Archive for the ‘writing’ Category
Following up from the post above about Amy Sohn’s piece: had a discussion last night about why it had been difficult for me to find novels written by females for a specific (but not all that specific) syllabus that I taught from last year – and why it might be the case that that was so. (More specifically, this conversation last night was provoked by the fact that students who took this seminar have taken it upon themselves to run their own seminar / reading group during the summer focused on female authors of the same period as the mostly male authors that we handled in mine… According to reports they’re not unhappy with me, understand why I assigned what I did, we’ve talked about it at length, but still they want to do more – and I’m glad they are.) Some of it may be that the specific aesthetic itself that we were dealing with in the seminar is gendered (and that it was a gender-driven choice on my part to centre on it in the class). This is worthy of discussion – and discuss it we did.
But something else came up that’s interesting too: the institutional, structural reasons why female writers’ careers tend (NB – by tend I mean tend – there are lots of exceptions!) to follow certain paths and not others. There are both active and passive, or positive and negative reasons why women don’t tend to write a certain sort of novel. On the one hand, there are of course roadblocks and prohibitions: old boys clubs – or even young boys clubs, preconceptions about who is suitable to write what, and of course all the psychological baggage that comes of growing up and being educated and everything else as a female rather than a male.
But on the other hand – I think this is just as interesting – female writers careers are shaped (in the context of this discussion, misshaped) as significantly by the carrot as by the stick. In other words – and if you’ve spent any time with a female freelance writer trying to make it on the American scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about – there are paths that young female writers are encouraged to follow by everything from article pitch acceptances to book contracts. The form that this encouragement takes is shaped by a nexus of ideology, taste, readership, but most importantly money and markets. And no one forces female writers to follow these paths – but they often are the paths of least resistance, and in a hard world, sometimes frictionless movement forward is undeniably appealing.
To put it another way. No one, in general, wants a tell-all / roman à clef about a guy’s sex life – let alone to write the sort of Carrie Bradshaw style column that leads to one of those. With a few notable exceptions, there’s not much demand for the “my life as a dad” style book either, where as mommy-centric stuff seems to be one of the true perennials of the book trade. I could be wrong – and in fact I have the slightest bit of evidence that I might be – but I have a feeling that a male version of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation wouldn’t work – or at least receive the PR explosion that it did when it came out over here – if written by a man.
Or to put it again yet another way: take two would-be freelancers in their 20s living in Brooklyn during the 2000s, one male and one female. Perhaps both want to write highbrow pieces about international affairs, the state of American culture, domestic politics, whatever. Both of them receive rejection after rejection when they try to do so. Of course they do – they are too green, there’s lots of established experts in those fields, they haven’t yet built up the CVs and the contacts, whatever. But the female of the pair discovers that yes, there is a market for a piece comparing her life to Carrie Bradshaw’s. It’s a throwaway, but it builds her publication list, so she takes the shot. There’s not really an equivalent slot for the guy to fill, so he turns instead to a PhD, writing a long, recondite literary novel, whatever. Meanwhile, for the female, one thing starts to lead to another – the article to an appearance on television to discuss SATC, the television appearance to a series of other related articles, and one day, after being coaxed into writing a particularly spicy piece by a magazine contact, a book contract about, well, some sort of equivalent of the Sohn thing I discussed in the previous post. The guy on the other hand likely gets nowhere, or becomes an academic, or perhaps, if he’s both good and very very lucky, releases his monstrous tome and ends up a rising light of the “literary fiction” scene.
Super-reductive, all of this, I know. But in practice – with countless variations – I’ve seen it turn out this sort of way lots and lots of time. There are highbrow versions of the same phenomenon: the smart woman who writes smart stuff for the right places, but smart stuff that always requires her to insert herself into the piece in some sort of slapsticky manner, the point of what she’s after constantly receding behind a wall of Cuteness and Funniness. And so on – but for another day.
Please don’t misunderstand. There are both good and bad reasons why these “paths” develop for women, but what I am trying to get at is the way that they can in many cases be formative – shunt talented people into some success, but success that in the long run settles on a plateau of mediocrity or even obnoxiousness. In Cusk’s case for instance – and despite the fact that I liked the bits that I read of Aftermath – one really does wonder if a writer of her talents isn’t wasting her time doing this sort of thing. Making a bit of money, yes, but wasting her time when she could be doing better work. Maybe she will next – or maybe she’ll write a follow-up to this book that got her a full-spread in the culture section of every Saturday paper in Britain a few months ago.
At any rate, and for now, let this stand as my attempt to explain part of what I was trying to get at yesterday – the way that one can feel the interpolative (and ultimately mediocritizing) forces at work shaping a piece of writing like that…. And of course, there are so many things here that need more attention: what I mean by “better” work, the ways that strong female authors game with the expectations I’m describing, what happens to female authors who, to borrow a term, “opt out” of this structure, and the somewhat translucent parallel expectations that exist for men….
Sticks all over the damn place, but perhaps the most effective carrot driving me to finish the book right this minute is the idea that if it were published and then I was promoted, I would be in a good position to jockey for a bigger office, an office big enough for a couch. If I had a couch, I wouldn’t have to take my writing-naps on the cold, hard, fairly dirty floor.
Sure I feel bad about having writing-naps in the middle of the day. I don’t get to do it that often, and now only uncomfortably, but back in the day – back when I can remember writing fluidly – they were an essential part of the process of composition. I’d get stuck, then sleep or even just lie there with my eyes closed for half-an-hour, and things would as if automagically rethread themselves, recombine into eloquence.
