Comment writer as flapping tongue crab

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I want to write better. Over the last five (five!) years of writing comment pieces, I’ve learned to write more effectively, but a lot of it is about learning to fill a small frame (500-800 words) quickly (sometimes, the hour-long lunch break from my office job). This is a skill, and it’s one acquired by much practice; but it’s a skill that can only be developed in its own interests.

I can get quicker, I can learn to hit the right phrase first time, I can craft the rhetorical devices and structural tics that shelter my spots of ignorance from scrutiny. But however good I get at writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour, I will still be writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour.

The online comment writer is often in the role of debunker. Debunking is a thing of long standing and some usefulness, but the thing about the debunker is, they always need something to debunk: the debunker is parasitic on the thing they claim to oppose. And because the debunker inevitably repeats the claims they ostensibly wish to invalidate, the debunker become a very specific sort of parasite: you become the crustacean that replaces a fish’s tongue, living on the host’s blood while flapping away in its service.

If you debunk (say) misogyny over and over, what you also do is replicate that misogyny for the purposes of debunking. (This is an observation borrowed from Kenneth Burke.) There are times when comment writers appear to seek out the most obnoxious figures for the purposes of making them a foil; there are times when I’ve done this, and there are times when a ridiculous person is the best way of ridiculing a ridiculous idea. And yet, if all you do is elevate the ridiculous and bad without celebrating the good and the interesting, ultimately you are living within and on the thing you purport to hate.

The problem is that a successful comment piece needs a readership, and there are few writers who can deliver that readership on their own – I am not one. There are some outlets that have a broad and tolerant audience who will give consideration to a piece that sets its own terms. But in general, most pieces that traffic well do so by entering an argument that has already established the terms of its controversy. This is not a criticism: this is good editorial sense. But it does mean that as a writer, you can end up responding reflexively and unreflectively if you’re not careful.

The Raging Bull image of a face reeling from the impact of a fist is thrilling to see, but comment writing can feel a little like putting your head in the way of the swinging glove on a weekly basis: take the blow and show the shiner to the crowd. Boxers might get better at taking punches, but they rarely get cleverer from their time in the ring, and sometimes I fear that this is the fate of the reactive comment writer. Your recoil grows more dramatic as your brain grows more pulpy. Online comment writers give the appearance of being scrappers, but I wonder how many ever land an actually damaging blow on an opponent.

I hope I have not yet become the flapping tongue-crab or the mat-crashing middleweight. I hope that when I write, I add something to the store of kindness and curiosity and humour in the world, that my brain is not pulped, and that this hour’s work will turn in at a satisfactory 600.

Photo by University of Salford, used under Creative Commons

6 things that happen when you write about feminism

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1. You will be accused of hating men

At first this will sound ridiculous. Then you’ll feel irritated. Then you might feel riled and want to say: “YES I HATE MEN AND THEY MUST ALL BECOME SOYLENT GREEN.”

But the truth is, I don’t hate men. I just think I am awesome – too awesome for my life to be decided along the lines of what someone else thinks is appropriate to my gender. Too awesome to go around cringing over the fact that I am woman-shaped and have woman interests and woman-y inside-bits.

The people who accuse feminism of hating men have a very fragile, narrow idea of being a man – they’re something like a fluorescent tube. They are worried that any change will shatter them. Feel sorry for them, but not too sorry: like the rest of us, they will probably be OK.

2. You will get long, self-justifying communications from people who in all honesty sound like they’re the problem

Before I started writing on feminist subjects – which means reproductive rights, equal parenting and safety from violence in my case, which means absurdly that all those things are seen as the province of one particular cause rather than, y’know, human rights – really sexist people were like a rare species of angry mammal. Wild pigs, maybe. I’d seen a few of them dashing through the trees with foam on their tusks, but they’d never actually run full at me.

That changes when you write about feminism. Then, the pigs in the forest start charging towards you, grunting things like “women are naturally incapable of creativity” or “how do you expect men not to rape if women wear short skirts”. (I’m not making those up, by the way.) On a really good day, you’ll get lengthy emails from a man telling you how unfair it is that he’s not allowed to see his kids after his ex provoked him once – just once! – into assaulting her.

The important thing about this is that the number of pigs in the wood hasn’t changed, it’s just that they know you’re there and they’re coming for you. So don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s been a massive explosion in the pig population. Just study them, learn about them, and work out how to spear them.

3. You will want to say: “Wait! I’m not that kind of feminist!”

Later, you will realise that people who say they don’t like feminism (rather than, say, people who debate the usefulness of certain ideals to the wider feminist cause) aren’t the kind of people you actually want making an exception for you. They’re probably not destined to be your top pal.

4. You will be asked whether you’re a single parent or a lesbian or childless or fat, as if these things were accusations

And when they’re wrong, you will have to resist triumphantly shouting something like: “No! Ha! I am a straight, married mother of average BMI! In your STUPID PRESUMPTUOUS FACE!” Because to do that would, of course, be to endorse the hatstand morality that says being a single parent or a lesbian or childless or fat is a shameful condition that invalidates anything you have to say – and it would leave you at a distinct disadvantage if they ever fluked into being correct.

Yet there is some purpose in your impulse to deny: when people say these things, they’re saying that nothing you ever do can be uninflected by the physical. They’re saying that you are the deviation from the reliable, masculine norm and your words proceed from your ovaries. You would understandably like to disabuse them of that notion.

