Seeking a parity of authors

Sunday, 23 February 2014

I like the idea of the year of reading women. I’d been thinking a bit differently though. The aim of that project is to highlight the unconscious bias of readers (and the literary support network that guide readers’ choices). And reading female authors for a year sounds great: everyone should have read some Angelou, Atwood, Carter and Waters. But what happens at the end of 2014? Will people have trained their unconscious out of its bias?

So instead, for me, this year is going to be about reading parity. I’ve taken this from the panel parity movement in fandom. There the idea is that all-male panels should be actively challenged. In my view, all female panels should also be challenged. I’ve had enough of attending panels along the lines of “women in comics” or “women in SFF” or “women in Doctor Who” as if our gender is the only thing we can discuss.

So I’m going to bring in author parity: I’m going to try to get a balance of authors. I’m also going to run it from Christmas 2013 to Christmas 2014 as, in reading terms, the holiday always marks my new year. If the ultimate aim is to overcome unconscious sexism, then the result should be equality not bias towards any gender.

I also think it’s important to audit your unconscious bias: if you primarily read romances, for example, you’re unconsciously biased away from male authors. (Unsurprisingly, the list that kicked #readwomen2014 is genre-biased towards literary fiction.) So this first year is as much about seeing where my bias lies, so the choices I make lead towards a permanent shift of that bias.

How am I doing so far?
Books by female authors: 2
Books by male authors: 3

Broken down further…
Female-authored fiction: 1
Female-authored non-fiction: 1
Male-authored fiction: 0
Male-authored non-fiction: 3

I’ll review the split near my birthday, and irregularly after that.

Then We Came to the End

Sunday, 25 January 2009

I have no idea why I read cube-lit. That wierd American sub-genre of contemporary fiction which is set in and revolves around working for a company.  I really enjoyed Microserfs, for example, in part because I recognised the work-geek stereotypes being presented. (Since then, there has been the IT Crowd which takes the Silicon Valley of Microserfs and dumps it in a British basement, making it a lot funnier.)

Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris
(Penguin, 2008)

I’m also a sucker for 3-for-2 offers, often ending up with one extra book I wasn’t desperate to own but which I thought was worth picking as the freebie. Then We Came to the End is such a book.  The cubes and offices are in an advertising agency going through a bout of layoffs as a downturn bites (based on the technology they use, I think it’s the dot-com bubble‘s burst). Given my enjoyment of ad agency settings (Mad Men, Murder Must Advertise etc) as well as cube-lit, it should be a winner.

I did enjoy it: the petty workplace habits are well-observed and there was a rather neat device for the ‘lit’ part of the ‘cube-lit’ tag. The novel is told in first person plural (‘we’*), which serves to make the reader complicit in the vile gang of characters’ activities. If they take against someone, the suggestion is that we, as readers, also do.  Of course, as readers we also see outside the cube’s walls – we can see that just because ‘we’ don’t like a guy it doesn’t mean that guy is actually unlikeable. We as readers become the silent complicit partners in the time-wasting, pettiness and bullying ‘we’ do: we become the person who sees the unfairness but doesn’t speak up and thus allows it to escalate.

One chapter in the middle breaks this, the only chapter to step outside the office environs, and moves to third person singular. Later, back in the first person plural, ‘we’ attend a book reading by a former colleague and he starts with the first line of that person-breaking middle chapter.

And yet, three weeks after I finished it, I can’t remember all the details. Despite being dragged into the fiction through that all-inclusive pronoun, I don’t recall the names of the characters. So I’d recommend it to most office workers as, like most cube-lit, you get the kick of recognition and it races along quite nicely.  A good commuting read.

*aside: in Who fandom, there is a nasty habit of calling fans ‘we’ and everyone else in the world ‘not-we’ – it’s taken from one of the more philosophical early 80s stories but manages to come over like the vile ‘we’ in this novel. Just saying.

The Penguincubator

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sell contemporary books at train stations?

