Writing as resistance

International Women’s Day, 2017.

Words matter.

Language matters.

Stories matter.

History matters.

I’ve often said that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction: pirate tales for kids that are really about slavery and rebellion, or adventures for young adults about freedom of the press, refugees, and religious intolerance. Always political. Always diverse. Always driven but never preachy. Or so I hope. Stories about women and girls.

But now, now, the writing and the purpose feels so much more urgent, the need more extreme.

It so happens that in the middle of months of protests and outrage, my little book about a similar time in local history has come out into the world – a book about a previous generation that found itself taking to the streets in huge numbers, compelled to take action by a world, by an idea, that could not be denied.

UK suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Or many ideas. Here in Australia, a hundred years ago, it was the principle that nobody should be compelled to go to war against their will.  That nations should seek options other than military action. The 1916 and 1917 plebiscites on conscription were incredibly divisive and the scars of that debate lasted for generations. In 1917 there was also the Great Strike, food shortage protests, arrests and demonstrations and censorship of the press.

In Russia, of course, the situation was even worse. On International Women’s Day 1917, women protested in the streets of Petrograd about food rationing and the endless war. Factory workers went on strike, and eventually the armed forces mutinied, refusing to shoot protesters. The February Revolution* had begun  but in the meantime it changed the war, changed the country, and changed the world.**

Maybe 2017 doesn’t feel so tumultuous. But I can’t remember too many times like this. Every day more outrages from leaders in various countries. Every day more outrage.

More protests.

There are divisions among us, of course and as always. There is anger about unrecognised privilege, dissent about how best to make our arguments, or even which arguments to make – which battles to fight.

But still, there are millions of feet marching, in cities and sites around the world, in defence of fragile freedoms of all kinds.

Some of us have always had to fight. Some have returned to the fray. Some people find themselves out marching in the streets or arguing online or writing in despair for the first time.

This moment – these dying days, I hope, these death rattles of a panicked privileged few – seems to be one of those moments in time where great change could happen.

And that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.

BOO!

 

*February in the Julian calendar.

** For better or worse or both.

 

Historical fiction/fictionalised history

People often tell me that they don’t read historical fiction. Ask them if they’ve read Possession or Oscar and Lucinda, though, and they’ll say, “Oh yes, but that’s different.”

Are they right? And if so, how?

I recently attended the London conference of the Historical Novel Society where, it must be said, almost all the authors who spoke identified themselves as writers of the genre.

But not all. Emma Darwin and Suzannah Dunn both said they didn’t define themselves as historical novelists, and Lindsey Davis, creator of the Roman detective Falco, said: “I don’t write historical fiction. I write literary fiction.”

 

Image of Alexandria cover

 

How interesting.

I’m trying to get my head around something here, so bear with me. Please.

Historical fiction is (arguably) a genre, and as such it has common tropes, familiar forms and styles; guidelines, perhaps, rather than rules. It’s a broad church, of course, and encompasses many eras as well as approaches to technique such as point of view. It contains many sub-genres and genre overlaps, too, such as historical romance, crime, thrillers, and fantasy, and has some particular obsessions (Romans, Vikings, Tudors … and Jane Austen). It can also include time travel or alternative history, and those many stories that move back and forth between eras. Some of it is classed as commercial fiction, while some is categorised as literary fiction. One of its less discussed features, on which I’ll write more soon, is that it is quite often overtly gendered – warriors for blokes, remarkable noblewomen battling the odds for female readers.

The Historical Novel Society defines it broadly as:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

Does it have a recognisable form? Its origins are debated, but in The Historical Novel, György Lukács (1962) identified Sir Walter Scott as the originator of the historical novel. It’s absolutely true that other people, including women such as Madame de Lafayette, wrote novels set in the past much earlier than Scott’s 1814 blockbuster Waverley. But I think it’s fair to say that, for better or worse, Scott was instrumental in setting down (at least for readers of English) expectations of what a historical novel might be, how it might sound, what it might include – setting, plotting, character; even that it might fool around a bit with historical accuracy. It created, above all, an expectation of voice, a concept of ‘authenticity’ that is, perversely, completely false and based largely on Scott’s own style. Lukács called it ‘historical realism’, and it’s that form that you read in Tolstoy, say, and the early historical novelists.

 

Image of Waverley

 

It has evolved into new and various forms. But when normal people – readers – talk about historical fiction, often what they mean is a costume drama with epic twists and Gothic plotlines, set against a rich and detailed backdrop. Think of those addictive Georgette Heyer or Jean Plaidy books and later Bernard Cornwell or Diana Gabaldon. It is often seen and marketed as commercial fiction, too – like Heyer’s.

