In which I Have Thoughts about disability, writer-world and publishing

This morning a friend drew my attention to a twitter thread started by Sam Missingham. Sam is a bit of a publishing industry legend and the founder of Lounge Books amongst a gazillion other things. She’s also a great advocate for under-represented voices in publishing.

Her thread today (which you can see here) was asking about experiences of disability in terms of wider accessibility and also in terms of writing events and publishing. And those are things I think about quite a lot when I’m wearing my Vice-Chair of a major writers’ organisation hat. But they’re also things I think about just as Alison. And just as Alison I started to type a reply, and then I stopped, because even in the modern world of multi-tweet threaded epics I couldn’t martial my thoughts down to a tweetable size. So instead, here I am, blowing cobwebs off the unloved corners of the blogosphere like it’s 2013 or something.

So let’s kick off by outing myself. I’m a disabled person. The most common response I get to that statement is generally in the area of ‘Oh but not like, y’know, really disabled…’ Here’s what the Equalities Act 2010 says a disability is… ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’ So yeah – in those terms really disabled.

Amongst other things, I have IBS – a label I have lots of issues with – which basically means that I have chronic digestive pain and problems caused by nothing that GPs or consultant gastroenterologists can definitively identify. They can definitively rule out lots of things – bowel and stomach cancer, colitis, Chron’s disease, coeliac disease for starters – but can’t definitively rule anything specific in.

I’m not personally a huge fan of the term IBS. It stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I find it sort of creates the image of one’s bowel as a kind of grumpy old man* – a Victor Meldrew figure – bitching and moaning at whatever food happens to get chucked his way. As well as causing pain, IBS can also cause constipation and diarrhea, or, for a lucky few of us, both (sometimes within the same 30 minute period). For me, at least, a more accurate term would be Over-reactive Bowel Syndrome. Everyone’s digestive system reacts to the food we eat – if they didn’t we wouldn’t all share an understanding that beans make you fart – mine just has significantly more dramatic mood swings than most, and sometimes reacts to entirely unexpected things, like ‘it being Tuesday’ for example.

As a result I have to modify my diet – red meat, for example, is pretty much a no no – and I have developed the ability to know where the nearest toilet is to the level of it basically being a superpower. I carry a radar key for disabled toilet access and am getting more brazen (although not fully shameless yet) in the face of the ‘you don’t look disabled’ whispers and glances when I have to use the damn thing. It also makes losing weight a real challenge. Pain levels vary from day to day but on flare-up days, doing exercise is a non-starter. If you can imagine your digestive system as a bottle of fizzy pop and then think about the shaking effect of a vigorous 45 minutes of HIIT or Zumba you’ll get a good idea of the issues there. And on flare-up days the only foods that don’t make things worse generally fall into the ‘beige carbs’ category. Again, not ideal, for maintaining a healthy weight. I get bloating to the point where I’m pretty much guaranteed a seat on the Tube on suspicion of being about seven months pregnant. If I get too hungry I get stomach pain. If I eat even slightly too much I get stomach pain. Sometimes I do everything ‘right’ and I get stomach pain.

The amount of pain varies a lot and, like most chronic illness sufferers, I do a lot of powering through. Because you can, up  to a point, but it takes a toll. Powering on through pain is knackering. I have friends who have chronic illnesses where fatigue is a major symptom – I can only imagine that the exponential impact of the fatigue of powering through fatigue must be horrendous.

So that’s me. And now, I’ll try to drag myself back to the point I originally intended to talk about… What would I like to see change in writer world and publishing in relation to disability?

