Last year I published my debut collection of poetry, Love Crimes.
I have been writing poetry since I was thirteen years old and the collection marked my first real attempt at professional literary output. Love Crimes is an assembly of all the best romantic poetry I had written up to that point, and I intend to follow it with a collection made up of my nature poetry.
After I had painstakingly self-published the collection, burning through two self-publishing companies in the process, I took what I thought was the next logical step: having the book reviewed. It took me almost a year to get to the point where I had the money to have this done. My 9–5 is lucrative enough to keep myself alive without struggling, but I don’t often have spare money for my hobbies.
Creative people are cursed with a type of boundless optimism that makes them carry on in the face of rejection, and keep creating despite all reasonable and logical notions that their time and energy might be better spent elsewhere. It was with this boundless optimism that I submitted Love Crimes to several review sites including Kirkus.
Even though I had braced myself for the possibility that I would not receive a favourable review, most reviews that claim to be objective are balanced, exploring the good and the bad. On receiving the review, I was startled and upset to realise that it was not only an almost entirely negative review, but it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever read on the Kirkus site.
So what do you do when you read one of the worst reviews of a poetry collection — and it belongs to you? Here are the main things I told myself to cope:
1. People experience and interpret art through an infinite number of lenses. Your writing can not look good through each and every lens.
The first thing that came as a surprise to me is how different my narrative voice comes across than how it was intended to come across. What I thought were my own tender, whispered words of love and sensuality were interpreted as “screaming loudly” and an “aggressive cry for narrative attention”. Though it has come as a great shock that my work was interpreted this way, as with all art, all interpretations are valid in some sense. It never ceases to amaze me how the same work can be interpreted so differently by other people.
It’s not just a case of people liking different stuff. Some art is relevant to some and irrelevant to others on an emotional level. After this review, I suspect this collection is only relevant to a narrower band of readers than I had initially thought it would be e.g. people who share emotional experiences with me.
On that note, however…
2. Other artists produce similar work and people love it.
One point made by the critic in this review is: “…readers with no affinity for confessional poetry will feel as though the speaker is trying to take them into the specificities of a state of mind that they have no investment in…”
This is a surprisingly subjective opinion to express in a review. I don’t think this is at all valid for all readers. Not only do many readers have an affinity for confessional poetry, you don’t need to be personally invested in an artist or even know them to empathise with them or appreciate their art.
For example, you don’t have to have cheated on your girlfriend and knocked up your girl on the side to appreciate Usher’s Confessions. Despite having never got my girlfriend pregnant (lacking the necessary genitals, or inclination, to do such a thing) I can appreciate the pathos, pain, and the predicament explored in Usher’s music. I do not even like rap music all that much, but I love Usher’s Confessions.
Confessional art is common and popular.
3. a) There are plenty of bad reviews of the writing I like and good reviews of the writing I hate.
I am not alone in feeling like my artistic tastes are out of step with critics. My least favourite book of last year possesses a Kirkus star, and my favourite does not. I’m not sure why I was so certain my own work would suit the tastes of critics when the work I have an affinity with does not.
3.b) All lot of classic art was critically slammed before it became classic art.
After I first read the review of my work, I must confess that I spent a lot of time Googling successful authors who were derided by critics before they made it big. Not only was I surprised at how many classic novels were slammed, but I was shocked by the visceral dislike they provoked.
It is always wise to remember that the gatekeepers of the literary industry: critics, agents, and publishers, are not omnipotent.
4. The same art may have been received or described differently had it been written by someone else.
Whilst I’m not deluded enough to think that the reviewer would have lauded my collection more highly if I were a man… I do believe that had I been a male writer or used a male pseudonym, my poetry might not have been described as “screaming loudly” or as an “aggressive cry for narrative attention”, in the same way men are never called “bossy”.
5. It’s better to create writing that people either strongly love or strongly hate than writing no one feels anything strongly about — or worse — no writing at all.