(One hopes for accuracy in characters’ contemporary world views, too, and these can be found in many of the best historical novels. But it’s not, apparently, required. There are a great many New Age Georgian guys and feminist princesses reflecting modern ideas and not their own. I’ll come back to this.)

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, I think, are something else entirely, something closer to War and Peace. They are works of literary fiction which are immensely popular, perhaps because of the obsession with the Tudors generally and Anne Boleyn in particular, and also because they happen to be brilliant. Compare them to the Tudor books of Philippa Gregory, for example, which are more obviously written in the traditional historical fiction mode, and it’s clear that they are a different form. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are works of twenty-first century realist fiction set in the past.

 

Inmage of mantel book covers

 

Let me be clear. I’m not making any value judgements or setting one form above the other/s. I am a proud reader and writer of genre fiction. I’m not interested in creating a binary of a canon versus commercial genre. I’m just trying to understand and refine our definitions, and perhaps our expectations.

People shy away from the label ‘literary fiction’, partly because it’s not easily defined and also, particularly in Australia, because it has been branded as elitist and inaccessible (though it isn’t, at least not essentially). Perceptions of it are bound up with certain 20th century styles of writing which began as modernist innovation and became canon – literary fiction isn’t limited to any one form or style, but sometimes perceptions of it are.

Which is a pity. We really ought to get around to reclaiming it one of these days.

Literary fiction is definitely not a genre – it is an even broader church, but let’s agree that it is often concerned with form and experimentation with form, with ideas – including ideas about fiction and writing and narrative. It’s an invitation to explore language and meaning, the way we use words and construct ideas with them; to question and satirise and experiment.

 

Image of Possession cover

 

So. Can we agree that literary fiction which happens to be set in the past is different in intent to historical fiction that fits easily into the expectations of the genre? When Peter Carey or Margaret Atwood set a story in the historical past, they are not called ‘historical novelists’. But Alias Grace and True History of the Kelly Gang are among the finest novels of recent years that are set in the past.

And then there is fiction that operates at the intersection of these two forms: the most obvious example is The Name of the Rose, which is one of the best-selling historical novels of the modern era, but operates on many different levels, including a complex metafictional and semiotic framework based on Eco’s years of study in the area. Think too of AS Byatt’s Possession. The Luminaries. The Passion. The Secret River. Atonement. The English Patient. Ragtime. Beloved. Love in the Time of Cholera.

I can see a Venn diagram in my mind. It’s too hard to draw, but in the overlap of the historical and literary circles are also titles which veer more towards the traditional. The recent success of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a good example: literary in style, but happily recognisable to fans of the genre. Year of Wonders. Birdsong. Angels and Insects. The Song of Achilles. The Regeneration trilogy.

Sarah Waters’ entire publishing history works at this intersection, as does Nicola Griffiths’ Hild – transgressing not just genre but also publishing expectations about what’s permissible and popular in writing about gender and sexuality.

And there’s the rub.

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it works against the success of a book.

People who love reading ‘traditional’ historical fiction may dislike literary novels set in the past if they don’t meet their expectations of the genre or sub-genre. Or vice versa.

On the other hand, readers, reviewers and book page editors may not pick up a title classified as historical fiction, but would if it was seen as literary. A panel at the HNS conference suggested historical fiction suffers from a certain snobbery, and especially if it’s historical fantasy.

‘Historical novels have often been sidelined or derided for not being serious enough, or taking liberties with facts,’ writes academic Jerome de Groot, ‘[…] as a mode that encourages a sense of the past as frippery and merely full of romance and intrigue.’

 

Image of Paying Guests cover

 

A recent feature on Sarah Waters’ new novel The Paying Guests, noted:

Don’t let the words “historical fiction” dissuade you. Waters’ writing transcends genre: her plots are sinuous and suspenseful; her language is saucy, sexy and direct; all of her characters, especially her lesbian protagonists, are complex and superbly drawn.

It seems ‘historical fiction’ is something that might turn off some readers, as if it doesn’t contain suspenseful plots, terrific language and characters. As if it’s just not good enough, or not everyone’s cup of tea. As if to be classified as such will alienate potential readers. (Of course, the same might be said of literary fiction.) As if millions and millions of people don’t read it and love it.

