m embarrassed I didn’t see either of those alternative readings.

I did not intend to write Micah as someone who feels like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Micah strongly identifies as a girl, just one who is not especially good at fitting the various stereotypes of femininity. And, yes, that is something I took from my own life. When I was a teenager I felt the same way.18 I was also once mistaken for a boy. Micah, like I was, is amused that anyone would think she was a boy. She thinks it’s fun to run with it to see how long she can get away with the trick. She gets away with it longer than I did. I was busted as soon as I said something.

Notice, of course, that I’m talking about what I intended. Readers are not privy to my intentions. They’re not mindreaders. They’re coming to my work with their own life experiences.

As someone who is not trans, and has known very few trans people in my life, and none of them particularly well, it did not cross my mind that anyone would read Micah as trans. My cisgendered privilege made me completely unable to see that reading of my novel until it was pointed out. I could see only what I intended.

Were I to write Liar now I would write that part of it differently. Not because I want to lock in one true reading of the book—that’s not possible or desirable—but because clarity is always worth striving for.

A singular reading is not desirable because art exists only in the interaction between the text—whether that text is a poem, a book, a graphic novel, a song, a sculpture, a painting, a movie, or whatever—and the reader. If everyone responded to our work in exactly the same way we would be living in a blasted cultural hellscape of total boredom.

Those readings of Liar and the anger and hurt expressed has made me find out more about trans politics.

I was familiar with some of the absurd arguments around whether transwomen can be part of feminism or not given that some feminists argued they were not “real” women and thus could not understand patriarchal oppression because once they were patriarchal oppressors. Pro tip: any argument that employs the word “real” to qualify identity is always going to be a rubbish argument, whether they’re trying to define who’s a real woman/man/black/white/Star Trek fan/gamer or whatever. But I knew little beyond that.

Three years ago, when Liar was published, I was unfamiliar with the term “cisgender.” When I was at university the term used was “gender normative” and, from what I can tell, it did not have the range or nuance of “cisgender.” I still feel awkward using it because it’s still a new term for me.

I have been reading and talking about feminist and sexual and racial politics for decades now. I feel confident about writing across that terrain though I am, of course, still stuffing up, still learning. I do not have anywhere near that level of knowledge or comprehension when it comes to trans politics.

I will be reading and listening for a long time to come.

In Conclusion

For those of you have not thought much about any of these questions, I hope laying out these examples, showing you my thinking in writing them, and the critiques that have been made, give you a sense of what is at stake and why it matters. Why you should be thinking and reading about identity and politics.

No matter how thoughtful you are about race, gender, sexuality, class etc. etc. there will always be readers who will read your work in exactly the ways you were working hard to avoid. If you write racist characters their actions and words will be read by some as proof of you-the-writer’s racism.

But that’s good. It keeps us writers awake to just how hard our job is, just how much work has to be done to change the world we live in to make those readings impossible.

We cannot use “it’s too hard”, “I’ll be criticised” as an excuse not to write ambitious books, not to write thoughtfully about thorny issues of identity. Doing so is our job. Yes, even when writing comedy. Yes, even when writing a book with only white people in it. White is a race. White has a history. So does white supremacy. There is, in fact, a whole field of study: “whiteness studies” that you should have a look at. Toni Morrison’s collection of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a great place to start.

Always do your research. Here’s a page of links to useful posts on writing about race. If you’re writing about black people, even if you are black, read black writers. As Chauncey de Vega puts it:

Please people, I am begging you, stop mentioning that damn essay [Peggy McIntosh’s "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege"]: deferring to white people’s expertise when talking about racism is itself an act of white privilege and white supremacy. Start with Du Bois, and other people of color before you become giddy with the “discovery” of white privilege. Black and brown folks were doing it better, first, and many years before the Invisible Knapsack of Privilege first circulated on these Internets.

On the other hand, it’s also good to know our limits. I will not be writing a trans character any time soon because I simply do not know enough. As I said I’m very early in the research phase and I’d love to get more recommendations for good books by trans people.

None of this is easy. We all get it wrong. I hope my examination of Liar above shows you just how hard it is. But I hope, too, you can see how worthwhile it is. And how getting defensive and putting your head in the sand helps no one least of all the writer that you aspire to become.

For me that is the joy of what I do: striving always to be a better writer.19

TL;DR: When writing about identity you will stuff up about race/gender/class/sexuality/etc etc. Do not let that stop you doing due diligence. Write the best you can, as thoughtfully and well-researched as you can. Be ambitious. Learn from your mistakes. Listen to criticism. Keep writing.

  1. Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race.
  2. Hello, Megan!
  3. Which is not to say I wasn’t proud of the other awards. I was and am!
  4. I touch on why I have so doggedly wrestled with issues around race and racism in these posts.
  5. If you haven’t read Kindred or any other books by Butler, DO SO. Genius.
  6. Though it is by no mean only white people who get called out for using the word. Look at the controversy over Carolivia Herron’s book, Nappy Hair.
  7. I kind of wanted to hug the readers who commented on that.
  8. Co-incidentally—or not, really—Highsmith was a big influence on Liar.
  9. Yes, there are many more than one white community. But, guess what? There are loads of different black communities too.
  10. In Nella Larsen’s Passing for instance the character passing has a double who does not pass, which cuts across the grain of the familiar white version of the story.
  11. Putting it like that I suddenly realise that perhaps Micah’s mother qualifies as a tragic mulatto. Crap.
  12. That sentence DOES NOT break grammar rules. And even if it does I did it ON PURPOSE. #stupidpedants
  13. And to make it doubly unfair, white writers like me also tend to get more praise for writing black characters than they do.
  14. Or with writing overly long really boring books about men who are obsessed with whales. With white whales no less.
  15. The two countries I know the most about.
  16. Notice the “of” there in “it would be way less of a big deal”? That’s a USian extraneous “of” what we Australians don’t use. See? I am a USian-Australian! Bilingual, me.
  17. It was also a sly reference to Scott’s Leviathan books, which he was writing at the same, where Derryn is passing as a boy in order to serve in the armed forces. Having grown up on books like Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders, I have always wanted to write the classic girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy-in-order-to-do-something-cool novel. So far Liar‘s as close as I’ve gotten.
  18. Sometimes I still feel that way.
  19. Thank you, Doselle Young, for your notes on this post and for the conversation over the years that led to it. You are the best.

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7. Women and Girls - Power or Not?

Kelly over at Stacked just wrote a powerful post on being a woman and speaking your mind. If you haven't already, head right over and read it. I'll wait for you. *quietly scrolling through tweets*

Ah, good. You're back. Kelly has a couple of, oh, ten or twenty cogent points, eh?  She is speaking truth to power - and to us.

