May 6th, 2011


On Permission

So I'm having some difficult thoughts around writing, and permission, and agency, and privilege. And these are, as is common with me, jumbling and tumbling round in my head, getting mixed up, leaking colours into one another and generally making me dizzy and unsure of where I stand.
And it's May, which may well be relevant. I am, not to put to fine a point on it, rubbish at May. My annual Achilles Heel, it brings me down without fail year on year on year. So though I'm thinking -- and I am thinking -- I'm thinking through that lens of too-bright, too-light, ever-stressing May, when the blossom blows off the trees and the leaves unfold, and the days grow longer, and I drop back into gloom.
Permission is one of my issues. The more anxious I am, the less certain I become of my right to do anything, apart from tasks that benefit others. It's always allowed for me to clean the bathroom, but eat cake, or go for a walk, or write -- that's another matter. It might impinge on someone else, it might take from someone else, it might waste time better spent on someone else, it might (in the case of cake) lead to me becoming even more unacceptable. When I sold Living With Ghosts -- in May, as it happened -- my second thought was guilt about a friend I might be harming by gaining this contract. (The first was delight. I'm selfish.) I am never completely happy that I'm allowed to write in the first place. The issue of what I'm allowed to write is even worse.
Let's unpack this a little and look at what I am in quasi-sociological terms. I'm white, slimmish (not enough, imho) first-generation-lower-middle-class, very well educated (though not privately educated), articulate, reasonably physically fit, variably mentally fit, provided with comfortable living conditions by my partner (a huge privilege which daily awes me, in fact, because the marquis is astonishing), heterosexual, English-speaking, cis-gendered to name only an inadequate few things that privilege me in my culture. It is, by most standards, easy for me to sit down and write. I have time and space and equipment, I have books for research, very privileged access to great libraries, trained academic skills to help with what I want to study. My white skin doesn't get me stared at or suspected when I go places. My femaleness doesn't impede my access to education and knowledge anything like as much as it did for my mother's generation or for far too many women in other countries. My sexuality allows me to be demonstrative with the marquis in public safely. My sexuality and skin colour allow me to recognise myself in the daily norms of both my immediate culture and much of wider international culture.
My culture does impose some expectations and limitations on me. Being female is the biggest, probably. Class, here in the UK, is another. I am mostly out of my comfort zone, class-wise, in my daily life. My parents both come from working class backgrounds (Welsh miners and Herefordshire farm and factory workers) and took the common post WW2 route out of their families' circumstances by becoming teachers. As a child, I grew up with books, parents who valued learning and could give me time to learn, and a mother who loved books, reading, writing and always encouraged me in that area. (My mother is wonderful. The more I think about it, the more lucky I feel in her.) But that lower-middle-classness has its own problems. We're not the people who lead, we're not the people with contacts, we're not members of the Old Boy Network. My attitudes and assumptions are off-kilter to the dominant high- and political- cultures of my country. I am, largely speaking, more left-wing, more touchy, less socially smooth, less southern (and that's a big one), less glossy than most of the people with whom I regularly associated. At the university at which I studied, I was definitely Not-One-Of-Us to a lot of people -- wrong schools (ordinary comprehensive, not expensive private or ultra-posh Public -- [for non-Britons, comprehensives are run by the state, Public Schools are very upmarket fee-paying schools, still largely male-dominated]). I was not the kind they wanted at dinner tables (wrong politics and wrong small talk) or to appoint to the really desirable jobs (not likely to make Us feel comfortable). My family don't have, have never had, those oh-so-useful path-smoothing contacts that can ease many from higher social brackets into desirable jobs and positions of influence. When it came to writing, my family don't, for instance, know 'someone in publishing' who could give me a useful hand. I'm not sure to what extent the latter can confer an advantage, but observation suggests that it can make things easier, at least.
Being female puts me into a certain set of boxes, though. There are clear if infrequently expressed ideas out there about what men and women should write. (These are changing. But they're still there.) Fantasy, rather than sf -- yes, women write sf, and hard sf at that, but the perception remains that hard sf readers are more likely to be male and more likely to prefer to read male writers. Romance, or things with a romance element. (If you doubt this, ask yourself why Catherine Asaro -- who has a PhD in Chemical Physics -- includes romances in her physics-based plots, and seems, indeed, to be expected to do so by readers, where Stephen Baxter, say, isn't.) Books focussing on things socially defined as small -- relationships, domesticity, emotions, family, detail --- rather than the 'big' matters of adventure and war, politics and power. Of course, women write about the latter too, but it's much harder for them to be seen to be doing it. They are more likely to be overlooked, elided or dismissed, omitted from coverage, forgotten. I am thinking here of certain pairs, of men and women who are all fine writers but whose critical and popular acclaim are widely divided. George R R Martin and Kate Elliott. Patrick Rothfuss and Barbara Hambly. China Mieville and Mary Gentle. These are 6 of the best writers I can think of. But in all cases, both are in the same area, but the man gets the bulk of the attention. It's in the water, in the culture. Women's writing isn't as important (and, in the case of Gentle, women's innovations in writing are more easily forgotten or attributed elsewhere).
Even so, though, despite this -- despite my less-than-perfect class background, my gender, my coming from the wrong place (and the Midlands is the bit of the UK you all forget, d*mn your eyes, but that's another post) -- I still have it good. I get, by and large, to write about what I want to. No-one expects me to confine myself to one set of my ancestors, to a set of interests associated with my skin colour, to one region or set of cultural things. I have a lot of freedom. (We are not, here, talking about commerciality. That's a separate matter.) I can go where I want, pretty much, in my words. There's even a commonly expressed trope about how writers should be free to roam where they will, use what they will, for the sake of Art.
The problem is that we're not all equally free to roam.
And yet, and yet... One of my perpetual niggles is what to me feels like the vast Americanisation of my Celtic (maternal) past. It makes me angry, it makes me feel dispossessed (and, if I see another American trying to tell European writers what they can and can't write about in terms of European history or culture, I may explode messily). But this is a very small thing, it really is. I'm a privileged white British woman. Those US writers annoy the hell out of me, yes, but what they write doesn't harm me, it doesn't affect the way I am treated everyday. If I feel denied, elided, pushed aside, I can complain to my compatriots without fear of reprisal. My diamond shoes are pinching.
The fact is that there are millions of people who don't have shoes of any kind, who are derided and ghettoised, ignored, elided, patronised, and, denied any kind of permission at all.
In the face of that.... should I be writing at all? That looks like a stupid question, a May brain poor-me question, but I don't mean it that way. I am trying, badly, clumsily, to unpack my privileges and responsibilities, the things that my country have done (so many of them so bad), the debts I owe personally and politically. And...
I don't know. I don't even know if I know what I'm asking. But I'm thinking, I'm thinking hard and wondering what I can do not to make things worse.