How a Man Writes Women Protagonists
Speaker 1: That’s it. That’s it.
Dan: Welcome to the Waves, Slate’s podcast about gender feminism. And this week, putting pen to paper. Every episode you get a new pair of feminist to talk about the thing we can’t get off our minds. And today you’ve got me. Shayna Roth I’m a senior producer here at Slate. In 2018, hilarity ensued when writer Whitney Reynolds posted a challenge on Twitter. Describe yourself like a male author. Would anyone who is at all familiar with the popular Twitter account men write women or has read the works of Jonathan Franzen, for example, knows where this led? A creative writing professor wrote She was thin in a bony, nonsexual way, but she seemed nice. So I sent her a copy of my manuscript. Here’s another. She walked toward me with the confidence of how attractive she probably was 15 years ago, and one woman simply wrote She was a lesbian.
Dan: This challenge was obviously referring to a pretty specific cis, heterosexual male writer, but it has always made me wonder can men write female main characters? Should women write male characters in the first person? And more than that? Is it possible in either scenario to be gripping and honest? Because obviously you can do whatever you want, but will you be successful at it?
Dan: As the years have gone on since 2018, we’ve had a lot of discussion in the literary community about who gets to tell what stories should white people write? Main characters of color? What is the gatekeeping standard? And a lot of this goes back to marginalized voices previously not having the opportunities to write these stories for themselves that their white counterparts have always enjoyed and that this can lead to a lot of trauma porn.
Dan: Hello. The 2020 American dirt scandal. But the question of writing different sexes, of women getting into the minds of men and vice versa hasn’t been explored quite as much. And as someone who loves to write but can never quite seem to get her male characters to jump off the page. I wanted to explore this. Luckily, vintage contemporaries just came out. It’s the coming of age story of a woman and two other women who impact her life. It’s very female and it was written by a man. We’re going to take a quick break. But when we get back, I’m going to be joined by Dan Kois, a Slate editor, a man and the author of Vintage Contemporaries.
Dan: Welcome back to the waves. I want to welcome now Dan Kois, who is a senior editor at Slate and the author of Vintage Contemporaries. Dan, welcome to The Waves.
Shayna Roth: Thanks.
Dan: So there’s a really great exchange from the 1997 Jack Nicholson Helen Hunt movie, As Good As It Gets. Nicholson plays a really self-centered, horrible writer who obviously finds redemption by the end of the movie. And there’s a scene where a woman asks him a question. You have no idea what your work means to me.
Shayna Roth: What does it mean to you.
Speaker 4: That somebody out there knows what it’s like to be in here?
Shayna Roth: Oh, God. It’s just like a nightmare.
Speaker 1: Oh, come on.
Speaker 4: Just a couple of questions. How hard is that? How do you rate women so well?
Shayna Roth: I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.
Dan: Is that how you wrote the women in your book?
Shayna Roth: Yeah. The Jack Nicholson method. A guy. A guy should write a text.
Dan: Let’s start by talking about your book, Vintage Contemporaries. It’s a coming of age story of a young woman in the publishing industry and two other women who play a pivotal role in her life. What inspired this story, and specifically, why did you choose female main characters?
Shayna Roth: There’s a big, stupid reason that I chose female main characters, and I’m going to hold off on telling you to talk about some of the smarter, more logical reasons. First, I wanted to write a publishing story. I thought, that is an interesting world to write about. I’m really interested in the way that we use literature and art in our lives, the way that people who who want to think of themselves as artists move through a business world that is about monetizing and optimizing that art and publishing. As you know, as you probably know, is a is a very gendered industry. It’s the lower ranks are almost entirely female. That’s not as true in the upper executive ranks, unsurprisingly, where where a few men seem to just make it through. But but that meant most likely writing about women in that world.
Shayna Roth: I also wanted to write about about friendship and a friendship gone awry, particularly, and male friendship is its own interesting topic, but female friendship seemed particularly a rich vein for me to explore, especially in the context of a book about people who really care about literature. Because every woman I know who is in a very intense friendship with another woman who is also a reader, often thinks of herself in terms of those like literary precedents. There’s a line in the book where my main character is thinking about her friendship with Emily, her best friend, and she really is thinking through, okay, well, am I Beth, or am I Jo? Am I Melanie, or am I Scarlett O’Hara? Am I am I or am I? What’s her name? The other one, The Wallflower.
