Everyone says never look below the line when it comes to online articles. But I often do it. I do it, because I am now used to reading other people’s misinformed opinions as if they are in fact part of the main article. This is a terrible thing. The comments section is the scrappy circus act that comes after the (usually) polished event. But still I fetch up my popcorn and sit scrolling, knowing I will be hotly scalded by the hate, the bile, the misplaced, overblown vitriol of the man or woman screaming to themselves into the silence that surrounds them. Perhaps it says a lot about me that I like to watch that drunken tightrope walker, or the scraggy little bear playing forlornly with his ball. But I know I’m not alone.
It’s different though, when you’re the subject of the article. Quelle surprise.
On Sunday, The Observer profiled myself and 6 other debut novelists. I didn’t look below the line to the comments section, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I could intuit from what my friends were saying to me that it was probably a place I didn’t want to go. The attacks were not too personal (although they might have since developed to address us as actual humans) – rather, they lumped us all together as an amorphous symbol of all that is wrong with society, and privilege, and mediocrity. All because we’d written a novel, we were the temporary targets of a few bitter, twisted and most importantly, anonymous voices. Those few voices, if you let them, can feel like a roar and I cannot imagine what some must feel who are constantly in the public eye.
I ended up making a mini-rant on Twitter about the irritating assumptions made about me. Look at her, with her Oxford degree and her theatre jobs at the National Theatre! Never mind the fact I went to a comprehensive school, and have spent most of my acting career understudying, or doing acting work for free whilst working as a temp in office jobs. Comments such as ‘it’s who you know’ do my head in, because they utterly negate the hard act of creating a novel, and the endless rejections unpublished writers suffer to get their voice heard. Thank goodness I had these kind people, none of whom used their real name and none of whom had read our books, to let me know! We were not, I repeat not profiled in a newspaper because we wrote some stories that publishers wanted to share.
I want to address something that I believe is important. Because, save for one of us in that feature, there was one thing most of the haters missed – the other six of us were white.
(Caveat already: I am no crusader, although perhaps I should be? All I know is it’s tentative, difficult ground, and I think the spokespeople for this kind of thing are best probably not being white, maybe? Ach, I dunno. I don’t want to see things that way, but perhaps politically right now it still has to be so.) It’s just that over the past year, I’ve been learning a lot (through Twitter mainly, the space for the less mainstream voices) about the various prejudices and privileges afforded each and everyone of us - privileges and restrictions I had not always been aware of, because I was too busy fighting my own battle to get a job I actually liked. My bad.
My voice did get heard, eventually. There’s no saying it ever would have had things worked out differently, but in this round of the strange old universe it did. Who knows how long that will last, but I am fully aware that I am not the victim of any wider injustice other than censure from a few idiotic trolls waving their unthumbed copies of Das Kapital and calling me a bourgeois. (Actually I bet half of them didn’t even know what Das Kapital is. Cretins!) Anyway. That I can deal with. What I want to say is that I know that societal structures were in place for me. My society fed me dreams and I believed those dreams were mine to gobble up. I am not powerful, but I was accepted in the game as a player. I will be attacked for being a woman, but I won’t be attacked on two sides – for being a woman and for being black. My micro-aggressions are more micro than those of my friend who is black. I asserted a desire to be heard, knowing I might fail, but believing at the same time that I might not. Where does that belief come from? That belief should be everyone’s. To make those dreams real still seems harder for some than for others.
I live in a society where in general women are often poorly portrayed in mainstream TV and film, but I also live in that same society where women and men of colour are even more poorly portrayed. I can open magazines, watch films, and see my particular self. I can hear my familiar struggle for equality loud and clear. I can’t understand what it’s like not to see myself, not to project myself as a writer, as a person of value - because I am white, and ‘middle class’, and cis, and everywhere I look, secondary to white, rich, straight, men, my story, my struggle, in its many forms - is being presented as the norm.
Things are not perfect for privileged women, but they are more perfect than for others shut out by economic decisions governments make, by internalized prejudices peddled for decades and centuries, perpetuated by the ones who hold the power, and those who stand near them.
This is important to point out too – I am not saying others should aspire to what I am, or what I have. There is no norm. Everyone should have their own particular life of imperfection, but with it the belief that if they want to change its path, they can, and that if they want to get published, then there is nothing in their way to stop them.