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Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Everyone's a novelist when they're confused

In the previous post, I discussed the ways in which readers can leap to the false conclusion that a writer is mentally ill because of some failure in the writer's talent or execution - which is never a good idea, mental illness being horribly misunderstood at the best of times and thus something one should be careful speculating about unless one is pretty sure one knows what one's talking about.

There is, however, an interesting flip-side of this. It's a subject I've glanced at in other posts and have been considering for some time, and it has to do with one of the most important concepts in writing, for which I have faute de mieux had to coin the horrible word metaphorisation.

By metaphorisation, I mean the act of expressing an emotion or state of being in metaphorical and representative terms rather than literal ones. Let's take an imaginary example to illustrate the point. Jane Smith grew up in a family where she seemed to get blamed for a lot of things she didn't do, mostly because her pestilential younger sister was good at throwing tantrums at the appropriate moment. Discovering a literary talent, Jane Smith writes a novel in which, let's say, the housekeeper of a country mansion is falsely accused of murder, and when evidence finally emerges to clear her name it turns out that the real killer is the daughter of the Baron, such a general pet of the county that the poor housekeeper is sent away with a question-mark still over her reputation because the family will never hold the girl fully responsible for her actions.

You can see the connections, right? The lower-status woman ends up bearing the brunt of the younger one's misdeeds in a way that's never fully addressed by the givers of justice. Some writers do this maliciously, taking fictional revenge on their real-life enemies, and that's not very gracious, but plenty of writers may do it unconsciously, to express confusion or guilt or gratitude, simply because their lives have made it easy for them to identify with people in certain situations.

It's probably not wise to speculate too much on the connections between a writer's personal life and their fiction unless you know them personally. My husband has some interesting theories about how my life experiences tie in to my fiction in a way that, in the interests of privacy, I'm not going to disclose, but I am going to quote his appropriate phrase for the subject: 'emotional autobiography'. Some stories can be the history of how you felt in a particular situation that bear absolutely no resemblance to that situation in terms of events. Instead, the events are bent into the shape of a story that fits around those emotions. This is drama.

Safer ground, probably, is considering the reader's perspective. There was an interesting discussion I joined on the website MetaFilter last week following an article in the New Yorker about the popularity of dystopias in Young Adult fiction, in which the opening speculation was that dystopias appeal to teenagers because their arbitrary rules and brutal status distinctions resemble high school. Now, I'm a bit sceptical of that as an over-arching theory; to begin with, from everything I can gather American high schools are a distinct beast with their own rules and rituals that may bear a certain resemblance to schools in other countries but aren't a universal experience, and yet teens in other countries also read dystopias. My secondary school memories aren't of pep squads and gym class horrors at all, but I still enjoy a good dystopia; I think that dystopias speak to a broader sense of adolescence than a merely local one.

What I ended up saying was (search for Kit W if you want to see it in context):

I think one reason dystopias often work for teens is that teens are often passionate moralists who tend to experience the world in extreme terms even if their lives aren't hellish. The easiest way to write about extreme emotion is to - the word I always end up using is 'metaphorise', which is truly horrible and if anybody knows an alternative please tell me and save me from it - but basically to render in metaphorical colours, not just the specific details of a particular issue but the sheer intensity of the feeling itself. Fiction creates situations where the strong feelings are tied to events dramatic enough to justify them. It's one of the great escapist satisfactions of reading: not escaping into a more comfortable world, but escaping into a world where you have good, unchallengeable reasons for feeling the way you do.

Not the only escape, of course. Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch talks about how football was a similar escape in his depressed teens: What I needed more than anything was a place where unfocused unhappiness could thrive ... I had the blues, and when I watched my team I could unwrap them and let them breathe a little. Seeking out definite if vicarious reasons for emotions that have complex and sometimes mysterious causes is, I think, quite a common release mechanism.

... and later, making a comparison between dystopias and Gothic fiction, two great staples of adolescence, that "dystopias and Gothic novels both inhabit a world of looming, narrowly-avoided disasters, and periods of trial that test your endurance to its limits - which is pretty much what adolescence is, a lot of the time."