This was the impetus behind the founding of Penguin books (the moment of genesis happening on Exeter station, after Allan Lane had been to visit Agatha Christie). Reading the company history a few years back, I found the fascinating little snippet:

1937 also saw the launch of the Penguin Shakespeare series and the Pelican imprint – original non-fiction books on contemporary issues – and the appearance of a book-dispensing machine at Charing Cross called the Penguincubator.

The Penguincubator. What a fabulous name. I searched in vain for a photo, trying to imagine what such a thing would look like. Giving up, I consigned the Penguincubator to my stash of mildly interesting historical facts. Until this morning.

penguincubator Flicking through the Grauniad magazine (turning quickly to Jess Cartner-Morley and Alexis Petredis, then What Women Don’t Understand About Men), I saw they had a photo article with images from their archives. They’ll be running an exhibition until March, in fact. I find photo journalism from the 50s fascinating: the way the crop marks and comments are scattered around the focal point, the glamour of the papparazzi before they started door-stepping and taking up-skirt shots. The Soho Archives exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery was equally as fascinating. So, I turned to the article and found this photo from 1957. There, cut in half by the photographer’s focus on the ‘Bikini Automat’ (and who wouldn’t be fascinated – bikinis were still shockingly risqué then), is a vending machine saying that you can ‘Buy Your Penguin’ here. It’s the Penguincubator!!!

I am so in awe. Look at it! I’m not sure it that would have been the original 1937 design, with the jaunty script and ragged edges, but that is definitely a vending machine filled with classic era Penguins. So they surivived for at least twenty years, including through WW2. Next time I write something set between those two dates which contains scenes in a railway station, the Penguincubator is getting a cameo.

I think one should be installed at Exeter station, to acknowledge its role in the founding of one of the best loved and most recognised publishing houses in the world.

Book progress

Sunday, 2 November 2008

My ‘to be read’ pile gets a fair few mentions here, mainly as I’m faintly haunted by its contents. The pile is no more. Because I’ve bought a bookcase and put them all into it.

To be read shelfYes, a totally logical response to too many books to read. You can see the allegedgrumpy feminist corner“, or the pulp shelf, non-fiction, and, of course, the Will Self corner.

30 Books Meme

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

via various:

The Museum, Libraries and Arts Council’s list of 30 Books Every Adult Should Have Read.
Bold the ones you have read.
Italicize the ones you would like to read.
Strike out the ones you never plan to read, or started but couldn’t finish.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The Bible
I had enough of it in school, ta very much. A useful resource, more easily navigated via online searching and commentaries. And why is this included but no other sacred texts? No Koran? No Sikh scripture? No Vedas?

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
by JRR Tolkien.
Out of a sense of duty. It was widely known to be The Classic Fantasy/Hippy novel, so I read it because I thought I should. I far prefer the Hobbit which covers the majority of the same themes but without all the waffle. Or the Ents.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Just a few times.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Yes, but not twice. I only like A Tale of Two Cities, a novel which Dickens’s fans always tell me is atypical. I love his work in adaptation, but I simply don’t enjoy reading his prose.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Reader, I read it a few times.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
See all my previous rambles about Jane Austen.

All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque.

His Dark Materials
Trilogy by Phillip Pullman.
I felt the last book dragged rather compared to the first two, and I can see why it provokes lots of discussion about plot flaws, theolgical flaws etc etc but I would rather a child read this and those dubious Narnia books than Harry Potter since at least Pullman and Lewis can write imaginatively and originally.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
I recently read Charlotte Grey which is the third in Faulks’s war triptych. Whilst I enjoyed it I was ultimately left rather cold by it, so I doubt I’ll bother with other work by him.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
I have this memory of doing it at school, despite recalling nothing of it. Then again, given some of my other school texts and how keen I was to forget them, this should not be surprising. One for the reread pile, maybe?

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
by Mark Haddon.
Yes. I could have sworn I wrote about it, but apparently not. There’s a short note on my kidlit tag about it, which reveals I read it in December 2004. That’s when I wasn’t blogging here due to writing my own stuff.