Creating art is the hardest thing to do. You’re trying to hit a target no one can see. You are the vanguard of your own work. Write for yourself and satisfy yourself with the process of creating the work you want to create. Critics be damned! Even if the critics are right and your work really is shit, there’s no shame in failing at something this hard to do.
Once I abandoned the milquetoast stuff I wrote to please other people I became much more successful as a writer (more able to complete long and short works of writing to a publishable standard). My own lack of enthusiasm for the work I was creating meant I lost my own momentum. Once I focussed on creating the work I utterly loved the words flowed through my keyboard so much easier, though I knew in making this choice I would be creating work that was more likely to split an audience.
The process is painful, but artistic output is valuable and we all know that it’s a damn sight more satisfactory than our 9–5s. It’s what makes us human and it’s what distinguishes ‘living’ from merely ‘existing’.
I hope none of you ever lose the boundless optimism that drives people like us to make art.
Be brave, fellow writers! Go forth and create.
One of my favourite things to do is to read the negative reviews of books I hate on Goodreads and Amazon. This is as much for pleasure as for genuine market research — especially for books that are notorious such as the Twilight franchise. One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen of such books is that they are merely wish fulfilment literature, where the desires and fantasies of the authors are enacted and satisfied through the stories they write. Often wish fulfilment literature is dismissed as lazy. I think that is a valid criticism in many cases but we should not automatically deny works of merit their deserved praise even if they have characteristics of wish fulfilment literature.
Some “literature” deserves the criticism. The Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey franchises come to mind instantly. Though that doesn’t mean those types of books don’t have their place. I consider the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise to owe a great deal to the failure of both Harlequin and explicit erotica publishers to anticipate upcoming trends and market their books properly. Unsurprisingly both Harlequin and erotica publishers have changed their marketing strategies in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey’s success.
The reason we must not dismiss wish fulfilment literature entirely is that books such as the Harry Potter franchise, or even the Chronicles of Narnia, are just as much wish fulfilment literature as Twilight. The Harry Potter franchise may not be wish fulfilment on the part of the author, I’ve no doubt JK Rowling does not want to be an eleven-year-old boy, but it is undoubtedly wish fulfilment on the part of the readers. What child wouldn’t want to wake up one day and be told that there’s something about them that makes them different from other children and that they’re going to a magical school? What ordinary children wouldn’t want to find a magical kingdom in the back of a wardrobe?
What makes Harry Potter different from Twilight, however, is the awesomeness of the wish. Going to a wizarding school and conquering evil is a much more interesting wish than getting a good-looking paranormal boyfriend who’s infatuated with you even though you’re a thoroughly average looking person. Especially as Stephenie Meyer’s interpretation of what vampires are has nullified many of the undesirable vampiric traits found in works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And as for Fifty Shades? There are actual billionaires alive today more interesting than Christian Grey. Fantasy that pales in comparison to reality, is not good fantasy.
Since a great deal of good Fantasy and Sci-Fi does contain desirable wish fulfilment elements it would be unwise of authors to not be aware of how it can be used successfully. Wish fulfilment is a feature that can make literature incredibly satisfying. The cases where the quality of literature declines are the cases where wish fulfillment is the only feature of that respective work. This is where the accusations of lazy writing ring true. It’s also a wasted opportunity. The great thing about literature is that you can have mundane everyday wishes, like getting a rich, handsome boyfriend, fulfilled and go on a swashbuckling adventure as well. Indeed, in extraordinary settings, the presence of mundane wishes and desires can add realism to otherwise improbable characters.
I know what I prefer to read and write.
I don’t know George RR Martin or have ever communicated with him. I can, however, say with some certainty that I know how Game of Thrones will end.
Yes, I do realise that this is an incredibly bold claim (and obviously it’s only an educated guess) but I think I have good reasons to be certain.
I have spent the last three years developing, then writing my debut novel. Despite changing day job several times and moving all my belongings to another country, the desire to complete my first novel and take the first steps to becoming a published author has never wavered. I have obsessively consumed information on writing and story-telling from the internet, books, writing courses, Booktubers, Goodreads, both literary and TV reviews, and my experience as a long-form improvisational comedian until my novel not only took shape but took the shape I wanted it to take. I didn’t know when I began that those were two different things. Now the novel is almost finished, I’ve had time to reflect on what it took to get it to this point.
