Being got. Or not.

Earlier this month I gave a talk in Toronto reflecting on how the role of women as public intellectuals changed (or did not) over the last century. The starting point for this discussion was the life of my aunt – Jacky Tyrwhitt (1905-1983) – who, amongst many other achievements, was for a while an important member of what is now called the Toronto School of Communication (the theme of the conference at which I was speaking). She was a major figure in the development of urban planning, building connections from the garden cities movement in the early part of the 20th Century via post-war reconstruction as Keynesian welfare states were being built, Modernist architecture, the development of low-cost housing in South Asia, to the futurism of the 1970s, taking in environmentalism, and garden design en route, not to mention links with major figures in the development of modern art and music, and training several generations of planners. As someone said, perhaps one of the most important people you never heard of.

It was a very interesting and revealing experience for me to research her life (which, as far as I know, has been the subject of only one biography – Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design by Ellen Shoskes). And humbling to discover how much I did not know about her work, and how much it must have cost her to devote so much time, effort and money to rescuing me (as well as siblings and the sons and daughters of many of her friends) from the various youthful predicaments we found ourselves in while managing her stressful working life. In retrospect, I am ashamed both of how nasty I often was to her – nasty as only a teenager can be who takes a degree of unconditional love for granted – and how unthinkingly I rejected many of her values as part and parcel of a kind of establishment thinking I regarded myself as in rebellion against.

jacky-in-1938-enhanced

Jacky Tyrwhitt in 1938

One of the things I spoke about in Toronto was the public invisibility of much of her work. She seemed largely content to be a power behind the scenes, acknowledged only by a few key figures in the know. Much of her work was what I now call ‘intellectual housework’. She brought people from across the disciplines together in networks, organised conferences, designed courses, wrote textbooks, put together grant proposals, edited and translated other people’s work, negotiated with publishers, founded and edited journals, intervened tactfully to bring peace between warring egos, encouraged young scholars and artists, introducing them to potential employers and patrons, and generally facilitated the flowering of others’ work. Much of her career was precarious, slipping from one short-term post or freelance contract to another, denied tenure and dependent on the goodwill of male sponsors.

Although she sought out the company of strong women as mentors, collaborators and friends – a by-no-means-exhaustive list includes Ellen Willmot (garden designer), Eva Taylor (first woman professor of geography in Britain and, for all I know, the world), Innes Hope Pearse (doctor involved in setting up the Peckham health experiment), Ruth Glass, (sociologist), Catherine Bauer (US public housing activist), Margaret Mead (anthropologist), Ruth Benedict (another anthropologist) and Barbara Ward (economist and pioneer environmentalist) – a huge amount of her intellectual effort went into promoting and bringing to popular notice the work of male stars. An early example of this was her monumental Patrick Geddes in India, published in 1947. In this book she self-effacingly knitted together a range of the writings of this pioneer planner from disparate sources to assemble a coherent account of his thinking  and make it accessible to a wide audience. She also took on the role of translating from the German and editing the huge doorstoppers (Space Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command) of another Great Man, Siegfried Giedion,  as well as oiling his relationships with global communities of scholars and architects. Although Giedion acknowledged in private correspondence his many debts to her for helping him clarify his ideas and, indeed, writing large chunks of these Great Works, he neglected in public to acknowledge her as anything more than a translator and editor. Her considerable originality of thought was rarely acknowledged – her thoughts expressed through the lips of others, who all too often took credit for them, and much of her writing nestled invisibly in what we would now call ‘grey literature’ (official reports and policy documents, briefs, grant proposals and the like).

The more I researched her life, the more I saw parallels with my own career and that of other women contemporaries. Even while I thought I was rejecting her example, it seems that I might have have been absorbing it unconsciously as a role model. Or perhaps we are all shaped by larger patterns which have persisted over the last century despite the huge changes that have been made in women’s public positions.Which led me to meditate, not for the first time, on how it is that women’s original ideas come to be publicly recognised (or not).