What are they getting at here? Waters’ great strength is her ventriloquism. She manages to capture, in voice, style and in character world view, the literature and the detail of the era in which her books are set. She manages to put it into words that sound both of the era in which the book is set and of our own time; thoughts and preoccupations that feel real and contemporary to us, even though they are not of our time – the spiritualism in Affinity, for example, or the bleak post-war desolation of The Night Watch. It never feels like costume drama (except in Tipping the Velvet).

You see? These definitions matter – to readers and to reviewers and commentators, if not to the writers.

The ventriloquism we hear in Byatt or Waters is not the only alternative approach to Scott’s version of historical voice – I’ve written about this before, so I won’t bang on.

It’s different to the voices and characterisations you’ll find in more traditional historical fiction and, importantly, Waters is willing to focus on characters who are complex, perhaps annoying and unreliable, not necessarily heroic, sometimes downright unlikeable (Maud, in Fingersmith – and yet somehow we fall in love with her … or was that just me?).

So perhaps it’s not that Waters “transcends genre”, nor that there’s anything wrong with the genre – it’s just that her work’s not the same kind of project as some other novels you might read that more clearly fit into the genre of historical fiction.

The same can be said of Mantel, of Catton, of Grenville, of Eco. Perhaps they are simply not trying to do the same thing as Cornwell or Gregory?

Perhaps it’s a spectrum, rather than a Venn diagram.

So what does that mean?

I don’t know that it’s realistic to broaden popular ideas of what historical fiction is. Let it be.

Perhaps instead we can try to define a new form (not a genre) that includes what Linda Hutcheon called ‘historiographic metafiction’ and/or embraces experiments with voice and style, with structure and form, even with history and the way people move through time.

We have enough examples of it from the last few decades. I can see it clearly enough to consciously write Goddess  in that framework, although it has few rules and very soft edges.

It doesn’t need to be defined or have boundaries placed around it – in fact that would defeat the purpose. But it could include writing that:

  • May run contrary to expectations of ‘historical authenticity’ in voice
  • Is willing to experiment with form, language, point of view, and structure
  • Consciously operates on the edges of historicity
  • Interrogates concepts of time, memory, story-telling, and history-making
  • May subvert the rules of historical fiction and/or any other genre
  • May be interested in questions of gender or subvert expectations of gender.

It might be realist or fantastical, test the boundaries of point of view (just how close can Mantel take third person?) and play with notions of historical voice (Winterson’s postmodern Sappho), layer structure and framework and metaphor and time. In fact, I wonder if perhaps subversion is one of its key features?

What else?

And what to call the literary form, if indeed it is a thing? The word ‘literary’ isn’t useful, loaded as it is. But what might it be?

Are the two forms genuinely distinct, or are they two sides of the same coin? Or is it dangerous, or unnecessary, to separate the two?

I dunno. Do you?

 

Image of Love in Time of Cholera

James Dean was here

A million years ago, I worked in the housing sector, managing services for homeless young people and working on policy and advocacy. One thing I learned very quickly was that young people hated being called ‘kids’ or ‘teens’ – we are people, who happen to be young. Anything else was patronising. Nobody used the term ‘youths’ because it’s so ugly, and it’s like a police descriptor: “two youths were apprehended this morning…”  In policy, in talking to government, in working with young people, we always said ‘young people.’

Now, I know things have changed, the word ‘teen’ has become much more widespread with the globalisation of US language usage, and young people around 13 in particular don’t mind being called ‘teenagers’ because they’ve aspired to be just that for several years. Then they aspire to be young adults and then adults. ‘Teens,’ not so much. It feels like a marketing term, and this is especially true in publishing for children and young adults. The age range of teens is much more limited than the age range of young adults, too, and there’s a fair bit of slippage between the concepts.

So now we have all these debates in the industry and even in the mainstream media about teen and young adult (YA) fiction: what it is, who it’s for, what it’s doing (or not doing) to its readers. Is it too dark? Does it help young people come to terms with the world? Should adults be ashamed of reading it? Or should they embrace its possibilities? Are books for children or young adults less worthy as literature, or as recreational reading? Or a glorious new form invented by [insert current best-seller name here]?

I’d like to take two steps back.

First, let’s clarify that a lot of the debate is around realist fiction, usually set in cities – it’s called ‘contemporary’ in the trade, sometimes ‘urban contemporary.’ When pundits ask whether YA is too dark or morbid, that’s usually what they mean. They don’t really mean the rest of the world of YA, which is actually a lot of books – fantasy, romance, adventures of different sorts, and even historical fiction. They mean realist books with violence or drugs or sex or swearing – maybe death – or all of the above.