Shayna Roth: And I wanted to be able to use that well of literary knowledge and reference as it pertains specifically to female friendship, which I think exists in literature much more concretely than it does for male friendship, which is maybe a little under written about in a lot of ways. In this case, the fact that this is a subject that’s been extremely well written about was useful to me as opposed to feeling daunting.
Shayna Roth: But there’s also a bigger, much more basic reason why I was writing about women, which is that I you know, I’m a journalist, I’m a writer and editor at Slate. I have been writing journalism and memoir and non-fiction for like basically 20 years, ever since I did an MFA in fiction that completely that I bombed completely and sort of stopped thinking to myself as a fiction writer. And when I wanted to get back into that world and I wanted to start making up stories again. I was very, very nervous about just writing myself, about just putting myself on the page and calling it fiction. I did not I didn’t particularly want to be writing Autofiction and ah, and that worried me.
Shayna Roth: And so I very early in the game as I as this book didn’t exist as a book at all, but just as a series of, you know, writing exercises that I was doing when I had time. I just always made the characters women because it was like the dumbest possible easy way to remind myself instantly that it wasn’t me, to remind myself not to just write the things that I would do or say or think. But you think outside myself. Because every time I went on to that page, I had all those pronouns there to just instantly remind me. Oh, right, right, right, right. I’m writing about someone else.
Dan: It’s. So interesting that that is such a part of your writing this book, because when I’m writing, I struggle to write the opposite sex, in part because I inevitably find that my main characters have quirks or pieces of me or history that I have had in my life. There’s like always, like a touch of that autofiction And I feel like you could still have that if you have a character of the opposite sex. And did you find that with any of your characters, but specifically with the main character, Emily? And if so, how did that shape your thought about her as a character and maybe even about yourself?
Shayna Roth: It seems impossible to me to to write fiction and to not include chunks of yourself in those characters, right? You are building from your own experience and memories and stories, and then you are putting them into a narrative in a way that makes sense for that narrative. But there’s always going to be some of you there.
Shayna Roth: And the longer I wrote, the more I sort of came to terms with that, that there was going to be a real mix of me and these imagined characters in each of these in each of the sort of the three central characters of this book, the three women at the center of this book, they each have some of me in it in them, and I get very slightly annoyed with writers, though I’m sure they mean it and are saying this totally in good faith, that this is just their process and it’s different for my process. But I still get annoyed when writers are like, Oh yes, the character just took me in places I never could have imagined. I just closed my eyes and there she was speaking to me on the page. That is not true of me at all. It’s a very conscious construction process that I go through with with all of these characters and with the architecture of the book, beginning with a lot of unconscious, free writing.
Shayna Roth: But then, you know, pretty at some point in the process really becoming conscious of what it is I want the characters to do and where I need to fill in parts of their story or their history or their opinions or their ideas. And then drawing from the well of my brain and my experience and the experiences of people around me to try and fill those. And that doesn’t mean that it’s all cribbed from my life, but it does mean that my life is in there somewhere for pretty much all of it somehow.
Dan: It’s interesting that that whole blending of of yourself and the characters and things like that and how it works within a writing process. And there’s a part in the book that when it comes to sort of the female brain or the woman brain, I think you really got it spot on. And it’s early in the book. So obviously there’s there’s more great parts throughout. But I really kind of glommed on to this because I feel like it’s so hard to write believable interiority, you know, the thoughts in someone’s head and you get at that as well as sort of the danger of a woman walking alone in the city, sort of without showing any seams at all. So Slate producer Daniel Schrader is going to read us a section of the book. This is where our main character, who’s currently known as Em, is walking alone.
Speaker 5: It made her feel better that Anne Marie would be horrified to know she was out in her neighborhood at night. She imagined, with grim satisfaction the look on Anne-Marie’s face when she got the phone call, telling her that her sister, her only sister, her poor beloved little sister had been murdered and stuffed into trash bags. She held off her nervousness all the way to Avenue B, trying to work out how many trash bags the murderer would need in the end. She settled on four. She wasn’t exactly small, but she thought a murderer could fit her entire torso into one bag if he was determined on Avenue B, The cab swept south toward the bridges and she felt a little less acutely how foolish this entire peak journey was should happen in New York. A guy who boiled his roommate and served her as soup to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park. Her mom had mailed her a newspaper clipping about his trial.