The day after doing this talk, I gave another lecture in Toronto, this time at York University, on a topic that lies close to the core of my own research interests. On the face of it, this could be taken as perfect proof that things have changed. Leo Panitch gave me a glowing, highly flattering, introduction as a leading Marxist theorist. The audience was attentive and respectful. I felt understood and acknowledged, as I rarely do.  The fact that this happened (thanks, in great measure, to the generous patronage of Panitch and his colleagues on the editorial board of Socialist Register and at York University’s Department of Political Science and its Global Labour Research Centre) gives me permission, so to speak, to discuss the many occasions when such recognition has not been forthcoming. Like people from other groups that are under-represented in the Academy and in public life, neglected women are always vulnerable to the suspicion that they may simply be second-rate and deserve to be ignored. Counter-factual narratives that imagine how different the story might be if one were masculine or white must remain at the level of speculation. And however much we find our stories confirmed by others who share our gender or ethnicity, while our white male friends look blank and ask ‘Are you sure you aren’t just being paranoid?’, a kernel of self-doubt remains.

So I am hoping that I can put to good use my kind reception at York and its vindication of my right to be heard to share with other women (and men) by setting out some of the things I have observed over the years, in the expectation that these observations will be heard as credible testimony, not just sour grapes. All I can offer here are descriptions of some of the ploys  (no doubt largely unconscious) I have seen being adopted in the past in relation to my own contributions, and those of others, to scholarly or public discourse. I cannot give advice on strategies for dealing with these ploys because I have failed to find any, at least any that are ethical,  that work effectively. No doubt some do exist because there are, thank goodness, some women out there who have achieved public recognition for their original ideas. But I don’t know what they are. Maybe somebody with the time to do so could investigate what these might be and share as a general service to womankind. In the meanwhile, this is the best I can do.

Not being got

One of the most common experiences is simply not being understood. A woman puts forward an idea and it is ignored or misclassified under some pre-existing category. If it clearly departs from received wisdom in that category it may be reclassified as a feminist critique of it (safely filed away in the ‘gender’ box, which means it does not need to be absorbed into the canon but may be awarded an occasional footnote reference). In some cases it may be seen as quaint or quirky, a light subjective take on a serious subject, to provide a moment’s amusement before the audience’s attention moves back to the Important Issues. If what is being proposed is an idea about how to proceed, perhaps in resolution of some generally recognised problem, it will most likely be dismissed as impractical or irrelevant – unless or until it is picked up by a male champion, in which case it will be seen as his idea. (The male champion then has it in his gift to offer the woman the chance to do the work of developing and implementing the idea, under his name and authority, as an alternative to simply stealing it. She has the choice of gratefully accepting whatever small acknowledgement is offered or walking away, leaving him in possession of the idea. Here, a lot will depend on the extent to which she feels ethically committed to seeing it implemented as a socially good thing. And also on her financial circumstances. Can she afford to walk away if this will deprive her of a source of income?).

Being got but gobbled

Which leads me on to the next type of experience: being ‘got’ only too well, but not acknowledged as the owner of the idea. There was a small example of this at the end of my lecture at York when a member of the audience came up to me afterwards and said, no doubt intending it as a compliment, ‘everything you just said is exactly what I say to my students’ (to which one can only, while nodding politely and asking what he teaches – it was of course a he – silently answer ‘so where is the article in which you have published these thoughts that are so identical to mine?’). More usually this kind of response is more overtly patronising, or even aggressive.