Obviously these are just my personal thoughts…

  1. Events with multiple food options please…  It’s great to be asked about dietary requirements before an event – I have multiple weird food allergies so it’s good to get them down in advance –  but realistically a lot of days I don’t know what I’m likely to feel ok about eating until I’m there. Buffets are good. Menus with choices are good. If there’s only one option, staff who are understanding about me leaving half of it are good too.
  2. Enough toilets… men’s, women’s, gender neutral, disabled – in a pinch I’ll use any of those. It’s just nice when there’s more than one cubicle for the massive room full of people.
  3. Stop telling stories where disability is a metaphor for the character flaw the protagonist has to get over please… Disabled people can be delightful. Disabled people can be dicks. Most of us are somewhere in between. Like, you know, people. What disability and chronic illness definitely aren’t are flaws to be overcome. Powering through pain isn’t a great personal victory – it’s a choice. Staying in bed isn’t ‘giving in’ to weakness of mind or character. Both of those actions are entirely value and morally neutral.
  4. Ask disabled people what they want and need… disability is a massive range of stuff. Sensory impairment, mobility limitation, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, mental health and a billion other things besides. I can’t speak for someone with, for example, a sensory impairment, but they can speak for themselves.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I probably have more, but this is quite a lot of ‘reckoning stuff on the interweb’ for one afternoon. Probably ought to do some real work now. Toodle-pip.

Oooh… actually one more thing  before I go. If you’re about to type a comment that starts ‘Have you tried…’ then please don’t. I know it’s well-intentioned but seriously I was diagnosed in 2012. If you thought of it in the time it took to read this post, you can probably assume it’s been covered.

*No. No idea why I think my bowel is male. That’s probably a whole year of therapy right there.

In which I think about a whole lotta history

This Friday is release day for the brand new book from my alter ego, Juliet Bell. The Other Wife is out in ebook this week and paperback in January. And you can pre-order either (or indeed both) right here.

Outback Australia, 1981

After a terrible childhood, Jane comes to Thornfield as nanny to the adorable Adele, watched over by the handsome and enigmatic Edward. Plain and inexperienced, Jane would never dream of being more than his hired help. But swept up in the dramatic beauty of the Outback, she finds herself drawn to Edward. And, to her surprise, he seems to return her feelings.

But Jane is not the first woman Edward has pledged to make mistress of Thornfield.

As a child, Betty was taken from her English home and sent for adoption in Australia. At first, no-one wanted her, deeming her hair too curly, and her skin too dark. Until the scheming Mr Mason sees a chance to use Betty to cement a relationship with the rich and powerful Rochester dynasty…

When Jane discovers Betty’s fate, will she still want to be the next Mrs Rochester?

One of the most emotionally challenging parts of writing The Other Wife was researching how Betty ends up in Australia all alone after being born in England to parents who love her. Betty’s story echoes elements of the real stories of thousands of children who were sent to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other countries, by the British authorities who were supposed to be taking care of them. The fictional version of Betty’s childhood isn’t a particularly happy one  but it’s a lot happier than many of the children who were sent overseas. Betty is adopted. The majority of British children who were sent to Australia ended up in children’s homes or in work programmes that were unsafe for children of a young age. Many suffered physical or sexual abuse. Children were told that their parents had died, when this was often untrue. And this practice continued for centuries, well into the second half of the twentieth century.

I’m white. I’m British, specifically English. I’m sort of middle-classish. Historically people like me have not consistently been the good guys. I also have an MA in Modern History, so that means I’ve done five years of secondary school, two years of A-level and four years of university studying history, and from all that study a lot of the time you’d still think that the British have been universally enlightened and virtuous across time. When we learn about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world what we learn about a lot is Britain as saviour, Britain as last bastion of freedom, Britain as driving force in ending evils like the slave trade. What we learn about less is what the British did to establish a global empire, about Britain as driving force in maintaining the Atlantic Slave Trade through the eighteenth century, and about Britain as a country that routinely deported children thousands of miles across the globe to an unknown fate.

And that matters because you can’t understand the world as it is now, and Britain’s place in that world, without understanding Britain’s history in that world. And that means understanding the good bits and the bad, because no person and no country is just one thing. I’m very definitely a British person. I can’t imagine living anywhere else – I’m really not sure my sense of humour would translate. I’m proud to have been born into the country that abolished slavery in 1833. I’m proud to be part of the country in which so many owe so much to so few. But if you embrace the idea of being culturally British, I think you have a responsibility to understand the darker parts of our shared history.