Shayna Roth: I’m interested that you picked that section because I was very nervous about that section, specifically with regard to writing a woman in this situation, because it seems a little flippant to me, like she is thinking about this very serious fear, a thing that I know is terrifying. But she’s dealing with it a little offhandedly. She’s joking about it, and that is her character.
Shayna Roth: But it also I think you could object to that if you are a woman who has a different kind of response to that situation. It may not feel real to you. To me, in a way it almost seemed. Potentially generational like this scene that you just read takes place in the nineties. This woman is in her twenties in the nineties. So she’s, you know, very determinedly Gen-X. And it seemed to me that a lot of her responses, especially early in the book to difficulty, to fear or to discomfort was what I think of as the traditional Gen-X response of like laughing it off for making a joke out of it or dismissing it as unworthy of attention, even though it obvious that obviously is not true.
Shayna Roth: As the book goes on her, I think she changes a lot and she stops using that kind of defense mechanism. But it is a real specific kind of defense mechanism. And I think it’s very possible that. That many women like you will read this and be like, Oh yeah, that that sounds just right. And many other women will read this and be like, That is not how I would deal with this situation at all. Or more broadly, this is not how I think women would deal with this situation at all. That might be true of them.
Shayna Roth: My picture of women more broadly, it also might be that I think young women reading this book now might find it a little bit discordant to tune into the thoughts of not a woman specifically, but just of a person from 30 years ago. It’s weird to think of the nineties as a period fiction like a period piece, but that’s what it is. And one of the things I am really trying to capture is the way that people my age, the way our thought processes changed in part as we started to learn about things from not only people older than us, but people younger than us.
Dan: For me, it really made sense, not only I think because of a generational thing, but I also think very it taps into sort of this timeless, not resignation, but like defense mechanism that women just sort of have to develop with being at risk any time or walking alone. It kind of calcified that part of our sense of humor. So to me, it rings really true that, you know, if you have to walk alone quite often, eventually you’re going to be a little bit hardened to it and you’re going to kind of turn a little bit jaded and you’re going to have a bit of a dark sense of humor to it. I mean, like, at least that’s what’s happened to me. And so that’s why that really, I thought made sense. And I guess, yeah, there’s probably plenty of women out there that they would go a different direction in that. But I think it told me a lot about her in just that.
Shayna Roth: Right. And you might even take a kind of this kind of, in retrospect, slightly foolish risk out of a kind of perverse like, well, fuck you world, if you’re going to be this much of a pain in my ass, I’m just going to put myself out there and sure murder me. Yeah.
Dan: Come at me. It’s fine. Whatever. I’m bored. Yeah. I’m so bored by having to be afraid of this all the time. Yeah.
Dan: Were any of your characters inspired by anyone specific?
Shayna Roth: The third woman in this triangle I mentioned Adam and Emily. Who are these two best friends in their twenties and the 1990s whose friendship then sort of falls apart? The third woman in the Triangle. This book is an older woman named Lucy. Older from Emma’s perspective. You know, she’s in her early forties. She’s a single mom and she’s a writer. She is a friend of M’s mother. They were college friends. And Emma’s mother asks, And when she comes to the big city to meet with this woman, Lucy, and works in publishing. Lucy is a writer. Anyone who works in publishing knows that you will inevitably be set up by any number of literary giants. As to everyone they know who has an unfinished novel in a drawer. And in fact, Emma and Lucy work together on a book that helps to get published.
Shayna Roth: And Lucy is indeed was inspired by a real life writer, Laurie Cole. When a writer who I really love, who wrote a number of well-received but not like hugely popular novels in the seventies and eighties and became somewhat better known for her food writing. She has two collections of her of essays about cooking called Home Cooking and more Home cooking. And who died in her forties, unexpectedly, and who has since her death undergone a series of, I think, remarkable publishing revivals of the sort that very few late writers ever get. Her work has been reconsidered and reintroduced and republished. And her readership, I think, is significantly larger now than it ever was during her life.
Shayna Roth: My character of Lucy doesn’t really physically resemble Laurie Coleman. Her writing only sort of superficially resembles hers. Her career is different. Her life is different. But the thing that they do have in common is this sense of a writer who feels a little bit underappreciated in life, who then gets a chance afterward to get reconsidered and re appreciated, and to come to a whole new generation that learns to appreciate them.
