A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

Grace Dent: How to Leave Twitter

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The two biggest books by British female journalists of 2011 are styled as ‘how to’ guides. While Caitlin Moran packages her witty and passionate, if self-contradictory, memoir-cum-feminist-manifesto-for-the-modern-gal as How to be a Woman, Guardian columnist Grace Dent brands her canter through the ills and marvels of microblogging site Twitter as a roadmap for leaving social media behind.

And the similarities don’t end there. Like Moran, Dent trades off the sharp, gag-packed style of much of her journalism in her book. You can almost hear the keyboard rattling as she sweeps you through the pros and cons of tweeting, following, unfollowing, ffing and much, much more.

Dent does a particularly nice line in witty similes, capturing all shades of virtual social awkwardness from the moment you join Twitter (‘you feel like an enormous, unpopular child lumbering into the sandpit bellowing “HALLO CAN I PLAY WITH YOU?”‘). Anyone who’s dipped a toe in the social media pond will recognise the description of ‘desktop multi-application spiralling circle of hell syndrome’ – it made my head ache in sympathy – and the series of succinct but oh-so-accurate character sketches of the different virtual personalities you might bump into online. At its best, the whole thing reads like an etiquette guide for the digital age – something you can imagine historians picking over in centuries to come to construct a vision of early twenty-first century mores.

There are some meatier points too. The consideration of the impact of Twitter on journalism and newsgathering – touched on here but worthy of several books in its own right – is interesting, as is Dent’s point that Twitter has provided a space for women to engage with each other and be witty in a way that few social structures and entertainment outlets have allowed for before.

Once more in line with Moran, Dent has an axe to grind on the subject of the under-representation of funny women in the media. Although I find it hard to believe that this is any more extreme than, say, the dearth of women in engineering or boardrooms, I was intrigued by Dent’s comments on the experience of being edited ‘to sound more like a woman’, chiming in as it did with some of my limited dealings with publishers.

The similarities end, however, when you step back and look at the bigger picture. Much as I have a problem with the fundamental contradiction of expounding an all-embracing philosophy of everybody living as one of ‘the guys’ while railing continually against the patriarchy, I have no doubt of Moran’s sincerity.

Dent’s work on the other hand feels much more cynical. She lays into boastposting (shamelessly tweeting your achievements), yet riddles her book with flattering anecdotes and tweets about herself; she sets out the need for heavy tweeters to be expert skim readers, yet repeats herself to the point where you can’t help applying the same technique to her book; she tears apart the hyped and misleading headlines splashed across women’s mags, but titles her book in the same way (this is not a book about leaving Twitter, in case you were wondering).

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s something to be aware of when you pick the book. If you’re looking for funny reflections on the socmed generation in bitesize chunks, you’ll find them here. If you’re looking for the answer to life, the universe and everything… you won’t. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the days of the earnest, self-help, ‘how to’ guides so beloved of the Bridget Jones generation are over. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Picture by Travelin’ Librarian


Written by Ann Morgan

December 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman

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Much like Room, this was a book that stalked me. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted to avoid it. I was sure it would be nothing more than a cynical moneyspinner, trading on jokes about periods and dildos with very little of substance to say. Caitlin Moran’s face stared out at me from the posters with a sort of sturdy insolence, and I would duck my gaze and stare resolutely into my Obreht, feeling literary and virtuous.

But being the suggestible soul that I am, it was only a matter of time before curiosity and the marketing campaign wore me down. A moment of weakness on the morning commute and, before you could say ‘Germaine Greer’, I had downloaded the text and was plunging in.

And I’m happy to report that I was wrong. For all the slickness of its publicity machine, How to be a Woman is certainly no mere moneyspinner: UK journalist Caitlin Moran holds many passionate views about the female condition and expresses them with fervour and humour — whether they’re justified or not.

As you might expect from a seasoned columnist for The Times, Moran has the knack of encapsulating tricky concepts in accessible images. Her use of the Broken Windows Theory (that if you don’t fix smashed windows on empty buildings they attract more vandalism) to explain the slow creep of anti-women ideas into society is a great metaphor for the dangers of complacency. Similarly, the observation that teenage bulimics, anorexics and self-harmers are essentially ‘waging war on their pituitaries’ is a powerful, personal insight.

Much of this is helped by humour and, when she does it well, Moran can have you glancing guiltily around the tube carriage in case her outrageous references to ‘My Dickens of fucking’ and microscopic knickers are causing offence… before you remember that you’re only reading a book. But it isn’t always done well: at times the perpetually hyperbolic registers grate and the whole thing feels like waking up the morning after a house party to find the overexcited friend of a friend who no-one invited still mixing vodka cocktails in your living room and insisting on accompanying you on your journey to work.

Part of the problem is that Moran has decided that humour is one of the badges of the liberated woman that she must defend. She takes up her cudgels on the mistaken premise that, apart from Dorothy Parker in the 1920s, ‘no other women are funny until French & Saunders and Victoria Wood’. In light of Aphra Behn, Stella Gibbons, Richmal Crompton, Barbara Pym and the army of bawdy performers who delighted music hall goers throughout the 19th century — to name but a few laugh-out-loud-funny women — it seems odd that Moran should seize on this. Her lengthy and repeated assertions that women are chronically under-represented in all fields of achievement throughout history because of the mental barriers that hem them in would suggest that successful comediennes are no thinner on the ground than, say, female nuclear physicists, female conductors, or female tycoons.

This isn’t the only inconsistency. Throughout the book, Moran’s railing against the Patriarchy (she even jokes that she has taught her daughters to say ‘Damn the Patriarchy’ when they fall over)  jostles uncomfortably with her ‘the Guys’ philosophy — that we human beings should forget gender distinctions and think of ourselves as being all in this together.

Leaving aside the linguistic problem of a gender-neutral group of ‘Guys’, there’s an awkward ‘them and us’ mentality attached to the constant harping on the Patriarchy, which makes gender-blind equality seem impossible. You can’t help feeling that there are more fundamental changes needed than Moran has conceived of, and that, if she had taken a little longer than the ‘five-month blur’ she says she spent writing the book in the acknowledgements, she might have hit on something a bit more substantial.

Nonetheless, the book is a good read, full of amusing anecdotes and brave confessions. Its accessibility may prompt some  of those who haven’t grappled much with the ‘f’ word before to give it more thought. And that’s got to be worth something.

Picture by Maga Soto

Written by Ann Morgan

July 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm