The Stiffest Upper Lips: my top ten early pulp fiction reads

I’m writing a lot about Victorian/Edwardian adventure fiction currently. This is because I love it (shamefully – see here for why it’s a Imageguilty pleasure) and because my forthcoming book Think of England is a romance set firmly in the Edwardian pulp milieu, with spies, derring-do, reticent British officers and mysterious foreigners (sort of). As a small tribute to a beloved genre, I rather cheekily grafted my hero, Archie Curtis, onto the family tree of one of the great Victorian adventurers: Sir Henry Curtis, the warrior hero of King Solomon’s Mines.

This isn’t something that will affect a reader’s enjoyment if you haven’t read King Solomon’s Mines, though I hope it will give a bit of extra pleasure if you have. However, discussions on this led various people including Liv Rancourt to request a reading list of great Victorian/Edwardian pulp fiction – so here it is.

A few provisos:

  • This is my personal Top Ten, spanning thirty years, randomly scattering among British and American, straight adventure, occult and sci-fi. There are many others I love and more I haven’t read so this makes no claim to be exhaustive or definitive. Recommend the hell out of me in the comments, please!
  • All these books are out of copyright. Free books! I’ve linked to Project Gutenberg where possible, where you can download them in various electronic formats for free, though the formatting can occasionally be a little shonky. You can also mostly get them for a few quid in new and tidier editions, or a few pence in a second-hand bookshop.
  • This is problematic stuff for a modern reader. Again, see my earlier post on bigotry in Edwardian fiction. Many of these books are written from a very imperialist perspective that unconsciously assumes British/white/Christian/male/het superiority. That’s how it was; the best of them challenge it. I haven’t included the most egregious examples of racism (Bulldog Drummond, Fu Manchu), but you are likely to come across it in casual comments throughout, and the sexism is frequently eye-watering. In a lot of ways these books also challenge the prevailing assumptions, and generally reveal, rather than actively support, the prejudices of their era, which was very different and a long time ago. But consider yourself warned.

Right, here we go. Images have been selected for my personal entertainment and may not be good reflections of the book.

King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard (1885)

Haggard-King Solomons Mines

The daddy. A grizzled South African hunter, Allan Quatermain, narrates his adventure with Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good RN, as they seek Sir Henry’s estranged brother through Africa. Includes desert treks, mass elephant slaughter, evil wizened priestesses, lost kings, diamond mines, hardship, derring-do, the classic ‘predict an eclipse of the sun and amaze the natives’ gag, and a roomful of dead kings being turned to stone.

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Take a wild stab in the dark what impression the film was trying to give.

This is just a magnificent adventure story. It is, obviously, massively imperialist and of its time, and the cod-medieval dialogue of the more heroic characters will make your hair hurt, but in its favour may I offer Foulata: a young black woman who falls for the white Captain Good, wins his affections and is not condemned for having a sex drive. I can only think of one other example of this happening in all Victorian lit, so kudos to Haggard, even if the character is so cardboard she’s flammable.

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894)

The book that gave us Ruritania as a name for pointless romantic little Mitteleuropean kingdoms. A magnificent tale of mistaken identity, scheming dukes, swordfights, love, duty, sacrifice, characterless heroines, sexy redheaded men, and the utterly irresistible villain Rupert of Hentzau. You can’t not read this, honestly.

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Why do they never use a redheaded hero? Growl.

The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (1895)

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I cannot encourage you enough to read at least the first four stories in this collection. They are a tremendous example of early American Weird and a big influence on HP Lovecraft. ‘The King in Yellow’ itself is a play that sends anyone who reads it mad. The stories of its disastrous influence are incredibly decadent and perverse and unsettling, until the last three stories in the collection, which are so-so romantic fiction. I have no idea why this happens.

