Occam’s writing course

I want to say that I was in a Twitter discussion this week, except I wasn’t. I was an observer, wanting to contribute, wanting to ask, wanting to be in there. And I could have been, one of the people who was deep in it messaged me, but I could not vocalise what I was thinking.

Some days later, I’m with you and perhaps you could please picture me lying on your couch. Because, as so often before, I want to see if my telling you what I think will help me think it.

Apparently, by the way, this is called the Rubber Duck process. I do not know why. I also don’t know how widespread that term is: I heard it from a programmer on her podcast. But whyever it’s called what it’s called, the idea is that the action of your explaining something to someone else helps you understand it better yourself.

So. The big headline part of this Twitter discussion, the part I fell across first for some reason, was an idea that male writers should not be allowed to teach female writers.

I teach many, many female writers and I don’t think about their gender, I only think about their writing. That’s not completely correct: I have noticed in schools that it’s true how girls mature faster than boys so their writing is more interesting. But it is the writing I’m interested in.

Sudden flashback to a particular school where I’d just asked a question. I can see this little girl – I am appalling with ages, mostly because I don’t care – suggesting that the answer to something was “because we’re children”.

“Not to be rude, but what do I care how old you all are?” I asked her.

“Okay,” she offered, “is it because I’m a girl?”

I wish I could remember what I’d been asking them. But I do remember, as clearly as if she were in front of me now, that my response to that was to give her a funny look –– and make the question the harder.

Anyway. Sorry. How long until your next patient?

Of course I don’t think men shouldn’t be allowed to teach women, but this was one of those statements where without knowing any of the context, you still know the context. Actually, I still don’t know what sparked it off exactly, or even who most of the people involved are, but I know what you already know too.

Some male writer had been teaching a session and put down a female writer. You also know that it wasn’t to do with her writing, you know too that he did it unpleasantly, that he made it personal.

Maybe the question is not whether men should be allowed to teach women. Maybe it should be that since you already know all of this, since it’s common enough that you can picture the entire exchange, then maybe men should not be allowed to teach women.

It’s the unsurprising nature of this discussion and the event that sparked it. It’s the fact that I do not actually know the event that sparked it, nor the people, yet I know the event and I can see the man.

Something that was offered during the discussion was that there is an argument that women write differently to men, that the structures of drama that we’re all familiar with are quite male. I’ve separately heard the same thing said about different cultures, about how all our writing is shaped by all the writing that went before us wherever we are.

I don’t know. I shift about a bit on the couch as I say that to you because, to me, the individual and what she or he writes is more interesting than whether they use a three-act structure or not.

And as I was reading all of this, I was also listening to music. Francisca Valenzuela in my AirPods. She’s an American-born singer/songwriter who lives in Chile and writes and sings in Chilean. I have little idea what her lyrics mean, but this person who is not my gender or age, who sings in a language I do not understand, is born in one culture that’s different to mine and now lives in yet another culture that’s different to mine, I connect with her. Because she makes me connect with her.

If there’s a man who thinks he can’t learn writing from Valenzuela, he is insane.

Maybe that’s the key here. It’s not that men as half of the species are all bad at teaching, it’s that some –– okay, a mortifying number –– are just insane.

But insane people turn out to be very good at puncturing writers.

I think our time is up. See you next week.

He said, she said, they locked down

Okay, I was writing a text last night and absolutely the correct pronoun to use for a particular person was “they”. You had to be there. But if you had been, you’d have written “they” as well. And I have not one single problem with it.

But I do have a question.

For some reason, and who knows why, this time when I wrote the word, it made me wonder why we ever had “he” or “she”. Seriously. When is it actually necessary, I mean necessary, to specify someone’s gender? When has it ever been?

I mean, I long to give you an example of a time when it was considered necessary yet clearly wasn’t, but I can’t even pull that off.

This may just be on my mind because one of the things I’m doing during this coronavirus lockdown is that I’m learning French through Duolingo. And it’s killing me trying to fathom out gender. I’m concocting conspiracy theories about why it’s le stylo for a pen but la lettre for a letter. Why apples are female but vegetables are male.

Look, don’t press me on the precision here, I’m learning. Plus my only relief on these daily lessons is the remarkable number of times that the app asks me the correct gender for a taxi. Thank you Vanessa Paradis.

Not true. I also got some relief when I realised the real reason that I avoid beaches like la plage. Or that on the odd occasion I attempt dieting, toast and sandwiches are the first to go, as hard as that is. Bread is pain, after all.

What do you mean, my mind is wandering off into apparently and actually completely unconnected subjects?

Yesterday, for instance, I was one of many people recording a video message as part of the Royal Television Society’s coronavirus products. And I thought about it a lot because I didn’t know what I could say and I didn’t know who would particularly choose to listen anyway.

But then this see-saw, up and down, wandering yet focused lockdown mind of mine noticed that I was saying something I rather liked.

People will always remember what we did during this lockdown, I said, but he or she will also remember what we can do.

Women and losing

Give me a situation where one man and one woman are competing to write a particular piece of drama and I will ask why you bothered telling me their gender. It’s the piece I’m interested in, it’s their writing. I can’t conceive of a single possible reason that my knowing the sex of the writer would make any more difference than knowing their height.