Certain fictional states express certain emotional states, and offer catharsis in the sense of justification. Nobody tells Winston Smith he's overreacting. Having one's emotions ignored or invalidated is a mundane humiliation, but it's also a psychologically profound one; being social animals we seek connection with others, and being told your feelings aren't legitimate is a serious rejection - and whatever our age or dispositions, rejection always bites deep. A world in which we can play out our emotions without fear of their legitimacy being rejected is, in many ways, a deeper escape than a world in which our problems don't exist.

The escape can be a moral one or it can be a release from morality. The science fiction writer John Kessel's famous essay on Orson Scott Card, Creating the Innocent Killer, comes to mind here. Commenting on Card's hugely successful novel Ender's Game (which, in case anyone wants to discuss it in the comments, I should state here at the outset I haven't read), Kessel makes a convincing case that the book's structure contrives situations to justify the typical fantasies of an unhappy teenager. Card, quoted in the essay, more or less explicitly identifies the book as emotional autobiography: "Ender's childhood is based, albeit loosely, on my own; his relationship with [his brother and sister] is based, not on my actual relationship with my older brother and sister, but rather on the way I conceived those relationships to be when I was Ender's age." Considering that the older brother of the novel, at least, is monstrously abusive, this is the kind of revelation that strikes me as somewhat unseemly coming from a writer - how does Card's older brother feel about being so identified in the public eye, I wonder? - but the revelation remains, and in linking it with his own memories of being a bullied child, Kessel remarks:

I would suggest that the methods of evasion that I have delineated in the text, and their congruency with the psychology of adolescence, offer an explanation for the novel’s deep and broad popularity ... This, I fear, is the appeal of Ender’s Game: it models this scenario precisely and absolves the child of any doubt that his actions in response to such treatment are questionable. It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender’s story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else ... God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade!

Kessel considers the morality of Ender's Game 'stunted' and irresponsible, but he's clear on its catnip appeal: it metaphorises. It creates situations in which a bullied child's burning wish for vengeance, combined with a sense of outraged innocence, are fulfilled by the creation of situations extreme enough that the emotions have a good, concrete cause. Find an audience who know how that feels, and you're made.

In more delicate hands, metaphorisation can become a tool within the fiction itself. Pan's Labyrinth, for example, layers the fairytale world of a young girl's imagination against the sordid horrors of the Spanish Civil War, finding its dark heart in her brutal stepfather, the Fascist Captain Vidal, who cuts a swathe of murder and torture through the people around him in his resolution to stamp out the maquis. Ofelia, our little heroine, goes through a series of magical trials which may or may not be real - and each of them finds its parallel in a scene or line in the world around her. Creeping away from the appointed dinner where the Fascists feast while planning to cut rations for the Spanish people, Ofelia confronts a monstrous toad under a magical tree, asking it, "Aren't you ashamed to sit here growing fat while the tree dies?" (Paraphrase from memory, sorry.) As Ofelia narrowly escapes death at the hands of a monster who wakes and pursues her when she breaks the apparently arbitrary order not to eat anything from its table, a doctor faces the furious Vidal having given a merciful overdose to, rather than extending the life of, a prisoner Vidal has been torturing to death for information, saying with helpless dignity, "To obey, just like that, for obedience's sake ... without questioning ... that's something only people like you can do." (Only to be shot for his act of mercy.) The graceful balance of the plot lies in between the vividness of Ofelia's visions and their deep roots in the reality of the story: these are not visions for their own sake, but also poetic metaphors for what is at stake. What the movie itself metaphorises out of Guillermo del Toro's own life, if anything, it's not my place to say, but it stands as a beautiful if harrowing example of metaphorisation played out over several layers within the confines of a story.

We do this in creating works of art, if we happen to have the ability to create works of art. But here's the thing: we also do it - not just artists - when talking about ourselves.