I’ve always loved fiction, but until I started writing my own, and engaging with the novel writing process, I could never articulate what separates the fiction that I like from the fiction that I don’t beyond the way it made me feel (though that’s arguably the most important part). I was also less able to discuss why I did not like a work of fiction even though I thought it had merit. I now find myself more willing to continue reading books I find myself not enjoying because I can recognise their merit beyond my personal tastes.
The most important thing I have learnt from all this research is that there are features that must be present in fiction to make it enjoyable and/or satisfying. This is why I feel confident enough to make predictions on the ending of one of my favourite fantasy series.
Spoiler Alert: If you have not read all the published books in the Song of Ice & Fire Series and are not caught up on the TV show, I recommend not continuing beyond this point. This article probably won’t make much sense anyway.
I have been hooked on Game of Thrones ever since Ned Stark lost his noble, valiant, honourable head.
In choosing to kill off Ned Stark, George RR Martin dropped the literary equivalent of an atomic bomb on his readers. It can’t be underestimated how significant this authorial choice was. Up until that point, Games of Thrones was shaping up to be an unspectacular fantasy novel, the only thing making it unusual and intriguing was the incestuous relationship between Cersei and Jamie Lannister. Game of Thrones could have easily been another unpublished cliché as it conforms to the done-to-death, fantasy quest-ish based on mediaeval European tropes that are oh-so-familiar. I’ve even seen several literary agents specifically ask not to be sent fantasy novels set in a mediaeval European type society because they are so common.
In separating Ned Stark from his head, George RR Martin subverted everything we had come to expect from a typical fantasy novel. These expectations took a long time to create and were forged by literary giants such as Tolkien and T.H. White. Ned Stark comfortably fulfilled an archetypal Hero on what was easily recognisable as a “Hero’s Journey.” His death two-thirds into the first novel signalled to readers that this was going to be something completely different. It is from this choice that the work becomes subversive.
Killing off your Hero is only something you can do in a book which has multiple POVs. After Ned’s demise, Robb Stark’s character quickly supplants Ned to become the new Hero on a Hero’s Journey. This is why Robb ultimately had to die. When I first read the Red Wedding, I was so devastated by Robb and Catelyn’s deaths, I had to put the book down and sit in the garden alone and in silence for forty minutes. Now I am more familiar with constructing a story, I get it. Robb Stark had to die. You cannot be an archetypal Hero on a Hero’s Journey in a saga designed to subvert the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Not for very long anyway…
Martin’s departure from the Hero’s Journey story structure has several consequences, unfortunately, many were to the detriment of his writing. There is a distinction between writing and story-telling, and I regard Martin as a superlative story-teller and world builder but an above average writer at best. (If you can only do one well I suggest you choose story-telling/world building over writing, though my reasons why are best explained in a separate article.)
Having many POV characters allowed Martin to kill off Ned Stark, but it’s telling that HBO decided to cut great swathes of characters out. Adding many POVs allows you to add dimensions to your story. Too many POVs and you risk creating a story with so many facets that it’s hard for the audience to follow and their emotional energy and connection to the characters is spread too thin. As a fan, I’m not sure if I’ll ever truly forgive the team at HBO for the mutilation of the Dorne plot but as a story-teller, I understand the need to make the story leaner. Once Martin departed from the Hero’s Journey, the books became less of a fantasy adventure and more a story of political intrigue. Now he has to strip some of that back and make it a story of fantasy adventure again — to defeat the White Walkers — then I imagine it will swing back to the Jon/Daenerys versus Cersei conflict and it’s back to being a story of political intrigue.
If you described a story like this to me, and I didn’t know it was GoT, I would say it would be impossible to write because those two aspects are hard to marry. I suspect this is precisely why Martin is taking a long time to finish writing the sage. What he’s doing is hard. Harder than successful novels have to be.