Shayna Roth: And I chose Laurie Coleman specifically because this book doesn’t wouldn’t exist without Laurie Cohen, because it was reading Laurie Collins novels when I was sort of having a writing crisis around the time I turned 40. That reminded me or perhaps taught me for the first time that I didn’t have to only think of myself as a writer if I could write books that were like dark and intense and, you know, super like literary thrillers or big like friends, any social commentary novels that that there is power and and art in writing simply about happiness and joy, which is something that Laurie Coleman did better than, I think anyone else on the face of the earth. And that really that really defined how I went about writing this book. And it freed me to write something different than the failed shit that I wrote in my MFA program, you know, 27 years ago.
Dan: We’re going to take a quick break here, but if you want to hear more from Dan and myself on another topic, check out our Slate Plus segment where today we’re talking about the Harper Collins strike and some of the gendered aspects that go along with that. And please consider supporting the show by joining Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. No hitting the paywall on the Slate site and bonus content of shows like this one.
Dan: To learn more, go to Slate.com, Slash the Waves. Plus. The subject of who gets to tell what stories has really, I think, come alive in the last few years. There was a really interesting story in 2021 about the most popular female author from Spain that was, in fact three dudes in a trench coat, not literally in a trench coat, but it was three dudes and the jig was up when the three men accepted an award in front of the King of Spain. Despite years of telling people that the author’s name Carmen Muller, was a pseudonym, but the pseudonym of a mom of three. So they told everybody the name is wrong, but they also claim that the woman was real.
Dan: There’s a few different popular accounts that post really bad writing by men of women. I’m thinking of the Reddit thread. Are men writing women? The Twitter account men write Women, which has a book coming out this fall called Write Your Breast. Dan, this is the World. You wrote your book in. So what are your thoughts on all of this?
Shayna Roth: Well, it certainly made me very nervous. I know that by writing a book that focuses closely on women, that in which most of them, all of the main characters are women writing close third person. Essentially, from a woman’s perspective, I’m doing something that I often find super annoying when other writers do it and that and I’m a guy reading it and women in particular can find unbelievably annoying, you know, stretching to fully offensive. And it made me even more nervous because I don’t know that I can’t claim any particular expertise in women’s lives or women’s interiority. I’m as blinded by my personal blinders as every other human being on the face of the earth. I see what is narrowly in front of me. I try to listen and fail most of the time, as we all do, except for those few saints among us.
Shayna Roth: But yet this story interested me so much. And these and writing about these kinds of characters interested me so much that I just wanted to try it. And I and I just really felt allergic to to writing from a guy’s perspective at this time and place in my life and in our cultural life like that is not that was not the book that I wanted to write. I wanted to write about these characters.
Shayna Roth: That’s, you know, somewhat selfish on my part. Novelists generally are fairly selfish about the things that they’re doing. And so, yeah, I worried about that all the time. I had a. I had a book event last week with Taffy Purser actor who wrote Fleishman Is in Trouble, a book that is a substantial amount of which is is using the interior interiority of a male character, though the narrator is throughout, in fact, a woman. This woman is imagining her way into a male character. And she we talked about this a little bit. And she my hunch is maybe quoting someone I’m not sure I’ve tried Googling it and couldn’t find it. Maybe it is her coinage, but she asks herself the opposite of the Jack Nicholson question.
Shayna Roth: How do you write men when you’re a woman? And she said basically, Well, I. I think of a woman, and then I make her free. And in some respect, that’s not actually that different than some of the tools I used in writing these women and that.
Shayna Roth: I don’t think I spent every moment I was writing them thinking, What would a woman do? What would a woman do? What would a woman do? Instead, I wrote what it seemed like a character would do, a person would do, and that I went back and thought, okay, how are the constraints that don’t always apply to me but do apply to women in this workplace circumstance or this friendship circumstance or this late night on the street circumstance? How does that affect this character in a way that I haven’t previously been thinking about and it’s almost sort of an editorial layer, like a Photoshop layer. You you lay over the initial thing to then try and view the story through a lens other than your own.
Shayna Roth: And I’m sure I made a million mistakes. I had the benefit of a lot of good readers and editors who edited a lot of those mistakes out. But I still found it not like a minute to minute ordeal, but rather a thinking and editing challenge that I appreciated as I was making my way through the book.