In the interests of privacy again, I won't go into details, but in the past I've spent a certain amount of time listening to people with various mental disorders talk about their problems. In this case the problems were not just disorders of affect like depression, but disorders of thought - people with paranoid schizophrenia talking about how this group or that was plotting against them, people with mental disabilities who weren't always very clear about the difference between their own thoughts and external reality: people, in short, who told me things that were not, in any literal sense of the world, true. Nice people; decent people; good people - but people who were, psychologically speaking, profoundly mixed up.

It not being my place to contradict them, all I could really do was listen and try to sympathise. And I quickly came to the conclusion that what these people were literally telling me was not the point. I wasn't sure exactly how much they believed their own words; some of them took the action that would be appropriate if their stories were true (at great cost to their own wellbeing); others acted in ways that suggested they believed their fictions on some level but not on the level of taking a decision to do something about it. I wasn't qualified and it wasn't my business anyway to decide what they literally thought. But what I believed was this: on some level, they were trying to tell me how they felt. They were just going about it in a roundabout way.

The brain is a rationalising organ, and one that resists accepting the possibility of its own malfunction. A doctor friend of mine once met a man with no short-term memory who spent his time on the ward trying to sell everybody watches: he couldn't remember being told why he was in hospital, so his brain concluded that since he didn't feel sick, he must be there to sell things to the staff and patients. When things don't seem to make sense, often we find our brains supplying explanations unbidden. Incorrect explanations, if there's something afflicting us, but convincing ones nonetheless.

So I stopped trying to make sense of what my confused friends were saying. Disagreeing with them would only be processed as a sign that I was with the enemy anyway. Instead, I took to translating in my own mind. "People are bugging my house" became "I don't feel safe in my own home." "My mother has people following me when I go to work" became "No matter how independent I become, I never feel free of my family problems." "My colleagues keep stopping me from getting dates with the girls who flirt with me" became "I'm sexually frustrated and other people seem better at finding romance than me". And so on. (These are fictional examples to protect identity, but the kind of thing I heard.) Once I stopped asking myself exactly how much they believed their own stories, making some kind of emotional connection with these people wasn't very difficult. It was an amateur perspective, and might not have been a very useful one from a professional (though I'm under the impression that Jung, at least, argued that the content of a patient's delusion was worth listening to for its symbolic content), but that was the way I went, and the way I'd still go if some confused person tried to tell me about what was wrong. I stopped assuming they were the reporters of their own lives, and started assuming they were the novelists of their own feelings.

It would seem I'm not alone in this. Amy Tan, in The Opposite of Fate, gives a moving description of her mother's gradual recession into Alzheimer's disease, and how her mother became incapable of remembering simple information and prone to muddle up the incidents of her own life. Tan describes her mother, a lifelong sufferer from depression and believer in ghosts and fate, as always prone to magical thinking:

Looking back, I'm convinced it was also my mother who affected my imagination to such a degree that I now hear and see things that others do not. I see connections in coincidences, ironies in lies, and truths in contradictions, all sorts of things that others do not.

But as her mother lost more and more of her memory to the disease, Tan also describes learning to speak to her in terms of emotional rather than literal truths:

I now knew the answers to my mother's impossible questions. "When you coming home?" was a common one because I was often away on book tours. If I gave her an actual date, she woudl ask five minutes later, "When you coming home?"

"We're almost home," I would say over the phone, no matter how long Lou and I would be gone. "Because we've missed you so much. We love you so much we can't wait to come home and see you. You are the most important person to us in the whole world." And she would stop asking. That was all she needed to know.

Likewise, when her mother told a confused story of Amy being present the day she met Amy's father, Tan recalls, "Instead of being saddened by her delusion, I was choked with happiness. She had placed me in her memory of one of the best days of her life." Listening like a novelist, in fact, rather than like a fact-checker, Tan was able to hear the emotional truth - you are a blessing to me - in the literal mistake.

This kind of metaphorisation - which I suppose is another way of saying poetic truth - is not, I suspect, confined to novelists and the mentally ill/disabled. (A conjunction that, let me say in advance, will not make you big and clever if you crack jokes about it. Let's not make fun of mentally ill people, eh?) I'm suspicious, for example, of people who choose to tell anecdotes and jokes which always have someone else as the butt: what's being metaphorised here except the statement 'I'm superior'? The stories we select to retell can serve the same function as the stories we invent, and I'd speculate that dreams might serve a similar function as well.

