Tag Archives: Huffington Post

Shut up and Write

womanwriting

As is obvious to anyone looking at the picture at the top right of this page, I’m lodged solidly in the average white male, 18-49 demographic.  Homer Simpson would say, “everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my ideas are.”  More to the point, my average white maleness (let’s add heterosexuality to the mix as well, why not) endows me with a certain level of immunity to criticism.  I invite you to take a look at the post published by Emmie Mears in which she talks about the inevitable onslaught of Internet misogyny that is the bane of any woman who dares to express an opinion on anything with the slightest hint of controversy, and how it has stifled her voice in the past.  It’s been telling, too, that as Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s star has risen with the release of her Rob Ford book Crazy Town and the slew of media appearances that have followed, so has a tremendous backlash from men, not to mention threats against her life.  Doolittle herself points to a Huffington Post blogger (no relation) who all but accused her of being an opportunistic Barbie doll, and then whined in a follow-up that she was overreacting because but… I said you were pretty!!!  As women’s voices have spread far and wide, so too it seems has the proclivity of certain men to want to tell them to get back into the kitchen if they know what’s good for them.

As f@#$ing insane as that sounds.

It would be easy, perhaps, to dismiss a large portion of these latter types as cretinous, small-membered rubes who can barely spell the dirty words they’re lashing out with, but what is equally troubling is when ostensibly intelligent people wield more polished knives in service of the same end.  The tactics by which female writers are attacked resemble those used by attorneys to discredit witnesses, or by politicians to sabotage opponents – looking for the slightest perceived crack into which can be wedged a huge bootful of doubt.  “You once stole an apple from your neighbor’s tree and then lied about it, so if you were lying then, how are we to assume you’re not lying about seeing Mr. Smith murder his brother?”   Attacking not the message, but the messenger.  Gender is usually the wedge of choice, as if words and opinions generated by a brain attached to a vagina are automatically of lesser worth, to be questioned to the last crossed T and dotted I – no matter how factual, no matter how incontrovertible.

The fans of Rob Ford, angered by the inconvenient truths Robyn Doolittle has exposed about their hero, have gone to typical lengths to cast aspersions on her motivations for pursuing the story, and slammed her for posing for the photo in the Flare article linked above as well, because how dare she have the temerity to be good at her job and attractive at the same time.  (Do actresses get dinged with the same charge when they appear in hundreds of these spreads every year?  Or do they get an exemption because looking good is part of their career, and that the rest of us peons are expected to be homely?)  In the end, it matters not, because were Doolittle of more average appearance, you’d get the same men saying she was tearing down Ford to compensate for her dissatisfaction about her looks and her inability to land a man.

There is a deliberate intent here, one of distraction – for Ford Nation, making Doolittle the story shifts the question away from why it’s considered acceptable to them or to anyone for the Mayor of Toronto to be an unrepentant crack smoker.  Just as a decade ago, publicly shaming the Dixie Chicks for their comments about George W. Bush got everyone’s mind off the thousands of people dying in the war he started in a blaze of testosterone, swagger and unresolved daddy issues.  Apparently, a decade later, Robyn Doolittle’s legs are more horrifying to the public than the thought of a crackhead controlling a $9 billion city budget and rendering Toronto a laughing stock to the world – you know, things that can cause actual damage to real people’s lives, the same real people Ford claims to be workin’ hard for.  It is hard to see the same attitude taking root if Doolittle’s first name was Robert.  They’d still be after “him,” of course, but probably for being once photographed having a beer with a Communist or something equally trivial, but pointedly non-sexual.  (Unless “he” was gay, of course; then all bets would be off.)