Dr Nikola series by Guy Boothby (1895-1901)

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Dr Nikola is a full-on antihero, a brilliant occultist looking for eternal life via Tibetan wisdom, but without any of that Buddhist ‘being nice to people’ stuff. Think Professor Moriarty but with a little bit more humanity, a tragic past, and possible uncanny powers. Dr Nikola has piercing hypnotic eyes and wears a black cat on his shoulders and is involved in large-scale plots across exotic locations and basically is a Bond villain. He’s the antagonist in his own books, with the victims of his plotting tending to be the viewpoint characters. Lovely stuff.

The Beetle by Richard Marsh (1897)

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Possibly the most magnificently inappropriate and inaccurate cover ever. This doesn’t happen.

Another occulty one. This is pure bloody genius and I implore you to read it. It was published the same year as Dracula and was initially more popular. The…villain? thing? person? god?… at its centre is deeply sexually ambiguous and the books is all about threats to the British Empire: homosexuality, the rise of the East and the power of other nations, the New Woman, the urban poor – basically it’s a sweaty, hallucinatory, sex-reeking fear-dream. Marvellous.

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace (1905)

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A cracking novel of psychotic vigilantes that would make Frank Miller proud. The four just men (actually three, one’s dead) are basically rich international terrorists who judge and murder people ranging from criminals to aristocracy. But let’s not say terrorists because they’re heroes. Honest.

If you’re okay with the brutal murder of a member of the British government, and I see no reason why you wouldn’t be, you will enjoy this hugely. It’s a howdunit rather than a whodunit: the main puzzle is how the Just Men get at their latest victim. Wallace made an epic mess of publishing this: he offered a gigantic £500 prize in the newspapers for anyone who guessed the solution correctly (it was serial publication) but forgot to limit the number of possible winners. Even though the book was a massive bestseller, the prize money bankrupted him and he had to flog the rights for £75. However, he went on to write another 170 novels and nearly 1000 short stories as well as 198 plays, so he was fine. (Sanders of the River is a great Kiplingish read set in Africa, if you want to read more, and there are several other Just Men books.)

Weirdly, this isn’t on Gutenberg but there are many cheap electronic editions.

The Mysterious Mr Sabin by E Phillips Oppenheim (1905)

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Got to have an Oppenheim. This is my favourite of his, another book more interested in the villain than in the nominal hero and heroine. Mr Sabin’s schemes are complex and large-scale, his morality flexible and his story a brilliant read. The sequels aren’t bad but – inevitably – he gets redeemed by the love of a good woman, which, meh.

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

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Don’t argue with me. This is brilliant.

Dinosaurs. Alive dinosaurs. Like Jurassic Park but on a big South American isolated plateau. Did I mention dinosaurs? And a hero who is basically, if Brian Blessed was a brilliant scientist? What the hell are you waiting for? (By all means read the other Professor Challenger stories, except, for the sake of your own happiness, The Land of Mist, where Doyle bastardises his own magnificent scientist hero to put forward his newly found Spiritualist beliefs. Depressing beyond words.)

King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy (1916)

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His disguises are rather better in the book. The uniform is a giveaway here.

If you’ve read The Peshawar Lancers you’ll recognise this book. The first half is a magnificent pulp classic about the adventures of a British secret agent in India during the First World War. The second half goes into mystical sub-She shenanigans and I wouldn’t bother, but the first half is amazing.

Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

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I assume you already know about The Thirty-Nine Steps. Greenmantle is the second Hannay adventure, putting together his team of recurring characters: Peter Pienaar, the crack-shot Boer scout; John Scantlebury Blenkiron, the obese, dyspeptic, wonderfully placid yet brilliantly scheming American; Sandy Arbuthnot, the sex-on-a-stick Scottish aristo, Eastern wanderer and international man of mystery. God, I love Sandy. He may be even sexier than Rupert of Hentzau, with the thoroughbred-nervous thing he has going on. Mmm.

