Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fifty Shades of Meh

Yes, I read it. Partly out of curiosity to see what all the hype was about, and partly out of professional interest to see what made this such a self-publishing success.

The main thing I learned was this. All that stuff they tell you about having to be a great writer and practice your skills and persevere and be original if you want to be successful? That's bullshit. This is mediocre at best. It's not truly appalling writing, but it's not in any way good. There are tens of thousands of much better writers publishing their stuff on Smashwords and the Kindle store. There are many people writing much better stuff in the exact same genre of "billionaire BDSM erotica". So what made 50 Shades so insanely popular?

What you need if you want to be a successful writer is first and foremost, luck. Luck can transform a mediocre book like 50 Shades into a major success (and pave the way for all your future books to rocket to the top of the best-seller lists). Or luck can doom a literary masterpiece to obscurity. Success has nothing to do with the quality of your work or the effort you put in. It's just a roll of the dice.

Frankly, it bored me. It's the modern equivalent of a Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins or The Red Shoe Diaries or 9½ Weeks: absurd romantic fantasy with some kink, aimed at bored middle-aged housewives and young women looking to be daring and guys looking for something a bit pervy that they could get away with. (And those were phenomenally successful too in their day, despite being mediocre.) Half of the appeal of those was because they were known to push the edge of what was acceptable in the mainstream, it was cool to say you'd read or seen them. You didn't have to like them - it was more about showing how sophisticated and open-minded you were.

To be honest, it wasn't as bad as I expected. It just doesn't deserve to be the poster child for self-publishing. It doesn't send the message that self-publishing is the way for great writers to be discovered. Instead, it tells us that no matter how poorly you write, you could, if you're lucky, be a success. That's why we have a flood of truly crappy books thrown into the e-book lottery by untalented writers hoping they've written the next 50 Shades. And the depressing thing is that one of them probably has.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


When I was a kid, it was normal for people to make jokes about black people, Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, mothers-in-law, and women. Not just any old jokes, but cruel, demeaning jokes. All those people - basically anyone except straight, white men - were lazy, stupid, useless, and... well, every other insulting stereotype you could imagine. These days, that's much less common. We seem to have matured as a society on both sides of the Atlantic. Derogatory jokes are mostly no longer acceptable. Most of us - not all, I'll admit - have understood that these kind of insults are hurtful, even when made in jest. Some comedians can still get away with edgy jokes, but to do so requires great skill and wit, usually with a fair amount of self-deprecation.

Except, it seems, when it comes to men. It's still very much okay to make jokes about men.

We can't cook. We don't know how to use a washing machine or dishwasher. We never tidy the house. We can't look after the kids. We're babies when we get sick. We're stupid and only interested in sports and beer and cars. In fact, we're totally responsible for screwing up women's lives in every way possible. Every single one of us.

"So what?" you say. "Why the hell does it matter? Can't you take a joke, Matt?"

Well, for a start, if men were making the same jokes about women, then most women would get - rightfully and understandably - upset and insulted.

"Women are only good for one thing, and half the time they can't even do that!" 

"Women are like fine wine... it's up to men to stomp the shit out of them until they turn into something acceptable to have dinner with."

Not exactly sentiments many women want to hear, are they? So why is it okay to say the same to men?

But more to the point, gender stereotyping matters more than we realize, even in humor. Fifty years ago, it was normal to joke about treating women like obedient little housewives, and their lives sucked because that's how men grew up thinking they should treat women in real life.

Today, we laugh in barely concealed shock at sexist ads like this, and we - both men and women - cringe at the misogynistic society that spawned them. We watch Mad Men and are appalled by the way women were expected to behave and the uncaring attitudes that men showed them. Even comics reinforced these gender stereotypes. (Okay, there are still issues with gender portrayals in comics now, but images like this are a thing of the past.)

Women and men aren't so different apart from a bit of biology. They're equally smart and talented. They're just as good at holding down jobs or caring for kids. They're equally loyal, kind and funny (or not). They're just as emotional - though culturally, the sexes are conditioned to display different types of emotion. Just look at guys screaming at sports. And although men are on average stronger, I've met plenty of women who could kick most men's asses at almost any physical challenge you care to name. Men and women - we're all just people.

So why do we accept casual modern day sexism aimed at men?

When I posted something recently about looking for a present for my wife, I was hit by a scornful barrage of women suggesting that "maybe you could try doing the laundry for a change - if you can figure it out" or "have you thought of cooking her a meal instead of expecting her to make your dinner?" 

As anyone who knows me will be aware, I in fact do almost all the cooking, almost all the laundry, and the kids and I do most of the housework. It's pretty insulting to realize how many of my female friends assume I do none of those things and act like a complete asshole to my wife, because I'm straight and apparently only gay men are prepared to do traditionally female tasks.

When I was sick a few months ago, I lost count of the number of women who sent me cartoons about "man-flu" and men being pathetic when they're sick, and telling me to man up, go back to work and stop being a pussy. It turned out I had pneumonia. I nearly died because I didn't want to go to a doctor and look like a malingerer so I carried on working. (And incidentally, when my wife was sick with the exact same symptoms a week later, her wall was full of sympathy and best wishes from both men and women.)

And it goes deeper.

Some people I am very close to are going through a horrendous time right now coming to terms with sexual abuse from many years ago. But their anger and bitterness and resentment and mistrust, while understandable, isn't just directed at their abusers. It's directed at men. All men. Me included, even though I wasn't even on the same continent when it happened. And probably you too, if you're male, even if you've never met anyone in my family. Men are bad. Men are untrustworthy. Men are scary. Men are smelly and hairy. Men are repulsive. Men are disgusting. Men are rapists. Women would be better off without men.

Why do they feel that way?

Because we seem to have accepted that it's okay to lump all men together in an undifferentiated mass and assume we're all alike. We're not individuals. It doesn't matter if a man cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, tidies the house, how kind and caring he is, how much he believes in equality, or how respectful he is towards women. He's still part of that group who has to bear collective responsibility for everything ever done by everyone with a Y chromosome.

Collective responsibility is a true evil.

Not all Muslims are terrorists.
Not all Christians are homophobic misogynistic bigots.
Not all Jews are greedy Christ-killing Zionists.
Not all whites are racists.
Not all Americans want to invade the rest of the world.
Not all foreigners want to destroy your way of life. 
Not all immigrants are lazy welfare scroungers.
Not all unemployed people are stealing your tax dollars.
Not all gays have AIDS.
Not all women are bitches or hoes.
Not all men are bastards.

Thinking that way is dangerous. It leads to fear, hatred, to abuse, and in extreme cases to killing. 

If we truly want a society where everyone is treated as equal, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or anything else - which I'm sure most of us do - we need to recognize that this kind of stereotyping is extremely damaging. Even when it's used in humor, whether it's aimed at men, women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, the handicapped, or any other group, treating people in this manner is hurtful and creates a society filled with prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. 

In the war of the sexes, I'm a conscientious objector.