I’ve had the mildest taste of harsh online criticism for things I have written that have rubbed certain people the wrong way (the most, oddly enough, for this post about air travel.)  Even in the lowest doses, it can be incredibly dispiriting.  At times I have refrained from submitting certain pieces to HuffPost because I wasn’t certain I wanted to put up with a predictably irate repsonse.  I went almost six months without submitting anything last year for the headache of it all.  But never have even the nastiest comments to me come within a parsec of the visceral, flesh-tearing, bile-spitting hatred endured by female writers.  I’ve never been insulted for my appearance, or had some sick bastard suggest that I should be sexually violated for my opinions.  Which begs the question, why don’t I and my male contemporaries see that kind of blowback when we speak out?  Why is it somehow open season on all aspects of a woman’s being, including her sexual identity, when she pens a robust challenge to the status quo, but men’s looks and personal lives are off limits?  Why is a male writer a bold thinker and a female writer a feminazi pain the ass?

In one of the most eye-opening sections of Emmie’s post, she talks about needing to have a strategy ready to deal with the anger she might encounter in response to her works, and rightfully resenting that.  It certainly is not something I or any other white male 18-49 heterosexual writer has to contemplate.  We are free, it seems, to publish whatever we want, largely without fear of being attacked on such a level.  No one is going to “mansplain” us, declare that we just need a really good f@#k, call us ugly and unworthy of love, tell us we’re being silly and hysterical and fascist feminists and that we’d be better off producing babies than attempting to string words together.  No one’s going to suggest that we must be using our bodies to sleep our way to fame and success.  No one’s going to tell us to “shut up and write” columns on hair products and nail polish, you know, the stuff we’re the real experts on, and leave the serious business to the grown-ups.

No one is going to threaten to track us down at home and rape us.

It behooves male scribes to acknowledge the reality of writing life on the other side of the gender aisle, that women have a tougher job of making themselves heard and believed, and feeling free to even try.  We need to remember the women who choose not to speak up about issues where their opinions are sorely needed, because they’re afraid of violent reprisals from addle-minded douchebags.  Thousands of voices are missing from the conversation or are being silenced through the ugliest of reactions from anonymous cowards.  We should be commending courageous women like Robyn Doolittle and Emmie Mears and all their contemporaries who won’t let themselves be intimidated.  We should remember that it is entirely permissible to disagree with them and that we don’t ever have to make it personal – just as we wouldn’t with some other guy whose opinions made us seethe.  Finally, we should be using our privileged positions as “untouchable” males to call out and shame the behavior of those who are contributing to the fear.

There’s a saying I heard on The West Wing, though it may have been borrowed from somewhere else, that “if they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right.”  That is probably where a lot of the hate comes from – the conscious or unconscious belief that female writers are indeed hitting too close to home with their observations about a patriarchal world.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the ultimate objective of writing – the pursuit of truth – is better served by more women, not fewer, getting it right and refusing to shut up about it.

Regardless of how many fragile male egos get bruised in the process.

UPDATE:  Emmie responds and includes some links to terrific posts on the same subject, including Chuck Wendig’s.

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Remember that snarky douchebag who made the world a better place? Me neither.

Image credit: Peace Love & Photography.

Last fall I wrote for The Toronto Star during the Ontario provincial election.  Their Speak Your Mind program invited two bloggers from each riding to act as “local reporters” focusing on the issues that mattered most to their individual communities.  In addition, each registered blogger was invited to participate in a members-only forum where we could bounce ideas off each other and chat about how it was going.  For the most part it was a positive, encouraging group, except for one angry young prat, let’s call him “Frank,” who had nothing but bile for anyone who didn’t agree with his political views.  The only article Frank ever posted during the course of the campaign contained libellous accusations against members of the government, alleging criminal activity without a shred of proof.  Less than 24 hours after it was posted, the article was deleted and Frank was given the boot from the community (not that his contributions were missed very much).  By coincidence I happened to see this same guy’s name pop up in my Twitter feed recently and it seems he’s still at it.  He looks to be about 20 and for whatever reason has a pathological hate-on for everything and everyone to the left of Mussolini.  I talked the other day about the dichotomy between how we are in person and how we choose to act online, but I suspect Frank isn’t any different when you meet him on the street, and it would probably be difficult to restrain yourself from delivering him a Pete Campbell-esque punch in the face.

