Do Men Read Books by Women?

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It’s a well-documented truism that while women read books by and about men, men are far less likely to read books by or about women. As a woman who writes books about women, this is bad news for me, but also a woman living in the world that is full of both men and women, it’s also a troubling puzzle.

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Ladies be readin’

Here’s something worth a try: ask your nearest man what was the last book they read that was written by a woman. The nearest man I asked cheated, because he was reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf at the time, and he threw off my survey and ruined my favourite hobby which is maligning men while complaining that women are subject to constant calumny in the opinions of said men. But, several friends have had responses to the effect that the last book by a woman their nearest men read was Harry Potter, when it came out.

So why not? Is it that men, as a rule, have no interest in women? I have observed this, broadly, not to be true. Is it that they feel that these stories won’t be relatable for them? But in that case, wouldn’t women mostly or only read women authors? Sure, there are far fewer, although the gap these days is closing and there are still enough that you could read exclusively women writers if you wanted. Is it the kind of stories men expect women to write about or something imagined about “feminine style”? If that were the case, wouldn’t every woman under a male nom de plume be instantly unmasked?

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This woman is sick of your foolish chatter about how books by women are just for girls

For my part, I wonder if it’s something subtler and more insidious than this. If it’s the idea that many men have that they don’t want to be associated with something “girly”, the pervasive message in society that men must be super-manly all the time. It’s coming into question more and more, but it’s still there.

Being not a man myself, I do not have the answer. Feminist theory of the C20th has plenty to say about women and men and who should write for whom, but as the world moves forward some of that absolutism feels out-of-date.

I’m optimistic that we can look forward to a future in which there’s less of a gender divide in readers. Books are books, after all, not books for boys and books for girls. All books are for everyone.

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How to Give Good Critique

 

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Manuscript image of Ezra Pound’s edits of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, taking editing a friend’s work to the extreme, perhaps. 

As we all know, giving and receiving critique is a subtle art and as writers we frequently offer our work out for the consideration of others and ask the same in return. So how do you avoid offending, offer useful feedback and make sure both you and your partner are the best writer they can be?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of people who have given me helpful critique (and from my times in academic peer review, I know there are those who give unhelpful criticism – looking at you, reviewer 2) and to have been asked to feedback on the work of others.

Here are a few of the tips from my own personal experience. Please feel free to share your own in the comments!

1) Start off with positives 
We’ve all heard of the compliment sandwich (you new haircut looks lovely, I’m not sure if the green dye is quite right on you, and gosh that hat of yours I saw last week suited you so well), of sugaring the pill, of the spoonful of sugar etc. But surely as writers we are adults and we don’t need anyone to speak softly to us? We want to hear it like it is!

Yes, certainly, but here’s the thing: when you’re dishing out just criticism, that’s not as useful as proper feedback that takes in both sides. It’s easy to see a list of “x, y, z needs changing” and think “f– it, I’ll tear it all down”. But you want to be able to work productively with what you have, and that means keeping what’s positive as well as axing what isn’t working.

imageSo this means that rather than saying ‘some of the characterisation was inconsistent’ you would say, ‘I really enjoyed the characterisation of x, and I thought that worked really well, but I wast sure that y held together as strongly. If they could all be as cohesive as x, it would be much stronger.’

 
2) Be specific, especially when it comes to style
You might be hesitant to talk about style, but there is a fuzzy area between personal style and grammatical area that I’m going to call the ‘stylistic quirk’ which your critiquee may wish to address or may not. Comments like, “sometimes your grammar was muddled” aren’t as helpful as “you tend to use a lot of semicolons and long sentences, and it’s easier on the reader if you split the sentences. You might be doing this for effect in places, but it’s better to be sparing, then this will be more effective.”

Bear in mind some things might be deliberate. Approach with a “this was unusual and I was not sure if it was intentional” air, and you’re on safe enough ground.

3) You don’t have to love everything
Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.11.25.pngIn fact, one of my pet peeves of critique is the meaningless “babe I loved it”. Everything can always be a bit better. Sometimes, in my more “tired and emotional” moments, I have come to suspect that these readers (often friends) have not actually read what I asked them to. Your friends are not obliged to read your work, of course, but if you are asked by a friend to read something and you do not have time, please say no, rather than pretending you have read it.