It’s not hard to describe the pain of writing. You type and the other part of you says No, not good or sometimes scribbles in the margins in ink visibile only to you AWK. And so the first you backspaces and starts again. And again you hear, from the other guy, Nope. Awkward. And this goes on for quite awhile until you finish the piece, progressing in a way best described as an inside-outing of the Zeno’s arrow paradox.
I am rewriting a section of this into my piece on waiting. The blog is the only place (perhaps you can tell – ugh) where the process above does not apply. And thus I’m beginning to have a sense that the most efficient way for me to get writing done is simply to scribble every night on here and then, later, go back and see what can be combed out of all this knotted stuff. I am combing more out of this knotted stuff, and it seems to be OK to do that.
Interesting to think: I only write easily when I write under another name. When I have a sense that my own name is going to be on the thing – and it’s hard not to have that sense when I tap into the first two lines of every document THE TITLE and then MY NAME, right back to Catholic school training that, see also APOTAAAYM.) But under the pseduo, even though the pseudo is becoming increasingly less pseudoffective all the time, I can simply type. If I could remember my Derrida on some level other than a sort of intellectual muscle-memory, I could probably come up with something clever to say about all of this. But now, really, back to the cutting, pasting, and strenuous editting.
More bleak news on the academic job front, via the NY Times.
Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.
A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.
“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”
The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.
Glad to see that the Times has gotten one of the secret and small issues at play here – secret and small but bound to make this problem worse moving forward. In the USA, where there’s no manditory retirement (as there is here in the UK, and probably as there should be everywhere, but only if there are proper state pensions in place of course, which is not at all a given….) lots of the long tenured types who were headed toward retirement have had their stupid TIAA-CREF accounts shredded by the stock market dive. Their answer, of course, will be to defer retirement even longer than academics usually defer retirement, which is a long, long time.
At my last job, I had a choice between a state pension and a managed retirement account with TIAA-CREF. I really wanted to choose the former, really did for so many reasons, but with things the way they are in terms of mobility / precarity, it seemed (in the five minutes I was given to make the choice after some infotainment at the HR building) like a very bad bet to start a habit of accruing tiny little pension pots all over the USA… and as it turns out, not just the USA. So I took the non-pension. And wow, has it ever bled cash over the past year.
Well, at least if the academic job-market tanks everyone could just become freelance writers instead of boring academics. Erm… Francis Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week, suggests that writing may well be becoming – or already – exclusively the province of the rich:
It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.
There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go. But anyone hailing from more hardscrabble environs may find it too difficult to get traction before succumbing to the dismal economics of it all. (In contrast with another industry under siege—music—in which rising from the hood or the farm still seems plausible, even stereotypical.)
The Internet has brought the newspaper business to its knees. Some serious magazines are undergoing stress tests of their own. Maybe a certain kind of writing about the world, informed by underdog experience and lower-class perspective, will also prove to be a relic of the dead-tree era. Such writing wasn’t in great supply before. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard of get paid?
It is a bit hard to understand, and the older I get (and the better circles that I move in) it only gets harder. A little while ago I was out for drinks with a relatively famous writer in multiple genres who had just spent an hour, among other things, baiting his academic audience with their failure to publish relevant work, to publish in the newspapers and the like. Despite the fact that he is, as I said, relatively famous, I doubt we’re talking about boatloads of money from the books and the increasingly rare journalism, and certainly not enough to support a lifestyle that at least resembles, if not betters, those of the academics that he was drinking with afterwards. I wanted to ask the unaskable question – the question about how this all worked, how with the family and the kids, the tennis games on Saturday mornings and the house in a decent part of the city – he kept it all together without tethering himself to a department and lectures and seminars, essays to mark and students to meet and sub-committees to sign on for. But of course, I did not ask. Though there are a few options, one does not really need to ask.
In America, it is hard to think of anyone remotely near my age who writes who is not an academic of one stripe or another. In the UK, it is slightly easier, I suppose because of the low cost of education and the free health care, and the fact that the pay scale seems to be slightly more humane than the one decscribed by Wilkinson above. But only slightly easier. Back home, I do or did know a few who went the intern to editorial assistant to subeditor to managing editor route, while writing on the side – a route fraught with perils of more than one stripe, but every once in awhile it works out. And of course there are a few exceptional cases where it can happen the way it should happen, occasionally even very deserving cases like this one. Or then again, some try other lines of work, but this usually comes to no good, I suppose because too much of your mind is elsewhere for to much of the time. At least when, say, a literary academic isn’t writing because his or her job is too demanding, she or he is still working through the operative questions and issues at least part of the time. Working as a bank teller or a store clerk or a lawyer or, dunno, an intinerant apple picker might well be a good source of material, but I can imagine (and remember) how intellectually depleting such work can be.
One feels a reflexive need to say at this point in this sort of post that it is important to remember that academics are only academics, writers are only writers, and that everyone else in the world has it worse. I am sure that is very true. But on the other hand, and without being a blinders-on technocrat about things, it does seem a bit worrying to thing about a world in which almost all would-be academics have to find something else to do, or else teach themselves crazy until writing is off the table, and where absolutely the only writing that gets done is done by the children of the idle rich. Of course, we’re already there and getting more there everyday.
I’d like to find a way to write about this. It’s interesting – given the choice between blurring the distinction between what we do and what everyone else does via “the modern office is the victorian factory” move and some sort of elderly-sounding defense of art and thought as the eyes and mind of the polity stance, my instincts are on the side of the latter. I am not a factory worker; I’m not really treated like one. It doesn’t take a very deep look into Victorian factory life to realise that this is true. On the other hand, it may be harder to produce and disseminate decent work now than it used to be. There’s some other way at this than the ways people are generally thinking about it, but I’ve been warned not to be so promisory in my posts, so no promises.
(I’ll come back to it later, soon…)