This book takes us from Berlin to Constantinople in the depths of the First World War, with shelling and spies and a sexually ambiguous thug of a German villain and a plot to set the Middle East ablaze. A tremendous galloping plot, and if you can read the last chapter without goosebumps you may be dead. Buchan was a man of huge talents and great sympathy, and although Richard Hannay glories in his duty and gets caught up in the struggle, he never loses sight of the humanity of the enemy or the pity and terror of war. If you like this, go read everything else Buchan wrote. You won’t regret it.

 

That’s my top ten (today; if you asked me tomorrow I might give different answers). Feel free to argue, scorn or add your own in the comments! Anything say 1870 to 1920 is legit…

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Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: bigotry in historical fiction

This is a post about offensive historical attitudes. If you don’t wish to see offensive words and ideas, move on swiftly.

I love late 19th/early 20th century pulp with a fiery passion. John Buchan, H Rider Haggard, E Phillips Oppenheim, Edgar Wallace, Talbot Mundy, Sax Rohmer and Richard Marsh. I love derring-do and English gentlemen tackling dastardly plots, mostly executed by dastardly foreigners.

It’s so awful.

I don’t usually believe in the concept of guilty pleasures, especially because people apply it to things like watching Buffy or reading romantic fiction or eating chocolate HobNobs, and if that merits guilt, I really wasted a Catholic upbringing. But I feel guilty as hell about some of these books, even bearing in mind the different mores of the time. I actually can’t read Bulldog Drummond, it’s too hateful. In pulp we fear, look down on, distrust or hate the following:

  • Foreigners – which is everyone unBritish, unless they’re American. Americans are good, if faintly ludicrous.
  • Women with breasts. Or sexy women. It’s OK if you have no secondary sexual characteristics or desire and are ‘boyishly slim’, also ‘brave’, and of course ‘gay’.
  • Queer people. Especially Germans, the filthy degenerates, who are also foreign of course. The Germans are all about unspeakable vice. Evil Colonel Stumm in Greenmantle has “a perverted taste for delicate things” (i.e. a nice room) and a “queer other side which gossip has spoken of as not unknown in the German army” and which scares the daylights out of poor Richard Hannay, before he goes on to marry a boyish brave gay, uh, girl. (Definitely.)
  • Jews. Don’t even. I’m not quoting this stuff.
  • Black people. Again, I shall leave this to your imagination, although here’s something worth considering:

What is a gentleman? I don’t quite know, and yet I have had to do with niggers—no, I will scratch out that word “niggers,” for I do not like it. I’ve known natives who *are*, and so you will say, Harry, my boy, before you have done with this tale, and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who *are not*. (King Solomon’s Mines, H Rider Haggard, 1885)

Okay, the overwhelming assumption of white superiority is cringeable, but for 1885, that’s not bad. King Solomon’s Mines may reek of paternalism at best, but it has a black hero shown to be the full equal of the white hero, and a black woman with sex drive who is acknowledged the heroine of the book, however hamfistedly. Again, 1885. Give Haggard some slack.*

In general, though, the attitudes were really pretty gruesome, and it shows in the books. Though it’s often a little bit complicated. Fu Manchu, for example, is an appalling caricature of Chinese stereotypes, a living yellow peril, threat to the white race, blah. Genuinely, massively, horrifically racist. But I can’t help noticing that he always wins. Denis Nayland Smith can stiffen his upper lip till you could use it to scrape wallpaper, but he usually ends up bound in a remote strangely carved cavern under the influence of mysterious Oriental drugs, while Fu Manchu buggers off to get on with running the world.

And again, here’s a very interesting passage from The Thirty-Nine Steps. The spy Scudder tells Richard Hannay:

‘For three hundred years they [Jews] have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’

Okay, that’s not nice. But.

Firstly, the passage acknowledges the oppression of Jewish people, even if it’s in a passing, sneering way.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s spoken by a character who is full of crap. Sir Walter Bullivant, the spymaster says, quite specifically, that Scudder was an unreliable fantasiser and a bigot. ‘He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red.’ And the book shows us that there is no Jewish conspiracy. Scudder is simply wrong. (It was the Germans. Of course.)