The issues of gender and power, girls and power and the destructive subtlety of people speaking and working against women who wish to be themselves and self-directed has been a lifelong concern of mine. As a young fire-brand librarian I was active in Women Library Workers, a feminist library network and support group that now is in an embers stage of it's existence. I have stood down from much of my active work but I have never believed for a nano-second that we are in a "post-feminist" age.

My partner is a guy with a voice pitch that is slightly higher than encountered in most guys. He has spent considerable time on the phone in his jobs. When men on the other end of the phone mistakenly think they are talking to a women, to a man, they are patronizing, dismissive, abrupt and sassy. When the person on the other end thinks my partner is a man, he is treated completely differently.  This has been a conversational topic between us for over thirty years. "Post-feminist age," my eye.

When Kelly talks about the expectations that men and women have for women and girls I hear her talking. As I commented on her blogpost: "I was reminded of a photo going around FB where Jada Pinkett Smith was asked why she let her daughter shave her head. Pinkett Smith wrote, 'The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power, or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit, and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It's also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes, and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.' "

This spring I attended a wonderful and enpowering unconference at UW-Milwaukee called "Out of the Attic and into the Stacks: Feminism and LIS". Lots of students and lots of old-guard feminist librarians. It was great to be around that living timeline of  feminist librarians. One question that came up from the students to the vets was, "How do you bring feminism into your work?"

This is what I said: You bring feminism into your work every day in every way. By making sure that you purchase and display materials that highlight strong women and gentle men; that open up the hidden contributions of women and that highlight girls as strong and not just frilly.  You do programs that empower girls but also don't shut out either gender. When girls come in to your library, you compliment not their hair or clothes but tell them they are looking strong or tall or smart today. The messages that we give - no matter how small - matter.

We need to stand strong together on these issues of women and girls and power. It does make a difference and will make a difference for decades to come. But we have to commit to doing the support every day in every way.

Image: 'Superherohttp://www.flickr.com/photos/51336161@N02/5416260011 Found on flickrcc.net

3 Comments on Women and Girls - Power or Not?, last added: 12/4/2012
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8. The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. I was a junior in high school that year and I wish I could say I was with it enough to know about the book but I didn’t even know who Margaret Atwood was back then. Not until I got to college and took a literature by women class did I learn about her. We did not read Handmaid’s Tale in that class. Instead, we read Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. Surfacing is tied for first with Alias Grace as my favorite Atwood book. Over the years I have managed to read Atwood’s poetry, a good many of her essays, and all but two of her novels, The Robber Bride and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I don’t know why I waited so long to read Handmaid’s Tale especially since I went to the dark side in college and became a feminist. Maybe it is because the book became so very popular and for awhile, especially when the movie came out (I did see that) everyone was reading the book. I am not generally accused of hopping onto bandwagons, so I stood aside and watched it drive on by. And after that it just became one of those books I needed to get to.

Well, I finally got to it. I was kind of disappointed. I liked the book and everything, don’t get me wrong. I found it intense and frightening, a story that is still all too possibly real. The writing is good, the story moves along and I found myself fearing for the safety of Offred. I hated the ending. That might be a big part of my disappointment. When I closed the book I had a “that’s all?” sort of feeling. I was expecting more, something bigger, something more damning of the way women are treated. But the style of the book, while not a diary, is diary-like and sort of documentary in a way. And even though I had feared for Offred, I didn’t get an emotional payoff at the end. Having the final chapter be a conference in the future on the history of what happened during the time of the book featuring a discussion on the provenance of the “tale” I had just read is such a bland way to wrap things up. The end needed punch, something like Orwell’s 1984 where Winston ends up loving Big Brother. Not that I want Offred to end loving the totalitarian state of Gilead, but something with a bit of oomph would have been more satisfactory.

Ending aside, Atwood does a fantastic job of creating Gilead and of explaining how it all came about. What resonated most for me was this simple bit:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

Isn’t that how a good many horrors happen? These lines made me think of WWII and the people living practically next door to concentration camps who said they had no idea what was going on. I like to think I would notice something like a concentration camp or even the small changes towards a totalitarian society but when I read books like Handmaid’s Tale there is a small part of me that worries I wouldn’t notice, that I would ignore. I don’t know what I fear more, the possibility of being a person who ignores or living in a society like Gilead.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom, well it is, but there are moments of wry Atwood humor:

The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen.

“Pen Is Envy” Ha!

The Handmaid’s Tale has made its way onto high school and college reading lists. I am very glad for that because it seems a good book to foster discussion about women, religion, and politics. The book is jam-packed with juicy discussable things from the big and obvious to the small and subtle. I will leave you with one of my favorite subtle bits, one that gives me a chill every time I read it:

Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.

Now I suppose I should get around to reading Robber Bride so I can be all caught up on Atwood novels. Perhaps a book to put on my 2013 reading goals list.


Filed under: Books, Feminism, Margaret Atwood, Reviews

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9. Women and Youth Librarianship


On this the first day of Women's History month, the issues of gender and power are much on my mind.

Hi Miss Julie just wrote one of the most powerful posts I have read on the issue of the politics of this power and how woman are pushed towards silence. She turns a burning light on this in particular in her own life and then in relation to the world of children's work within librarianship.

This post links directly with her earlier post on recognition and youth work. For those in youth work who read this earlier post's comments section, it was stunning how utterly and completely some of the comments missed and blew past the point of her post. Dear Abby advice on how to "put yourself out there" wasn't where Julie's post was going. My read was she was calling out the larger world of librarianship for the disregard and disrespect for the marvelous and powerful work youth librarians are doing (although one commenter insisted that youth librarians don't really do anything innovative...oh, why yes, that *is* the sound of my teeth grinding).

There have been some ugly bullying of women bloggers, FBers and tweeters in the recent past - most swirl around the picayune-ness; the paltry-ness; the unimportance of our concerns - from Arcgate to our observations on how we appropriate cultural touchpoints. It's ok to provide book recommendations for another librarian's offspring but shut-up will you in the world of politics and opinion. Smile and be nice.

It is the subtle and not so subtle pushing women back and down - and in youth work, where our clientele is devalued because of their powerlessness in the larger society, we work under the burden of powerlessness by association in the eyes of some in our profession. Is it reflective of the larger society that so devalues women by insisting our little minds can't handle our own decisions on our lady parts? That continues to put roadblocks to upward mobility and insists that we need to be uber people that parent, work, achieve, clean, and look fetching and smile, smile , smile all the time? Um, yes.


The discussions on blogs and twitter have been painful and eye-opening. Here are some of the links that have particularly made me think deeply and know I - and many other women and youth library workers - are not entirely nuts in thinking "What the deuce is going on with our colleagues?" I thank Kelly Jensen and Sophie Brookover for some of these links.