Dan: A lot of the criticism of modern men writing women or characters that are not within their personal gender spectrum is objectification. And I was a college English major, so I’m qualified to use the phrase the male gaze. How do you avoid this when you’re writing?
Shayna Roth: I’m sure I don’t all the time. My gaze is as male as any other red blooded American man’s, but it’s very helpful as a guy to spend a lot of time thinking about what women would do or say in particular circumstances, or viewing your own work, your own imagination through doing your best to view it through a completely different lens. It does expose a lot of your prejudices and tendencies and your your your tendency toward objectification.
Shayna Roth: There were plenty of places in in editing myself where I found, Oh, this I really wrote this scene from the, like, the most boring possible dude’s perspective of it. And surely there is more going on here that I should be exploring. And it helped me, I think, escape some of my worst tendencies as a writer. I don’t know that I was avoiding it as much as I was. You know, going back over the work over and over again to try and ferret it out and and hopefully, you know, doing it for the most part, the times that I felt like that sort of gender play in the novel, because it is a kind of play writing a character of a different gender than herself.
Shayna Roth: The times that I got sort of most blunt and bad often were the times when I was really I was depending on certain kinds of signposting to, you know, remind readers or remind myself it’s a lady. I think in my first draft there were, I’m sure, multiple references to the character’s own breasts, For example. I think that a woman writing that story would not necessarily a woman in that situation would not think of, but that a woman writing that story would not dwell on the way that a guy does it with an extremely male gaze he way and I and pulling those back at it and realizing that those are not that’s not the way a woman would tell her own story necessarily but is instead of the way a guy signposts I’m talking about a woman here.
Shayna Roth: You know there’s even a tampon scene in an early draft that I got a very mixed reaction on from a number of different readers who are women, some who are like, Oh, this is funny. I, I don’t see this in novels very often. And some who are like, I don’t see this. And I was very often for a very specific reason, which is that it’s dumb to put it in a novel. This is this is not part of the story that a woman reading it or telling it would care about. Please cut it for the love of God. So I got it.
Dan: So this isn’t just a question of should cis straight men be allowed to write women? Without question. But it’s it’s also about writing outside of our lived experiences in gender and sexuality, women writing men, non trans authors, writing trans stories. Obviously, this is something that has been explored a lot when it comes to race. There was the hashtag Own Voices debate recently, but when it comes to writing outside of our own sex and sexuality, it’s something that we’re, I think, a bit more used to. And I wonder, should we be questioning this or should this just be something that people do?
Shayna Roth: It’s always worth questioning it. I hope people are questioning this book and any book that takes these kinds of liberties from a privileged perspective towards the perspective of someone in a, you know, disadvantaged societal situation.
Shayna Roth: You know, I am a of an older Gen-X free speech. Absolutely. So I tend to air on the side of people. You know, artists write the things that they write and and it’s worth questioning it and arguing about it. But but it’s often not worth the trouble to try and get them to not do it because they’re going to do it anyway.
Shayna Roth: What I have loved learning from a younger generation of readers and writers, especially online, even on Twitter, our accursed platform is that the ways that you challenge and think and talk about that. About that kind of appropriation or that kind of writing outside your own experience.
Shayna Roth: Are not, despite what I think a lot of people on the right might suggest are not about cancelling writers are not about silencing people, but are instead about arguing on the behalf of having the freedom and ability and the support to tell the stories that are important to them, especially when those stories come from non-white male perspectives and then interrogating the stories that do jump over those boundaries and figuring out what works about them, what doesn’t work, what blindspots the author has, and how that work can be better or more useful.
Shayna Roth: You know, I just don’t I don’t see for the most part and maybe this is because I’m traveling, you know, mostly in the realm of literary fiction, as opposed to, say, for example, where I do think this has been an even more charged issue. But I don’t see writers like being drummed out of publishing because of this or doing anything other than being yelled at online, which is totally fine. I’ve been blogging for 25 years. I’m used to being yelled at online. It seemed worth it to me to write this book this way because I found it so interesting and I hoped other people would also. I knew that that it would not ring true for some people and that and that whether it rang true or not, for some people, the very act of writing this book was objectionable to them, I’m sure. And that is totally fine. And I hope and expect that people will interrogate and yell about this book and other books in that way.
