reading

Women You Should Know About screencap from Emerald Street article

Women (writers) you should know about: Reading women on International Women’s Day

First some good news! I am so honoured that the amazing Suzi Feay has picked me as one of her top four up-and-coming women writers. Read the full article here. Suzi will be on two fantastic panel discussions ‘On Reading Women’ (at the British Museum, Saturday 8th March 3.30-4.30opm: find out more here) and ‘Celebrating Women Writers’ (Working Men’s College, London, Thursday 13th March, 7pm: find out more here).

I was planning a post about reading women writers anyway, so here it is!

Now that people can start calling themselves feminists again without everyone assuming that they subscribe to any of the sillier brands of academic feminist theory (a legitimate worry if, like me, you’ve ever worked in academia), we can get back to the business at hand: recognising that although things have moved forward men and women are not yet equal in the world and we must continue to strive to make it so.

But please let’s do it without every second word being ‘phallocentric’ or every phrase involving a ‘binary opposition’ that ‘essentialises’ something. We don’t have to induce a mass headache to make an important point.

‘So what’s the relevance to reading?’ you may ask. ‘Is this going to be just another article moaning about how men get more press coverage, and more reviews are written by men about men, and men are selected more often for prizes and…’ The fact that all this is still true means it’s worth repeating, but it’s not really what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how all this relates to reading habits.

Another thing the statistics show is that while women make up the majority of fiction readers, they read books by both sexes (and, yes, I’m leaving aside the debate about whether there is, indeed, a simple ‘binary opposition’ between sexes) while men tend to read books by other men.

I mostly read books by women for one simple reason: what I read about books by women (in blurbs, in articles, on Twitter, in blog-posts, and in reviews) tends to make me want to read these books, whereas I quite often don’t like the sound of books by men as much. Also my experience is that, as a rule, I’m more likely to enjoy books by women. However,  of my favourite-ever books, quite a few are by men while I’ve read plenty of shockingly dire books by women. I would never not read a book because it was by a man. And I would never not read about a book by a man. I set myself up to read and to like books by men as much as those by women.

It’s probably worth saying here that I quite often ignore the author’s name entirely. I’m dyslexic and I find it very hard to read names I don’t know. I once nearly failed a maths exam because I couldn’t tell if Michael was the name pronounced ‘mi-kal’ or the name pronounced ‘mi-shell’. When I don’t recognise a name, I quite often skim over it – for entire books if necessary. Until someone explained that ‘Her-mee-OWN-ee’ was actually the much more attractive ‘Her-MY-oh-nee’, she was just ‘H’. So for about three Harry Potter books…

I tend to focus on titles rather than author names because names are hard for me and, usually, I don’t think they’re worth the trouble. It’s what’s inside the book, not on the cover, that I really care about. If the author’s initials are given, I rarely try to find out if the book in my hands is by a man or woman. In general, the only reason I ever know is that I read the author’s bio and the acknowledgements before starting a book, and that quite often gives the game away. But the point is that it doesn’t matter to me. Other things have drawn me to the book and it’s only after the fact that I realise that, yes, my reading ratio is 75:25, give or take, in favour of women writers.

But what if you’re the type of person who does look at the author’s name when you pick up a book, beyond pure brand-recognition? Maybe there’s something to be said for making an effort, at least for a while, to go 50:50 on your reading habits… and see if you’re still reading as many books you like as before.

The question I’m left with is this: do men read fewer books by women because they don’t tend to enjoy books by women as much, as a rule, as those by men or are they dismissing these books out of hand? I’d really like to know the answer to that question.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that men and women experience the world differently. Perhaps it’s purely because of the way we’re socialised and the social expectations we live with: I think women expect to be called on to a different extent by a wider-range of people needing a wider-range of things than most men – and, in general, we seem to feel more bound to answer these calls. Of course men have to be different things to different people in their relationships too – some more than others – but I think this is more so for most women. As a result, I quite often find that in books by men the characters seem to lack a normal degree of connectedness with other characters and people in the world of the book: this makes them come across to me as rather odd and asocial (even when they’re clearly not meant to be), cardboard cut-outs driven only by internal motivations rather than also by a web of relationships that mean they need to be different people at different times.

The other key thing I find missing in a lot of books written by men is a sense of how being a woman shapes your life. Most female characters in books by men don’t seem to do things like look into the wardrobe and think ‘Oh, I’d love to wear that’ and then feel they have to decide not to because (a) it’s likely that at some point during the day a man will say something sexually aggressive if not actively try to touch them (and, true, it’s not fair but if it’s avoidable better to avoid it), and (b) because various people will turn up their noses at a little exposed flesh below the neck or above the knee. I quite often do my shopping now in the frumpiest, scruffiest outfit I can find because I am so very sick of men breathing down my neck in queues when I wear, say, shorts and a tank-top or finding excuses to touch me (and, yes, it’s mostly on the arm but it’s still unnecessary, unwanted touching as if I shouldn’t have the right to dictate ALL the touching that involves my own body). Being a woman shapes a lot of what I do, largely because men make it so… and that’s what’s missing from a lot of books by men. It’s not about anger or taking a feminist position or decrying sexism, it’s about the fact that actually women do pay a price for being women pretty much whenever they leave the house. And often in the home too. And that’s not because of all men being beasts all the time, but enough of them are beastly enough quite a lot of the time that it has a real impact on what life is like.