It’s not that you don’t get those things in genre fiction, because of course you do, just that in urban contemporary they are often problematised, either by the author (it’s a book about a teen being homeless or dealing with grief or racism or coming out or  self-esteem), or by the commentary on the book. It is written, in one sense, in acknowledgement of issues faced by young people, to tell their stories, which are our stories too, and some of these books are the most beautifully written, engaging, and moving stories you could ever read.

So that’s what many people think YA is, that’s what many people in libraries and the industry think YA is, and indeed that’s what many readers love to read.

(We go through phases when it’s all about a specific genre because some book or film is on the wider public radar, for example dystopian or paranormal fiction, but the issues that inflame debate are often dealt with in quite a realist manner, albeit set in a built world, as in Hunger Games.)

I think it’s also clear that, for a young person, getting your hands on the right book at the right time can change your life. If you believe you are the only queer person in the world, or the only person being beaten or abused, or hating school and everyone in it, or feeling like shit, then reading about similar experiences – feeling that in-depth, close connection you can feel with a character in long-form fiction – can sometimes even save your life. We know that. Readers tell us that.

And that’s the other step back I want to take.

That whole James Dean/Montgomery Clift troubled teen thing is partly true – we’ve all lived it – and partly a social and cultural construct of Western society in the twentieth century. YA fiction arose after the development of that trope.

Image of film poster

Those of us who write historical fiction have to deal with this tension all the time, or at least we should. When you’re writing about a time before there was such a thing as ‘teenagers’*, how do you capture the timeless clash of generations, the age-old process of finding your way in the world, without referencing the teenager concept? What do you do when writing out of a specific cultural context, perhaps where the relationship between generations is completely different? How do you enact it within the traditions of fantasy?

Can I suggest that the idea that all YA literature is teen lit, that all books are about that problematised cultural identity, underlies the commentary about the books themselves?

I worry that talking about readers of a certain age range as teens slots them into a category – a constructed social category as much as a market segment – that says to them you are like this, you need to read these books. Maybe that’s why we sometimes see a disconnect between the books that are bought for young people and the books they buy for themselves.

People who happen to be young, like everyone else, want books of all sorts, about all kinds of things, at different times. They ask for books that offer hope. They ask for books that provide context for the task of coming into adulthood, of understanding the way the world works, of explaining the inexplicable or creating the utterly fantastical. Sometimes they just want a good laugh or a bit of a day-dream.

And don’t we all?

But there’s something about the trope of the troubled teen and the language we use around it that, in turn, troubles me. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but it feels like the term teen categorises both people and books in ways that may not be entirely helpful. And that’s weird, because everyone I know in the field cares passionately about young people who read – or don’t read – and the stories that are written for them, and would never in a million years want to be part of a process that was unhelpful. If it exists, it has grown organically, culturally, perhaps without us seeing it.

This isn’t about the stories themselves, you understand, but about all the stuff around the stories – the discourse and the marketing and the language.

It’s not so much about all those newspaper articles. I don’t expect someone who hardly reads any YA and is writing a one-off feature to understand the complexity involved. I also know, as a journalist, that often you have to write a story on a topic on which you need to become an “expert” in a week and you only ever skim the surface. That’s all it is and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else. And that YA is just one of those things on which everyone feels like an expert, because they were once young and read books. Whatever. So I have a new policy of not reading dumb-ass articles.

(It’s like race-walking. I know that sounds odd, but I grew up in a family of race-walkers, have spent more hours by the track than I’ve spent almost anywhere else, and every four years when the Olympic Games roll around, I have to listen to whole lot of people who haven’t seen a race since the last Games and only ever watch the highlights hotly debating whether or not some competitor should be disqualified.)

Mind you, I do get cranky when I read articles that are also based on nothing, because it tells me they have no idea of the technical requirements of writing for certain age groups and haven’t bothered to do any research or read many other authors in the field. (There’s a terrific summary here, with bonus bingo card.)

Famously, Caitlin Moran’s recent statement ** that there are no strong female characters in YA, led to the depressing situation of seeing a whole lot of people whose work I adore hopping into one another on Twitter.

So let’s just acknowledge that there’s a lot of thoughtfulness, as well as a bit of crap, written about YA at present.

What I wonder is if people who think about – worry about – and debate these issues need to reconsider a few concepts. This is a question, not an answer. Other wiser people may already have those answers.