On the whole I'd consider it a human trait to tell stories that create, through artifice and contrivance, situations in which our feelings become natural and reasonable. Novelists do it more publicly because their stories get read, people suffering delusions do it more publicly when they start sharing their delusions with others, but we're a rationalising species. It's an interesting concept to bear in mind when considering an author or a reader's motivations, anyway.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Crazy writers?

In my time as an editor, freelancer and person that people try to show things to*, I've seen a lot of amateur writing. I've also read plenty of reviews and discussions of books, and there's a comment that comes up not infrequently when discussing bad work:

I wonder if this writer is mentally ill?

A writer whose main character is relentlessly Mary Sue-ish gets accused of narcissistic personality disorder; a writer who shows no compassion for their characters gets accused of sociopathy; a writer who creates a bizarrely hostile world gets accused of paranoid schizophrenia, and so on.

Is this a legitimate thing to do? Well, sometimes, perhaps. But there's a line to draw.

The first principle is a common sense one: some mental disorders are uncommon. The statistical likelihood of anyone having a rare disorder is low. Writing talent is also statistically uncommon, so put together the odds of having a rare mental disorder and a rare level of literary ability, and you're looking at some long odds. Most mental disorders are also disabling to varying degrees, while writing requires an ability to sustain concentration, plan for the future and keep one's thoughts in order, so a really serious mental illness is very unlikely. Antonia White might have written about her experiences in Bethlem Hospital later on, but while she was in there she couldn't do very much beyond rave and struggle.

Some mental disorders, of course, are extremely common, depression being at the top of the list. Plenty of writers have experience of depression, because plenty of people have experience of depression - besides which, writing tends to be a high-stress and low-income profession where you have limited control over your fate, all of which can exacerbate any natural depressive tendencies: strain someone's nerves, and sometimes they break. Wonder whether a writer has been depressed and you may well be on solid ground - and indeed, depression involves certain mental habits that can become very familiar once you've experienced them close up. Stephen Fry showed tremendous personal courage in outing himself as a sufferer of bipolar disorder, but, with no disrespect to him as a writer, I could have guessed he'd suffered some kind of depressive illness just from reading The Stars' Tennis Balls. Couldn't necessarily have identified the manic part, but the basic depressive disorder? I'd have been pretty sure.

It tends not to be depression that writers get accused of - because mental illness usually is an accusation in these contexts; the question is generally, 'What on earth is wrong with this person to write such terrible books?!' Asking the question, in fact, tends to be a sign of two things: first, the asker is absolutely out of patience with the writer, and second, the asker is unlikely to have suffered from, or been close to someone suffering from, an actual mental illness. Speculating about a writer's psychology can make reading all the more interesting, but having seen mental illness up close I'm very much of the opinion that it's not a concept one should chuck about as a way of expressing contempt for someone's failings - and people who've seen the damage it can wreak are generally more cautious, and more compassionate, about wondering whether somebody has it.

These considerations aside, there's also another reason why it can lead you astray to wonder what made a writer crazy enough to write such rubbish. It's this, which I propose as Whitfield's Rule of Sanity:

Below a certain standard in a work of fiction, it can be difficult to distinguish lack of talent from lack of sanity.

The way it works is this. A writer creates a fictional world; even if it is governed by all the same laws of science, history and society that govern the real one, their world is created entirely by the words of their story and entirely made-up. There is no reality in a fictional world except whatever illusions of reality the author can conjure. A story isn't reality: it's a facsimile of reality.

How accurate a facsimile that is depends on the talent of the author.

And here's the thing about mental illnesses: though they vary widely, what most of them have in common is that they tend to create, in the sufferer, an inaccurate view of reality.