From Robb’s death, the saga certainly loses pacing and drive. It becomes painfully meandering in many places. The Jamie Lannister/Brienne and the Arya storylines, in particular, struck me as long-winded. I chuckled to myself when I saw that HBO had slashed Jamie’s return trip to King’s Landing in half. TV fiction is generally better paced than literary fiction. Writers with backgrounds in writing for television such as Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) and Ernest Cline (Ready Player One) tend to write faster-paced novels. The reason the Hero’s Journey is a popular and effective story structure is that the Hero’s needs drive the story giving it pace automatically. In the absence of a clear proactive protagonist, any story will lose speed.
In the most recent series of GoT, one glaring departure from the previous series has been the pacing. Among the reasons for this (aside from the practicalities and cost of making a TV show) is that two characters have become more proactive as protagonists; Jon Snow and Daenerys. This suggests that in order to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is steering the story back to the Hero’s Journey.
There are only two ways Martin can finish Game of Thrones:
1. Daenerys ends up on the Iron Throne (with or without Jon Snow), Cersei dies.
2. Cersei Lannister holds on to the throne, Jon and Daenerys die.
He could take us down another road, sure, but in choosing anything other than the options listed above, he risks robbing his audience of a satisfying climax.
1. If I were a gambling man, Daenerys would be my top choice for Iron Throne occupant when the dust settles. This is not because she’s the character I like the most, it’s because her aspirations are the clearest and compelling. She doesn’t just want the throne, it’s acquisition would satisfy her emotionally too. It would make all her suffering worthwhile. This is why she is willing to do the most to get what she wants. No one has gone further to attain what they want than Daenerys. She is the most proactive protagonist in the books and TV series. I don’t think there is a single person in Westeros she wouldn’t be willing to kill to get the Iron Throne and that includes loverboy, Jon Snow.
2. Cersei is an active and effective antagonist. In the books, she’s told by her Uncle Kevan to go back to Casterly Rock and live out her days in peace when Tommen marries Margaery. She refuses. Her overriding need is to maintain power. That’s what satisfies her emotionally. I don’t think there is a single person in Westeros she wouldn’t be willing to kill to keep the Iron Throne and that includes Jamie Lannister. For Cersei Lannister to remain on the Iron Throne, as the undisputed Queen of Westeros, Martin would be completing the demolition of the fantasy adventure tropes that he started with the beheading of Ned Stark - the ultimate subversion of the Hero’s Journey.
For these two characters, the stakes are simply higher than for anyone else. Neither of them has anyone to lose anymore. Cersei’s lost her children. Daenerys has lost the rest of her family. They both have all to gain.
What about Jon Snow?
So what about Jon Snow? He may be the rightful heir to Westeros, according to the TV series, but as a protagonist, he’s fairly passive and reactive rather than active. Unless learning he’s the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen completely changes his attitude to power, I could easily see him making peace with Cersei in exchange for a long peaceful life left alone in Winterfell once the White Walkers are dealt with. He is fundamentally less proactive than Daenerys. From everything we’ve learnt about his character, I don’t see him killing the other Stark kids for power if they stood in his way. If anything he’s too moral and lacks ruthlessness to be the ultimate victor in Martin’s world where the morally good often come a cropper. If he ends up on the Iron Throne, it will be with Daenerys by his side or not at all.
I think it’s fair to rule out genocide — even in the case of George RR Martin! If Martin does choose some White Walker induced Westerosi apocalypse, it would be like Voldemort winning the Battle of Hogwarts, there would have been no reason for Harry Potter to survive the killing curse as a baby and all the books in between become redundant.
A wildcard character like Euron Greyjoy could take the throne in Martin’s books but since we’ve only become familiar with him recently, as an audience we are not emotionally involved with his struggle. He’s also fairly unappealing, but then so is Cersei. Cersei is still different because we’ve seen her character arc from teenage bride to vengeful queen. A choice like this also runs the risk of making his reader’s say, “What was the point?” We’ve followed Daenerys, Jon and Cersei from the first book. For an outsider to take the throne, and his audience to be happy about it, Martin would have to make us feel pretty strongly about that character and I don’t think he could override the emotional connection with the other characters we’ve built up over the series.