One variant, particularly prominent on the Troskyist left, used to take the form of a sentence starting ‘While you are correct in what you say about x, you are incorrect when you do not also argue y (y being, typically, a statement of the need for a revolutionary workers’ party). In other words, ‘we already knew what you said because it is part of our party “line” –  or will be from now on if I have anything to do with it’. These days the same sentiment is more likely to be expressed as a simple statement, from the (usually youngish and male) commentator to the effect that he agrees with what you have just said, as a preamble to a lengthy speech in which he states the rest of his party’s opinion. This is often delivered with a lordly air that reminds me irresistibly of the Man from Del Monte in the old TV commercials who would descend on a village and sample the fruit, while the villagers looked on anxiously, to be greeted with rapturous gratitude when it passed the test. ‘The Man from Del Monte said yes!’ they would scream in delight as they launched into a frenzy of colourful local dancing. The hidden message is crystal clear: no woman could possibly have any motive for presenting an idea other than that of seeking masculine approval. Once this approval is granted, the idea becomes part of the general property of the approval-granting young idealogue-arbiters, no more to be acknowledged than if it had fallen from the sky (or indeed a fruit tree). And you are supposed to be really grateful that you have been privileged with this seal of approval. That you may not give much of a damn whether or not some callow youth  agrees with you or not, but are more interested in opening up a general debate in which ‘lines’ are set to one side in the interests of creative and open dialogue seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Among mainstream academics, the forms of appropriation are somewhat different, though no less pernicious. Let me give you one example (I will try to keep the details vague to avoid publicly naming and shaming the gentleman in question). I developed a concept that I had been using for a decade or so for analysing an aspect of the global division of labour. This concept was then taken up by various people in national and international government departments. An academic from an Ivy League university with whom I had been in contact (including finding funds in a tight budget to invite him to a conference I was organising in Europe and putting him in touch with some important figures among those aforementioned bodies) then published an article in which he claimed ownership of this concept. When I pointed out, quite gently in an email, that this was a concept I had developed, and that my role in developing it had indeed even been acknowledged in print by one of those government people, his response was not to make any attempt to reference my work but to say ‘Well I would have come up with the idea  sooner or later anyway’.  In other words, anything that a woman like me could dream up must, de facto, be supremely obvious and not worth acknowledging as an original idea (Whether he would have acknowledged it if I had been a man is one of those counter-factuals that can never be verified).

A subtler version of this strategy involves taking ideas from conference presentations and grey literature, claiming them as their own, and not citing the originator of the idea because this originator has not published it in a high-ranked peer-reviewed journal. But even publishing in the agreed ‘scientific’ way in such journals is no guarantee of being cited. This 2013 study by Daniel Mailiniak, Ryan M.Powers and Barbara F. Walter found that women are systematically cited less than men (after controlling for a large number of other variables) with articles by men cited on average 4.8 more times than articles by women. So, sisters, if you want to be publicly known as the owner of your ideas, beware of people who come up to you at conferences and ask ‘has this been published anywhere?’ or ‘could you give me a copy of that report you mentioned?’. Alternatively you might just be altruistic enough, or committed enough to being a teacher,  to want to share your knowledge with the world and wait for the thanks that might come, you never know, twenty years later from a grateful mid-career researcher you helped to get launched.

Another related strategy is a little more preemptive. It involves talking the people who commissioned you to write the ‘grey’ report into giving them an advance copy, and then publicly announcing your results as theirs while you (in accordance with your contract) are still respecting the embargo. On one occasion a report I had written was to be launched at a big international conference. I was asked by the organisers to suggest someone to chair it and (thinking I was doing a favour to somebody whose profile up to then had been distinctly national) I suggested a man who asked for an advance copy of the report but then, instead of introducing me to the assembled multitude, proceeded to take up some 50% of my allotted time presenting my main conclusions as his own generalisations that were ‘setting the context’ for my presentation, which was thereby reframed as a bit of empirical research slotted into his grand theoretical overview. On another occasion a consultant who saw himself as a rival actually took the charts out of an about-to-be-press-released report  I had written for a government department (of which he had managed to wangle an advance copy) and put them into a powerpoint presentation which he showed to the press the day before the launch date. The publication of another report I wrote for a different government department got held up by over a year but, in the meanwhile, somebody gave a copy to an academic who used its contents as a ‘case study’ in a very well-funded research project. Is this out-and-out theft? or just a kind of opportunistic version of ‘finders, keepers’? And does it happen to men too? Who knows?

Message massaged into medium

Finally I come to the strategy which, I suspect, was the one most used against my Aunt Jacky. She herself warned me against one aspect of it when, in the 1960s, she repeatedly told me ‘It is really useful to learn to touch-type. But when you apply for a job don’t on any account let them know that you can do it. If you do you will always be treated as a secretary’.