So it’s not entirely simplistic. The pulp fiction often takes a much more nuanced view than you’d think.

Nevertheless, this was an overwhelmingly racist time. This was the time of the Dreyfus Affair, of gross and open anti-Semitism of the sort that led Europe down that awful path. The general attitudes were of the sort lightly outlined here, and you probably feel that’s quite enough.

***

Now, I wanted to write an Edwardian pulp pastiche. (Because. Don’t judge me.) It’s pretty hard to do that without the attitudes of the times. And it’s even harder to do it with.

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I write queer romance. I work on the assumption that my readers are non-bigoted humans who don’t need to be told that oppression and bigotry are bad things. I’m here to do pulp adventure and romance, not overt politics. And I don’t want to sit down and write hate. It’s draining and horrible.

But Think of England is a book about, among other things, being an outsider, being isolated, the odd one out. One of my heroes is not only Jewish, but gay, foreign-looking and (gasp!) a poet. It would have missed the point not to have that commented on and used as a weapon against him by the villains. It would miss the point if he wasn’t isolated by the supporting cast too, not because they’re evil but because that’s who he was in that time. And then there’s the other hero…

Because my other hero is an English officer and gentleman who would, technically, be just as ready to use those words and those attitudes as any villain, at least till he knows better.

I’ll be honest: I skimped it. I think you could write a dyed in the wool thoughtless racist hero and make it work, but I didn’t want to. I started to and then I decided that actually, a little bit of bigotry goes a long way. Once the reader understands the general atmosphere of casual dismissal, contempt, disregard, once we’ve seen the hateful hostile language, we don’t need it rammed in our faces again and again to keep on making the same hateful point. Line it in, let it sit, give the atmosphere without having to reiterate the words. Enough was enough a very long time ago.

It would be both dishonest and pointless to write an Edwardian pulp novel without any bigotry, but this is one of the very few times when I think homeopathic doses work.

What do you think? Should historical novels ignore the modern readers’ sensibilities for realism, or can we take the bigotry on board along with the poor dental hygiene and lack of plumbing, and not dwell on the gory details?

*If you should read both Think of England and King Solomon’s Mines you will get a sense of my fondness for the latter.

Think of England is out 1 July.

 

Finishing Your Book: a handy completion checklist

You’ve written your book. You’ve slaved over the plotting, wept blood on the characterisation, drunk your way through the sex scenes, got yourself under GCHQ scrutiny thanks to the websites you’re visiting for research, squeezed out multiple thousand words through your finger ends, and typed The End. But are you really finished?

Here, in honour of sending off my sixth book to the publisher, is my cut-out-n-keep Book Completion Checklist. It won’t catch everything but it might save you a bit of humiliation as the editor finds a delicate and tactful way to tell you you’re an idiot.

Have you removed vestiges of previous drafts?

That character who used to play a plot role? That conversation that no longer leads anywhere? The dinner party introducing half a dozen people who never come back?[i] The reference to the giant octopus that wasn’t actually in the finished story at all?[ii]

Have you got the characters’ names right?

Does a character’s name randomly change in the course of the book?[iii] If you changed the character’s name, say from Tim to Felix, did you click ‘replace whole word only’, or is your MS now full of words like ‘felixing’ and ‘infelixate’[iv]?

Did you go back and do the things you meant to go back and do?

Notes to self are a very useful way to get over a passage you’re stuck on without breaking flow, but is your editor going to come across ‘DESCRIPTION’ or, even worse, ‘HOT SEX SCENE HERE’?[v]

Have you found your Word of the Book?

