Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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In which Jonathan Bradley reminds me why I busted my guts for three years to get a US book deal.

I’m also not American, and that will always leave me liable to be a footnote. On the internet, people read the New York Times, not the Sydney Morning Herald. They talk about what was on NBC, not what was on Channel 9. They read Pitchfork, and its opinions on bands from Brooklyn, not Faster Louder and its opinions of bands from Newtown. And it matters more when a Newtown band is on Pitchfork than when a Brooklyn band is on Faster Louder. And, yes, there are Australian websites for all these things. But they are defined by their exception. Pitchfork is for a general audience. Australian sites — sites for an entire nation, as real as America — are a niche interest.”

Read the whole thing here.

In short, just as white-ness, male-ness and straight-ness render you “neutral,” so does American-ness. 

Back when I was shopping my book around a couple of years ago, a lovely agent (lovely because they bothered to respond with substantial feedback) wrote back to me to say that while they thought my proposal was “smart and original” and “probably right,” it would be difficult to sell because, as a non-American, I wouldn’t have the same understanding of US dating culture as a native would. I wasn’t particularly bothered, as I’d signed with another agent just the day before, but I found interesting the assumption that “outsiders” couldn’t possibly understand US culture (despite the fact that, as Jonathan writes in his post, we grow up surrounded by it), US culture is sold to us as neutral. No one worries whether Ariel Levy or Jessica Valenti or Hanna Rosin could possibly understand Australia or Canada or the UK - at least, not to same degree. It is just assumed that their insights are universal.

But that’s hegemony for you - and that’s why I spent at least a year longer working on my proposal than I otherwise would have, in order to sell to the publisher than I did. Because on the internet especially, the conversations I’m most interested in take place on American cyber-soil; in publications like the New York Times, Salon, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Yorker, Feministing, Jezebel, and NYMag. And being part of that conversation in a non-niche way means being in America: if not literally (although I will probably move there next year, albeit more for emotional reasons than for professional ones - because I can’t shake the feeling that NYC might be my “soul city”), then at least virtually.

That said, I wonder how much US cultural dominance stems from confidence. The fact that it markets itself as culturally neutral. I can think of Australian publications that are just as good as their US counterparts, and indeed which I think could compete with them easily if they marketed themselves as being for a “global” (read: English-speaking) audience, rather than solely - or primarily - for an Australian one. I understand this doesn’t work so well from a commercial perspective, though. That while going global might increase your influence, diluting the national audience is a turn-off to advertisers. 

Related: On not being in America: notes from beyond the centre of the universe.
A tale of three cities.

Elsewhere: To be American on the internet might be like what it is to be anglophone in the world.” (Screw Rock’n’Roll)
English is a dialect with an army.
(The Atlantic)

Rethinking Mamamia (the website, not the musical)

There has been a lot of discussion online this week about the fact that Mamamia, the popular Australian “mummy blog” owned by former Cosmopolitan editor Mia Freedman, doesn’t pay its contributors.

Freedman isn’t alone in this – the News Ltd/Rupert Murdoch-owned The Punch does the same, and countless other websites operate on a payment-if-we-commission-you-slash-if-you-ask-for-it-no-payment-if-you-don’t-ask basis to keep their budgets down. Still, as part of a broader pattern of non-payment, it’s disappointing: contributing to a culture of devalued writing and lower quality media.

I’ve been vocal on this blog and elsewhere about the importance of writers getting paid – and getting paid in a manner that will allow them to pay their rent (and more importantly do their research and analysis properly), which is not $50 or even $150 per article – especially when working for profitable, non-struggling media companies like Mamamia and News Ltd.

It’s something I have a vested interest in, obviously, as someone who makes a living from writing, although it’s not something that affects me directly: the vast majority of publications I work for pay properly. Not as much as I would earn as a full time staffer, but enough to sustain me working as a full-time writer for the past 2.5 years (and as a part-time writer for six years before that).

But it is something that affects younger and less seasoned writers, who are looking for a break or “exposure”, and often find that the only places that will publish them are those that pay little or nothing at all.

Writing for free isn’t always a bad thing. As Clementine Ford wrote on Twitter earlier this week (and I agree), it’s good practice: a way to hone your craft and find your voice. Back in the mid-2000s, I used to edit a website that didn’t pay its contributors (it didn’t pay me, either), and most of said contributors are now professional writers in one form or another. Hey, I’m writing for free right now.

But I’m sceptical of claims that the “exposure” you get writing for free will lead to paid work. It might, if you go above and beyond, and the work you produce is of “payable” quality, but most unpaid publications aren’t full of work of “payable” quality. When you don’t pay your contributors, the people who can get paid for their work go elsewhere. And if they don’t go elsewhere, they’re still unlikely to put in the same time and effort they would if you did pay them. (Weirdly, this principle doesn’t apply so much to the blogosphere, which is full of interesting unpaid work, but it does seem to apply to curated websites, unless they position themselves as “prestige” literary brands. Pay peanuts, get monkeys.)

Which is actually my main issue with sites like Mamamia not paying: I don’t think it leads to good content. And as an avid reader of online content, I like to have interesting, meaty, thought-provoking writing to read. But, of course, not everyone has the same taste in “interesting, meaty, thought-provoking writing.”

At first, I figured Mia didn’t pay because she doesn’t have to. She’s got people lining up around the block to contribute to Mamamia for free, and an audience that keeps on growing. Why pay for what media types consider to be “good content,” when that’s not what the audience want?

But then I got thinking more, and thought that maybe the content isn’t the point at all. It isn’t for me, when I visit Mamamia. I don’t go to Mamamia for the articles, which usually don’t tell me anything I haven’t already read somewhere else. I go for the comments; the hundreds of alternatively fascinating and infuriating micro-insights into the mind of Middle Australia. I go to Mamamia to find out what people think – or as the site’s strapline says, “what everyone’s talking about.”

Rather that viewing Mamamia as a conventional publication, it might be better viewed as an online community; a place where people don’t go for a good read, so much as they go for a good talk. The articles are just the stimulus. And rather than viewing Freedman as a conventional publisher, she might be better positioned as a facilitator.

It also puts a different spin on the notion of “exposure” that Mia refers to. Mamamia’s contributors might not be likely to launch writing careers from their work on the site (unless, as before, they are exceptions), but if you’re already an active participant in the community, there is a thrill in sharing your experiences with it; in being the person to lead the “dinner party conversation”.

None of this automatically means that Mamamia contributors shouldn’t be paid (see this article on paying citizen journalists), but it does provide a different spin on the service the website provides. It positions Freedman not as an exploitative publisher seeking out labour she doesn’t pay for, but as a facilitator providing a for-profit platform for a community to interact with one another.

Thoughts?

Related: Why writing for “exposure” doesn’t work.
Ask Rachel: When should I stop writing for free?
Should you work for free? A quick Q&A guide.
Should we write for free?

How (not) to write about racism: Jezebel edition

Dear Jezebel,

I know I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think there is anything particularly “investigative” about publishing the names, locations, schools, and sporting affiliations of a bunch of racist teenagers.

Is slinging racist epithets at Barack Obama (indeed, at anyone) revolting and pathetic? Of course. Should the people making those comments be called to account for them? Absolutely.

But I’m not convinced that a major news website (which is what you guys are, in hybrid with being a blog) is the place to do it.

Racism matters, it hurts, and it needs to be reported on. But the story here isn’t that individual racists exist, that their names are Ricky or Addison or Cody, or that they go to XYZ high school and here’s how you can track them down at their after school sports meet. I’m not sure that it particularly matters that they’re high schoolers, either, except that high schoolers might be less likely to twig that it’s smarter to post their racist remarks under a pseudonym that can’t be traced back to them. 

Here are some ways you might have handled the story better. Report the tweets (keep the usernames attached, I just don’t need to know where they go to school), and write about why some people jump to racism as a first resort when they lose an election. What does this say about “post-racial” America? Or indeed, about “post-racial” milliennials?

Or you could get in touch with the kids directly and ask them for an interview. Who are they (and I don’t mean stats or demographics, I mean who are they as people) and why do they think that way? What does it say about the culture that they inhabit that they haven’t been called out on their hate speech closer to home than Jezebel? How are racists created?

As it stands, the story you published doesn’t really tell us anything, except that there are at least twelve teenagers in the United States of America who write racist crap about the President. Which in a country of over 300 million people, is hardly notable.

Yours,

Rachel

The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about Basketball Diaries?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it. The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

Roger Ebert (via ibad)

(via danandblair)