Monday, January 27, 2014

Begging to Differ, Just a Little, With the Great Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon!
Fay Weldon, an author I admire for her contribution to the culture as much as for her writing, has an essay in the Times this week titled "Writer of a Certain Age." In it she welcomes the age of social media for the camouflage it provides an aging writer - on Twitter, we can all be a nubile 28 - or at least steer the discussion away from commentary on our looks. And, she posits, the ensuing yawns when it's discovered that we're old enough to be the bookstore clerk's mother.

It's not that Weldon doesn't have a point. There is enormous pressure on authors to be attractive and youthful as well as pen-worthy - more for women, of course, than men ("if two mature women were talking onstage, audience members would cough and shift in their seats, but if two men of any age were talking, the audience would pay some attention").

Where I beg to differ is when Weldon examines the reading public's supposed insistence on youthful, attractive female characters. Acknowledging that the largest share of readers is older and female, she says "they like to identify with themselves when young and beautiful, when sexual power and adventures were for the taking and life was fun — not as they are now, with bulging hips and crepey necks."

NOPE!

I forgive Weldon for being a little out of date on this one. This belief has been at the forefront of publishers' mindset for so long it has probably begun to feel carved in stone, but it's simply not true. Mature women want to read about young, pretty chicks - and also about young, ugly chicks and young, handsome men, and young, ugly men and old, handsome men and old, ugly men, and transgender people who are young and old and homely and beautiful - in short, they want to read about the human condition, so give them an interesting character and they're all in. (I'd give you proof, but what a dreary waste of my time…go look at the trade fiction bestseller list for the last year or two and prove it to yourself.)

STELLA!!
And these readers *just might* have a soft spot for characters like themselves. Ahem. My character, Stella Hardesty, is fifty when the BAD DAY series starts, older on book five, when she finally gets some hot sheriff action. And she's overweight and plain as day through the whole series. Kinda like most of us. There are lots of other examples in books and TV and movies these days, but I like talking about myself (though, how about "The Heat"? Huh? How about that!)

The Heat - regular gals, just like us

"Fortunately," Weldon says, "if you just hang in there long enough and hit 80, you will emerge on the other side of the postmenopausal years into bright clear waters — so old as to seem ageless, sexless as a sage, remarkable if not for youth, why, then, for extreme age, and again a salable proposition for publishers."

Well, I guess that's okay for some, but I have no intention of wasting the next three decades pushed aside to the also-ran table. I want front and center, and I'm happy to share with you young and pretty sisters as well as you gals who've been around long enough to teach me a thing or two.

P.S. - Weldon truly *is* awesome. For more proof, read this. No, wait. Go buy one of her books, and then read it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Celebrating Talented Friends - and Guess Whose First Line

As I have mentioned before, envy is not generally my particular cross to bear - especially when it comes to my profession…at least as far as measuring my work against that of my peers. When I encounter some gorgeous prose, I don't despair - as I have heard others do - "I'll never be as good as that!"  Chalk it up to some rogue self-delusion, because I'm certainly capable of insecurity on many other subjects, but I have always believed that given enough time and inspiration I could write the most beautiful book in the world.

I actually love when a book blows my socks off. I always congratulate its author, even if it's just in my own head.  It inspires me to get back to the chair and see what I can come up with.

This just arrived in my mailbox, through the generosity of a very special mutual friend of the author. Steve is amazing. Check out this first line: "You can't even count on a jack handle anymore."  Right??!!!  And don't even get me started on the title. You guys know I can't write titles to save my life (though - fingers crossed, and I'm not telling because I don't want to jinx it, but I think we've finally chosen one for the fall book), so I'm extra impressed by this one:



I'm blessed have a lot of extraordinarily talented author friends. I've been remiss in sharing over the holidays, but here are some of the advance copies that recently came my way, from Barbara Taylor Sissel, CJ Lyons, and Teri Wilson. First person to guess which of these masterful first lines goes with which book, I'll send you either an audio copy of GARDEN OF STONES or a copy of HANGING BY A THREAD, your choice.

  1. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman teetering on the verge of thirty is in want of a husband."
  2. "If you want to get noticed fast, try starting high school three weeks late as the girl who almost died."
  3. "My son is a murderer."







Monday, January 13, 2014

The Perils of Stand-Taking

Highminded virtue is, well, a virtue, right? Except so often it makes you feel like an asshole.

image courtesy of back to zero
This is on my mind because I recently had a temper tantrum over a colleague's behavior. I don't know this person (which is its own danger; see #1 below) but I was mad enough to do something about it - a Note. I signed said note (see #2) but sent it via email - it would have been far more satisfying to send it written longhand (remember cursive, kids?) on good quality letter paper, sealed with wax, stamped perhaps with an iron insignia of a crow in scarlet wax that dripped on my wrist, the burn further fueling my rage, but *whatever*.

Now I feel bad.

Here's the problem with trying to live with a set of ideals nowadays: our society is not arranged to support you. Not only do we not agree on what an acceptable standard of behavior is, many of the best among us spend a lot of time defending the rights of all of us to reject those standards and live according to a principle-set of our own making.

But some things are Just Wrong. And one of the gift/curses of middle age is that you feel unfettered enough to say so. Except you (I, rather, and many of my middle-aged female ilk) still get the backwash from our just-be-nice decades, of which we are forced to endure far more than the fuck-it-i'll-say-what-I-want years.