We draw our conclusions, but mental illness gums up the works. It's correct that MI5 exists; it's incorrect to conclude that they're spying on you as you go about your daily chores. It's correct that we live in a society that values thin women; it's incorrect to conclude that you're grossly ugly when your weight rises above seven stone. Even with the 'common cold of psychiatry', depression, it may be correct that you forgot an item on the shopping list but it's incorrect to conclude that you're a contemptible person who can't even get the simplest thing right. (You'll note that all these conclusions are painful and frightening ones. Mental illness hurts like hell.) The ideas are there, but they don't actually link up by any process that would convince a neutral bystander. The conclusions are not supported by the evidence.

Now consider the work of a really bad writer. Unless you've worked in publishing and read the slush pile, it's possible you've never encountered the work of a really bad writer, because trust me, even the worst dreck that sees publication is far above the standard of the average slush pile submission. But picture a bad book, anyway. What's it like? We're told that the villain hates the hero, but we're not given any reason why this might be the case. We're told that the heroine is extremely charming, but based on how she behaves in every interaction, this does not seem to be the correct interpretation of her behaviour. We're told that everybody in the world is a no-good snake, but why we're supposed to accept this is something of a mystery. In short, what the book asks us to accept is not supported by the evidence.

What we're looking at, in fact, is a book suffering the same frailties of connection that one encounters in an afflicted mind: a book that is ill. It doesn't perceive reality accurately. The world in it is lopsided. To see as the book sees, one would have to be out of one's mind.

But does this mean that the author is insane? Well, ask yourself this: if an inept draftsman creates a picture of a man whose head is too small and whose right hand is half the length it should be, does that mean the draftsman actually believes we live in a world full of tiny-headed, bob-handed people? No; all it means is that the draftsman isn't very good at reproducing the reality he or she sees. And the same attains to writing. Writing is pretty difficult, reality is massively complicated, and even a moderately accurate reproduction of it is hard to manage. Get it wrong, and you've created a weird facsimile of reality that sounds, well, crazy.

Human beings are, after all, highly attuned to perceiving reality - one reason why it's so devastating when something afflicts our perception of it - and particularly attuned to other human beings. The well-known 'uncanny valley' effect is an example of this: present us with a face that looks almost exactly like a human one but not quite, and we don't feel mildly sceptical: we feel a primal, visceral recoil: we feel afraid. We judge faked reality with an extremely precise eye, and we react very badly when it seems wrong. When approximating reality in fiction, a writer is up against an intense and deep-rooted instinct to identify and reject the false. 'Nobody talks like that'; 'People don't act that way'; 'That's not how someone would think': these are the basic recognition responses of a reader whose eye to reality is always assessing as well as responsive. It's amazing anyone gets past it.

The reason we do is probably that we're also a species heavily dependent on the use of language. Anyone who says anything is creating some kind of facsimile of reality: 'There are antelope to the west' is a sentence, not a herd of antelope, and if we freaked out too badly about the disparity between the word and the thing we'd have all starved to death millenia ago. A degree of simplification, a degree of stylisation: we have a natural tolerance for these - which is probably why, in turn, we're more prepared to accept implausible realities from a writer whose language and world is stylised, because we know to adapt our expectations. The world of Robert E. Howard or Samuel Beckett is a pretty far cry from the one we inhabit, but they manage in their different ways to keep us far away from literal likeness that we aren't too disturbed. And there are lots of ways to do it. Howard uses rhythm and rhetoric; Beckett uses starkness and simplicity. Other writers find their own ways. But if an Alan Bennett character suddenly looked up from his teacup and started talking like Lucky or Conan, we'd get a pretty big shock.

There are limits to what our brains will tolerate, though. And those limits are pretty harsh. Aesthetics are a fairly big element of it: a crude facsimile of reality will fly as long as it remains consistent with itself and pleasing to the ear - but let it lose any of that elegantly cadenced use of language and you wind up with The Eye of Argon or any of the goshawful post-Beckett student plays I had to sit through as an undergraduate. We like pretty patterns, in language as well as in design, and will accept a great deal more from a pretty paragraph than we will from an ugly one.