But! But! But! What about Tyrion, a clear fan favourite? Plenty of emotional connection there. I’m sure plenty would love to see him on the throne. Much like Jon Snow, he’s not as active a protagonist as Daenerys. I doubt claiming the Iron Throne would mean as much to him emotionally as it does to Cersei either. Throughout the series, he has been reactive in many instances rather than proactive e.g.; when he got kidnapped by Catelyn Stark, when he was freed from prison by his brother… So I’m not convinced he will be the final bottom on the Iron Throne when the curtain comes down on the series.
I am a true fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and whilst I’m fairly certain I can guess the bigger picture, I hope there are still some surprises along the way. As a writer and as a fan, I will be disappointed if a passive, reactive character ends up on the Iron Throne by default on account of other more active characters having killed each other or died. Even if you don’t agree with all I’ve said in this essay, I hope you can see why that type of scenario is poorer story construction.
All of this is just my opinion, of course. George RR Martin may choose an ending that is deliberately unsatisfying for us. He’s already promised us a “bittersweet” ending. We know he can deliver on the bitter, but can he deliver on the sweet?
The Harvey Weinstein scandal brought back unfortunate memories from my time working in politics. Sexual harassment is a significant problem in Westminster. I did, however, feel considerable unease about the media hysteria. Despite viewing the #MeToo furore as necessary bloodletting, maintaining procedural integrity and disallowing trial by media should also be a priority. I have experienced/witnessed two particular categories of unwelcome sexual behaviour. One is illegal and one is not.
I have been the unfortunate recipient of several incidents of unpleasant, aggressive and impolite sexual behaviour. Two experiences, in particular, stand out.
The first occurred immediately after I attended a political conference in the United Kingdom. I chatted with several delegates including one individual who I spoke to for about twenty minutes. I had never met this individual before and was never alone with him during the course of the day, we only socialised casually within a larger group. The day after the conference he added me on Facebook and proceeded to send me wordy private messages that were not in any way appropriate for an acquaintance. I mostly ignored them until he sent me a thirteen hundred word essay which included vulgar statements about my body and my hair. This individual seemed to think that I would be flattered by these messages and that I would be keen to go out with him as result of them. After unfriending him, I told him that his messages were inappropriate and scary. He told me it was all my fault for behaving in “a sluttish manner” so I blocked him. There is nothing more unattractive than a guy behaving as if my lack of romantic interest in him is somehow my problem.
Had he simply sent me a message along the lines of “Hey, it was good to meet you yesterday. I really enjoyed talking to you, would you like a grab a drink some time?” instead of an essay about my breasts, I would have been more inclined to say, “yes.”
The second incident occurred after the Christmas Party of a well-known think tank. A man whom I had never met before realised that I had a crush on a mutual friend of his, the gentleman to whom I was chatting to. He separated me from his friend and I felt cornered. He proceeded to tease me about my mild attraction to his friend and coerced me into giving him my number by snatching my phone out my hand and plugging his number into it making sure to call himself so he would have my number in return. Keen to extradite myself from the situation I made my goodbyes and left the party. As I was leaving the venue this man grabbed my breast so hard that it hurt the next day, even though I had been wearing a winter coat. He then sent me a message later that night saying: “Girl, I am going to f*ck you soon.” I did not reply. The next day he sent me another text message with the rather mewling: “How come you’re not replying? I just wanted to talk politics and stuff.” I blocked his number.
These incidents frustrate me but they don’t keep me up at night. I certainly don’t feel like a victim because of them. They could easily be solved with better manners, a more acute sense of appropriateness and a modicum of basic consideration of my feelings. These were men I had no prior relationship with and I could easily eradicate them from my life, blocking them off social media and never seeing them again. What does bother me, however, are incidents where the perpetrators have power over the lives and careers of younger colleagues. These abuses of power are rarer but much more serious and sinister than the former. I have heard unsettling stories from a wide range of political groups all of which follow a Weinstein-esque pattern.