Who among us hasn't been through this:

  • You say your piece.
  • At first you have that glow of the righteous and you look around smugly if surreptitiously to see if those on the sidelines are applauding your bravery/joining you in disparaging the offender.
  • They're not. No one cares. (Side note: awesome rule for living, that - no one cares as much as you fear. Or hope. So you might as well just be yourself after all.)
  • Except for that one person. Who's looking at you as if you might be kind of a dick for saying it.
  • Unease sets in.
  • Suddenly everyone seems like they might be judging you. Worse, like they're having a thing at their house for the return of Downton Abbey, with appetizers, and they invited that bitch who did the thing, and not you. And further that they're going to talk about your big comment/breakdown/outburst at the party, like, "I wonder if it's a menopause thing."
  • And then you wonder if you were even right. Maybe the fabric of society was rewoven while you weren't looking and now up is down and publicity earned by twerking is good publicity and Cormac Macarthy is helping direct bad TV…maybe the stand you took is as hoary and embarrassing as insisting, say, that if its not in the American Heritage dictionary that your dad gave you in college it's NOT A WORD. (Which i have done.) In other words, maybe the bitch in that two-party bitch slap wasn't who you thought it was.
  • Insomnia.

But here's the thing. I *was* right. And despite the comment by a well meaning friend that, to paraphrase, if you can't defeat odious self-serving industry behavior, you might as well join in - it's still wrong. And we do still have to have standard bearers, despite their conspicuous absence (everything's gone downhill since Letitia Baldridge died) - and if we all take up the yoke from time to time, especially those of us who've been around the track a few times and know what we're talking about, well, we might yet make the world a bit of a seemlier place.

(Unseemly - an underused but very useful word which can serve as a test. If a thing you're about to do is legal, even becoming accepted practice, but strikes you as the least unseemly - for heaven's sake, sister, refrain.

I'll close with...

A FEW TIPS FOR TAKING A PROPER STAND:

  1. Make sure it's actually your issue. Are you affected directly or indirectly? If not, back off.
  2. Got an issue with a specific person's behavior? Talk *to* the person, not about her.
  3. Doing it anonymously is cowardly. You don't want to be a coward, do you? (Hint - if you are over 50, you have NO excuse.)
  4. Don't get all hung up on the fact that you once did something uncomfortably similar. We make mistakes. We fuck up. If we had to be perfect before taking up the yoke, we would have no standard-bearers. But this *might* be a good moment to promise yourself that you'll try to set a good example whenever possible in the future.
  5. Denigrate as few people as possible. No casting wide nets to catch others who you have issues with; this is about *one* concrete instance of poor form.
  6. (This one is tough.) If at all possible, do it in a collegial fashion. Genuinely. Meaning: remind yourself that you are trying to help someone change a harmful behavior, and so you are going to keep it to yourself, and offer support going forward. If the behavior doesn't happen again, it's done and forgotten.
  7. If you get called into a debate, stay firm - what's the point of a stand if you don't stand behind it? - but remember it's about an *issue*, not about you or her or people in general.
  8. Let it go. You said your thing. People reacted, or didn't. Move on, you've got other things to do. IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.



Monday, January 6, 2014

Best Face Forward

Over the holidays I became a snap-chatter. I wasn't expecting to. Social media is not exactly my comfort zone. But when your kids tell you it's your best chance of hearing from them when they're off skiing for a week, you sign right the heck up.

The first time I heard about snapchat, it was in the form of a warning - it's ideal for sexting because the image you send disappears in a matter of seconds. There's no digital trail, either, no chance of someone seeing sketchy evidence on your phone later. I imagined legions of young people sending grainy images of their private selves…and wondered how long it would take for the rest of the world to ruin it for them. (I mean, look what we've done to Facebook, fellow grownups. It's more yesterday than a Primus concert - the kids wouldn't be caught dead among our vaca photos and inspirational photoshops, and who can blame them?)

Look away! (Facebook)
However, the reality of snapchat is quite different, at least among the kids I know. They apply the quicksilver wit that is this generation's birthright - a combination of irony and self-mockery and laser-sharp cultural criticism that will make anyone over forty lose their mind if they try too hard to plumb its depths - to the text tags and toddler-esque drawings used to enhance their photos. But it's the photos themselves that surprised me.

Ever stumble across the Facebook page of that sweet kid who used to babysit your kids, giving you a heavy-lidded thousand-mile pout from her profile picture, dressed only in a gold lame camisole and lipstick the shade of original sin? Well, snapchat selfies tend to be the opposite of that. They're goofy, and not generally flattering. They invite the viewer in on a joke whose target is, as often as not, the snapper. (Chatter? Hmm.)

Here's my daughter and her delightful friend in a Facebook-suitable game-day photo…


…and here's the same girls in the sort of photo they'd be likely to snapchat.


Of *course* I think they're darling no matter what - I'm a mom! - but I would never have made public an image of myself that was less than flattering, back in the day. I cringe at some of the horrible photos of me that have ended up on the internet, and I'm not the only one; I know authors who demand to see fans' photos of them before giving their blessing to be posted anywhere. God forbid anyone should know I've got gray roots or fat rolls under my bra strap; let no one ever glimpse me in my gym ponytail or reading glasses or with my hand in the Dorito bag.

I think the kids have it right, though. We, their parents, are the generation who agonize over our dating profile pictures, who are tempted to let book covers go out the door with a six-year-old publicity shot, who can strike that turn-slightly-and-put-one-foot-forward pose that every woman knows shaves ten pounds off in the time it takes for someone to whip out their phone. But are we really better for it? 

We know what we look like, and those who love us best do, too, no matter how many times we re-take the reunion photo. The kids are confident enough to go with the first cut, and for the most part I think their selfie-curating is far less stressful for it.

Of course, I probably have read this all wrong and there's layers and subtleties I'm not even close to appreciating. There's a reason I have exactly two snapchat contacts - I am a mom, after all.