Shayna Roth: More broadly, what I want is. A vibrant and representative literary community that responds to books in the spirit in which they were written. That recognizes bad faith work and calls it out. And that does its best to grapple with good faith work, even when readers find it annoying. I feel like my book is written in good faith. I can’t wait to find out if other people don’t take.
Dan: Vintage contemporaries is out now. Get it. Yell about it. Love it. Read it. You’ll laugh. You’ll probably cry. Dan Kois, thank you so much for joining us here on the Waves. This was just been a delight hearing from you.
Shayna Roth: Thanks and good luck with your writing. Writing, man. Just remember, just make them free.
Dan: That’s our show this week. The Waves is produced by myself.
Dan: Shayna Roth Daisy Rosario is senior supervising producer and Alicia Montgomery is vice president of Audio. We would love to hear from you. Email us at the Waves at Slate.com.
Dan: The waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic, same time and place.
Dan: Thank you so much for being a Slate Plus member. And since you’re a member, you get this weekly segment. Today, Dan and I are going to talk about the Harper Collins strike. Dan, when your book came out, you also had a piece about how conflicted you felt because your book was published by Harper Collins, a publishing house that currently has about 200 employees striking for better pay, benefits, etc.. Dan, can you fill us in on some of the details on the strike and then explain why this made you feel conflicted about your books Publishing day?
Shayna Roth: Harper Collins is one of the big publishing houses. They’re called the Big Five right now, although as they combine with each other soon there will be only four, and then three, and then two, and then one owned by Jeff Bezos. But right now it’s the only one of the big New York publishing houses that has a union. It’s in fact, about 200 employees of Harper Collins, mostly junior employees, assistants and associates are represented by the United Auto Workers, which I find delightful. And publishing broadly as an industry that has always really struggled with pay disparities, with underpaying, with diversity issues for decades was the domain of privileged people.
Shayna Roth: You know, it was always sort of like I always described it as like it’s where the the bookish, useless children of rich families went to so they could actually have something to do during their days. And because it paid so badly, because it was widely assumed that anyone who got into publishing was there because they loved books so much that they would put up with anything, because there were so many people who wanted to work in publishing that if if an assistant, you know, got uppity and wanted more money or more responsibility, you could always find 100 more like them out there on the street just begging for a job at Penguin, Random House or Harper or whatever. It’s always been an industry that’s just paid really badly, especially at the lower levels, and that is really hard to advance.
Shayna Roth: And and so generations of young people in publishing have struggled with this, particularly young women, as I mentioned in the show, that the lower ranks of publishing basically in every area in marketing and publicity and sales and added editorial and design are overwhelmingly female. And that’s always been the case. Those those generations of those women would find themselves stuck in these jobs, not getting paid enough with no real recourse to do anything about it.
Shayna Roth: So this HarperCollins strike, which is the first time the employees at HarperCollins have struck since the seventies, is a really big deal because the things that they are asking for are not outrageous. They’re asking, you know, to give a base salary at Harper, raised from $45000 to $50000 a year, $50,000 a year in New York, a city where you can’t get your haircut for less than $50,000. And, you know, they’re they’re asking for the publisher to take steps on diversity and on on helping employees rise through the ranks.
Shayna Roth: But it’s like they’re not they’re not asking for the moon. They’ve been on strike since November, since they went on strike. The house, the publishing house, which is owned by the odious News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s company, has not come to the table. They’ve refused to negotiate since the day that they walked away from the table in the middle of negotiations and never came back. And so it really seems like they’re just basically trying to starve these strikers out. So that sucks. It’s like a sucky corporate situation caused entirely by a large corporation. I think being insanely greedy.
Shayna Roth: This is a great time for book publishing broadly. Publishers are making a ton of money. Reading habits have people have only bought more books since the pandemic, unlike, say, Hollywood or other entertainment industries. This is not like theater where they lost years of revenue. Publishing is doing great, but HarperCollins is refusing to pay these people. And as and any movement that these strikers can get is likely to have wide reaching effects across the industry is likely to change pay scales and the work situation at pretty much every New York publisher is they all match whatever the strikers can get. This is all very long winded way to say that it’s a big strike and it pisses me off.