Because that history continues to colour our present. Why is there a common travel area encompassing Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Why is English an official language in sixty seven sovereign states across the planet (including Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, the USA, Pakistan, Jamaica, Botswana, Kenya)? Why is the British monarch also head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth realms? All of those are questions that impact on how Britain interacts with the world right now – they colour things like why people choose to migrate to and from Britain, and why the British/Irish border remains such a massive issue if Britain wants to leave the EU – and all of them have long and complex answers that encompass some of the darkest parts of our history.

We live in a world that feels increasingly split down the middle politically. That’s dangerous. It reduces things to simple positions. Very few things about our history, our culture, and our nation are simple.

Child migration is just one example of the darker side of how the British have treated the vulnerable within our own country. We’ve also done great things – we invented the NHS and the national insurance scheme to protect the most vulnerable. We, as a country and a people, are not just one thing and we never have been. History, politics, culture – these are big complex amorphous things. If someone is selling you a simple version of any of them then they’re either lying or they’re an idiot. And you don’t want to be following a liar or an idiot.

So that blog post wandered a bit from the original topic. Sorry. Ah well, if you want to know more about child migration this is the place to look. 

And if you want to follow Betty’s journey to Australia you can order The Other Wife right here.

In which I think about why I’ve had such a long blog break

I used to be a jolly enthusiastic blogger. Not always reliable in the posting every week on the same day sense, but I posted moderately frequently and could generally come up with something to pontificate on at relatively short notice.

And then I sort of stopped. I didn’t stop dead. I stopped over months, or possibly even years. The posts slowed down, and by the middle of last year they’d all but dried up.

And now, it being January, and the year being all fresh and new I’m thinking ‘I shall get back into the habit of blogging in 2018.’ And as a first step I’m thinking about why I stopped.

I think that ultimately having an opinion on stuff started feeling a little bit pointless. I’d say I’m economically generally pretty left-wing and socially pretty liberal. And there have been moments – quite a lot of moments – where it’s felt like those things were fairly pointless things to be in recent years. It’s been easy to feel like the world us hippy liberal types thought we were building is slipping away. The morning after the Brexit vote I felt physically ill. The only reason Donald getting elected was any better was that by then I’d sort of conditioned myself to expect the worst.

Now, I’m a liberal leftie who grew up in the north of England during the eighties so I’m by no means unused to the feeling that the political tide is sweeping away from me. That happens. But this feels worse. Possibly it is worse. Possibly it feels worse because there are millions of voices all over the internet magnifying the horror.

And the magnification isn’t just people I disagree with shouting loudly. It’s people I agree with shouting loudly too. It’s the fact that on the internet so much of the time we’re all set to transmit. We listen only in order to work out how we’re going to argue against, rather than to try to understand. And that makes being just another voice set to transmit feel like a very bad thing to be.

But maybe in that context quiet voices, popping up once a week, and muttering ‘I think it’s a bit more complicated than that,’ or ‘You know those two points of view your vociferously arguing from aren’t actually mutually exclusive,’ or y’know ‘Hey guys! Why can’t the farmer and the cowman just be friends?’* are even more important.

So in that spirit I’m stepping back into the blogosphere. Be warned – it will, as ever, be eclectic and random. Posts will be based solely and entirely on what shiny thing has caught my attention in the current second. And 90% of the time the conclusion will be either ‘It’s complicated,’ or ‘Everyone just play nicely,’ and sometimes I will break my own rules about not just shouting into the abyss and get a little bit ranty. Apologies for those weeks, but even in those weeks, I think I’ve decided that it’s better to engage and converse (even on a tiny corner of the interweb that barely anyone will ever see) than to sit quietly and feel overwhelmed by the dark.

 

* Extra musical-theatretastic brownie points for everyone who gets that reference.

In which I have thoughts about Doctor Who and writing

I decided at the weekend that this week I would blow the dust off my blog and get back into it. I was going to post my traditional ‘What I learnt at the RNA Conference’ post, where I would have talked about Jill Mansell writing long-hand and the importance of not stalking reviewers or literary agents. I would have illustrated the whole thing with this picture of me with my colleague, Janet Gover, and my agent, Julia Silk.

