Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Everyday I Write the Book

So the Oscars came and the Oscars went and the controversy over diversity issues and invisible women disappeared from public view faster than an Adam Sandler movie.

Presumably the plaster that was Chris Rock insulting both Rihanna and Jada Pinkett Smith in one sad little sexist joke was enough to work its magic - not commenting, just wishing that Jada had been using the right remote that night...

Before we all move on to the next hot topic dominating the media - seemingly whether adults can tell the difference between a sloth and a pain-au-chocolat (I've added the link, you know you're going to do it anyway), here's the thing: Hollywood wasn't always such a male preserve. Apparently there were more women working in Hollywood up to the early 1920s than at any time since and one of the first movies ever made, in 1896, came from a female director Alice Guy-Blache. Her film, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) is a delight, not least for its insight into Victorian childcare, watch those babies...

It seems that the early Hollywood pioneers were real multi-taskers: major stars like Mary Pickford ran their own production companies, screenwriters became editors became producers and directors and women were at the forefront. According to the Women Film Pioneers Project, between 1912-1919 Universal Studios alone had 11 female directors who made 170 films between them, many of which they also wrote. And then motion pictures became big business, a rigid studio system came into operation which divided roles and pigeon-holed women and it was 70 years before Universal credited a female director again. The joy of progress.

This was all on my mind because I recently went to see Hail Caesar - and now I've done it, you don't need to, think of it as a public service. This movie promises George Clooney in a very short skirt (delivered but negated by the terrible hair) and a 'period caper about the golden years of Hollywood' (blame the Guardian, not me). It's nothing of the sort: it's a film about writers. Writers sitting round discussing Marxism, or maybe Communism - I actually think they had that discussion. See what I've saved you from?

Writers are strange creatures: we spend most of our days talking to people who only exist in our heads; when we go outside, we're not socialising, we're harvesting you as source material; we live in a permanent state of pretence, hiding our green-eyed monsters as our peers win awards and contracts we desperately crave/think we deserve, employing acting skills worthy of Mr DiCaprio staring blank-eyed at his Oscar-winning rivals for the last eight years (surely the role he should actually have won for). The natural habitat for many of us is probably Arkham Asylum. Or the pub. 

The drunken writer - a familiar figure from the glammed-up Hank in Californication to the less attractive reality of Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson. We tend to associate the syndrome with male writers but it's an all too common pathway for female authors too. Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker - all brilliant writers whose battle with the demons in the bottle coloured their lives. This isn't the place for a detailed analysis of the many and awful courses for their addictions (brilliantly covered in Olivia Laing's Trip to Echo Spring) but there does seem to be one strand of commonality: society's disregard for them and their work due to their gender. 

The invisibility cloak: when only 20% of the Telegraph's 100 books every adult should read and less than 30% (which assumes someone points out E.Nesbitt and JK are female, don't count on it) of the 50 books children should read by the time they're 16 are by women, it's hard not to conclude that too many of us are still covered in the damn thing. And when Prue Leith prefaces a comment about publishers underrating women with "I don't want to sound carping and over-feminist" it's just hard not to bang your head against a wall.
In the interests of bringing this blog out of the dark tunnel it's heading into, let's do a bit of reclaiming: if there's going to be invisibility, let's use it. I want you to imagine our invisible female writer (perhaps George Elliot or a Bronte, pissed off with having to masquerade as a bloke in the days when you felt you still had to do that - explain JK to me someone, anyone) wandering through plots and messing them up with a well-chosen word or two...

Let's start her off with Shakespeare and more specifically Romeo and Juliet. What's the key problem with this plot? Too many unsupervised teenagers with raging hormones. What's the answer? A little whisper in Nurse's ear about Romeo's philandering ways, Juliet's on lock-down till his fancy passes (probably onto Mercutio), she gets to marry Paul Rudd and nobody has to watch Leo go through Oscar agony. Sorted.

Shakespeare done, let's move our writerly heroine on through the classics to Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility. Most of the problems arise here because of Marianne Dashwood's compulsive letter-writing which is easily solved by an early warning to her father about the dangers of educating women. Marianne is thus kept in a state of furious illiteracy and falls hopelessly in love with Colonel Brandon when he reveals himself to be a passionate advocate of education for all. Finally introduced to the world of letters, she goes onto become a famous novelist (M.D Brandon) and gets to marry Alan Rickman. That's a win win in anyone's book.
And finally, it's time for our invisible woman to save us all a lot of pain. I'm sending her off to New York and a timely chat with Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. A few well-chosen real estate brochures, a little snobbery about where the best people actually go and we'll have Nick summering in The Hamptons not Long Island where the parties are far more sedate and a daisy is simply a flower. Honestly, Leo will thank us for this one.

So that's invisibility reclaimed and DiCaprio restored. If you still want to watch a movie about writers, watch the genius that is Adaptation or get your faith back in the Coen Brothers with Barton Fink and, if you know any crazy writers, have a word with them about therapy before they reach for the bottle:


  1. Interesting (and entertaining). Thank you for linking with #TalkoftheTown

    1. Thank you, it's a great link and nice to reach some new people as you can see below!

  2. Funnily enough, I mentioned Marianne and Col. Brandon on the last blog I visited, Catherine! Win win, indeed. ;)
    A fun post to read, thanks! I found it via the #TalkoftheTown linkup. :)

    1. She's so infuriating! Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Brilliant post! I know exactly what you mean regarding the Oscar's. I have given up watching them - too much drama :-). Thank you for linking your post to #TalkoftheTown.

  4. Thank you - I know, I'm boycotting them unless Tina Fey does the intro!

  5. Thanks for this! It gave me a good giggle (DiCaprio restored, indeed), but I also appreciate the serious intent. I'm delighted you're putting the invisibility cloak to good use, but please, please can we rip off the invisibility cloak!

  6. I would love to never have to mention it again but...Thank you for the kind comments though and glad you enjoyed it!


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