And you may do so – gently, and without accepting that there’s any justice in their hatreds.

5. You will hear: “Not everything is a feminist issue, you know”

Some people think sexism should get a pass for the greater good. Their version of the greater good is shitting on half the world, which doing some maths tells me is not actually the greater good at all. Ignore them.

6. You will be told: “Enough with the isms and ists”

Personally, I don’t feel like it is enough. I don’t think it’s good enough for my daughter and her peers to grow up in a world where some chump can go on TV and joke about his “instincts” telling him to grope a woman’s breasts, and then use the image of her giving someone (implicitly him) a hand job to embarrass her. I am not cool with that.

Before we had the language of “ists” and “isms” we had “no property rights” and “legal marital rape”. We’re a tiny way out of a history of seeing women as things not people, and I want the next generation to grow up knowing that they do not have to put up with this rudeness.

Because that’s why I write about feminism: in the hope that some time, eventually, no one will have to.

Photo via kReEsTaL

The unpacking

From the age of ten to 20, I wrote a diary most days. When each volume was full of scratchings, I’d put it away – first on a shelf, then as I got older and more privacy-conscious in a drawer, and eventually in an old leather suitcase that I could keep clipped shut on top of my wardrobe and out of my eyeline. When my childhood bedroom got dismantled and my effects put into boxes and stowed in the spare room, the suitcase went too. Continue reading

This stylish man: on Christopher Hitchens

“I once had the easiest job in journalism: editing Christopher Hitchens,” tweeted his Slate editor June Thomas, shortly after his death. A short tribute, but a touching balance of the personal and the professional; and also, an accidental summary of the thing I hate about his work. Christopher Hitchens wrote with such an assured and powerful voice – exactly the same voice he spoke with – it’s easy to believe that editing would require only the lightest touch. All the words are correct, and in their right places. Nothing needs changing, except for the fact that whole pieces could benefit from being run through with a red pen.

Continue reading

[The Guardian] Do It Yourself And Save

Look at that! A couple of spiffy little guides to household self-sufficiency that will save you a tidy few pennies. And I’m a contributor, offering some indispensable guidance on the contents of your repairs kit. Go on, treat yourself to a nice crisp Guardian/Observer double at the weekend. They’ll have probably paid for themselves within seven days if you follow all their frugal advice.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; image © The Guardian.

Grows on trees

I have had one lone moment of entrepreneurial inspiration in my life. When I was eight or nine, me and a friend realised her house was located next to a prime natural resource in the primary school economy: a huge conker tree. We devoted long after-school evenings to filling carrier bags with the glossy brown crop. We sorted and graded our goods. And then we took our conkers to school and we sold them.

conkers

Obviously, selling conkers is absurd – and I remember other pupils telling us, disgustedly, that they could pick up conkers for themselves. All the same, lots of children bought ours. Because they were there and ready to use at breaktimes? Because other children were buying them too? I have no idea really – like I said, this was a very uncharacteristic moment of nous – but for several days the conker-trading went on successfully.

Then, some other children decided to set up a rival conker operation. At this point, a real entrepreneur would have brought on the corkscrew and bootlaces (to offer a service angle, not to shiv the competition) or diversified into another product altogether. Instead, I got into a snit about losing my conker monopoly and left my now-devalued harvest to moulder in a garage; shortly after, the headteacher put a stop to the whole black market in vegetable matter.

Conkers are wildly accessible commodity, but in the right circumstance and to the right people, they were saleable – even if my tiny startup was not designed to withstand an open market. And what did I learn from this experience? Nothing, apparently: if you want to make my pre-teen experiment in capitalism into an allegory for journalism and paid content, then I am currently a horse chestnut, hurling my fruit at the floor for someone else to pick up and value. At least, I suppose, I’m doing what I’m best at.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Balakov, used under Creative Commons.

Filmstar issue 3

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend about whether there was space for another film mag on the market. Something with a left-field approach that would differentiate it from the the blockbuster coverage offered by Empire and Total Film. Something with a passionate, knowledgeable approach – but falling to the populist side of Sight And Sound or Little White Lies. I would (and do) buy all of those titles, but it still felt like there was a gap in there for some smart publisher to get established.

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And now, that gap has been filled by Filmstar – and I’m writing for them. So are lots of other people: Filmstar is heavingly stuffed with words about films. Everything gets a review. There are seven or eight in-depth features, the recurring features are similarly detailed, and it all comes over in the style of a conversation with a friend who knows (and loves) everything about movies.

But just because it’s text-heavy doesn’t mean the look has been neglected. Art editor Karl Jaques has given it a super-sharp design that balances all the content brilliantly, with smart little touches that hold everything together. In the main features, for example, each one gets a slightly different font for the page furniture. Lars von Trier is a cheery-sinister grunge typeface; Inglourious Basterds is an uncompromising sans-serif on searing red; and (my favourite) a feature on serious-comedy movies gets a big-top treatment. You also can see in the thumbnails the way that colour is used to set the tone of every feature (obviously, the Antichrist spreads are as black as the pit of von Trier’s soul).

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In Filmstar 3, I review Norwegian zomcom Dead Snow (and interview the director), art-house recreation of 70s skinflicks Viva, Michael Moore polemic Slacker Uprising, noodle romance The Ramen Girl, bleak and witty Turkish morality tale Three Monkeys, and (yes!) Robert Pattinson gay-off Little Ashes.