There’s always one. Maybe for some bizarre reason you’ve qualified everything as ‘a little’. Maybe your characters have all developed the same nervous tic of shrugging, sighing or eye-shutting. Maybe you’ve used the word ‘glee’ thirty-two times in 60,000 words, despite the book not in fact being about high school musical societies.[vi] That Word function where it highlights all occurrences of what you’re searching on can be enlightening. Not to say blinding.

Have you tied up all your plot lines?

Is it all neatly squared away, with nothing dangling and unresolved? If the book includes, say, a plot-crucial murder, have you remembered to tell the reader who did it?[vii] (It’s useful to write your synopsis when the book is finished; it can be a very quick way to find out if you’ve actually made any sense.)

Did you do a timeline?

Not ‘are you pretty damn sure you’ve got the sequence of events right in your head’, but did you do it. Have you checked that pregnancies last approx 9 months, hawthorn isn’t flowering in what turns out to be September, everyone isn’t busily heading to work on Sunday[viii], it’s physically possible for all the action to take place in the time allotted, and that you haven’t just had it become night right in the middle of daytime because drama[ix]?

Have you done that other thing?

You know, the one you meant to do? It was in that scene, and you didn’t write it down when you thought of it because there was no way you could forget something so pivotal to the book? That thing? No? Oh well, never mind. You’ll remember what it was right after you’ve clicked Send.

_____________________________________

 References

[i] Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate and Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, to name but two

[ii] The Goonies. Yes, I know that’s a film.

[iii] Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic, error still there after more than three decades

[iv] KJ Charles, editor, error caught before publication

[v] idem

[vi] KJ Charles, repeat offender. If these get through, it’s not my editor’s fault

[vii] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (not just uncaught but an eternal mystery because the author forgot. “They sent me a wire asking me [who killed the chauffeur], and dammit I didn’t know either.”)

[viii] Me again. Thank God for editors

[ix] X Men 3: The Last Stand

Sexism on the march: the latest blather on women in publishing

I read a Will Self article on the death of the literary novel today. I don’t usually read Self except to play the party game (‘Simulacrum’! ‘Hegemony’! ‘Polymorphic!’ BINGO!) and this was more of the usual. But I came across this passage:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. (Guardian)

Hmm. Self wants to sneer at non-literary fiction and he picks on Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. A children’s book and a romance. He could have mentioned The Da Vinci Code, a book as hugely popular, egregiously bad and knockoff-spawning as 50 Shades. Inferno was the second best-selling book of 2013 in the UK: renowned wordsmith Dan Brown has not yet shot his bolt. Or as an example of the doorstop megaseries, surely Game of Thrones is better than Harry Potter, of which the last book was published seven years ago? But Mr Self clearly feels there’s something Dan and George have that Joanne and Erika don’t.

If you want to set up a straw man in opposition to the dizzy heights of literary fiction, you pick on children’s and romance, every time. Two genres dominated by women, as writers and editors and buyers; two genres that are constantly getting it in the neck as objects of sneering.

Think I’m being oversensitive? Yesterday it was announced that HarperCollins were acquiring Harlequin from Canadian owners Torstar for half a billion dollars. Harlequin is a gigantic player in the romance market, which is estimated to be worth $1.4billion per annum. Here is how the (male) business news editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail responded to the news of a half-billion dollar acquisition of a Canadian company by an American publisher.

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Yes, the priority for the business news editor of the newspaper based in the same city as Harlequin HQ is definitely to find the joke. And he did, filing the following piece:

The tension in the room was palpable. The fan blades twirled to keep the sweat from trickling off their bodies. They’d done similar things with other people, of course, but it was never like this. This was scintillating, and they ached just from the anticipation.

Oh, yes, the bankers groaned, in their throaty way.

Yes, there, the lawyers moaned, passion mounting as they pointed to where to sign the deal.

Etc. Hilarious. And comparable to the way he presented acquisition of Pixar by Disney as a squeaky voiced Mickey Mouse parody oh no wait that didn’t happen. (Click here for an excellent summary of how bad the reporting of this huge publishing event has been.)