Less extreme perhaps, but cut from the same cloth are a majority of op-ed writers in today’s news climate.  You know the ones, you can probably name a few off the top of your head – they have a regular feature in your favourite weekly where they snipe, cajole, mock and otherwise belittle everything that doesn’t fit their deeply jaded worldview, then in the same paragraph congratulate themselves for their singular, incisive, insightful wit, as if they are the wise shaman gazing down from the mountain of enlightenment at the foolish mortals below.  It’s schadenfreude taken to its most extreme, the perpetual cries of the never-weres choking on their sour grapes, nourishing a weakened ego on the scraps of the achievements of others.  Political columnists are some of the worst offenders in this regard.  As those of you who read me regularly are aware, I have no love for conservatives, particularly those in elected office, but I can acknowledge that at least those people had the balls to get out there and run, to put their names up for consideration and accept the responsibility of serving their communities, regardless of how competent they may or may not be to execute that duty.  Everyone knows it’s much easier to be the overeager parent on the sidelines screaming at the ref because Junior was called offside.  Monday morning quarterbacking has no consequences.  It also has no lasting impact on anyone or anything.  Think about those same sarcastic op-ed writers and try to recall the last time they penned something that really resonated with you, that you can’t stop thinking about and which continues to inspire you.  I’ll wait.

::crickets::

Figured as much.

We can be honest – it’s difficult to be an idealist in a cynical age, when we watch democracy being trampled on the news each night.  There’s also a tendency among a large percentage of the aforementioned media wisenheimers to dismiss optimism as tragically naïve.  But if idealism were easy, it wouldn’t be idealism, just like principles are only principles if you stand by them when they’re inconvenient.  But to sit back smugly and join in the chorus of misanthropy is the coward’s way out.  It also ensures beyond doubt that things won’t get better.  The main reason public debate languishes in an all-time abyss is because we’re choosing to approach it from the gutter, figuring that it’s better to be a smartass commenter than a genuine contributor.  So we can wallow in our sheer, unfathomable awesomeness as we watch the world burn.  What unbelievable, face-punch-worthy arrogance.  I don’t know about you, but I have no time for that sort of thing.  Life is just too goddamn short.

Some friends of my sister’s are engaged in a charity venture for Africa and asked if I could help promote them.  Happy to, said I.  These are two people who see what is happening in the world and instead of sipping bellinis and wearily moaning about their ennui have decided to get involved – and not just by absent-mindedly cutting a cheque or tweeting about it.  The reaction to their work proves, again, that there is a hunger out there for light and hope, and every downbeat op-ed wasting trees and gigawatts is missing the point (and a potentially huge audience to boot).  More to that same point, I’m unable to find an example of where ceaselessly carping about how things suck and will never get better has succeeded in actually making those things better.  The same goes for how we choose to approach life.  What do we look back on at the end if we spend our limited time on this earth the way “Frank” and I’m ashamed to say some of my fellow HuffPosters do – have we made the most of our lives?  Have we touched anyone else’s?

Listen for those same crickets.

I’m reminded of that famous Jean Sibelius quote that “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”  To me, it comes down to this – if everyone goes around crapping on everything all the time, are we that surprised at what our world is covered in?

Sorry, but blogging is actually pretty cool (and literary too)

William Blake.

There’s an old saying that the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum.  (Just look at Congress.)  The same applies to writing.  For every successful masterpiece, there is an equally profitable pile of crap.  I read with bemusement this screed from one of my fellow Huffington Post contributors this morning in which, with a nod to Sideshow Bob, he engages in the ironic device of blogging to decry blogs.  Now, he is in high school and has a lot of living to do, so one can understand and forgive the sweeping judgement pronounced therein.  I don’t know him at all; we ranks of HuffPosters are vast and we don’t regularly (or ever) get together to knock back single malts.  He may be a rather smashing bloke in spite of the mildly condescending tone with which his post is composed.  But I can’t agree with his thesis that “uncontrolled publishing,” i.e. blogging, is destroying literature.  I’d say it’s forcing those of us who take writing seriously – which I’d suggest given my experience is a majority of bloggers, not the reverse – to up our game .  If one hopes to be noticed amidst the cacophony of background noise and Bieber fandom, one must aspire to be magnificent.  We might not achieve greatness every time, but the fact that we’re trying means something in itself.  And the blog gives us that opportunity to try.