Kelly over at Stacked
Kristin at Action Librarian
Ingrid at Magpie Librarian
Nicolas at information.games 
Justin at Beerbrarian
Me (I know this is so self-regarding)

There are more posts out there on the issues of women and librarianship, power and gender. Please share and let's keep this conversation going. These are issues of long standing, my friends, and battles that have been going on since long before I was a SLIS student and young librarian decades ago (I'll share those stories another day). I am just discouraged that 40 years later, we see the same poor behaviors.

Gender matters. Being supportive matters. Making sure there is an interlocutor between brain and mouth or fingertips matters. Let's get started on supporting each other and celebrating the work we all do on behalf of varied clienteles. Nobody is better than anybody. We are all in this together. Like that.

Image: 'The Hidden Beauty!'  http://www.flickr.com/photos/44345361@N06/5929570738 Found on flickrcc.net




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10. The Sleeping Lionesses Awake...


That's the way it feels to me lately. The issue of gender in librarianship, especially as it relates to those of us who work in youth librarianship, has been sleepily in the background for a long time.

A number of issues that have cropped up recently have brought the subject back to the forefront and women and men are standing up and saying, "Whoa! Wait! Stop!" "Let's back up here and get real again!". It feels as if powerful people who have long been sleeping are once again awakening and looking around - and want to claim -or reclaim -some power that has long been lost or trivialized.

Part of the discussion has been in the blogosophere; part on twitter and part on a librarian group on Facebook, Think Tank. What started in a somewhat rancorous way is building to something slightly different - an open and honest exploration of the roots of discourse on gender in librarianship. People are talking, exploring and sharing.

Kate Kosturski over at Librarian Kate blog has written two posts in the last few days tracing the scholarly research on gender and librarianship (here and here) and they are fascinating.  Her part 3 will be on youth librarianship as it relates to gender issues.  Please read the posts and consider sharing your experiences of gender bias in youth work with her at librariankate7578 at gmail dot com. I think we need to read more.

I can imagine the research is might thin on this topic. Other than recent blog posts , some of which I cited in my last post,  I have seldom read of youth librarianship and bias issues in my almost 40 years in the business. What there is probably was probably published in small presses and gathered in the marvelous Alternative Library Literature anthologies (edited by Jim Danky and Sandy Berman) of the '80s through early part of this century.

I, for one, am glad we're waking up to have this discussion.

Image: 'Open wide.....'  http://www.flickr.com/photos/66164549@N00/2884630721 Found on flickrcc.net

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11. VIDA at AWP



One of the most interesting discussions I saw at the AWP conference was one sponsored by VIDA, with editors and writers talking about the results of VIDA's 2013 count of female and male writers in various publications. This year, they were able to offer a particularly revealing set of graphs showing three year trends in book reviewing at major magazines and journals.

The only report of the discussion I've seen so far is that of VIDA volunteer Erin Hoover at The Nervous Breakdown (although I'm sure it was covered by Twitter when it happened). Hoover gives a good overview of the panel and the issues. I took lots of notes, so will here add some more detail to try to show how the discussion went.

After introductory remarks by moderator Jennine Capó Crucet, the first responses were made alphabetically by last name, and so two men began: Don Bogen, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review, and Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review. Bogen noted that, inspired by VIDA, he'd done a count of the poetry published by CR during his 7-year tenure and discovered to, really, his surprise that he'd achieved parity between male and female writers (or at least male and female bylines). How had he managed to do this unconsciously, he wondered? The best hypothesis he had was that he seeks real diversity of experience and point of view in poetry and has eclectic taste — indeed, the only poems he said he's not particularly interested in are ones that reflect his own experience. He noted that certainly the idea of parity depends on where one is counting from, as particular issues of the magazine would go one way or the other, and he tends to organize blocks of poems in between other genres in each issue in ways that have sometimes been balanced but also sometimes been entirely female or entirely male. Many times, too, he said, he does his best to read blind, paying little to no attention to a byline, and has often discovered that material he thought was "male" or "female" had been written by someone of another gender. Thus, the magic of literature.

Of the panelists, Stephen Corey seemed perhaps least comfortable with the discussion. His initial statement was simply a set of questions. (I think I managed to write them all down, but may have missed something.) When we talk about gender balance, he asked, are we talking about balance in submissions? In page counts? (Does a 30-page story count the same as a 1-page poem?) Should reviews be counted the same as poems, essays, or stories? Do you want an editor to read your work with gender in mind? Should a publication put out a call for more work by males or females? Should a publication put out an anti-call against one gender? When you read, do you care if what you read is by a man or a woman [audience: YES!], and should an editor care?

After Corey, E.J. Graff said so many interesting things I had trouble taking notes. Here's what I wrote down:

  • The count is an example of why all English majors should take a course in statistics. Graff: "I wish I had!"
  • The submission gap is enormous. With opinion pieces, women editors solicit women and are often turned down or need more time, whereas men often say yes and offer to get the piece done very quickly (important for current events).
  • Men continually send pitches after rejections, women don't.
  • Structural acculturation. We have to overcome our own socialization — and not just in terms of gender. The audience, for instance, was overwhelmingly white.
  • We must make our own choices conscious because many of our prejudices are unconcious. Graff pointed to the Implicit Association Test.
  • For students, there is a dramatic shift between the world of school and the world of work. It can be difficult to learn how to promote yourself. Men tend to do this more comfortably than women, because it's generally more socially acceptable for men.
  • Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.
  • When lesbians and gay men started working together in the 1980s, there were many difficulties, suspicions, and prejudices. To overcome these difficulties, many groups decided on a shared leadership structure that required equal power sharing between a man and a woman rather than just one leader. Why not do that with more prizes, editorships, groups?
Katha Pollitt (a personal hero of mine, and one of the main reasons I went to the panel) then offered her perspective, particularly as someone who has a long career as a poet and essayist, as well as a former editor with The Nation. Because I love Katha Pollitt, I tried to write as fast as she talked, and so here are my notes from her initial statement:
  • Some editors are quite conscious, others not at all — and some of the latter group are women. They can be very far away from consciously considering the issue, they can be very far away from any sort of balance, and yet still think they're doing great (and thus not need to become conscious).
  • As VIDA has shown, raising the issue can, sometimes, make change.
  • At The Nation, the front and back of the magazine are totally separate. In front, the subject areas (politics, news, current events) and speed of weekly publishing means the editors have settled on "go-to" people who they know are very reliable — maybe not the best writers, but they turn in clean copy on time. These editors would need to make the time to seek out new, female experts who are reliable. Some places have made such an effort — Alternet and Mother Jones, for instance.
  • You have to think about it (make the issue conscious) because we have to compensate for elements in the culture.
  • There are too many women trying to write in too few subject areas. Look at how many women are writing about Girls! Women should try to cultivate interest and knowledge in areas outside those seen as "feminine" or "women's issues".
  • If you're not getting submissions from women, you have to ask why. Why would a woman throw herself at your wall?
  • Most op-eds are solicited. Most slush piles aren't even read by an editor. Slush is not where the problem lies.
  • Things are fairer at newspapers. They have unions and must follow anti-discrimination policies.
Then the discussion moved on to questions and comments from the audience. Again, from notes, which may distort some things simply because I couldn't write fast enough. (I'll offer some summary and response at the end.)