It is hard reading for friends. And you absolutely should be tactful. That said, if you ask someone to read something for you because you want help with it, you should also expect some degree of help in the form of “do x, y, z differently.”

These, for me, are the cornerstones of good informal reader critique. I’d love to hear what others think are important. Share in the comments below!

Powerful People

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Screen shot 2013-09-13 at 16.41.31.pngI’m sure many of you readers are familiar with the old adage that you can tell if your date is worth keeping if they’re polite to the people bringing your drinks, taxi drivers, etc. etc. There is something to be said for the idea that we can judge the moral quality of those around us by how they treat people over whom they have power, people who can offer them nothing for themselves.

In both of my lives, as a junior academic and as a fiction writer, I’m often mixing with and dealing with people with a great deal of power over me. I’m sorry to report that I don’t have any power over anyone, not even my cat, whose greatest joy in life is to shout at me at 7am, and hit me in the face with his paw until I feed him.

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This isn’t the most wildly relevant image but I do love the Blues Brothers

This isn’t the most wildly relevant image but I do love the Blues BrothersFor the most part, I have benefitted from kindness, generosity and excellent mentorship from the people in both of these lives. But the times when I have not do stick out to me, especially since they came at the hands of people who, for a short while at the start, had been kind.

I remember my secondary school headmaster who felt the need to tell a seven-teen-year-old girl under his duty of care that she was not “serious” enough to get into Oxford (I did) and then withheld the results of my interview and publicly chastised by for being “conceited” for asking to know my (positive) when a friend told me he had them and I asked to know what they were.

I remember, years and years ago now, a senior academic who offered mentorship, to read my work, incredible kindness and support, which was all taken away with a threatening email that copied in other senior members of the field I had hoped to work in when I supposedly broke a rule of etiquette (of which I was not aware) when I spoke to another academic at another institution about the work I had planned to do.  This was enough, it seemed, to turn Jekyll into Hyde.

Kevin-Spacey-House-of-Cards-Netflix-600x315People in power have fragile egos. That is the lesson I learned. People who have power over you can (though, thankfully, most of the time don’t) dispense kindness, generosity and praise about your work and your prospects, and then, if you make one error of etiquette, one request they don’t like, stand your ground on one issue that matters to you, that can all go away, and in that moment it goes away, that is when you learn something about them.

Perhaps it makes me a cynic, but in those early moments in my career, I learned not to trust kindness when it happened while the going was good. I’m still disappointed when people with power over me choose to exert it by suddenly switching from praise and encouragement to criticism and threats, but I’m no longer upset. I’m no longer surprised.

And it’s a shame. It’s a shame when critique turns to criticism and when you realise that people’s effusive praise of your work was perhaps as insincere as their condemnation of it when they rip it to shreds once you’ve displeased them.

But I am so grateful to all of those powerful people who have dealt with me as a professional and an equal. The incredible mentors I have had in both halves of my writing life. And it’s a lesson learned. Every day, as we like to say in the Collins house, is a school day.

I would like to be both

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 22.50.28.pngThis popped up on my timeline a week or so ago, and was sort of casually shared around a small group of friends who, I have to confess, had a little laugh at the expense of this poor wife and her purpose which is (? i assume) to have six babies who then become scientists? I don’t know. I didn’t read her whole timeline because I had already read some Piers Morgan tweets that day and I have to keep an eye on my blood pressure now that I am an Older Lady.

From the general framing of herself as a ‘wife with purpose’ rather than a ‘person with purpose’ or (middle ground here) ‘woman with purpose’ I kind of expected this much.

It’s kind of an odd statement because I definitely know several smart scientist women who have also “made” smart scientists. Also are you in trouble with her if you adopt scientists? How can you be sure you’ll get scientists? Imagine if she had me. I’m not sure that three degrees in medieval history was what she was hoping for when she was lying back and thinking of… science? IDK.

So, so much so par for the course, right? But then (and I make no apologies for this) one of the makeup brands that somehow manages to trap me in Debenhams and magic my money from me has betrayed me!

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‘cute’ and humorous or just plain lazy?

Look at this advert from Benefit. Come on. Can’t we do better than this in 2017? I’m so tired of this clever woman / pretty woman dichotomy. And it cuts both ways. We’re better than this.

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