secretary

Illustration from a 1960s secretarial training textbook

For readers too young to remember, I should explain that this was a period when any office worker (including myself as a junior commissioning editor in the mid-1970s) was allocated the services of an individual secretary, or access to the services of a pool of typists who took shorthand notes, worked from your long-hand draft or, a bit later, from an audio recording of your words, and typed it up on a manual (later an electric) typewriter, with several carbon copies, each of which had to be corrected separately in the event of a typing mistake. The typed letters or other documents were then returned to the ‘author’  for correction and signature. The only people who were not specialist typists who had typewriters on their desks were writers and journalists, considered an eccentric and specialist breed. Most secretaries did a great deal more than typing. They assembled random utterances into coherent sentences, corrected grammar and spelling and adjusted  the form of address according to rules of etiquette. Secretarial training manuals from the period are  enlightening. They include things like how to address a Member of Parliament or a Bishop, how to dress and how to serve coffee as well as technical tricks like how to centre text (find the middle of the line then count the number of characters in the heading backspacing once for each two characters), when to use a semi-colon, how to lay out an invoice or calculate compound interest and how to communicate with the post office. The ‘skills’ of typing, editing etc. were elided into a bundle of other roles, many of them strongly gendered, and ended up becoming almost invisible as skills, just part of a taken-for granted set of feminine attributes that no more deserved to be publicly credited than the labour of ironing shirts or cleaning the floor.

This kind of elision also takes place between writing and editing and a range of other technical skills. In these days when everybody is supposed to type their own articles there are still things that only some people know how to do well, such as inserting tables of contents, formatting charts, putting headers into the correct style, adapting templates, uploading documents to websites,  and, of course, still those old tasks of putting everything into good English (or whatever other global language is required), correcting the spelling and grammar and, to use the current jargon, ‘pulling out the key messages’. And it still seems to be the case that when women do these things they are seen as nit-picky technical details that are too unimportant for the Great Male Author to bother himself with that do not merit attribution (although when men are required to do so them it is suddenly pointed out that they take up a huge amount of time). I will end with just a few examples from my own experience (I am really not exaggerating or making these up).

‘Well we (two guys) are the real authors. Ursula just did the writing’ (about a co-authored book for which they had contributed – very – raw drafts of two and a half chapters, out of a total of thirteen).

‘Would you mind taking your names off the report so I can submit it as my dissertation’ (addressed to me and another woman who between us had done about 97% of the work on the report and added this guy’s name as co-author for form’s sake).

‘Well I really must insist that I am named as co-editor’ (from a guy who had negotiated some changes with one contributor out of 12 to a journal special issue).

‘Yes I know you did a lot of the work but I really need to claim this as my publication because my university is putting a lot of pressure on me to generate impact’ (self-explanatory. of course this was also a guy).

I could go on, but I won’t.

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The gender agenda

The new issue of the journal is at last published. The ninth in the series, it is the first to focus explicitly on gender, although of course many previous issues have included articles that address it.

Volume 6 no 1 of Work Organisation, Labour and Globaliisation

Gender and the global division of labour

In writing the introduction (which can be downloaded here), I found myself revisiting questions I used to think about – and discuss in women’s groups – forty years ago and this churned up an unexpectedly powerful mix of emotions. I think it is time to re-examine my relationship with socialist feminism.

The wind has certainly changed recently. About three or four years ago it became clear that Marxism is becoming intellectually respectable again (rather in the same way that modernist architecture is back in vogue), and post-modernism has finally become passé. This is surely a cause for rejoicing among those of us who mistrusted its relativism and saw it as an excuse for political fence-sitting among a cowardly generation of academics fearful of losing their jobs – or at least their research funding – under neo-liberalist regimes.

It’s now OK again to use the word ‘capitalism’ and, in some circles, even ‘the labour theory of value’ or ‘class consciousness’. Conferences with names like ‘Historical Materialism’ are full to bursting with competitive young academics. The sea of grey hair at public meetings of the left is now speckled with other colours. Videos of David Harvey lectures go viral on student facebook sites. Capital Reading Groups are being set up. Ten years ago, this would have seemed impossible. For someone of my generation, emerging from three decades of feeling not understood,  jeered at, patronised as quaintly old-fashioned or shunned as dangerous intellectual company to keep, what’s not to like?

Well, to judge by my subjective reactions, quite a lot, actually.