Q: Is gender-identified subject matter more or less appealing? Also, racially-identified? Etc.
Don Bogen: An experience can be gendered, but not to the writer. Surprised plenty of times to discover the gender of a writer whose byline was indeterminate. The otherness of the imagination is important.

Q: 99% of news is what is seen to be traditionally male. Much of human life is dismissed as female.
E.J. Graff: It's worse than you know! The Global Media Monitoring Project statistics are horrifying. Women in the news are usually victims or family members ("the wife of", "the mother of", etc.). These create our implicit biases. Though, as Katha Pollitt said, there may be a good amount of female bylines in newspapers, the top editors and the columnists tend to be male.

Q: Wal-Mart has a huge effect on the economy because it is so large, and so getting Wal-Mart to change practices can have a massive ripple effect. Is there a Wal-Mart of the literary world that we should focus on trying to change?
[Some laughter, cross-talk]
Another audience member: The Wal-Mart is in the room. Unsubscribe from magazines you don't like the numbers for, and let them know. Let Harper's know. Let The New Yorker know. Don't let your subscription lapse silently — it's important that the magazines know why you are leaving them, and what it would take to get you back.

Q: Why is the literary world so obsessed with dudes from Brooklyn?! I don't want "women's literature", I want literature. Even when women are put forward, though, they become invisible.
Pollitt: Yes, why when Jonathan Franzen writes a book is everybody else suddenly invisible? Can Karen Russell get the same amount of notice? She should, but does she? It's a problem of publicity. Some women get attention. But does the attention last? Will it last? Can we make it last? The writers are there, the quality is there, the publicity is not.

VIDA volunteer: Feel empowered. Email magazines. Use knowledge to use your money and time well. VIDA is 10 volunteers. You are many. Vote with your dollars.

VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu: Most of the media reports on the count frame the story as, "It still sucks." And it does. But there's more to it than that. Many places say they need a comment from people such as New Yorker editor David Remnick if they're going to run a big story, but the editors of the highest-profile magazines won't talk, and so the story is not seen as journalistically significant. Behind the scenes, though, there is concern. One well-known female fiction writer gots calls from multiple editors when the count was released this year — the publications were embarrassed, and they wanted this writer to contribute. She didn't have any short fiction available and also didn't want to be the token female, so she gave the editors the names of 5 other writers who might be able to give them something.

Q for Katha Pollitt: Is there a perception among editors that there are female and male subject matter? Is more male subject matter being covered?
Pollitt: War, politics, etc. — these are not "male" subjects! More women are killed by war than men. Women's lives are deeply, intimately, and constantly affected by politics. These are human subjects. The New York Times has two male columnists who started out as food writers, a subject often associated with women. Get to know a lot about something interesting in a less crowded field and you will have an easier time getting published.

And then time ran out.

The take-away message was, as Erin Hoover wrote, consciousness. The world we live in is structurally biased against equality, and as people who live in this world, if we don't consciously work toward increasing equality, we will unconsciously contribute to inequality.

I love the idea that we could follow Don Bogen's lead and try to read and publish eclectically, seeking experiences and representations outside of our own, and thus achieve equality. But I don't think it would work. I expect he's an outlier and his example would be difficult, even impossible, to replicate. Worse, a stated interest in diversity might be used as cover. I think too many publishers and editors could just say to themselves, "Hey, we're nice, tolerant, liberal people who sorta like, you know, value that diversity thing. Yeah. We'll be equal," and then go right on reinforcing the status quo. I actually would prefer that someone just say, "I couldn't care less about equality," and not pretend.

Let's go back to Stephen Corey's questions. They're good for discussion, but I think they're problematic overall. With regard to page lengths and genres, etc., it's really not that hard to compare like to like, and VIDA, for instance, offers statistics in various breakdowns (books reviewed, reviewers, etc). The "overall" stats that VIDA provides are useful as a way to view the problem generally, but yes, there's a difference between a 200-word review and a 10,000-word article. The general view is useful, though. We're not to the point where distinctions necessarily say a lot. The trends are so bad that getting too specific is pretty much a waste of time. Maybe in the future it would be an interesting exercise, but right now the information is pretty damn unambiguous and shameful. As Don Bogen showed, there's plenty of reasons for an individual magazine issue or section of an issue to be dominated by women or men, but once you step back from individual issues and sections, once you increase the data set, then consistent, significant inequality speaks for itself.

Do we want editors to read our work with our gender in mind? I've never assumed they wouldn't. I'd love to live in a world where my gender presentation was irrelevant, but I don't live in that world, and pretending I do just reinforces a status quo I loathe. My name is Matthew and I physically present as male; that affects people's perceptions of me consciously and, especially, unconsciously. How much does that matter to any one editor? I assume a bit (at least), unless they want to give me multiple results from the Implicit Association Test showing that they are utterly unaffected by gender ... at which point I might assume they don't entirely care about my apparent maleness. Otherwise, I'm going to assume they're living in the same swamp of associations that I am.

Should there be a call made for more of one gender, or against another? Oh, please. This is a question better left to concern trolls. I can just imagine the sort of call that would go out: "Dear Womens: We don't know any female scribblers. Please submit to us so we can see if you know how to write. Thanks!" Or, even better, "Hey guys! These feminazis are doing their thing and we're afraid it might hurt our reputation in this politically correct environment, so please cut it out with the submissions for a while. Once we've published some girls, then we can get back to the real work."

More interesting to me is the question: Do you care about the gender of a writer you read, and should an editor care? The audience loudly affirmed that they care about the gender of writers they read. For me, this is a similar sort of problem to whether I care about if an editor knows my gender when I submit writing to them. In an ideal world where gender is as meaningful as handedness or eye color, a writer's gender for me would be an interesting and inconsequential detail. But I don't ever expect to live in such a world. Human culture has been and continues to be meaningfully and significantly affected by gender. To not care about a writer's gender in such a world is to not care about something that meaningfully and significantly affects that writer. So yes, I notice the gender of writers I read. I care about it. The world does not just naturally drop a nicely balanced group of male, female, and genderqueer writers on my readerly doorstep. The world makes it easiest for me to read white male writers who use the English language and publish with major publishers. I make the conscious effort to seek out others. (Among the books I'm currently reading: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin; The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates; The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde; Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux.) If I want to know about the world outside of my own experiences — and that really is why I read — then I have to pay attention to some of the categories the writers I read fall into. It's why I got interested in African literatures, even before I ever traveled to Africa. I can't imagine not reading such work now. Not for reasons of political correctness or some other overloaded scare term, but for purely selfish reasons: my life is richer and more interesting with such writings in it than not.