Recently author Jonathan Emmett got himself in The Times explaining how children’s publishing was failing boys because it was dominated by women. It’s paywalled but there’s a summary here.

he believes that “children’s books tended not to contain the elements many boys were attracted to, such as battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships,” adding that research shows that the majority of children’s books in newspapers, including The Times, were by women.

[…]

“… there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers.”

Ignore statistics about which parents tend to read to their kids, and the female-dominated children’s publishing industry’s efforts to get male reading role models and male reading champions. Ignore the way that the media and society still present reading as nerdy and unmanly. Ignore the fact that you can’t throw a sparkly pink kitten in the Usborne or DK sections without hitting a book about ‘battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships’. It’s bloody women doing it again, refusing to publish Alex Rider or Young James Bond or Darren Shan or Percy Jackson or Beast Quest or Captain Underpants or any of the other gigantically successful boys’ series that must be a figment of your imagination.

Certainly you should ignore the fact that, if children’s publishing is dominated by women, that may have something to do with men not applying to work in it. I’ve been in children’s publishing for eight years and seen one male CV. But no, it’s actually rampant sexism, according to this post (guess the author’s gender!) on The Bookseller website

Commercial fiction editorial departments in particular—the commercial heart of all trade publishers—are almost wholly staffed by women. …

If we have stopped being good at publishing for men, perhaps one of the reasons is that even in those companies that do have male commercial fiction editors, it isn’t easy—in these zealously group-think days—for them to get buy in for fiction that cannot fit the prevailing culture in the office. I have sat in publishing meetings where the room was happily discussing the latest sex and shopping novels before moving on to some male editor’s action thriller: the drop in temperature was perceptible.

Of course, a good professional is in theory capable of evaluating all sorts of fiction, but just how enthusiastic can female colleagues get about strongly masculine subjects?

That was posted on 2 May this year and not, as you may think, 1981. The author concludes that, “men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Just read that sentence again.

“men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Whatever.

In what feels increasingly like an atmosphere of seething contempt and resentment for women in publishing, for women’s genres, for women authors, it is really important not to develop a bunker mentality. I’m as guilty as anyone of ranting about what ‘men’ say in response to this sort of thing, and that is deeply stupid. My life as editor, writer and person is full of male colleagues, authors, librarians, teachers, friends and readers who have no time for the misogynists and inadequate ego-strokers, and are quite ready to smack them down.

We must not let the haters in any area set the tone of the debate, not let them overshadow the very many male authors and publishers and journos and buyers who don’t feel compelled to scapegoat women or mock women-dominated genres. And we must not lose sight of what the real problems are.

The problem of boys’ reading is a problem of children’s reading, and it is about library closures and economic conditions and austerity measures putting books out of more people’s reach; about school systems that don’t give time to reading whole books and suck the joy out of reading in favour of standardised testing; about insufficient staff to support reading. For boys in particular, it is about social attitudes (we need more male nursery staff and primary school teachers, and it’s not women’s fault they’re not there), and possibly developmental differences that need staff and time and money to support them, things the funding-strapped education system aren’t providing.

The real problem of representation in publishing is about class and race, as the derisory salaries at junior/middle levels, the reliance on unpaid internships and the concentration of work in incredibly expensive places exclude people who don’t have financial family support. Sexism both ways is a relatively small issue compared to the overwhelming upper/middle class whiteness, in UK publishing at least.

The problem of there just not being enough good publishing for men is…uh…

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Looks much like 50% to me, remind me what the problem was again?

So I’m mostly posting this to remind myself: Keep your eye on the ball. Defensive sexism isn’t the answer to aggressive sexism. Ignoring people who care and listen and think is always a mistake, and so is judging people by anything except their words and deeds. I really don’t want to be pushing away supportive, listening, non-stupid men at this time. We have enough problems with the other kind.