Although i am feeling vindicated in much of the work I have done over the years and getting more recognition for it than would have seemed possible at the turn of the millenium, I have found myself over the last three or four years firing off more angry emails to Marxists than ever in my life before.  Indeed, I suspect I am acquiring a reputation for irrational and paranoid irascibility that goes way beyond the mild tetchiness that is generally tolerated in someone of my age. And these emails overwhelmingly relate to issues of gender. So what is making me so cross?

To be honest, this is something I am exploring as I write, so my reasoning may not be perfectly structured, However I hope it will not just come across as a rant. I would really like to have been able to discuss it first with some of the women with whom I had such intense discussions about these things in the 1970s, but, alas, some are no longer with us, some have moved to other continents, some have changed their lifestyles and politics in such a way as to put them beyond easy reach of such discussions, some are too burdened to spare the time for such things and others I have simply lost touch with. So here come some first observations, in the raw – and in no particular order.

I am sure that many men I know will read this and feel baffled, hurt or misunderstood. I’m sorry about this. I don’t mean to belittle your efforts and am truly grateful for the support and recognition that some of you have given me, and other feminists, over the years. But these things do need to be said.

OVER AND UNDER

One very irritating feature of the new Marxism (which was also present, with a bit more excuse, in the older versions) is the conviction among its masculine adherents that they have the theoretical overview. Their particular version of Marxist theory explains the whole universe and its workings and all that remains to be done is to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s and argue about how exactly it should be applied to current circumstances. The ‘woman question’, as it was traditionally known, comes very much into the ‘i’ dotting category and forms a minor sub-branch of the overall theory. The idea that Marx and Engels might have left some questions unanswered, and some contradictions unresolved, seems unthinkable to them (even though it is obvious that Marx himself thought there was a great deal more to be done). Reading Marx through a feminist lens actually makes it quite easy to identify some of these unanswered questions, but addressing them seriously implies a need to to rethink the orthodox ‘overview’. This they cannot imagine. So they are deaf to the argument that perhaps it is feminist political economy that has the overview (looking as it does at both production and reproduction, and both men and women) and that it is the narrow study of male activity that constitutes the sub-specialism.

One of the concepts that becomes problematic viewed in this way is that of ‘necessary labour time’. Concepts such as commodification, and the reserve army of labour also need rethinking. (I have made a small start on some of these questions in my introduction to ‘the reproduction of difference, which can be read online here).

Like other women of my generation, I have found in the past that work that I have done in these areas has either been ignored, or has been appropriated without acknowledgement (sometimes the first guy to ‘get’ my argument will cite my work, then those who come after will cite only his) or has been consigned to the dusty box labelled ‘the woman question’ with its broader implications unattended to.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

Another extraordinarily irritating characteristic of many of the new generation of Marxists is their assumption that feminism has already been done.  These guys (some of whom must have been brought up by feminist mothers) believe that they are sensitive to differences of gender, race, sexuality and disability, much more so, indeed, than the general run of men, whom they may take to task for infelicitious use of ‘inappropriate’ language. They usually react with pained incomprehension or denial if accused of insensitivity on any of these fronts. When that doesn’t work, knee-jerk defences tend to kick in: if they think they are accused of sexism they will indignantly refer to the importance of race (and vice versa) in the dominant group’s intuitive instinct for maintaining its power by strategies of divide and rule.  Sometimes they even give the impression that only a white man can really enforce social justice, because he is in the enviable position of being able to exercise impartiality in any cat-fights that may break out between rival ‘minorities’. They point to their equality committees and gender studies departments as evidence that all these concerns are being properly taken care of, in their rightful places. Their conviction that they have nothing new to learn is unshakeable