So it's probably not surprising that I think editors should notice and care, because otherwise the structures of our culture are going to notice and care for them, and will replicate the dominant status quo.

The most important thing to come out of the VIDA count, though, is a desire from editors, writers, and readers to actively fix the problem. This, it seems to me, is VIDA's real message and value. Here are the stats. If you don't care about them, then don't care about them. (You're an asshole, but maybe you're okay with that.) If these numbers shock, dismay, annoy, or even just vaguely bother you, then do something. If you're an editor, seek out female writers and work to make sure your venue is not one that posts various signs saying, "GIRLZ KEEP OUT!" (Hint: If you publish mostly male writers and seriously wonder why non-males don't submit more to you, you're behaving like an oblivious dunderhead.) Be conscious, put forth some effort, and don't start whining for cookies because you did what you should have been doing all along. If you're a reader, let the VIDA count guide you. Tin House, Poetry, and Threepenny Review are three magazines that have deliberately tried to get their numbers to be better, and they're three great magazines well worth your support. There are others, too, and will, I expect (I hope!), be more. If it matters to you, speak up with your voice and your writing, with where you submit work, and with where you spend money. We can be proactive.

And remember E.J. Graff's advice: Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.

2 Comments on VIDA at AWP, last added: 3/15/2013
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12. You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance

sermonby Rachel Lieberman

I write YA, and I often ask myself, “Does my writing promote good messages to teen girls?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stories that preach = BIG FAT NO. Making your story a mouthpiece for your beliefs is never a good idea.

This is not your job.

BUT that doesn’t mean that you’re never allowed to wonder who’s going to read your stories, and what those readers will get out of their experiences.

For my graduate lecture, I took a look at how feminist and post-feminist literary theory can help us look at YA literature and decide for ourselves what messages we want to send. Feminism is, at its core, the belief in equal rights for all genders, but of course there are many definitions and variations among those definitions. The question of choice (who gets to choose, and what they should choose) is sometimes a point of contention among critics.

20120104060816!Twilight_book_coverI think that one of the reasons so many critics find fault with Twilight and novels like it is because Bella’s choices may be her own, but they are consistently at odds with the choices we want our girls to make. When we show characters who consistently choose dangerous, controlling partners, our fear is that young adult readers will also choose dangerous, controlling partners.

I don’t think this is an invalid concern, but my intention isn’t to debate or argue it. That’s for another time, another post. My intention is to say, that if you’re a YA writer and this is something you are thinking about, there are ways to develop a good feminist story without making it preachy or propaganda. I’ll share some methods that I found useful and talked about in my lecture.

1. What does your main character want? If it’s just a relationship, consider that in real life, a desire for a relationship is usually a symptom of a deeper desire for something else, like security or acknowledgment. Consider what other forces might be at work, and you’ll avoid creating shallow characters whose problems can be solved by a significant other.

2. Make sure your character stays active. Find places in the story that force her to act, that take away her safety net and test her. This is true of practically any story, but in YA romances, it’s especially important. She doesn’t need to be a hero, but she shouldn’t rely on her love interest too much.

3. Pay attention to your character’s love interest. Speaking of the love interest, don’t forget to pay attention to him! Or her. What does he want? Does he act in a way that harms the main character, and if so, are there negative consequences? If your character has to choose between two love interests (very common these days), is the choice made too easy (by having one character turn out to be a jerk)?

4. Romance novel vs. novel with romantic elements. A romance novel is a little different than a novel with romantic elements. A romance novel’s plot is dependent on the relationship between two characters, so if you want to write a story with feminist undertones, you might choose the other path.

5. Why do your characters get together? Think about the reasons your characters are together. Is it because they find each other so attractive? Or do they share a deep, mutual connection? The more you develop the relationship, and the reasons for it, the more likely you are to connect with readers.

6. The moral of the story. All of these factors combined puts you in a better position to control the final factor: the moral of the story. Once you’ve finished a draft, it might be a good idea to take a look around. What’s happened to the characters? Who’s alive? What have they had to sacrifice? Your character’s rewards and punishments reveal a lot about your story’s message. Is it the message you want?

There are, of course, many more factors than these six that you will need to pay attention to in order to write a great novel. But this is a place to start if your aim is to write a story with romantic elements that will both appeal to teen readers and give them characters and situations they can look up to.

Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman works in higher education and writes YA. Her short fiction has appeared in Opium, Awkward, Emprise Review, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Tampa.

Visit Rachel’s blog: A Reputation in Digital Form: The Writerly Musings of Rachel Lieberman

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @LiebermanRachel

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

March Dystropia Madness


11 Comments on You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance, last added: 3/25/2013
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13. You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance

sermonby Rachel Lieberman

I write YA, and I often ask myself, “Does my writing promote good messages to teen girls?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stories that preach = BIG FAT NO. Making your story a mouthpiece for your beliefs is never a good idea.

This is not your job.

BUT that doesn’t mean that you’re never allowed to wonder who’s going to read your stories, and what those readers will get out of their experiences.

For my graduate lecture, I took a look at how feminist and post-feminist literary theory can help us look at YA literature and decide for ourselves what messages we want to send. Feminism is, at its core, the belief in equal rights for all genders, but of course there are many definitions and variations among those definitions. The question of choice (who gets to choose, and what they should choose) is sometimes a point of contention among critics.

20120104060816!Twilight_book_coverI think that one of the reasons so many critics find fault with Twilight and novels like it is because Bella’s choices may be her own, but they are consistently at odds with the choices we want our girls to make. When we show characters who consistently choose dangerous, controlling partners, our fear is that young adult readers will also choose dangerous, controlling partners.

I don’t think this is an invalid concern, but my intention isn’t to debate or argue it. That’s for another time, another post. My intention is to say, that if you’re a YA writer and this is something you are thinking about, there are ways to develop a good feminist story without making it preachy or propaganda. I’ll share some methods that I found useful and talked about in my lecture.

1. What does your main character want? If it’s just a relationship, consider that in real life, a desire for a relationship is usually a symptom of a deeper desire for something else, like security or acknowledgment. Consider what other forces might be at work, and you’ll avoid creating shallow characters whose problems can be solved by a significant other.

2. Make sure your character stays active. Find places in the story that force her to act, that take away her safety net and test her. This is true of practically any story, but in YA romances, it’s especially important. She doesn’t need to be a hero, but she shouldn’t rely on her love interest too much.

3. Pay attention to your character’s love interest. Speaking of the love interest, don’t forget to pay attention to him! Or her. What does he want? Does he act in a way that harms the main character, and if so, are there negative consequences? If your character has to choose between two love interests (very common these days), is the choice made too easy (by having one character turn out to be a jerk)?

