Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Gender Divide

I just posted an extract from my blog on this groovy little gidget thingy called the Gender Genie and a weird thing happened. I turned into a bloke. (Just don't tell my husband.) According to the website, these people were inspired by a New York Times article that argued they could gauge the gender of the author of texts based on particular word choices and frequency of use. In other words, it's a question of mathematics. Or Algorithms, more specifically.

Here's the thing, I tried this test over and over, and no matter how many cutesy things I say, how fast I bat my eyelashes, or how high I like my heels, apparently I write like a bloke. Sixty to seventy percent male words over female ones, every single time.

Now, this might seem like a simplistic approach to understanding something as complex, fraught and slippery as the idea of gender, and gendered writing, but it interests me because it parallels other experiences I've had. You see, on every forum and bulletin board I've visited anonymously, no matter which country, subject, or field of interests, posters consistently assume I'm male. Not just some of them. All of them. Until I say something declaring my hand, something unambivalent or clearly gendered (like the fact that I'm a mum, or that I went to a girls' school), whereupon I am inevitably met with a chorus of, "Sorry! I thought you were a dude." (Bloke, if Australian.) Or, "You sound like a guy." And variations on that theme. Over and over, everywhere I go.

Now, I've always had interests in areas not traditionally associated with women - footy, politics and debating - so perhaps this shouldn't surprise me. Except that in my fiction, I deliberately and carefully write for women, about women, and about girls. I'm not interested in writing for men, don't choose subjects that would matter to the blokes I know. I actively and carefully target women. As readers, and as subjects.

So you can understand my confusion. And, frankly, concern. Because here's this mathematical theory essentially declaring me a man trapped in a woman's keyboard - a theory that seems to hold up when tested amongst real people - and now I have to wonder if maybe there's something to it. Or at least, something to the perception that there is such a thing as gendered writing. Even if that perception is among readers, rather than writers, or something we've learnt rather than imbibed. Either way, it's tricky.

So why don't you give the test a shot and tell me how it goes? Were they right, or were they wrong? Or are they as confused as you are? (Try to sample at least 500 words - that's the recommendation. But even when I cheated, posting half what they asked, they still pegged me as bloke.)

P.S. For those having trouble posting comments - sorry! I thought I could fix it - twitter me or send a message and I'll try to sort it out. Or post on your behalf.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fact or Fiction: Does it matter?

Australian director Peter Weir's latest film is finally out in Australia. Called The Way Back, it deals with the story of a group of Russian prisoners who make a grueling 4000 mile escape from a Siberian gulag during the Second World War. Based on a book by Slavomir Rawicz of the same title, it depicts what's been claimed to be a true story of the author's journey overland to India.

As so often happens for "true stories", questions have been raised about its veracity, and the likely role Rawicz played. Weir himself almost dropped the project on the basis of these claims, believing the only way the film could work was if it was a "true story". It does seem to have had a negative impact on its American release, having come out there in January, just in time for the 2011 Oscars (it's been nominated for Make Up), but died a quick and nearly silent death within weeks. Maybe it's the ruthless tentpole market that Weir talks about in the below interview, or maybe it was a direct response to the queries regarding the "true story" tag. Either way, the rumours couldn't have helped in a world that seems obsessed with the "true story" over the fictional one.

In the interview captured below, Weir decided to pursue the project, despite lingering doubts, largely because the research he unearthed suggested that there were many documented stories of escapes similar to this one; that the fact that they have happened in some form, in similar situations and with similar outcomes was enough to hang the "based on a true story" tag on The Way Back.

My question is, though, why the obsession with the "true story" label? Why does a dramatic feature film have to have its grounding in actual events? Is it less satisfying if it's fictional - made up, created in someone's head - rather than taken from their life? Actual experience? Real events?

Where do we draw the line anyway? If it happened somewhere, or we think it happened somewhere, is that "fact" enough? Even that it could happen somewhere - do we need to know to whom, when, and where?