And the further we get from stylisation, the more reality the human mind needs in order to find the creation acceptable. Stylised language being a rare skill even among passable writers - it's much easier to put together a workaday sentence than a poetic one - most people need to be able to present a pretty darn plausible approximation of how people think, speak and act if they're going to get away with it.

And if they don't, the uncanny valley kicks in. What in the visual we'd call creepy, in the literary we call crazy.

Well, we're none of us perfect, and certainly none of us have as much talent as we could wish. But as mental illness is already overburdened with a horrible load of stigma and misunderstanding, which in turns leads to actual sufferers going misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, getting judged by the ignorant, rejected, unsupported, sometimes outright harassed, and all-around kicked when they're down, it's best not to add to the grim weight of disinformation that's already out there. Which means that unless you've got some sound, experience-based understanding and good evidence, it's usually best not to go around calling people crazy - certainly not just on the basis of bad behaviour or bad writing. They're probably just a rotten person or a rotten writer. It happens.

*Since getting published I've had to make a general rule that I don't look at the work of strangers. There are a lot of reasons for this, time being a big one, but there's also the fact that statistically speaking, more stuff is bad than good, and nobody wants to hear 'Your stuff is bad' from a writer whose books they like.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Sex and the City

A little while ago I was chatting about Sex and the City, which as you may know has recently decided to share another movie with us, on another website. Someone there requested me to put my comments into blog form ... so here we go.
My comments can basically be boiled to this: 'Wow, one kind of conservatism got me agreeing with another! That's quite a feat.' (Or, indeed, 'One kind of racism got me agreeing with another racist,' which is an uncomfortable thought indeed.)
The conservatism I'm in agreement with, to be clear, is that of Florence King in her witty autobiography Memoirs of a Failed Southern Lady. King describes her experiences of growing up a misanthropic and contrary young woman in the fifties Feminine Mystique era where a pretty girl was expected to be a melody, and reflects on the nature of Southern culture in general.
Now, there's no two ways about it: King says some horrible, horrible things in the book. Least glorious is her moment of deciding to forgive the good ole boy with whom she's having a one night stand ... well, here's what she says: 'I had no doubt that him and ole Quint had whupped a few nigras in their boyhood forays, and I was even more sure that, driving a long a lonely road on some black velvet night, they had spied a l'il nigra gal and slowed down. Technically they did not rape her, but only because they did not have to; she knew the path of least resistance was the way home.' (Apparently one can hold a knife to someone's throat and it's rape, but if you hold the whole of society to someone's throat, it's not.) But she lets him off the hook because, basically, he's nice to her.
There's no excusing King for this kind of thing. But nevertheless, it's King's complaints about female stereotypes - like many of us, she's far more sensitive to prejudice when it causes her personal inconvenience - that leap to my mind when considering the Sex and the City cast.
Surrounded by women anxious to prove their sweetness, purity and compliance with the Feminine Mystique, proudly writing 'Ambition: housewife' on forms and hiding their intelligence as best they can and certain they won't be real women without husbands and children, King dubs them 'malkins'. 'They'd be afraid of not being like everybody else,' she defines them in youth, before finally settling on the definition: 'A malkin is a woman who worries about her femininity.' A woman who complies with every dictate for femininity that society hands down, and frets endlessly about whether she's being seen to comply with them adequately.
An uncharitable definition, certainly, and a far from common type as far as anyone I've encountered goes. But when it comes to Sex and the City, that's what we're looking at. It's the only time I've ever felt the definition to be really useful. Post-feminist liberation my eye: the Sex and the City girls are a bunch of malkins. They're often criticised for their shallowness, and you can indeed make such a criticism - but what's really troubling is the anxious conservatism that underlies their swinging gloss.
Part of this is a plot requirement: to keep the story ticking over, the show had to create and destroy relationships between the heroines and a lot of different men with swift dispatch. I always found that rather depressing as a viewer because it made for a catalogue of disasters, but it also meant that the heroines often dumped perfectly nice men for completely frivolous reasons. Sometimes the reasons were just silly - dropping the guy who knew how to cook and pay compliments because he proved himself too 'feminine' by being afraid of a mouse (because yeah, a guy who's really nice to you must be feminine, and what's feminism worth if you can't still judge a man for not fitting into the stereotypes?) Sometimes they pointed out just how disempowered the women actually kept themselves more sharply: for instance, breaking up with a guy for peeing with the bathroom door open rather than, y'know, finding your tongue and saying, 'Would you close the door, please? I don't like to watch people peeing.'
But here was the consistent thing: the characters would find themselves in situations where they would have to assert themselves and start negotiating what was and wasn't acceptable in a relationship. He's got a habit you don't like, or a fetish you don't share, or you disagree about something. Maybe he might talk you round, maybe you might talk him round, maybe you might reach a compromise - y'know, the way things get settled in actual relationships - or maybe it's a dealbreaker, but you don't know until you try. But consistently, rather than actually talk about it, the heroines would take to their stilettos and flee. The prospect of losing a man was less frightening than the prospect of hashing out an issue with him.