And it would have been very lovely. But since then I have become distracted by the news the next Doctor is going to be played by a woman.

This has been met by delight, indifference and horror in difference circles, so I thought I’d take a minute to explain why I’m delighted. The first thing to say is that I didn’t expect to be delighted. I’d sort of guessed from the last episode of the most recent series that they were going to take the plunge, and I thought that would be fine. I’ve never been a particular fan of the idea of pushing for specific roles to be played by non white male actors. I tend towards the view that diversity needs to be more diverse than that. It principally matters, I would have said, that Bond is always a white bloke, because there are so few comparable roles that aren’t. If there were more other films with Asian female super-spies, for example, Bond’s whiteness would matter less. So I figured the Doctor could be any ethnicity or gender and I would be equally fine – for me, I thought, it was more about the individual they cast.

But when I watched the announcement roll past on twitter and clicked and refreshed like a crazy person on my phone to find the video clip introducing Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor I did well up a tiny bit. I’m old enough to have liked Doctor Who the first time around – by which I mean pre-1989, not the actual first time around with Doctor number 1. I’m the lone crazy person who really liked Sylvester McCoy, and I really really liked his companion. She was Ace, and indeed ace. She was chippy and reckless and liked to blow stuff up. I very much wanted to be Ace. It only strikes me now that I didn’t want to be the Doctor. I wanted to run away with the Doctor, but I didn’t think I wanted to be the Doctor. Now the eleven year old me out there somewhere feels like she’s allowed to want to be the Doctor too. And that feels good. Really good.

I’ve also seen a lot of comments that the casting is gimmicky, or tokenistic. That makes me want to be shouty. I shall try not to be. Firstly, I don’t think we can know if something is gimmicky until we’ve seen the episodes. Secondly, there has been some casting in Doctor Who that has looked seriously gimmicky and has worked out fabulously. Two of the most successful companions of the post-2005 era are Rose and Donna. Billie Piper was best known as a teen popstar and former spouse of Chris Evans when she was cast. Catherine Tate was best known as a sketch show comedian. Either of those could have been described as gimmicky – both were brilliant. And Jodie Whittaker has serious acting class – nothing gimmicky at all about that.

Ultimately though the part of me that wants to defend this change so passionately is the writer. The assumption seems to be that this is a casting that has been made for box-ticking or PR reasons. Until we’ve seen the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall’s, episodes with his version of the Doctor, I think it’s right to keep the faith that this is a creative, writerly decision. Recently the Doctor has seen his oldest friend regenerate as a woman. He’s seen his newest friend transformed into a Cyberman and choose to die rather than live as something other than herself. He’s lost his wife. He’s beyond his original regeneration cycle. He’s lived through more selves than he was ever supposed to have. And, for the Christmas special, it appears he finds himself face to face with the very first incarnation of himself – the old man who used to be a young boy who stole a blue box and ran away. We’ve also seen a Doctor who appears to have more control over the regeneration process than we’re used to. Capaldi’s Doctor was able to choose to resist and slow the regeneration process in the closing episode of the last series. David Tennant’s Doctor was able to choose to regenerate the same body.

Is it fanciful to think that a man that old, a man whose seen that much, might choose to start afresh in a wholly different new body? As a writer, that feels like a perfectly well thought out character arc to me.

Of course I could be wrong. The Christmas Special could play out quite differently to that. But I’m excited to find out what happens and what happens next.

One last thing – some of you will be thinking it’s silly to care about Doctor Who because it’s for children. Well, yes – it is silly. But caring about the Handmaid’s Tale is also silly. And caring about Lizzie and Mr Darcy is silly too. They’re all just made up people at the end of the day. Silliness is brilliant. Do try not to grow out of it if you possibly can.