4. Romance novel vs. novel with romantic elements. A romance novel is a little different than a novel with romantic elements. A romance novel’s plot is dependent on the relationship between two characters, so if you want to write a story with feminist undertones, you might choose the other path.

5. Why do your characters get together? Think about the reasons your characters are together. Is it because they find each other so attractive? Or do they share a deep, mutual connection? The more you develop the relationship, and the reasons for it, the more likely you are to connect with readers.

6. The moral of the story. All of these factors combined puts you in a better position to control the final factor: the moral of the story. Once you’ve finished a draft, it might be a good idea to take a look around. What’s happened to the characters? Who’s alive? What have they had to sacrifice? Your character’s rewards and punishments reveal a lot about your story’s message. Is it the message you want?

There are, of course, many more factors than these six that you will need to pay attention to in order to write a great novel. But this is a place to start if your aim is to write a story with romantic elements that will both appeal to teen readers and give them characters and situations they can look up to.

Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman works in higher education and writes YA. Her short fiction has appeared in Opium, Awkward, Emprise Review, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Tampa.

Visit Rachel’s blog: A Reputation in Digital Form: The Writerly Musings of Rachel Lieberman

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @LiebermanRachel

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

March Dystropia Madness


0 Comments on You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance as of 3/22/2013 7:36:00 AM
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14. 24 Hours of Women Cartoonists: Dre Grigoropol

Screen Shot 2013 03 14 at 12.48.10 PM 24 Hours of Women Cartoonists: Dre Grigoropol

Dre Grigoropol has contributed to several anthologies and ‘zines, and works as an illustrator, cartoonist, and blogger. Her blogging work can often be seen addressing feminism and pop culture topics at Bust Magazine. Her latest long term project, DEE’S DREAM (pictured above) features the bohemian life of a young poet and rocker, and in particular the myriad complications of her romantic entanglements. A print version of the first episode of DEE’S DREAM, “Cosmic Wombat House” is currently available in self-published mini form. Dre’s style is versatile but always shows an appealing homage to manga lines. Her inking is particularly striking, as she moves between varying line widths for emotional effect. Aside from producing her comics and blogging, she’s also a rather astonishing body paint artist for cosplay contests and takes part in many indie comics shows in the mid-Atlantic region.

[*Disclaimer: you might well see Grigoropol's occasional reports about indie comix events featured right here on the Beat!]

 

 

0 Comments on 24 Hours of Women Cartoonists: Dre Grigoropol as of 3/29/2013 8:03:00 AM
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15. Crush: The Love Plan, by Angela Darling

Lauren is a girl who plans things.  She checks and double checks.  She loves having everything in its place.  So it really comes as no surprise that when it comes to love, she has a plan.  Lauren has come up with her love plan.  This is the summer that she will get Charlie not only to notice her, but fall for her just like she has fallen for him.  She knows from taking lots of multiple choice tests in teen magazines that she and Charlie are indeed soul mates.  She will get him to notice her through her flowcharted Operation Cell Phone, where she has planned each detail of their "chance" encounter.

The problem is Lauren hasn't even left for the beach and there is a wrench thrown into her plans.  Lauren's mom thought it would be fun to invite Chrissy along on vacation to keep only child Lauren company.  Lauren likes Chrissy alright, but she certainly isn't part of her plan.  And the worst part of it is that Lauren sort of told everyone at school that she and Charlie are already an item.What will Chrissy think when she sees the truth?

Lauren need not worry about Chrissy.  It turns out she is super understanding and supportive of Lauren's love plan.

Things start off great.  The girls get along famously, and Charlie is indeed at the beach with his friend Frank.  Lauren thinks this is just perfect because she can hang out with Charlie and Chrissy can hang with Frank.  But Lauren soon learns not only that the best laid plans don't always work out, but that crushing on someone from afar, is indeed different from knowing a person face to face.

This is an easy breezy beach read that gets the desperate tone of first crushes just right.  What I like is that Darling gives Chrissy and Lauren agency, and put it right out there that sometimes the boy with all the looks can be lacking in other areas.  This is a squeaky clean romance that will have tweensters flipping the pages to find out who Lauren will choose.

1 Comments on Crush: The Love Plan, by Angela Darling, last added: 8/11/2013
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16. Rereading Women

The essays in Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions by Sandra M. Gilbert are all so interesting that I could write an entire post about each and every one of them. The essays span the feminist awakening of Gilbert, from the present day looking back over a long and distinguished career to pieces written in the 1980s and 90s. The book took me back to my undergrad college days when the work that Gilbert and her frequent co-author, Susan Gubar, were doing seemed so very groundbreaking and women scholars across academia began offering classes in literature written by women and analyzed from a feminist perspective. I took many of those classes, was excited by them, and experienced my own feminist awakening because of them. So the book gave me a little thrill as I began to realize that even though the university I went to had a Women’s Studies department, it was still very new in the scheme of academic studies, and Gilbert and Gubar’s book, Madwoman in the Attic was only published in 1979, seven years before I got to college. Then it seemed like the book had been around for ages but from this distant perspective I begin to understand why my college professors who taught from a feminist perspective were both often so energizing and defensive.

Gilbert begins her preface to the book:

To reread is both to read again and to read anew – that is, to read in another way what is already familiar, as if it has been read yet not read before.

Ah, that wonderful “re” suffix so beloved by feminist writers intent on re-vision and re-membering. I felt immediately at home in this book and while my attention dragged here and there when books I had not read were discussed, it was always a pleasure to read and learn and wonder why I had not read some of my favorite poets Gilbert mentions in so very long. Poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, H.D., Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and of course, Adrienne Rich. There is much on Plath and Dickinson throughout the book, but there is also Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Christine de Pizan, Charlotte Bronte, and even Francis Hodgson Burnett.

My favorite essay is actually a pair, the final two in the book, “Potent Griselda: Male Modernists and the Great Mother,” and “Mother Rites: Maternity, Matriarchy, Creativity.” These two essays look at the late 19th and early 20th century and how archaeological discoveries on Minoan/Crete culture that was obviously woman-centric as well as embryological discoveries that proved that women’s wombs were not just incubators affected male and female writers, the concept of the muse and the idea of giving birth to a book.

As you can imagine women and men saw things very differently. Gilbert spends a good many pages on D.H. Lawrence examining how his admitted fear of a coming “matriarchy” played out in his often misogynistic portrayal of women in his books. For male writers, the act of “begetting” their thoughts onto paper was primary. Women, for whom pregnancy was a very real thing, tended to stay clear of the begetting, and embraced the idea of women’s power and the Goddess through more of a Maenadic independent and primal wild woman metaphor. I loved the discussion about this so much that I briefly considered tattooing the word “Maenad” in a wild but elegant script onto my shoulder. While I tended to read one essay at a time, I read the final two essays one after the other and I would highly recommend that since they really are a pair.