One episode, in particular, was closer to me than the others I’ve read about in the news. The perpetrator was, allegedly, a member of the House of Lords. On attending party functions I was told by other women to avoid being in the same room alone with this individual. Although no one told me exactly why I took their advice. As my involvement with the party deepened so did the seriousness of the gossip I heard. The individual in question was said to be bribing female party members with better chances of being selected to fight more winnable seats if they reciprocated his sexual overtures. Women were also alleged to have been told that their chances of progressing in the party would be seriously hindered if they did not perform sexual favours for this individual. Complaints were made to the political party in question, but accusations were supposedly covered up and the procedure was said to have been fumbled. One individual who mentioned the rumours to a colleague was fired from her job at the party HQ the next day without notice.
It was five years after I first heard the rumours that the UK heard about them too. The women who had been the unfortunate alleged victims of the individual went to the press after exhausting every other line of complaint within a party machine, which seemed desperate to cover up any wrongdoing rather than deal with the problem itself. The member of the House of Lords in question had been removed from his position within the party HQ a couple of years earlier for “health reasons” (and definitely not because issues related to his parliamentary expenses were at that point in time being exposed by the Telegraph newspaper. This, to me, was like Al Capone being jailed for tax evasion.). Despite this, he still played a prominent role in the party machinery. The press coverage triggered a police investigation. After the Metropolitan Police announced there was insufficient evidence to proceed, the party instigated an independent inquiry into the allegations. The independent investigation found that whilst the women’s statements were “broadly credible,” the evidence presented did not meet a criminal standard of proof (it is worth noting that the standard of proof used to fire someone is usually not so high).
And thus, the party now inhabits a bizarre reality where the women aren’t lying, but the Lord is not guilty. Unsurprisingly there is a state of no war, no peace on the issue.
The reason I have chosen to highlight these incidents is that I think it’s wise to draw attention to how different they are. The latter is sexual harassment, the former is just unpleasant. In an ideal world neither would happen.
What I’ve learnt from the alleged sexual harassment case is that there need to be clear lines that spark instant investigations as soon as they are crossed. Employers should not proposition their employees, teachers should not have relationships with their students, and doctors should not ask their patients out on dates. Professional boundaries matter and should be enforced aggressively. Safeguards and pastoral caretakers within organisations and companies that recognise patterns of abusive behaviour and bullying could protect both men and women so both sexes feel like they can have healthy working relationships. Thorough standards of investigation and procedures that people trust can be useful to resolving issues before they become scandals.
Even though the urge to cover up is strong, dealing with the problem head-on is always the better option. What’s done in the dark always comes to light.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an ardent capitalist, but even I must concede that socialism has an enduring popularity.
If you think as I do then you know that markets are just so damn great. There’s actually nothing that creates wealth, prosperity, and riches faster. There are only four things that create wealth: economic growth, family distribution, mutualistic societies, and charity. But the last three don’t even come close to the economic growth only markets can create. The free-er markets are — the better! Though even distorted markets still work (albeit not as well). Like cocaine, markets are irrepressible. It’s estimated that roughly 10–15% of the Soviet Union’s GDP was thanks to the black market. Markets are the single greatest force for poverty reduction the world has ever seen. And yet, defending markets on ideological grounds is not even remotely popular or common. Occasionally I’ll see markets defended in the mainstream media on pragmatic grounds, but even that’s rare.
This is not an article about capitalism or socialism. This is an article about the human condition.