In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which I think about the lack of recent blogging

I’ve been a bit lax about blogging lately. After resolving last week to get back into it, I find myself, this morning, staring at a blank screen devoid of blogging inspiration. And that’s been a problem a lot recently. There are plenty of subjects I could opine my little heart out about. Just yesterday I overheard someone talking about the refugee crisis, and saying ‘I’m not racist but…’ And yes he actually said that in real-life – it’s the sort of line I’d edit out of a book for being too cliched but she really really said it. Anyway, ‘I’m not racist but,’ he said, ‘what they have to understand is that they’ve got to earn our trust back. You know, after Paris and everything.’

Now I have Views on that statement. By golly do I have Views?* But I increasingly find myself weary of sharing those views on the interweb. One thing the internet does not lack is people who reckon stuff about things. Whether you like to be irritated and get into twitter fights with people you vehemently disagree with or whether you prefer to create a perfect little social media echo chamber of people who entirely agree with you, the internet offers a ready supply of opinion for you to be enraged or cosseted by.

So I could write you lovely blog posts about novel writing instead, but again, blogs about how to be a writer are not in short supply. There are blogs that will tell you how to write, edit, submit and promote your book. And, here’s my one piece of writing advice for this post, reading them can be interesting and lovely, and a fab way of meeting and interacting with other writers, but it’s also probably procrastination. Writing themed procrastination, which is the highest form of procrastination, but procrastination nonetheless.  There is no substitute for just writing the sodding book. Harsh, but true I’m afraid.

So that leaves me wondering what on earth to blog about on weeks when reckoning something about the news of the day fails to fill my heart with inspiration. And I’m genuinely wondering. Suggestions and ideas more than welcome in the comments… Otherwise I might have to abandon all pretense of coherent thought and just post pictures of baking. Mmmm… baking.

 

* They are about the ignorance of othering, and the general heartlessness and stupidity in mentally dividing the world into us and them, and grouping the them together based on race/religion/nationality.

In which I get my feminism on and feel a little bit weary

Today Elle magazine’s #MoreWomen campaign has been making headlines because of this rather pithy little video demonstrating how few women there are at the top in a range of different fields. It’s a neat visual way of making the points that most of us are already aware of – women are 50% (actually slightly more than 50%) of the UK population but less than 30% of Westminster MPs, only around 23% of major business board members, and are outnumbered my men 4 to 1 in news and current affairs programming.

And that should make me angry, but increasingly it just makes me sad, because I grew up genuinely believing that none of this stuff would be an issue for me. Yes – there was still sexism when I went to school. I remember my primary school reading books being big on sections where Peter helped Daddy do something fun and adventurous while Jane helped Mummy make the tea. I remember the maths teacher who accused me of cheating because a girl couldn’t be that good at maths. But what I also remember was being absolutely certain that all of those attitudes were a hangover of an era that was already gone.

I grew up as part of the first generation whose mothers routinely went out to work, whose grandmothers had been able to vote as soon they were old enough. I was born ten years after abortion was legalised, seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, three years after family planning clinics were allowed to prescribe the pill to single women. I grew up being taught to expect that my opportunities would not be defined by my gender. The big battles, it seemed, had been fought and won. I was part of the generation that would reap the benefits.

And we still find ourselves in a position where time and time again women’s representation gets to about a third and then stalls because somehow we’re visible enough by then. We have a cultural landscape where the idea that something might only be of interest to women is used as a belittling notion, whereas ideas that are mainly interesting to men are just ideas. And I simply don’t now how on earth we’re still here. I don’t know how it is that I’ve twice been in job interviews and been asked whether I thought a young woman could be taken seriously in the role. I don’t know how it is that ‘like a girl’ is a derogatory term. I don’t know how it is that I get introduced as a ‘lady author’ (Author. The term is author. Just author. Thank you).

Women went on hunger-strike, tied themselves to railings, burned their bras, so that their daughters and grand-daughters wouldn’t be in this position, and yet we are. And tomorrow I shall get back to being angry, and I shall get back on my special equal rights horse and charge back into the fray, but today I’m tired and feeling a little bit cheated, because I genuinely grew up thinking it wasn’t going to be like this.

(Song by Jules Gibb, sung at VIVA! concert November 2011 by combined cummunity choirs ‘Move On Up’ Pershore and Winchcombe, soloist Bev Harrell, musical director Alice Robin)