How much non-fiction is true anyway? It's supposed to be true, of course, but how can we know? And why must we know? What is truth anyway, when all of these renderings come in the form of someone else's musings, their perspective, their slant? Always the story is viewed through a distorted or filtered prism. It is always someone's take - whether the screenwriter, the author, the director or even the producer. Maybe it's even the actors'. Or a combination of all of these. How can we know where the story starts and the facts stop?

Worse still, this push for "facts" in our stories could arguably be the reason for so many literary hoaxes of late, James Frey being probably the most widely vilified. He couldn't sell his novel as fiction, so he sold it as memoir. He really had spent an afternoon in jail for drug related offenses - didn't that qualify him to tell a "true account" of the life of a drug addict who, after a stint in prison, redeems himself and gets clean?

Did the fact that this "memoir" was plugged as self-help somehow make Frey's crime worse than had he written a "factual" account with no redeeming message of hope? No, "look what I did - and survived!" theme underpinning it? I'd guess if we asked Oprah, her answer would be yes. It's much worse.

My question is, are we kidding ourselves that we can somehow learn more from "non-fiction" than we can from fiction? That its message is somehow more reliable, more accessible, and more believable because the events "really happened".

Peter Weir believes that he'd found enough evidence in the research about other stories of long walks across the desert to justify his faith in the veracity of The Way Back as a "based on true events" story. Maybe he did.

My question is, does it matter?

Here's the link to the interview.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Asking for notes etiquette

Below is a piece by screenwriter Derek Haas that he posted on Artful Writer in response to the countless people who ask him for notes.

I, too, get a lot of requests for feedback on manuscripts and feature film scripts - sometimes I say yes, occasionally, if I'm feeling really brave, I say no. I wish, though, that I could always say this:

With permission from Derek and the fabulous screenwriters' forum, Done Deal:


The point of this is to remember that no one is entitled to help. No one should expect to be read. Everyone who is prepared to offer time and effort for no good reason other than they can, or would like to, deserves consideration, space and the courtesy of not feeling obligated.

Easier said than done, but no one ever said the world needs another writer. We might need to write, but the world doesn't need to listen.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Kids Are All Right, but...

What about the mums?

I was really looking forward to seeing this film for all kinds of reasons. Firstly, I have a heterosexual girl-crush on Julieanne Moore (who doesn't, I ask you) and, as someone who's dabbled in the art/craft/torture of screenwriting, have dreamt of the day when Annette Benning is cast in one of my films. (OK. First I need to get one made. But, then, the moment that happens, I have no doubt Annette will come running.) Plus, Mark Ruffalo is yummy in all the right ways.

But mostly because it's about time that this increasingly visible kind of family is acknowledged in popular culture in an intelligent and considered way.

So the synopsis is simple enough: The two children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple - one born to each mother but with the same father - decide they want to meet their sperm-donor dad. There's the obvious discomfort and uncertainty when these middle class, smart and sophisticated women learn of their kids' desires, but both mums are doing their best to be understanding and patient with what is, at this point in their lives, a difficult and fraught decision.

The meeting, when it happens, is delightfully believable. Awkward silences, overcompensating gestures, and the squirming humiliation all adolescents display when they can see their parents trying too hard. Good fun and very believable. And not so far from what any meeting of adoptive and biological parents might look like. I liked that part the most - how similar the arrangement, and how irrelevant, ultimately, the gender breakdown is when it comes down to love. Loving parents are loving parents. Biology has its place in the parenting process, but family is really about who's there, night and day, day after day, loving and caring, talking and fighting, growing and learning, living and dying. Basically, it's about being together.

So far so good. And then a weird thing happens...

********************SPOILER ALERT*****************

Scroll down for the rest.

Struggling with strained relations with her wife, Jules (Julieanne Moore) gets involved with Paul (Ruffalo), the donor dad, first, as his landscaper, and then, well, kind of as his landscaper again. But a different landscape altogether.

Basically, they screw. A lot, it has to be said.