My unmet cyber-colleague uses an allegory of William Blake physically carving poetry into the roof of a favourite drinking haunt to criticize the supposed ease with which words can be assembled and flung out into the world in the 21st Century; the argument being, seemingly, that without limitations to overcome with sheer force, writing can’t possibly be any good.  Blake, he says, had to craft his verse methodically and with care, paying attention to the shape of each syllable, every minute detail of meter and imagery.  I fail to understand how that level of dedication cannot still be achieved with the use of a keyboard instead of a chisel.  If anything, I’d argue that the delete key and the ability to revise easily has lowered our collective tolerance for sloppy mistakes, for ill-advised turns of phrase and general unprofessionalism (leading to the birth of that most pesky of trolls, the Grammar Nazi.)  If fixing a mistake is simple, then there’s less excuse for letting them slip through.  And ultimately, the most wonderful aspect of Internet browsing is that beautiful little red X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, close the window and move on to something else.  Uncontrolled publishing may allow a flood of mediocre writing into the ether, but it has no effect on freedom of choice.  To read, or not to read, remains our question.

Publishing is now, if it has ever been the reverse, less about quality and more about what will sell.  This is not a criticism; publishing is a business, staffed by people like you and I, working to feed their families.  If a barely coherent rant about shopping and shoes by a D-list reality television star moves X number of copies more than a brilliantly crafted treatise on deconstructionism of modernist attitudes in 1920’s France by an unknown doctoral candidate, well, Snooki gets the rack space.  It sucks, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.  That’s a problem originating with the audience, not the existence of blogs.  Until the world at large turns away from its fascination with the banal, publishers are obliged, in order to keep their business going, to cater to demand.  Basic economics unfortunately, and literature gets a solar plexus to the gut in the process.

Where blogs can turn the tide, though, is in their openness and accessibility.  You do not need to be famous or have an “in” with an agent or a major publishing house to invent a domain name and start writing and publishing.  I am reminded so often of The King’s Speech and the fundamental reason why that movie struck such a chord with people – not because of the performances or the direction or any one particular element of its filmic construction, but because of its theme, the universal desire to have a voice.  To be able to speak, even if no one, for the time being, is listening.  There are over 150 million blogs in the world, covering probably far more than 150 million different subjects.  Some are brilliant, and some are execrable wastes of time.  But they all began for the same reason – because someone wanted to use their voice.  If many of these voices produce sounds that are unpleasant to our ears, whether in what they are saying or how they are saying it, we have two choices:  we can either call them on it, or we can tune them out.  We don’t have to stew in our angst and complain that their mere existence is diminishing the written word.

That Snooki is a (shudder) published author doesn’t depreciate Shakespeare or William Blake or even Aaron Sorkin for that matter.  These and other Muses remain figures to whom we can look up, and whose quality we can aspire to achieve, even if we will usually fall short.  Blogs give us the wonderful privilege of chance, instead of restricting even the opportunity to a select few.  Many will just suck and most bloggers will toil forever in utter obscurity, but there will be the gems.  You might come across someone’s memoir of a departed friend that moves you to tears in a way that Blake himself never has or never will.  You might read a mommy blogger’s tale of her daughter’s adventures in daycare and unlock the secret of the world.  The late Christopher Hitchens said famously, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”  Note he didn’t say “all cases.”  Even for the notoriously prickly Hitchens, the possibility of greatness remained.  Literature, or writing in general, must belong to the masses, for what is a masterpiece if it remains unread, or simply unwritten?  I don’t know much about William Blake, but I have a feeling that if he were alive today, he’d be a blogger.  I’m certainly proud to be one, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.