Monday, February 17, 2014

Moving on. I feel like I'm better at managing my moods and emotions these days, so that rather than a depressive episode that lasts weeks or months, I just have a bad day here and there. I have a Post-It on my pinboard that reminds me to think of "THREE GOOD THINGS THAT HAPPENED TODAY" in order to avoid the catastrophic thinking that can shut me down.

Today I'm trying to struggle out of the mire and make it a Good Day, but it comes off the back of several Bad Days, beginning on Thursday with the announcement of the Stella Prize longlist, which I was not on. Not that I expected to be: I have come to realise that I have not written a prize-winning book. But you know that secret inner part of yourself in which your wildest fantasies never die? Well, that part of me still hoped, and was grievously disappointed.

What I'm really mourning is the sense of excitement and optimism I once felt about my book. I have terrible self-esteem in most ways except regarding my writing. I genuinely think I produce great work, and while I was frustrated with the compromises I had to make in order to satisfy my editor and publisher that Out of Shape was marketable, I think the book is stronger for them.

When I finished the book I couldn't wait to see how it was received. I was so proud of it, sure I'd nailed a certain zeitgeist and as the book's subtitle reveals, debunked various stupid myths about the topic. I fantasised that the book would be taken up as a cult text about clothing size and fit. I felt I'd join and transform a public affairs conversation. I would email my publisher asking them to enter my book in various awards.

This was a time I now look back on as comically innocent. Aw, she thought her first book would be a runaway hit? Bless! 

What I should have anticipated, but didn't, was that I had written a Chick Book. This meant that I was excluded from almost all the conversations I wanted to participate in because clothing is 'fashion' and fashion is 'lifestyle' and 'lifestyle' is for women and is not part of either the literary conversation or the current-affairs conversation. The frustrating thing is that I fought for the inclusion of men's clothes and men's bodies, and actually flagged sexism in the book:
It’s probably because of my sensitivity to being humiliated that I really want to distance this project from the pervasive belief that writing about clothes is vapid and unintelligent. […] Is a book about size and fit only for silly chicks? Of course not. Fashion – as opposed to clothes – is the industrial cycle of design, media and retail, which constantly renews itself to drive demand for new garments. It’s a dynamic, wealthy business sector that engages with politics, ethics and social ideologies. To intelligent, discerning people, fashion offers plenty of food for thought.

However, most fashion writing – from glossy magazines to weekend newspapers and the increasingly crowded blogosphere – is explicitly framed as ‘lifestyle’. That is, it’s all about the role clothing plays in an individual’s consumerist fantasies. The dichotomy between ‘quality journalism’ and ‘lifestyle pap’ is uncomfortably sexist, but the language of much fashion writing is undeniably gormless, burbling nonsense: ‘a pant’, ‘a smoky eye’, ‘statement pieces’, ‘pops of colour’, ‘It bags’ and other ‘directional’, ‘on-trend’ ‘must-haves’ the writer is currently ‘all about’.
There are ways to write a feminised book and still be taken seriously – make it about feminism, or politics, or crime, or health, or family – but what I should have realised is that a book about clothes, no matter how thoughtful it strives to be, will never be thought of as a book of note, a book about ideas.

And I didn't galvanise the women's lifestyle press, either. My book didn't have a bright, breezy message of female self-love and nor did I lobby the garment industries to change their ways to accommodate 'real women'. Despite all the personal anecdotes I grudgingly shoehorned in, it was not a memoir, and I was not an aspirational, relatable narrator. I was mainly interested in history, ideology and culture, and peevishly unwilling to comfort readers with easy conclusions.

Out of Shape fell between categories in almost every sense. Despite its failure to meet my expectations I'm proud of it, and I'm grateful that my publisher saw the value in such a weird book. I have to remind myself that it's still out there waiting to be discovered; books don't drop off the face of the earth after they stop being new. I mean, so many of the books I read myself are up to a few years old because I just can't get to everything when it first comes out.

But I feel sad when I think of the hopes I had for it, and am determined to avoid those bad feelings by never writing anything that diffuse and nerdy again. I want to make money from writing, I want my writing to influence public conversations and I want to win awards, and you just don't get that by applying high concepts to low topics, like I did in Out of Shape.

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