This is where the film loses me. While, from a storytelling perspective, it answers the important dramatic question we're supposed to ask when dealing with story arcs - Find the worst thing that could happen to your main character and make it happen - it slides into that murky, chauvenstic old chestnut that argues that all lesbians really need is some solid man flesh. (I had a quicker, sharper ending to that sentence, but resisted the impulse.) Basically, that belief that lesbians are somehow missing out on something essential to human sexuality as long as they persist with this whole lesbian thing.

The film's message isn't as simple as this, of course. Nor do I think it's even the writer's intention, interestingly. The film spends a lot of time giving these amazing women real consideration and pathos in the process of making very difficult decisions. Jules experiences much angst and guilt associated with this tryst, which Paul is taking to heart in a way that she is not. He's ready to settle down, see - catalysed by his kids' appearance in his life. He dumps his easy lay, focuses on changing his life, and embraces this strange but intoxicating mantle of fatherhood with impressive, if naive enthusiasm. The kids like him a lot, and their relationship with Paul changes into something real and substantial over the time they spend together.

The result is that Paul sees this relationship with Jules as the beginning of his "family" - now that he's ready to have one. She sees it as a reaction to the hurtful things her wife has been saying and, it must be said, seems as much about getting her rocks off with someone who couldn't be more different from her wife if he tried.

Of course, the deceipt is the killer, but not just between Jules and Nic (Benning), although the betrayal is fraught enough. (Not just an affair, but an affair with a man, and not just any man, but the father of their children, and not just... It goes on.) The clincher is what Paul and Jules seem not to have factored in - the betrayal their children feel, and their subsequent guilt that they have somehow brought Paul and Jules together. In effect, threatening to destroy their family.

The performances are lovely. Wasikowska and Hutcherson display just the right amount of uncertainty in this new life that they feel partly responsible for creating, mixed in with all the completely normal (horrid but inevitable) adolescent angst that plagues any family with two teenagers making their way in the world.

There are several funny/painful moments, particularly Nic's drunken rendition of Joni Mitchell at the dinner table right on top of the moment she realises Jules's betrayal. This is truly squirmworthy storytelling. Nic is so vulnerable in that moment - passionate, loving, open and in pain - so completely different to how we've seen her until then, made all the more excruciating by her refusal to let up, even after the point is made. Her lilting, husky rendition of the lullaby persisting in the face of prolonged and awkward silences... Really powerful stuff.

I just wish Jules had not so desperately and urgently embraced heterosexual lust as though it were somehow better or more than what she had known with her wife. While it was most likely intended as a comment on how stale and tired a long marriage can become, and how fresh and intoxicating new love/lust can be, particularly the forbidden kind, the fact that he was a he, and the father of her son, gave it a layer that, I feel, undid a good chunk of the subtlety and respect the writers had shown this non-mainstream but unquestionably loving family.

But the ending is extremely satisfying and in some way compensates for that aberration of a midpoint.

See it or rent it because it's worth it - funny, smart, different and sophisticated - but I'm still waiting for a time when a lesbian family graces our films without the patriarchal/heterosexual hangover anywhere to be seen.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My top five contemporary novels

Now, by "contemporary", I mean authors who are still alive. Not sure what other people mean by contemporary, but just in case there's some confusion. No F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Patrick Whites, or Miles Franklins to be seen. These books are by living people who might or might not have a Facebook page, but certainly have witnesses to their ongoing existence on earth. Today, anyway. And, hopefully, next week.

So, now that's cleared up...

I love these novels for all kinds of reasons - some literary, some personal, and some a bit of both. Either way, I have no hesitation in recommending them to people who ask - and, weirdly, a lot of people do - because they rarely bite me on the backside later. The worst that happens is that disgruntled readers think I'm a wanker. But that's OK. I think they're wankers too. :-)

Number 5: The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
I love the sparseness of the prose, her unique turn of phrase, and Proulx's incredible ability to cast a fine mist of grey over her writing. Newfoundland, where it's set, is cold and grey and damp and, somehow, that tone pervades the whole novel. I was living in Hawaii when I read this book, but remember feeling cold - genuinely cold - when I turned the pages. (OK. So maybe I had the A/C ramped up. But still.) I loved the protagonist, Quoyle, "a great damp loaf of a man", because he was so unlike any main character I'd known - square chin, broad, thick body. Slow and heavy, and dull, too, if his wife - the absurdly named Petal - were any judge, although he turned out to be anything but. Still, I shouldn't have loved him the way I did because he didn't fit my exacting image of a hero. Yet I did.