Humans crave a system that rewards morality. What we have is a system that rewards aptitude. If tomorrow you were admitted to ER and needed surgery, would you prefer a moral surgeon or a competent surgeon? Let’s assume one precludes the other. The moral surgeon will botch the surgeon and kill you if he does it. The competent surgeon will save your life, but every night he goes home and beats his wife. Most people would choose the competent surgeon over the moral surgeon in these circumstances, even if they had knowledge of the former’s wife-beating tendancies. In reality the competent surgeon would get picked a hundred per cent of the time because we don’t know the morality of everyone we deal with in a professional context. I needed a minor surgery recently, and I met my surgeon before hand. Since I only engaged with my surgeon on a professional level, I was never in a position to judge my surgeon’s personal morality even if I had an objective test for a person’s morality. So the only things I could judge my surgeon on were his credentials, experience and aptitude of which he possessed a great deal of all three.
We want a system that rewards morality. We need a system that rewards and incentivises aptitude.
Markets are not inherently moral or immoral, rather they are morality blind. Markets create a world where a competent arms dealer and a world class surgeon can both be extremely wealthy. If morals are shades of grey, markets see only black and white. Humanity seems to want an impossible thing: a system that rewards morality, and somewhat perversely, they want it so badly that so many people will overlook all the inherent wickedness and coerciveness of socialist regimes because those systems began with the noble intention to build a world where everyone gets what they deserve. Socialists are generally perceived as having more empathy for the poor than capitalists regardless of the lot of the poor in socialist countries. Humanity then decries the evils of capitalism despite all the prosperity that capitalistic societies enjoy because markets incentivise individuals to become better at what they do to improve their own lives, but not to become better people. Exceptions to this rule are those who adhere to belief systems where material wealth is linked to human goodness, and out capitalists like myself.
This all amounts to an endearing, but ultimately deeply tragic statement on the human condition. I wholeheartedly understand the desire to live in a world where morality is rewarded, but I can offer no succour. If one’s morality is rewarded in this life (or the next), it is rewarded by something other than riches. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than intentions, and markets cater to needs before they cater to wants. In the end socialism caters to neither.
This week the retail store John Lewis announced that children’s clothes would no longer be segregated into “Girl’s” and “Boy’s.” There would be one line of children’s clothing and it would “Unisex.” I imagine that John Lewis believed this decision would be met with unanimous praise. I believe they made this decision confident that they would be heralded as ground-breaking by the affluent consumers who shop there for taking the right side in the Gender Studies proxy-war that is contemporary children’s clothing. Instead there was an outcry from parents calling the decision “political correctness gone too far.” This does not surprise me, however, as I have been following the issue for quite some time, and whilst Gender Studies may be big deal to some, outside academia and Social Justice Warriors, it is a niche issue.
It is also a very confusing issue. Campaigners to whom this is a big deal have no one to blame but themselves for this confusion. Gender Theory has done an incredible about-face since its inception in the 1960s as part of second-wave feminist thought. We were told by Simone de Beauvor that, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" – in essence, gender is a social and cultural construct with no objective basis in biology or otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you wear pink or blue, men and women were fundamentally the same underneath the colours and despite their genitals. All gender differences could be accounted for by conditioning, culture and/or society. Men were men, and, women were women, but it doesn’t matter, and if it does – it shouldn’t.
Contemporary activists, like those who would praise John Lewis for eliminating gendered clothing, however, belong to a new wave of thought. Second-wave Women’s Studies (late 50s, 60s, and 70s) has given way to the more recent Gender Studies (late 80s, 90s, and 00s) which overlaps with the even more recent Queer Studies and Trans-activism (00s,10s). Generally these activists would assert that being conditioned as either Gender is physiologically harmful as many don’t feel comfortable with the Gender they were assigned at birth. Suddenly the colours you wear as a child are a Big Deal - fundamental to your development - and by extension, the fabric of our society. This school of thought holds that Trans-individuals are victims of cruel accidents of birth which must be remedied precisely because Gender is important and substantial.
Despite the fact that the former and the latter appear to be related, there are overt signs of conflict and confusion between these two schools of thought. Germaine Greer, who belongs to Second-Wave feminism, caused a furore last year when she asserted that she simply didn’t believe that men who transition to being women were “real women.” This implies that she believes Gender isn’t something you can change by any means. Not surgery, not clothing, not living as women despite your biology. In other words, it’s not a social construct. Contemporary activists were quick to slam Greer, but every other day I see an article praising a celebrity for being ‘Gender Fluid,’ e.g. dressing or behving like a member of the other sex or a mix of both sexes. That tacitly implies that Gender should be insubstantial and you can just switch between the two or be both.