FOUR PACES BEHIND

Whether in academic departments or policy development circles, it is generally assumed that the big new issues can be identified in gender-neutral ways. Whether the topic is colonialism or modernism or epistemology or structural adjustment policies, it is the job of masculine Great Minds to map out the terrain, and the job of feminists to follow behind, writing articles or setting up courses in which the Big Abstract Concept is preceded by the words ‘gender and’ or ‘women and’. Thirty five years ago, there was some logic to the frenetic intellectual activity which subjected all the ‘isms’ to feminist critique. It was done in the hope that this would be a one-off task and that these critiques would be taken on board in what is now known as the ‘mainstream’. It is, however, abundantly clear by now that all this achieved was to create new subsidiary fields of ‘gender studies’ whose existence, whilst it did provide a reasonably protected home for some important women thinkers, let the male scholars off the hook by absolving them even of any need to read this stuff and allowing them to get on with their Boy’s Own theory building. Meanwhile, anyone with an interest in gender had to read twice as much: the original ‘path-breaking’ scholarship of the Great Minds AND the feminist critiques of their work. Some of course found it easier and more satisfying to look inward and operate intellectually entirely within the world of gender studies (rapidly spreading to include its own sub-fields, such as queer studies). But those who still wanted to inhabit the disciplines of economics, philosophy, history, geography, development studies, sociology, politics or whatever had to either forget their feminism altogether or content themselves with the very traditional role of following behind the men, tidying up after them and carrying the heavy loads.

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN GENDER STUDIES

Related to these assumptions that feminism belongs in gender studies departments, and that the only pioneering intellectual work that women are capable of is in this field, is a complementary notion that all women are de facto experts on gender (in this conception, men, of course, don’t really have a gender, any more than white people have a race). This plays out in exchanges like this one:

HIM: ‘We are organising a conference about Important Topical Issue (ITI) and Abstract Noun(AN) and we’d like you to be a keynote speaker’

ME: ‘OK. I’ve written a book/done a research project/taught a course  on ITI and AN. I would be happy to speak about this’.

(It then gets put in my diary, travel arrangements are made, a title is agreed for my presentation etc.)

Six months later

HIM: ‘We are now finalising the programme and we’d like you to speak in a session on ITI and gender.’

ME: ‘Well I was actually not planning to talk about gender, except very incidentally. I was planning to speak quite generally about ITI and AN and present the conclusions from my latest work in this field.’

HIM: ‘We have been lucky enough to persuade Professor Very Famous to speak and he will be giving the overview about ITI and AN. But we really need someone to cover the gender angle. I am sure that you, of all people, must agree that this is very important’

ME: ‘Well actually I haven’t really done any recent work in this field that focuses particularly on gender; my work has addressed other broad questions. If you want someone to speak on gender, could I suggest that you invite Person A, Person B or Person C?’ (Thinks: ‘And furthermore I have been working in this field for much longer than Very Famous who actually plagiarised some of my work several years ago and his work is very shallow. And he never thanked me for the help I gave him with his first project.’)

HIM: ‘I’m afraid it’s too late to invite anyone new and our budget won’t run to it. We are really relying on you for this’.

There are several alternative endings to this scenario. In the first, I meekly comply. In the second, I pull out. In the third, I stand my ground and insist that I make a general keynote speech (as originally proposed) which is not seen as a subsidiary category of Professor Famous’s overview and am treated like a difficult primadonna and removed from the first day’s agenda altogether and put into a ‘closing plenary’ session which is delayed and takes place after most of the conference participants have already left for the airport. I am introduced as a ‘feminist professor’ by a man who handles the word with verbal tongs, makes a sexist joke and mispronounces my name. There are more possibilities, which I won’t bore you with now.

HIDDEN FROM HISTORY

In the present revival of interest in Marxist theory, the work done by Marxist feminists in the 1970s seems to have been completely forgotten. The thought of all those new Capital Reading Groups having to start again from scratch is a deeply depressing one. And of course whenever I raise this point in conversation with someone they say that this work really needs to be done and suggest that I write a book about it.

THE INTELLECTUAL HOUSEWORK

Is it really the best use of my time to go back and revisit the thinking that we did forty years ago? There are so many important new questions to explore. But it has to be done by someone, I suppose, to avoid a new generation of women having to go through the same struggles all over again. Like the washing up, someone has to do it. Any offers? Now don’t all put your hands up at once, will you, guys.