Mostly, though, I loved the language - "great damp loaf", yes, but also "pain like gravel under the knee". I could see, feel, hear this place I'd never been to before, and I had such a strong image of it that, despite enjoying the film, never allowed Lasse Hallstrom's incarnation of Newfoundland replace the vision I took from the novel. Quoyle will never be Kevin Spacey, destined, instead to remain a "great damp loaf of a man" in my mind, forever and ever.

Number 4: A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Ah, Owen. This book doesn't even have a full title in my small, somewhat tragic world. I call it "Owen" because rarely has a character of such miniscule size cast such a dwarfing shadow over my literary soul. Owen Meany is tiny, shrill, and moralistic. As a young boy he spoke indignantly of "THE UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" perpetrated by the Catholics (as a lapsed Catholic, I felt an UNSPEAKABLE DELIGHT that there was such a thing), and always in that wrecked voice perpetually caught between a shiek and a squeal. Owen's UPPER CASE direct speech was the first time I'd seen such blatant disregard for the lexicon, and I felt a genuine thrill at John Irving's audacity. WRITING IN ALL CAPS? IMAGINE!
John Irving had me at Garp. By the time Owen came along, I was a goner. (Or at least until the Fourth Hand. But that's another posting.)

Number 3: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver might very well be me in another life. The me that didn't have children and didn't want to. The me that moved countries and wrote angrily - long distance - about her abandoned home. The me that imagined any child could grow up to be a high school serial killer if he didn't have a mother who loved him. This novel riveted me because I both loathed and loved the protagonist's voice. The letters she writes to her estranged husband are a testament to the perpetual and pointless second guessing and only iffing we parents subject ourselves to any time our children break our code, or our rules, or even the law. Kevin does more than break the law - he defies nature. And so does Kevin's mother, or we think she does, until we work through her angst and see just what kind of horrible price had to be paid in order for her to forgive herself. This one divides my reading friends, but those who love this book, love it fiercely, angrily, determinedly. So, for that reason alone, as a means of dividing my friends into those who get it and those who don't - those who get me, and those who don't - it's my favourite of standard recommendations.

Number 2: Beloved, Toni Morrison
My first foray into contemporary Nobel winning literature, and one that stayed with me for years afterwards. Small, sharp sentences, original and unforgettable imagery and a mystery teased out just long enough to keep me engaged without distracting from the amazing characterisations. The beauty of the language, the power of the story, and the strange mix of brutal reality alongside paranormal intrigue is positively breathtaking. Read, and re-read. Then read again.

Number 1: The Road, Cormac McCarthy
I always start discussions of The Road with a sigh. So picture me sighing. There's something about this novel that moves me - no, pains me - in a way that no other novel does. Or will. The language is as sparse as it is poignant. There is not an errant word, nor a superlative in sight. The characterisations of the boy and his father - characters without names, on a landscape so bleak it defies description - are as true and as clear as if they were my own family. I don't know their eye colour, the cut of their hair, what they liked, or what they did before I first met them on the page. I don't need to. They have each other, and that's really all there is. And, incredibly, it's more than enough.

This story is an ode to the love of a father for his son - the love of a parent for their child - and yet, the word "love" is not used once. There are no grand speeches. No waxing lyrical on the power of the paternal bond. It's one step in front of the other. One silent but grim decision followed closely by the next, surviving every brutal day with dogged relentlessness, in a world where the truest expression of love is in the shape of two solitary bullets, saved for that day when the worst happens. Can you do it? the man asks himself. Can you kill your own son?
McCarthy has painted a world so brutal and desperate that you find yourself praying he can.

Read it if you dare. Be warned though, you'll not read anything else like it again.