But what about the big bad “B” word? Historically, biology is a bad basis for public policy. Catastrophic, in fact. Policy is best when the State disregards biology (amongst many other things) and treats us all as individuals, but should it be so casually dismissed in academia by Second-wave feminism or treated as it is now Gender Studies majors? Gender activists pick from the aforementioned two theories interchangeably despite the fact that the premises on which they are based are fundamentally diametrical. Whilst Women/Gender Studies activists may be able to treat biology as they please, the same cannot be said for the non-social sciences, economics, and medicine. Transitioning sex is a serious, and by most of the accounts that I’ve read, a painful and unpleasant experience. Shouldn’t activists decide whether Gender is substantial or frivolous before championing the procedure, or even before banning pink/blue clothes for girls/boys?
Either Gender is superficial and fluid, and can be changed on a whim simply by dressing or cutting one’s hair differently. Blue? Pink? Both? It doesn’t matter. Or Gender is so substantial, that feeling as though you have been born to wrong Gender is a living hell on Earth - with the victim being trapped in a fleshy prison they didn’t choose. Gender can not be superficial and substantially important at the same time. This issue is not going away anytime soon, and in many respects they have valid points and commentary. Gender activists also deserve to be called out on their inconsistency and hypocrisies.
In the mean time, however, I strongly recommend living as you want.
The label ‘Apartheid’ is bandied around frequently these days, sadly it hasn’t stuck to the one State who, in my humble opinion, not only deserves it but whose human rights atrocities are routinely ignored and glossed over by the International Community for the sake of not rocking the boat. Unlike other States, whose human rights atrocities are more fashionable as cause celebres, Saudi Arabia’s prolific human rights abuses are ignored for the sake of business as usual.
Apartheid is originally defined as a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. What Saudi Arabia practices is a system of institutionalised gender segregation and discrimination. Feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler defines Gender Apartheid as ‘practices which condemn girls and women to a separate and subordinate sub-existence…’ These descriptions describe the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia accurately and I’m not the only Arab Woman who thinks so:
Gender Apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia. I don’t believe there is any other place in the world where gender decides everything a person does on a daily basis and to the minutest details. To the outside world this manifests in the ban on women driving and the compulsory Abaya. However, it goes much deeper than that in that gender discrimination is institutionalized in every sector of the Saudi government. The majority of government ministries are off limits to women, both as visitors and as employees.
Women in the Kingdom, a 2008 Human Rights Watch report maintains, are infringes on their basic human rights. In other words, every adult Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, must obtain permission from her male guardian to work, travel, study, seek medical treatment or marry. She is also deprived of making the most trivial decisions on behalf of her children. This system is supported by the imposition of complete sex segregation, which prevents women from participating meaningfully in public life.
I must stress that most Arab countries don’t enforce gender segregation on anywhere near the scale that Saudi Arabia does. In the majority of the Arab nations the headscarf is not a mandatory requirement and women are both welcome and encouraged to be part of civic life. Saudi Arabia is an outlier even amongst Gulf States, and the behaviour of Saudi tars all her immediate neighbours with the same brush. The other Gulf States have become more sensitive to Western criticism in recent years. Most have put a great deal of time, money and effort into upgrading their institutions and legal systems, though progress is painfully slow at times. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, remains deaf to both internal and external calls for reform.
Saudi Arabia practices the most overt, inhuman and unapologetic form of Apartheid on the face of the contemporary world. In comparison to Apartheid South Africa, the Saudi Kingdom has got off easy, with a fraction of the censure from the International Community very little of which has been official. It is time we started calling Saudi Arabia an Apartheid State and giving it the condemnation it deserves. I look forward to the intense reinvigoration of Anti-Apartheid movements with its ire directed at the Saudi State.