Shayna Roth: And so to have my book come out from HarperCollins has been has created a real dissonance in my emotions the last couple of weeks because I’m a union member like you. I’m a member of the Writers Guild, as are a lot of people at Slate. I’m a supporter of organized labor. I’m more broadly a supporter of young people getting paid better, particularly in creative industries where they’re often taken advantage of. And so despite the fact that I’ve had an incredible experience with my the people I’ve worked with at HarperCollins, who’ve done a wonderful job publishing my book, I still I’m seeing the company that is poised to make money off my book, treating its employees like shit. And that, you know, bothers me.
Dan: Yeah. Understandably, I feel like romcoms have kind of ruined what we think of as the publishing industry and in a lot of ways, because I feel like anytime you watch a rom com, one or both of the main characters is either in advertising, book publishing or journalism, and it’s always.
Shayna Roth: That great apartments.
Dan: And they. Exactly. And they have great apartments and great clothes and we have sort of in popular culture created, as you kind of mentioned, this idea that the publishing industry is glamorous and that these people are fine. They are doing this very high, high brow.
Shayna Roth: Hoity toity, hands off job where you’re just reading all day.
Dan: Right. Nobody’s getting calluses. They’re fine. And particularly given that, as you mentioned, it’s a very female led industry. I think that that combination of there’s a lot of women and also we think of this as being hoity toity is really preventing a lot of people from understanding the gravity of what’s at stake here.
Shayna Roth: Right. And publishing hasn’t done itself any favors by, in fact, being somewhat hoity toity for like most of last century, like the age of the three martini lunch was a golden age in publishing for a very specific class of person. But more and more, the lower ranks of publishing tend to be populated by ambitious young people, mostly young women, often women of color, often women who do not come from wealthy families who have landed in publishing, in part due to, I think, totally commendable outreach by publishing houses in the last 10 to 15 years to try and make their staffs more diverse.
Shayna Roth: But then they land in an environment in which it’s essentially impossible for a person who does not have an independent source of income to survive. You can’t you can’t live on $45,000 a year in New York City while working your ass off, you know. You know, 12 to 14 hours a day indefinitely like that is not sustainable for the vast majority of people. And and so you run into the situation where the industry wants to make itself more open to a wider population of editors and marketers and publicists, which as a helpful side benefit, makes the books they publish better, more representative, more diverse, better able to appeal to a broader reading audience. And yet, when those employees get there, they don’t have any way to support them.
Shayna Roth: And hovering over all of this for me. Was my book, which, in an additional twist of fate, is about this. One of the things the book is about is about how publishing exploits the young people who come into it has always exploited the young people who come into it, and then the ones who survive make their way over the course of decades into senior positions and have trouble remembering what it was to feel so exploited and think of themselves as the wise elder sages helping young people through their publishing journey. But in fact are seen by the young people as just another person who’s been a pain in their ass and who’s supporting the corporate bosses who treat them like shit. And you know, that’s a real theme in this book. And so to see it replicated right here in the real world, while it’s a fantastic marketing hook for my novel, does not make me feel great exactly on a day to day basis.
Dan: What are some ways that people can support the people on strike at HarperCollins? I know the answer is not don’t buy books because that know.
Shayna Roth: It’s by my book, you know, So you can. Well, first of all, if you don’t know about the strike or if you haven’t heard about it, please read about it. It’s you know, it’s been written about in the Post and the Times a little bit. But, you know, publishing specific in New York City, specific publications have done a particularly good job of of covering it. The strikers, the HarperCollins Union also has really good social feeds which are keeping people up to date on instant and on Twitter about where about what is happening with the strike.
Shayna Roth: But I would also urge you to, you know, make your opinion known if you view this strike as as something as odious as I do. Please tweet about it. Please write letters to write emails to HarperCollins, letting them know that that this upsets you.
Shayna Roth: And if you are going to buy books, consider buying them, you know, from your local independent bookstore, but also maybe through the HarperCollins Union’s Bookshop.org page, where every book you buy on that page also contributes a little money to the HarperCollins Union Strike Fund, which is helping sustain and keep these workers, you know, fed, clothed and housed during the time that they’re not getting a dime from their supposed employer.
Dan: Again, Dan’s book is Vintage Contemporaries Buy It On Bookshop. We will put a very special link in the show notes with the HarperCollins strike link for it. Dan, thank you again so much for joining us here on the Waves.
Shayna Roth: Thanks.
Dan: Thanks again for being a Slate Plus member. We would absolutely love to hear from you if you have any ideas for things that we should be talking about on the waves or in the Slate Plus segment. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.