Of course I don’t have any experience of being a man, but it seems to me that men, as a rule, are less aware of being male – with the exception of when something challenges their ‘manhood’ (the physical or socially-constructed version). But maybe that’s not so: I’ve never been a man, so feel free to tell me otherwise.

What I do know is that the people who inhabit a lot of books by men often don’t feel real to me the way that characters in books by women tend to, mostly because in books by men characters often don’t seem to be as intimately connected to a web of people – friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances – as I and most of the women I know are. That’s at the heart of why I tend to like books by women more: the relationships feel more rounded, more interesting, more recognisable as human relationships… and that’s one of the things I’m most interested in when I read: the people and the way they relate to each other.

So here’s the heart of what I’m trying to say… If you don’t pay attention to whether you read men or women writers, but have a tendency to like books by one sex more than the other, then it’s fair enough to have a reading ratio that tilts one way or the other. But if you basically don’t read books by one sex, how could you possibly know? Isn’t it worth making an effort to balance your reading stats, unless you’re truly ‘blind’ to what an author’s name implies about their sex?

Isn’t it always worth being open-minded enough to leave room in your reading for both men and women writers?

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Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.

Writing and Teaching Resources: Write like a Victorian by Emma Carroll

Huge thanks to the lovely Emma Carroll, author of the forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), for providing the first entry in the collection of writing and teaching resources I’ll be creating here.

Remember, if you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of the blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. 

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

Readers: do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

And now, over to Emma…

*

Write like a Victorian

Right from the start, I swore I’d write what I knew. I’d been a secondary school teacher for fifteen years, so I’d be writing for teens, about teens, doing teenage things. End of.

Not quite.

My debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall, which will be published by Faber in October, is in fact a middle grade historical novel. Contrary to what my students think, I wasn’t alive in the C19th. This wasn’t ‘writing what I knew’ at all. And yet my teaching job did play a huge part in it.

In AS English Literature coursework, students can opt to write creatively in the style of a Victorian novel. In order to deliver the unit, I had to know how to write this way myself. Gulp.

Suffice to say, in teaching my students, I taught myself, which for me is part of the magic of being in the classroom

How did we do it? Here are a few of my own tried and tested considerations when writing historical fiction. I’m sure there are better/ different ways to do it; these worked for me.

  1. Pictures: Photos or painting from the relevant era often tell a thousand stories. Very helpful for visualising characters, settings and dress.
  2. Literature: My students worked closely with a set text, which they had to know inside out. For my own purposes, I read widely: any adult or childrens’ literature from or about the era, news reports, websites, journals, biographies, I could go on!
  3. Historical practicalities: Be mindful of what can and can’t be done. Characters can’t text each other or turn on a light. Information will often be conveyed through letters or diaries, night scenes taking place in candlelight or under a moon. Also travel: how long would it take to get from A to B? Would your character have the means to embark on long journeys? Consider too how much things cost, what was available and how people might purchase them. This list is not exhaustive.
  4. Class and Gender: In historical fiction these tend to be foregrounded concepts. A character’s class will impact on their work, their dreams, where they live, what they do, how they look, and, all importantly, their ‘voice’. Before 1870, there was no formal education system. If your character can’t read or write, it may impact on how they receive plot information. Likewise gender: this is particularly significant for female characters. Consider the norms and values of the era, and how these fit with your character’s motivations. In her YA historical novels, Marie Louise Jensen overcomes this ‘constraint’ wonderfully.
  5. Language: A very obvious way to tell a book is old is through its use of language. Jane Austen writes in very long, grammatically-complex sentences: the Brontes use domestic and natural symbolism. Brilliant contemporary ‘Victorian pastiche’ writers such as Sarah Waters and Essie Fox use words no longer in common usage such as ‘casement’, ‘visage’, or ‘gaze’. I create my own glossary of era-appropriate words. A good copy editor will pick up on anything you’ve used that isn’t quite right.
  6. And The Rest: Plotting, character tropes, style, focus on intense personal experience, gothic, I could go on…

The end result? My students got great grades: I got a two book deal. The rest is history. (Fingers crossed!)

Frost Hollow Hall book cover

A ghostly tale about love, loss and forgiveness with an instant classic feel.

Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker and the person who punches holes into filofax paper. She recently graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing For Young People.

Frost Hollow Hall is Emma’s debut novel. Told in the distinctive voice of Tilly Higgins, it was inspired by a winter’s day from Emma’s childhood. Currently, Emma is working on her second novel, set in a Victorian circus. Emma lives in the Somerset hills with her husband and two terriers.

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

This post marks the start of a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of this blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

 

The Bone Dragon book cover

Read the first 15 pages of The Bone Dragon now

… on Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature here.

Buy it now from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Telegraph bookshop, Sainsbury’s and of course, your local independent bookstore!

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