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.

Exposed

I have literally bled over my keyboard: I like to say that it was from the power of my writing or at least the power of my typing but in truth I just had a paper cut one Tuesday. This was untold years ago but I want to talk to you about it today because I’ve had three messily disconnected thoughts that I think might just be very tidily connected, if we can just focus on them.

At the start of the week, a friend mentioned that she’d had some criticism of a script of hers, that she’d been told “not enough bombs go off in it”. My friend agrees with this and now she’s said it, so do I. Only because she’s said it, though: I read that script, I enjoyed it very much and between us I rather envied her writing, but yes, on reflection, it needs a bomb or three.

Then a couple of days ago, another friend sent me a poem of hers which, as well as a good thousand other things, was about her breasts. Now, I’m a man and I am rather deeply flattered that she correctly trusted that I would take this poem the way it was intended, that I would look at it as a piece of writing she wanted an opinion on, that I wouldn’t go all hot and flustered about it.

Okay. I went a little hot and flustered. Oh, but you should see it: a real example of the power of a poet where those thousand things are all there, all present, all explored in the shortest, tightest, briefest writing. Every word vital, every rhythm and punctuation a key part of the effect.

Only, look what I just did. I admitted to you that I got hot and flustered but then I immediately ran off to hide into literary critique and try to sound like a professional writer. I did the equivalent of coughing at you, of saying I’ve just got something in my eye, of saying “so anyway, did you see the match?” or something.

Her poem is really, I feel, about many different kinds and levels of intimacy, of trust and bonding, of shared and unshared experiences and feelings, I think it’s about friendship and just human connection. But I’ll say it: her poem is also very sexy.

I found that hard to say to you. I find I’m also suddenly hoping she never reads this or that the next time we meet up, we can drink a lot of whisky to disguise my red face. Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it? But I also need to accept that I find it hard to write material that is exposed and sexy. I think it may come from childhood when I read a lot of Arthur C Clarke and got exasperated at how schoolboy his constant panting about breasts in zero gravity is. Flash forward a lot of years and someone told me they thought a character of mine was a sexual fantasy and I was appalled because I think she’s right yet the character is not a fantasy of mine. Did she think it was, would you think that’s what I, um, respond to?

I think sexy goes far, far beyond the physical and I’ve written many women characters that I’ve fancied on the page for their wit and excitement, that I’ve then fancied in studio for who played those characters. I think you are now reading the only thing I have written about body parts. No, wait, I did a Self Distract once about the word skin. Okay, you’re now reading only the second thing I’ve written about body parts.

That skin one was to do with a misheard Suzanne Vega lyric that I found charged and exciting and true, and therefore feel gigantically smug that as it was misheard, that means I wrote it and she didn’t. I also feel stupid for mishearing a line for twenty years, but. Speaking of Suzanne Vega, though, she has a song with called Ironbound/Fancy Poultry and, set in a food market, it gets to speak of “breasts and thighs and hearts”. It’s taking words we associate with sex and keeping that association but also taking the words out into the light to examine them.

I said I had three thoughts and you’ve got to expecting that the third is also about sex. I’m being very male today. Only, no. This is where the disconnection comes in, the feeling I have that I’m groping – unfortunate word, sorry – toward something more. This third bit is about another friend who, possibly two years ago now, also asked me to read something of hers she was working on. It was a novel and I enjoyed it but in the talk with her later, I realised she’d had no qualms about asking me to read it.

There was nothing in that manuscript that worried her. Wait, no, there was one thing: she had a character called Will who was particularly attractive and she needed me to know that “he isn’t remotely, distantly, possibly based on you, William”. I would never have made the connection, it would never have occurred to me that it was my name, but now I went harrumphing into reading it.

That was all that troubled her, the coincidence of names. And I can see us in a coffee shop talking later, I can see the moment when I realised that what I felt the book was missing was something that gave her, the writer, qualms. Something that exposed her more, that for all it was about interesting characters in an interesting situation, it needed to also be more about the writer. Exposed is the right word. It needed some risk. I think the piece needed something that when she handed me the manuscript, she was embarrassed about how I’d take it.

This is what I’m striving for with you today, what I realise my writing needs to strive for more. I hurt my characters, I have emotional bombs going off and I have emotional bombs waiting to explode, but I don’t cut into myself. I don’t mean that I have to write about breasts but I need to bleed over the keyboard much, much more and the fact that I hold back is really getting on my tits.

Bossy

You can put too much weight on a single word, you can read too much into it, you can over-stress the poor bugger. And I know you can do this because I’ve spent a week doing exactly that with the word ‘bossy’.

The reason that I’ve been thinking about it for a week because it’s seven days since it came up in a conversation. Now, I am going to go surgical on this word, I am going to kill it solely to then do a post-mortem but I want you to know that I’m thinking of the word rather than the people in the conversation. I especially want you to know that if you were one of the three of us nattering.

It was just a chat but it got me pondering.

This was after last week’s Self Distract about Kindles which included a clip from BBC Newsnight where author Lee Child talked with interviewer Kirsty Wark. I mentioned in the chat that I rather rate Wark. I didn’t exactly say that I had a crush on her, but I might as well have done as it was bleedin’ obviously implied. And that was on a friend’s mind as she told me that therefore I’d have enjoyed a conference Wark did recently where she was apparently all bossy getting people back to their seats after a break.

There’s just so much in that word bossy.

What I consciously thought at the time was that I wasn’t at this conference so I cannot know for sure, but I can bet that she needed to get these people back. I can bet that if it had been a man doing the same thing, it probably wouldn’t have been given any word. Might have been labelled organised, maybe tense, I don’t know. But probably not bossy.

That thought didn’t take me a week.

Instead, what I’ve chewed and chewed over is the implicit presumption that I would’ve liked her specifically for being bossy. I mean, liked her as in, you know, liked her. Tugs at collar. Is it hot in here? I know this bothered me immediately because I did stress and state and underline that I admire Kirsty Wark for having had this great BBC News career yet simultaneously form and grow a rather impressive production company. I overcompensated.

But not because I was, shall we say, responding to the notion of this woman being bossy.

Men do. I know. And it’s so embarrassing. It’s the – look, my hands are wringing as I describe this, it is agony – it’s the way that certain men are attracted to being bossed about. Attracted to schoolteacher figures. Attracted to women who order them around. I feel like they are schoolboys and while equally there are women who are drawn to father figures and authority figures in men, that’s their problem. I’m a man, I’m busy being mortified for my half of the species.

Yet I do think that we are all at our very most attractive when we are working. You perform at work, you stand tall, you dress properly and you just spark. Someone doing interesting work and being good at it, being clever, being in full flow, being at the top of their game and just simply being in action is very sexy.

Thank goodness I no longer work in an office. Can you imagine how I’d get ribbed for this today? “Oh, yes, very sexy, William, the way you made the tea, God, I’m excited now. Any chance you could boss the teabag about a bit?”

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.