Serendipity

I have always liked the word ‘serendipity’. It trips off the tongue with a light, uplifting quality. ‘Seren’ in Welsh means a star, but the word also evokes ‘serenity’ in English. While ‘dipity’ conjures up dippity-dooh-dah and, by association, other happy-to-be-alive ditties. Not to mention ‘dippy’ and ‘ditsy’ and other such words that tame what some might think of as madness into loveable and harmless eccentricity. Its near synonyms are quite different. ‘Fate’ seems sombre and doom-laden, ‘luck’ superstitious, ‘chance’ reckless and random, ‘fortune’ overtinged with greed, and ‘synchronicity’ just plain pretentious. Even its etymology is charming. It comes from a Persian fairy tale about three princes of Serendip who (according to Walpole, quoted in Wikipedia which, I am ashamed to say I consulted on this) “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.
After my annus horribilis of 2010, with its construction nightmares and cash flow crises and illnesses, 2011 has started with some delightful moments of serendipity which have restored my faith in human niceness and the benignity of the universe.
I will tell you now about just one of these. When the building was sufficiently advanced to make it habitable, I advertised for a tenant for the flat at the top of my house in the London Review of Books. Unlike a previous failed attempt on Gumtree, all the responses to this ad were from people who seemed both nice and interesting. Many were from academics, artists and writers (or, in one case, a writer’s agent) who were looking for somewhere to stay for a short period (my fault: I hadn’t worded it clearly enough) but there were several looking for a home and I had no trouble at all finding a delightful tenant and made new friends among several of those who didn’t end up living here. After it had been let, I received an enquiry from someone whose email signature described him as the Director of the Society for Curious Thought. I was so intrigued that I asked him about it and discovered a website (http://www.thesocietyforcuriousthought.com) that traverses the boundaries between science and politics and art; the visual, the verbal and the musical. He was interested in my work too and over a period of a few hours we shared ideas and he asked me whether i had anything I would like to submit for publication. It happened that, between two of these emails, when looking for another file altogether, I had stumbled on a piece that I wrote seven years ago that was never published for all the reasons that the Society for Curious Thought exists to address. It was not written in the conventions of the usual genres my writing falls into: academic or journalistic or policy grey-paper, falling somewhere between social theory, autobiography and descriptive narrative. The editor of the journal it was originally written for had conceded that it was ‘beautifully written’ but was adamant that ‘we couldn’t publish something like that unless it was by somebody really famous’. Simon Marriott, the artist and writer who runs the Society for Curious Thought, had no such reservations and published it, with incredible speed, at
http://www.thesocietyforcuriousthought.com/contributors.php?WEBYEP_DI=90&OPENTREES=WYMUTREE_0_19| despite it being now seven years out of date. I am very happy to be in such good company.
In retrospect, I find that I am less unsympathetic than I was originally to that original editor’s conviction that readers will only be interested in the inner life of someone who is already famous. Yes, it smacks unpleasantly of the values of the popular press with their obsession with ‘celebs’ and yes, it is undoubtedly part of the more general trend in fiction publishing to focus only on potential best-sellers, with authors who can be marketed like rock stars – with particularly detrimental effects on anyone who writes modestly or with sublety and especially cruel to women writers, as was vividly demonstrated in the study by Vida of the proportions of male and female writers reviewed in the major english language literary papers (see http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010). Looking round at my friends who write, I see that older women writers are especially penalised. Nevertheless, I now think he (of course that editor was a he) had a bit of a point. There is a fine line to be drawn between Montaignean reflection and gush, between the chronicles of a serious diarist and those round robins one gets at Christmas from barely-remembered acquaintances. I am terrified of becoming like the relative who sends out a letter each year to a huge mailing list in the conviction that the most banal details of her daily life are of intrinsic interest to everyone, rather like an indulged toddler who enters the room, breaking up the adult conversation, to announce proudly ‘I done a poo!’. Any act of writing – or indeed any other kind of creation – of course runs this risk and this perhaps explains how extraordinarily difficult it can be to start an article or a story or a painting. Will it be seen as making a spectacle of oneself, showing off, parading as an emperor with no clothes or exhibiting the self-indulgence of one who has no right to be so privileged? Worse, will it reveal the creator as trite or second-hand or just plain wrong? How many blogs and twitterings and youtube postings, I wonder, result from an act of courage by someone consciously braving such risks? Perhaps not many. But the sheer scale of their outpourings, heroic or not, suggests to me that, in our capacities as readers and spectators and listeners, we now have a greater need of good editors, curators and impresarios to filter them than at any other time in history.