I borrowed Rereading Women from the library but I am going to buy a copy for my bookshelf when the paperback comes out in the spring. It is a book well worth having on the shelf to refer back to again and again. And, it has a fantastic bibliography. Beware

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17. A Couple of Quotes

Bookman is feeling poorly today so I am taking care of him. But I thought I’d take a moment to share a couple of quotes from Rereading Women by Sandra Gilbert.

This is from the essay “What Do Feminist Critics Want? Or, A Postcard from the Volcano,” written in 1980. Gilbert is trying to explain just what feminist critics are about:

Indeed, if I were to try to tell you very seriously what feminist criticism, as a way of thinking about literary texts, wants philosophically [...], I would tell you that at its most ambitious it wants to decode and demystify all the disguised questions and answers that have always shadowed the connections between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual identity and cultural authority.

I love ambitious thinking! Are feminist literary critics still pursuing this goal or has it expanded or changed? I haven’t read much current criticism in a while so I feel a bit out of the loop. Does anyone have thoughts on its current state?

The other quote I offer up is actually an epigraph to the essay “A Tarantella of Theory: Hélène Cixous’ and Catherine Clément’s Newly Born Woman.” The quote is by Hélène Cixous:

Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds.

I find this to be rather inspiring. If there is anywhere we can create something outside of a patriarchal society, outside of a world filled with war and hate and greed and “vileness,” then writing just might be it. The only thing that limits us is our ability to imagine.

I suspect the quote came from Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” where she coins the term “écriture féminine”. I’ve not read the essay. I’ve always meant to, but I’ve read about it and Gilbert discusses it too. Anyone out there read the essay? Is it one I really should make the effort to get to?

Okay, off to check on Bookman.


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18. Author Neesha Meminger's Feminist Touch

This month, YA author Neesha Meminger released Into the Wise Dark , it's her third novel and the second one to be self published. I really enjoyed it and absolutely loved the second half which was very intense and visually amazing. I will review it later but right now I simply wanted to talk about the female characters. Part of what I love about Meminger's writing is her desire to create realistic female characters of color, that have an inner strength that shines through. If someone asked me to define feminism I couldn't formulate a concise answer. However, I could easily point to one of Meminger's novels and say " This book was written by an author concerned about feminist ideas and how her female characters are perceived." This applies even more so to Into the Wise Dark.

"When I look closely at the little cards underneath each image I see that they are all of different goddesses. Under one, an image of a large rotund woman with full breasts and the entire world in her lap." Another small carved statue of a woman with rounded hips and big thighs. I walk around to look at the third, a colossal image of a golden woman in profile. She holds a baby out in her hands and rays radiate from them both." - (from advanced readers copy*)

I loved that the author equates size and curves with beauty. Meminger's newest novel is also filled with beautifully crafted moments that are not meant to stand and for that reason do just that; thanks to the authors continuous commitent to well rounded female protagonist.

*edited, I left out the names of the goddesses.

4 Comments on Author Neesha Meminger's Feminist Touch, last added: 3/19/2012
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19. Girl Power

Given the state of our country and the strong negative messages being given to women and girls by politicians and legislators, this website came to my attention at a perfect time.  It is full of great suggestions for books and movies that show strong female role models. I also stumbled on Wollstonecraft thanks to the Hedgehog and this children's ebook project looks particularly exciting for girls.

Last month I attended a national unconference on feminism in librarianship, Out of the Attic and Into the Stacks.  One of the discussion points was how to pursue feminism within your library work.  To my way of thinking, it's every day and every way.  I compliment girls on how strong or smart they are.  I encourage women on staff and in the profession to reach higher and look for ways to open leadership doors for them.  I make sure books with positive, strong images of girls get plenty of face-out display (and I am not talking about bitchy images or princessy-simpering). 

Sometimes small steps accumulate into a powerful march. And we can do it every day.





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20. Feminism Woo Yay!

All you wonderful women out there who are feminists and SF readers, have you heard about the new column at Tor, Sleeps With Monsters?

You can expect me to look at the successes and failures of media in terms of portraying women. You can expect me to occasionally mention videogames. You can expect me to touch on the history of women in the genre, riffing off the SF Mistressworks project. You can expect me to highlight discussions about women and genre in the blogosphere — if your not-so-humble correspondent fails to miss them. You can expect me to look at recurring tropes that turn up in genre, often to our detriment. And you can expect me to pop up, yelling, “Feminism WOO YAY!” once or twice a month. (Like a bad penny.)

The first post has loads of links to online feminist geek/SF/genre goodness to keep me busy for days. And, Bourke promises to write about lots of feminist genre writers and their books, so TBR piles beware!

One of the most amazing things about this post, however, is the comments. Usually one can expect some real trolls to turn up with stuff like this. And while there were some challenging males that did make an appearance the general tone did not degrade to name calling and mud slinging.

Sadly, it looks like it is only going to be a twice a month column but I am still pleased. Go check it out and add it to your feed reader.

And while I am on the topic of feminism, have you heard the sad news that Susan Gubar, co-author of Madwoman in the Attic and author and co-author of many other books and articles, is dying of ovarian cancer? She has managed to write a memoir, Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer, that was just published April 30th. I’m number 33 in line for it at the library so will probably find myself reading it in the middle of summer. Of course I will post about it.


Filed under: Books, Feminism, Memoir/Biography, SciFi/Fantasy

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21. Cassandra Clare on the Myth that Authors Automatically Condone What We Depict

Cassandra Clare has written an important piece called Rape Myths, Rape Culture and the Damage Done. If you haven’t read it already you really should. Be warned: she discusses much which is deeply upsetting.

What I want to briefly comment on here is the notion that to write about rape or war or any other terrible thing is to automatically condone it. Cassie writes:

[T]he most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on “Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.

What Cassie said. If you follow that argument through to its logical conclusion than we who write books marketed at teenagers must not write about conflict. We must only write upbeat, happy books in which no one is hurt or upset and nothing bad ever happens. But even that would not be enough because I have seen books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle described as “dark.” A gentle, funny, wry book about two girls who fall in love is dark? I’ve seen other upbeat, happy books described as “dark” because the protags have (barely described at all) sex.

The complaint that YA books are too “dark” usually does not come from teenagers. Teenagers write and complain to me that there’s no sequel to my standalone books, that there should be four or five books in my trilogy, that I take too long to write books, that I’m mean about unicorns, that zombies DO NOT rule, that they hated that I don’t make it clear what really happened in Liar, that Liar made them throw the book across the room,1 that their name is Esmeralda/Jason/Andrew so why did I have to make the character with that name in my books so mean, that one of the Fibonacci numbers in Magic Lessons isn’t, in fact, a Fibonacci.2 I also get the occasional complaint that their teacher made them read my book when it SUCKED OUT LOUD. People, that is SO NOT MY FAULT! BLAME YOUR TEACHER! 0 Comments on Cassandra Clare on the Myth that Authors Automatically Condone What We Depict as of 1/1/1900

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22. Why Women Are Silent (Updated)

When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.