Tess of the D’urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
See ‘Hardy, T. Why I Don’t Like His Work’.

Winnie the Pooh
by AA Milne.
And The House at Pooh Corner, which is better on account of having Tigger.

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte.
Read the book, sang the song, sniggered at the semaphore.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.
There was a subcatagory of children’s fiction I never liked and that was anthropomorphic stuff. I never read Beatrix Potter as a little girl, or this, or anything else. Winnie the Pooh is different because we all know Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore were anthropomorphic toys. Animals were…animals. They didn’t wear little blue jackets or drive motor cars.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
After all, tomorrow is another day in which I could read a long epitaph to a dubious past. I’m always torn about Gone With the Wind: it romances the Deep South, which is something I find rather distasteful, but I’m a sucker for a Beatrix/Benedict romance and Scarlet/Rhett have got it by the wagonload. Even better, in the book she ends up with a whole passel of brats.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
See Christmas Carol.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
See my comments.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.
Already on the TBR pile.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.
Don’t know it.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
3 Dickens novels out of 30? Are the compilers of this list sadists? Surely there are more interesting and diverse options than bloody Dickens?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
already on the TBR pile.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
already on the TBR pile.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Tried. Hated.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Don’t know it.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
I was a Freaks & Geeks kinda teen. So as I skulked around the corridors of my school, with my pierced ears, and lace ribbons and liquid eyeliner, one of my badges of freakery geekery was my copy of this, always visible in a pocket or my bag. I love novels with constructed languages like this, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Riddley Walker. Also, the film was illegal in the UK at the time, so having the book was like saying “hey, I’m rebellious and literate!”.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn.
already on the TBR pile.


So I’ve read thirteen out of the thirty, plan to read eight more, don’t know two and have no plans to read the other seven. Of those seven, six I’m rejecting due to previous experience of either the book (the Bible, Middlemarch) or the authors (Dickens, Faulks) or both (Great Expectations, Tess). The remaining one is rejected on the grounds that, having avoided it as a child, I’m not convinced I would like it as an adult. Also, frogs don’t drive cars.

Obviously, these lists exist more to bring in some handy publicity to some organisation who wants to get a few chattering heads going in culture vulture circles but that British librarians think Gone With the Wind is a more important book to read before you die than, say, any non-Christian religious text makes me wonder about other choices. When a librarian is picking some books to put in the display racks – the ‘quick reads’, or ‘we recommend’ or ‘classics’ displays designed to make choosing a book in a library faster – what preconceptions are they bringing about their users? The Bible should be read, but not the Vedas? If the books on this shortlist end up being displayed in libraries across the UK as part of the promotion what message do they give about libraries? The classic Dead White Males are there, white chicks write romances, we’re still not over WW1 and we like our Russians (more Dead White Males, you notice) to be repressed.

I’m not sure whether to be pleased or annoyed that I have read over a third of these and intend to have read two-thirds before I die.

No such City

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

No Such City

I picked up a fab pulp novel in the charity shop at the weekend: Shabby Tiger by Howard Spring. It has a nakkid girl on the cover. It also has the tagline “Exuberant, outspoken, Rabelaisian” and how often do you see a novel called Rabelaisian these days, eh?

But the real joys lie within. The opening line is

The woman flamed along the road like a macaw.

Do macaws often flame along roads, then?

Then I spotted the disclaimer (see photo). There is no such city as Manchester.

And even the author is fictitious. Has this fallen through a wormhole from the Nineteen Eighty Four universe, in which fiction is mass-produced on the novel-writing machines?

She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad.

She had even …been picked out to work in Pornosec, the sub-section of the Fiction Department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles. … There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

Certainly it has the rough printing on the cover, with rosettes of basic colours barely blurred together: the sort that always makes me think of the magic colouring books I had a child where one swish a a wet paintbrush revealed the colours.

Yet our fictional author has three volumes in his autobiography, according to the ‘also by’ listing.

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