Similarly, relationships consistently ended if the man saw a woman making a fool of herself. The idea of forgiveness, humour, or being desirable despite being imperfect was swamped in a tide of anxiety. Being seen to be imperfect, no matter what someone's actual character was like, was a death-knell. Appearances were everything. 'The neighbours' were more fashionable than most people's are, but far too much was driven by a tension that basically boiled down to, 'What would the neighbours say?'
And - which is the real problem with a show that proclaims itself to be sexually free-thinking - this even extended to sex. While they liked to consider themselves sexually liberated, the last thing they ever seemed to consult was their own sexual feelings. The pattern was generally this: one of them goes home with a guy who seems fine, he proposes some kink or game that they've never tried before, they get flummoxed ... and the next morning, they meet with their friends to discuss it.
Not 'try it and think it over'. Not 'try a mild version of it with the guy and see if they felt like they could work up to the full-on version'. Not 'try it out in fantasies and see if it appealed'. Not 'look for some magazines or movies that featured it to see if they found it arousing'. And certainly not 'know their own sexual tastes and responses well enough that they could simply say at the outset "sounds like my kind of thing" or "sorry, doesn't work for me"'. They went and asked their friends what to do.
So repetitively did this happen that it seemed less like they wanted to think things through and more like they needed to ask permission, to get reassurance that it wasn't socially unacceptable to do whatever it was the guy suggested. 'Is it normal/okay?' was a much more pressing question than 'Does it turn me on?' The idea of saying, 'Well, I don't know what anybody else would think of me doing this, but I enjoy it, so I'll just do it and keep it to myself if people look judgemental,' never seemed to occur to anyone.
Sexual incompatibility is, indeed, a perfectly good reason to end a relationship. If the characters had decided for themselves based on their senses and fantasies rather than frantically consulting each other about what was normal, I might have bought it. But to have sexual compatibility with someone, you need to have a sexual self with sexual tastes, and these women didn't. There was no real sign that any of them had particular preferences in bed: they were blank slates on which men tried to impose this fetish or that, always to be rejected for it. The ultimate lover was generically 'good in bed', which in the show's terms meant ... er, well, something, it's not clear what, except that he had a degree of technique and no kinks, quirks or preferences to worry about. Sex itself was considered better the more generic it was, and if that's the way a show writes about sex, it's not interested in the characters as sexual beings. Sex is written as an issue of not having things wrong with you, rather than having things right - but in reality, it takes a whole lot more than being blandly inoffensive to make someone a good sexual match.
In the face of such behaviour, it was hard to believe that these women were actually about sex. Or even about relationships with men. They were about being generically perfect - never looking silly, preferring to dispose of an imperfect man than deal with him, checking for permission every time a new sexual possibility came up. In the nineties, sexual liberation was in, honey, and so they were trying to be sexually liberated in the same way that a woman would try to be a perfect housewife in the fifties, but it wasn't about sexual pleasure, and certainly not about sexual connection. It was about being the kind of woman that fashion dictated they should be. Sex was an accessory; more comfortable than Manolo Blahniks but less controllable, so more discussed, but ultimately about image rather than about experience. In fact, the difficulty in controlling sex meant it was as often a threat to happiness as a means to it - not just from the ordinary fears of heartbreak or bad experiences, but from the more high-strung fears that the wrong kind of experience might beckon a woman away from normality onto a dark path where perfection would never find her again - no matter how much fun might be found there.
Sex and the City was always a show full of women who worried about being socially acceptable more than they worried about being happy, pretty much the exact opposite of what feminism was supposed to bring us. Women do, of course, worry about being socially acceptable, and that's something easy to identify with. A show that presents itself as being sexually liberated, though, gets very problematic when it starts letting those worries dominate to the exclusion of any kind of common sense or sensuality.
So what of the movies? Well, I didn't feel inclined to spend my money on them, especially as reviews were so widely negative. But in the latest movie, the women go to Abu Dhabi - yes, that's right, they pack their designer bags and head off to share their liberating fashions with the poor benighted A-rabs.
Remember I mentioned conservatism at the beginning of this post? Sound familiar? Because while I was shocked when I heard about this latest development, thinking it over, it's not exactly surprising. You want to look liberated? (To a conventional Western audience, anyway?) Stand next to somebody in a burkha. You want to look revolutionary? Defy a culture that your own culture condemns rather than taking the risks of defying your own. You want to look progressive? Find someone more conservative than you. That's how far the Sex and the City women have to go to find someone more conservative than themselves: out to the stereotyped East of American fantasy. Extrapolate backwards, and picture just how conservative that makes them.
Not having seen the second movie I can't legitimately beat on the racism as much it sounds like it deserves beating upon, so I'd recommend the excellent social justice blog What Tami Said's comment on the subject, as she neatly dissects the various ways in which difference - homosexuality, non-whiteness, foreignness - are reduced to cute little accessories rather than human states. (On the subject of sexual liberation I'd also recommend this review of the first movie by blogger Greta Christina, though I wouldn't recommend you read it at work.) What strikes me, considering this alarming new direction, is this: as women, I always considered the Sex and the City characters to be keeping themselves disempowered, but going abroad and lording it over the natives shows some pretty sharp power disparities in itself.