The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.

Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.

Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”

The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.

So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.

Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.

Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.

If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.

That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.

Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.

The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.

I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.

How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.

Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.

We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.

I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.

I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.

Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.

This post was inspired by Genevieve Valentine bravely reporting her harasser at a recent science fiction convention. Read her post it’s amazing and I am in awe. Because of Valentine’s actions and of the active support she received from brave allies like Veronica Schanoes the conversation about sexual harassment in the science fiction world has been loud and vigorous and, most importantly, the inadequate initial response of the convention’s board looks to be overturned. (Update: it was overturned. Here’s Readercon’s statement.) Twenty years ago nothing would have happened. Things are getting better.

Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.

I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.

Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.

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23. Readercon Update: Making Amends

The Great Readercon Harassment Debacle of 2012 has resolved with a statement from the Convention Committee that is an excellent example of how to apologize for mistakes and, more importantly, how to make amends.

When I read the statement, I'd just gotten the new album by Franz Nicolay, Do the Struggle, and a line from the chorus of the magnificent first song seemed oddly appropriate: "The hearts of Boston have a hurricane to answer for."

The hurricane's dying down. The rubble is getting cleaned up. The hearts are strong.

There are lots of things in the statement to pay attention to — ideas that will, I hope, serve as a model for other events in the future, not just Readercon. I was especially pleased to see this among the actions the committee has committed to: "Working with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to train concom members and volunteers in swift, appropriate reactions to observed or reported harassment."

Such actions move Readercon from having passive policies that may (or may not) help in the event of harassment to having systems in place that actively work against the culture of rape and violence. Knowledge and awareness matter: they change how you interact with the world. By taking such a thorough and public stand and becoming a site for education and prevention, Readercon helps chip away at the forces that support and enable intimidation, harassment, and violence.

A few folks have asked if I would reconsider my resignation from the Program Committee, and I've said that while I completely support the new statement and policies, have great respect for the work that went into it all, and look forward to attending Readercon 24, I need, for various reasons, to take at least a year off from participation in the committee. This is as much for emotional reasons as rational ones, and I don't have adequate words to explain why.

For some of what went into creating the statement and new policies, see this post by Rose Fox. Lots of people worked really hard, through difficult conversations and difficult emotions, to make all this happen. We should be grateful to them for doing that work, for putting their words and hearts and minds on the line.

Here's Genevieve's lovely response to the statement.

See you at Readercon next year.

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24. Legitimate

Here's an important post from Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta regarding Republican U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's repugnant comments about pregnancy rarely occurring from "legitimate rape" (just typing those words makes my hands shake).

Franke-Ruta makes the important point that Akin is not an outlier in the world of anti-abortion zealots. His ideas are connected to those that seek to distinguish between "forcible rape" and something else. Such dangerous delusions are central to so many of the misogynistic and ignorant tenets of the anti-abortion movement and to the sorts of ideologies that seek to downplay the frequency of sexual assault and defund the institutions that attempt to address sexual violence:

Arguments like his have cropped up again and again on the right over the past quarter century and the idea that trauma is a form of birth control continues to be promulgated by anti-abortion forces that seek to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The push for a no-exceptions anti-abortion policy has for decades gone hand in hand with efforts to downplay the frequency with which rape- or incest-related pregnancies occur, and even to deny that they happen, at all. In other words, it's not just Akin singing this tune.
Amanda Marcotte explores similar evidence and ideas at The Prospect:
Akin’s comment should serve as a reminder that despite its sentimentality surrounding the fetus, the anti-choice movement is motivated by misogyny and ignorance about human sexuality. In this case, what underlies the rape-doesn’t-get-you-pregnant myth is the notion that sex is shameful and that slutty women will do anything—even send an innocent man to jail to kill a baby—in order to avoid facing the consequences of their actions.
 Akin's ideas are not a gaffe.

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25. Taking No For an Answer

One of the things I have heard men say innumerable times over the years is that the only difference between a creeper and a regular guy is whether the woman calling the bloke a creeper finds him attractive or not.

I can’t speak for all women—well, okay, I could but that would be ridiculous cause last time I looked I was only one woman—a woman who has had the odd pass made at her, er, I mean me, over the years. And, you know what? The ones who take no for an answer? Not creepy. The ones who keep pursuing me, staring at me, talking to me when I’ve made it clear I don’t want to talk to them, the ones who call me a bitch behind my back while still pursuing me? The ones who follow me home?

Creepers.

Women have made passes but they’ve never engaged in creeper behaviour. When I said I was not interested that was the end of it. Now, that’s just my experience. I know there are women creepers out there, too, just not in any where near the same kinds of numbers. For one thing most women are much better socialised at taking no for an answer.

Let me repeat: what’s creepy is not that someone I’m not attracted to is attracted to me. That’s just life. It’s been the other way round often enough. Most of us have suffered from unrequited love/lust. It’s awful, but we all get over it, and move on to people who requite our feelings.

That’s not the creepy part. The creepy part is when the person who is attracted to you won’t take no for an answer.

Think of Pride and Prejudice and Mr Collins’ proposal to Lizzy. He doesn’t give a damn what she thinks or what she says. He wants what he wants. He’s appalling. Everything he says is about him not his object of desire.1 He doesn’t care about Lizzy. He can’t even see who Lizzy is. He repeatedly does not take no for an answer. It doesn’t fit with his narrative so it doesn’t compute.

That’s how I feel when some bloke won’t take my no for their answer. Like Mr Collins they can’t see me as an actual sentient human being with thoughts and feelings and desires of my own. They don’t care what I want. They only care about getting what they want.

So. Not. Sexy.

Also having to explain to a grown human being that they can’t always have what they desire? That just because they like someone doesn’t mean that someone is going to like them? Seriously? Aren’t we all supposed to understand that by the time we’re, like, three?

I would like to eat mangosteens every single day but I have learned to accept the fact that they are not in season every single day. That even when they are in season sometimes the weather means the crops are inadequate or destroyed. Sucks. And is clearly a major design flaw with how the world is. But, you know, that’s life. Full of disappointment.

Other things I want but cannot have: a sphynx cat,2, to be taller, to play WNBA-level basketball, everyone in the universe to read my books, world peace, a pony.3

In conclusion: Um, I forget. For some reason I have this overwhelming craving for a mangosteen . . .

  1. No matter how lukewarm that desire is.
  2. We travel too much to have pets.
  3. Oh, wait. I don’t want a pony. It’s John Scalzi who’s always going on about wanting a pony.

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