Being Nice

Photo on 2013-06-27 at 10.45

 

I worked with Fay Weldon on Monday (sometimes, I really do have a glamorous literary life). As usual, La Weldon said a lot of interesting things. But one of the most interesting, for me, anyway, was, ‘A lot of women writers are held back by wanting to be nice in their fiction, because they want to be good girls and please everyone.’

Just like many young women don’t think that there’s any need for feminism anymore, many new female writers think that their fiction will be a gender-free zone, where their womanliness has no impact on how they are read. Of course, both are sadly mistaken. There is still a 10% gender pay gap in the UK, women pensioners are, according to the government, ‘significantly more impoverished’ than male pensioners. 1 in 10 men will be treated for mental illness and it’s 1 in 4 women… And, despite Hilary Mantel’s recent successes, the vast majority of literary prize winners, grant awardees, Visiting Professors, etc, etc, etc are men, even though, on any given post-graduate course in Creative Writing, women predominate.

‘Girls will read about boys,’ my first children’s editor told me. ‘But boys won’t read about girls.’ I thought boys grew out of that, but an editor interested in the book that became The Saint Who Loved Me thought differently. ‘No man is going to read this,’ she told me sternly. ‘It’s got things about tampons in it.’

I hadn’t realised that. I hadn’t realised that because I wrote about a woman’s experience of the world, and wrote about marital problems, spirituality and life choices from a woman’s perspective, I was alienating 48% of my potential readers from the get-go. Male readers very much liked Welcome to Eudora from the various reviews and letters I got from them. How they got their hands on it remains a mystery, though…it was often shelved under ‘Romance’.

If you happen to, or make up your mind to, write in accepted literary models and if you write, in a way, specifically for men, you don’t seem to be ghettoised. But if you are a female writing primarily for women, you can pretty much forget being taken seriously by the literary establishment. Even today.

How much of that problem is about the writers being too ‘nice’ in their fiction and how much is about marketing, cover design and titling (the working title for The Saint Who Loved Me was  St Rock) still remains a mystery.

But I know one thing – nobody is going to take my books seriously if I don’t. If I don’t stop being nice and wanting to please everybody.

I’m writing in the café today, because my new cleaner is in my house and my shed is still on order. While I was madly typing away (the tea here is strong enough to be a Class A drug), an acquaintance approached, smiling.

‘May I join you?’ she asked.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’d rather you didn’t. I’m working.’

She raised her eyebrows and looked hurt as she turned away. I fought the instinct to run after her…to abandon my manuscript and explain. But I didn’t.

It’s a start.

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Running it Out

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It’s nearly midnight and I really should be asleep. There’s no guarantee the new puppy will sleep through the night and I have (of course) lots to do tomorrow. But I wanted to share something with you before I close my eyes.

I just finished watching Moneyballa very good baseball film. We watch lots of baseball films in our house…and we have quite a little baseball library, too. 

I love baseball. There’s something about the moment where one person is under the falling ball/batting with the bases loaded/pitching for the last out.  If he catches it/gets a hit/strikes out the batter, he’s a hero. If not, he’s a total schmuck. It reminds me an awful lot of the writing life. Sooner or later it comes down to that…you and the great game. Will you score, or will you strike out? 

I was too terrible at baseball to play softball in the long American summer breaks, but I had to play in school. Our PE teacher soon learned to frisk my glove for books. He was always urging us to run out every ball. I was placed far in the outfield, where my total absence of athleticism could do the least damage, but even so, a hit ball sometimes trickled my way. ‘Run for it!’ he’d scream.

Honestly. The other fielders were way faster than I was and could actually throw the ball once they’d caught it. Running after a ball I knew I couldn’t throw and taking it away from worthier teamates seemed stupid . 

‘Why didn’t you run out the ball?’ the red-faced coach would demand. 

‘I didn’t think I could catch it.’

‘Try! Run out every ball, even if you don’t think you’ll win it. One time you will, and it will all be worth it.’ I can see the poor man now, labouring to explain the concept. In vain, I’m afraid. I never, to my knowledge, ran out a ball. 

That said, have a look at this Martha Graham quotation. 

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly.

If that’s not running out every ball, I don’t know what is. I might not have listened to my poor PE teacher on the baseball field, but I certainly have taken his wisdom on board in my creative work. 

Get in the habit of keeping the channel open and doing your work the best you can. Run out every ball, even the ones you don’t think you can catch. One day, you’ll surprise yourself and feel it hitting the palm of your glove.