What the story is doing, I think, is substituting privilege for power. You can't stand up to a (white, straight, Western) man? Never mind: have a pretty dress and some servants. You can't control your own life? Never mind: responsibility is a drag and probably beyond you anyway. Your confidence is so undermined you'd rather follow the fashions than be happy? Think of the starving children in Africa! (Not too hard, though, or that might ruin your day.) People think you're racist and overprivileged? Well isn't that mean of them?!

I'm hearing Florence King in my ear: 'So far I had heard femininity defined as nervous breakdowns, insanity, spontaneous hysterectomy, and illiteracy. Now to that glorious list I could add defect of character.' Or, in another mood, 'A passion for social change was not part of my rebelliousness; I was content to let the world stay exactly the way it was, provided I could have special privileges.'

Liberation my eye.

Added later: worth reading here is a discussion on Muslimah Media Watch, a site where Muslim feminists critique how they get portrayed in the media. Given the content of the recent film, go listen to them rather than to me, I'd say...

Monday, June 07, 2010


The website has been static for a month...

... because, basically, Blogger took it into its head to stop publishing any new material from websites created before a certain date, and only then if they accepted a change of website address. It is only thanks to the wonderful Simon Wilkes of Random House, who actually knows how to handle websites, that it's back up and running again.

I think very ill of them for this, so may later be migrating the blog again to a less stupid blog source, but in the meantime, hopefully everybody's links remain relatively undisturbed.

A particular apology to everyone who made charitable donations to Haiti to commission Mikalogues and has been waiting ages: I haven't forgotten you, and shall be attending to that shortly. I have a list, but if people want to remind me in the comments, please feel free. Also feel free to point out any technial problems you're having with the site, though I'll have to pass them on to Simon as I'm no Netsmith myself, as the last month's echoing silence doubtless suggests.

But anyway, it looks like we may be back in business! Fingers crossed...


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