Maybe we do mean teen fiction when we discuss contemporary YA – and maybe we need a better term. What if it limits perceptions of the books? Or does it need to be reclaimed?

What if calling our readers teens doesn’t empower them after all? Is it a term applied to them, or something they claim for themselves?

I don’t know. What do you think? What terms do you use, and how do you define them? Does it matter?

Does that troubled teen trope still influence the way we or others perceive YA fiction now?

Teenage_mafie

* From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
teen (n.) “teen-aged person,” 1818 (but rare before 20c.), from -teen. As an adjective meaning “of or for teen-agers,”  from 1947.
teens (n.) 1670s (plural), “teen-age years of a person,” formed from -teen taken as a separate word. As “decade of years comprising numbers ending in -teen,” from 1889.
teenager (n.) also teen ager, teen-ager; 1922, derived noun from teenage (q.v.). The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean “teen-aged person” in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.
teenage (adj.) also teen age, teen-age; 1911, from teen + age (n.). Originally in reference to Sunday School classes. Teen-aged (adj.) is from 1922.

** Later: In retrospect, I think she meant working-class young women. While there are quite a few, we could always do with more.

A few thoughts on gender in YA

Was it only last week I spent days live-tweeting the 2013 Reading Matters conference? I didn’t have time or head space to add any thoughts of my own at the time, so here are a few now.

A great line-up of authors debated a wide range of issues but there were a couple of thorny topics that just wouldn’t go away – as usual, chief among them was gender.

A few questions almost always come up in conferences, seminars and conversations, especially with school or children’s librarians and teachers, such as:

  • How do we get boys to read?
  • Why don’t boys read books with female protagonists?
  • Why do the book covers aim at readers of particular genders?

I can’t pretend to be able to answer those questions, but I do want to reflect on how and why the questions and answers are framed.

Many times I’ve listened to an author try to answer the question ‘How do we get boys to read?’ I get asked it myself, all the time. I sympathise, I really, do, because I understand that it can be very frustrating for professionals and parents. But…

1. You are asking the wrong person. Just about every author ever asked that question answers something along the lines of: I just write the stories I need to tell. Some are aimed at boys, some are aimed at girls, some are neutral.

2. Some of the gendering is about the package – the cover, the blurb, the author’s gender or name, the marketing, the industry, socialised reader expectations, the context of both reader and book. Sometimes that’s perfectly appropriate. Often it’s not. Take a look at some examples in Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip experiment if you doubt it.

From the Coverflip experiment

3. Boys do read. They read all sorts of stuff. Even those who read according to strict gender stereotypes immerse themselves in narrative through games and movies; they may love non-fiction; they read basketball magazines or music blogs or comics; they read facebook and use the web and their phones; and they do endless amounts of homework. They might not read my books or other books with girls on the cover – which is a different question – but that’s not the same as not reading at all. Not everyone has to read the same thing.

4. There are actually many authors who do consciously write for boys. Without even reaching for names I can think of Keith Gray, Jack Heath, Brian Falkner, Richard Newsome – not to mention the bulk of the Western canon.

So here is the most important thing: The entire world is constructed for boys. Can we stop pretending they are some oppressed minority, stop asking us to arrange the stories we write and publish to their (perceived) narrow interests?

Suck it up, guys. As Gayle Forman asked at Reading Matters: “Why is it acceptable for a girl to enter a male world but not the opposite?”

Why do we accept that world-view so carefully constructed for them by society?

Why is it too much to ask a boy or young man to see through other eyes? Does it mean you can’t ask them to see through anyone else’s eyes – to read about anything outside their own experience? And if so, what does that say about how we are framing the future?

Are you telling me that a fourteen year-old boy can relate readily to a hobbit or an assassin or a forty year-old man, but not a girl?

I don’t believe that.

At Reading Matters, Libba Bray said: “There are not boy books or girl books. There are just books.”

I think that’s true, to an extent, although there are some stories and some authors who do aim their books at one gender or the other, just as we aim our books at certain age groups, quite consciously, depending on the story. Keith Gray writes for boys, hoping, he said at the conference, not to alienate female readers.

As Miffy Farquharson tweeted during the conference: “Teacher-librarians are good at ‘guessing’ what young people would like to read. Often it’s just ‘a good book’.”