Only, give me a situation where 86 percent of primetime television is written by men and now gender matters, now sex is telling me something is seriously wrong here.

Writing is not fair but then it shouldn’t be. Writers don’t get work just because it’s their turn. Not everybody should get to have a go. Because as much as I am a writer, as much as I care about writers, I’m a viewer first. I don’t tune in to satisfy a need in me for statistical balance. I tune in to watch and to be transported by writing that takes me places I don’t know with characters I’ve never met.

I want new.

And I ain’t getting it when 86 percent of television drama is written by men.

It’s not as if you suspect these men are the most diverse group, either, and that’s something the Writers’ Guild is looking at with Equality Writes. That’s a campaign launched this week that wants to fix film and television by making the industry recognise what’s actually happening. Get programme makers talking about it, get audiences talking about it, and maybe we can finally do something about it too.

Equality Writes starts with men and women because there are figures you can get for that imbalance. That’s why I know the 86 percent figure: it was uncovered during the research for an exhaustive and exhausting report that the Writers’ Guild commissioned. I nearly didn’t read that because I thought I already knew it was ridiculous how few women get to write for the screen. But then I’d see the report’s figures and then I’d see the report’s graphics about all this.

I did hang on for a while to the hope that things are getting better. Plus it’s a report about the industry today, maybe we’re just in a peculiar slump.

No and nope.

That’s the real jolt of this report and this campaign to me: the percentage of women writing television and film has stayed consistent for the last decade.

For ‘consistent’ read ‘low’ and for ‘low’ read ‘crap’. It is just crap how women aren’t getting to write and it makes me blood-angry that something is stopping me getting to see the writing of half our species.

I would like that to change now, please. And I work for the Writers’ Guild, it makes me proud that they’re doing something about it. Do join them, do join me in putting your name to the campaign too.

This was not written by a woman

I’m a man. It’s difficult to think of a reason this could matter or be of any interest to you. Okay, yes, I think what you and I have is something special but you’ve never given me the idea you’re, you know, shall we say, thinking of me. Like that. Though if you were, if you ever do want me to put some shelves up, I can do it. Otherwise, I’m stumped. No reason I can conceive of that you would pay my gender any mind.

And yet, I guarantee that you read that paragraph and you knew, you knew for certain that I am a man. It will be because I actually told you I was a man and then I hit on you so you’d be sure. But apparently you didn’t need either clue, you would’ve been able to tell simply through any of my non-gender detailed and non-pronoun-using writing that you’ve ever read or I’ve ever written.

Is it male that I itch to have a topical reason to bring this up today? I think it might be a bit male that I can find a reason and that it’s got something to do with sport. I don’t say that, “something to do with sport” in an offhand way, this is really about the level of my understanding of it. But there’s this Andy Murray guy, he plays tennis, he’s hired a coach and she’s a woman. This would not have penetrated my noggin but for how a man I know mentioned it and rolled his eyes.

Two seconds before, I barely held the word tennis in my consciousness, but now I really want whoever she is to coach this fella to win whatever it is. I’m that invested.

So that’s a topical reason to mention gender. There is also last September when author and literature lecturer David Gilmour said:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

Canadian author David Gilmour sparks furore over female writers – Liz Bury, The Guardian (27 September 2013)

There is a kneejerk reaction to this jerk who should be kneed and it’s that one just starts rattling off a list of all the women writers one admires. But on the one hand, that feels as patronising and oh-how-generous of me as this Gilmour’s allowing one Woolf story does. And on the other, come on: we’d be here forever if I started doing that.

So instead I just dwell for a moment on the age-old question: is this guy a git or what?

Only, none of this is really the reason I’m writing about it to you today. It is all a depressing reminder that there are forever stupid people in this world, but it’s not the reason. The reason is VS Naipaul.

I’m only three years late to this.

In 2011, this fella disparaged women writers and said:

“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen – Amy Fallon, The Guardian (2 June 2011)

He is very specific.

He means it. No woman writes as well as him and it is because they are women. He talks about their sentimentality, how – I don’t really follow this bit, but – “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

I hadn’t ready any of VS Naipaul’s writing before this and there’s obviously no point now. I don’t see how I could now ever get through a paragraph without thinking “Seriously? This is supposed to be superior to every woman writer alive or dead ever? Excuse me?”

That Guardian article does the kneejerk list of superb women writers. It also quotes the Writers’ Guild as saying they wouldn’t waste their breath on Naipaul’s comments, which I like.

But I don’t think this fella thought it through.

Well, okay, of course he didn’t. But I mean, even within his own worldview, he didn’t see what this claim means.

Follow. He believes women writers are inferior because they are women. Therefore, men writers are superior because they are men. Our talent, our skill, the very heart of our lives that we strive for as writers comes down to nothing but whether anything dangles between our legs.

That means all writing is bollocks.

There’s no point striving to improve if you’re a woman, I can relax because I’m a man. Nothing to do with me or you, nothing to do with your or my talent, our efforts, our hopes.

Naturally I don’t want to conclude that writing is bollocks as I am a writer and I’m afraid there is truly nothing else I can be. So I’m going to stop a little short of thinking this, I’m going clear my head of this man and of this topic and merely reflect on how fascinating we men can be.

When we put our minds to it, we men are capable of what I really thought was impossible: we can simultaneously be pricks and arses.