Readers are always asked to make imaginative leaps – into fantasy worlds, or along ziplines between buildings, or into the past. We might be asked to read the story of someone we despise or can’t trust. Female readers constantly take the imaginative leap into the minds of male characters.  Kids who are queer may spend their entire lives seeing the world through the eyes of straight characters.  Happily, there is now a greater diversity in stories and characters than ever before, so that young readers from different cultural backgrounds or life experiences can find some stories that reflect their world. But much of the time, they’ll be reading about someone completely Other, and they relate – they find some imaginative or emotional connection with those characters, they see something in those lives that makes sense for them, they read to witness another world, another way of seeing. Vikki Wakefield noted in one panel: “Age and gender do not define a reader.”

The world is filled with different perspectives and readers get to experience those perspectives, to see the world through different eyes – to see new worlds, feel unfamiliar sensations and emotions. If boys don’t get to do that, never make those leaps, they’re missing out dreadfully. They can do it – of course they can. They do it all the time – even the most stereotypical readers or gamers or movie-goers imagine themselves into pirate ships or D-Day or Westeros. “If we do our job properly,” said  Morris Gleitzman on one panel, “boys will read girl characters.”

Calling for narratives that support that limited world view only perpetuates the problem – for the boys, and for the rest of the world. It continues to limit them, reduces their world view and doesn’t even echo back to them the world in which they live. Nor does it recognise the diverse lives and experiences of young males in our world, as if they are never outsiders, as if they are never readers, as if they don’t share the same fears and hopes and emotions as everyone else. It defines them as people who will only read The Guinness Book of Records or short action-driven stories (not that there’s anything wrong with either). But as Gleitzman noted: ‘There’s not a boy on this planet that doesn’t understand love gone wrong”.

And…

Why do we always end up  here? What about discussing the girls who are struggling? The  boys who love to read? The girls who consume books? The girls who love to read adventures and war stories and fight scenes? The readers who read regardless of gendered covers or narratives or protagonists?

Why do we always end up here in spite of the fact that every available piece of research tells us that books featuring female protagonists and/or by women authors are less likely to be in the big prize shortlists; that they are less likely to be reviewed; that women are less likely to be writing the reviews; that in spite of the huge proportion of women authors, publishers, teachers and librarians, the people most often in the positions of decision-making power are men – totally out of proportion to the number of men in the industry (as is the case with most other industries where women are in the majority, such as teaching)?

Why, in spite of all that research, would someone perfectly sensible like Keith Gray suggest at Reading Matters that books for or about boys suffer discrimination due to the “female domination” of the book industry – and why would a whole lot of women in the audience agree? What is that about?

Final word to the brilliant Gayle Forman: “If Harry Potter had been about Hermione, it probably wouldn’t have been such a success.”

Case rests. For now.

 

 

Note: These are my views as a writer and reader, not in my capacity as a Library person.

Shouting at the telly

When I was little, I used to watch TV with my Nana. She liked shows about detectives and lawyers like Perry Mason and Homicide, and she and my Pop loved to watch the footy.

Every weekend they watched World of Sport, which went on for hours and hours, and included a panel of old players arguing about the week’s footy games, the famous handball competition, and ‘Uncle’ Doug Elliott expounding the virtues of different brands of ham or beer. Nana couldn’t stand Doug and she didn’t much like former Geelong great Bob Davis either. Whenever either of them went on too long she’d shout “Shut up, you piker!” at the top of her voice.

It was just like being at the footy, I used to think, with people shouting at the telly just like they’d shout if they were at the ground. They abuse the umpires, the opposition supporters, and their own players almost as much as the other side. They wouldn’t do it anywhere else, especially in those days: it wouldn’t be polite. But somehow being at the game provided a licence for shouting, as did the amazing innovation of being able to watch sport in your own home.

(Pop wasn’t much of a shouter, although in a close finish he’d often yell, “Just kick it down the middle, son!”)

But I’ve been thinking about my Nana lately, and the act of shouting at the telly in private. I don’t shout at the screen much, except in cases of extreme historical anachronism or Tony Abbott.

I use Twitter – a lot. I think it’s one of the very best available sources of information and contacts in many of the fields I follow: history, writing, books, education, research.

But there are many times I simply can’t look at it, because it’s becoming more and more like being stuck in a room with two hundred people all shouting at the telly.

Sometimes, this isn’t even a metaphor. I have to turn Twitter off when Q&A is on, for example, because so many people I follow turn into telly-shouting ever-so-clever would-be TV panel participants.

The upside of this is when there’s a piece of ground-breaking journalism, such as 4Corners’ story on animal cruelty in abattoirs. The outcry on Twitter was immediate and rolled over into action over the ensuing hours and days.

If you follow good people, you’ll see politicians statements contradicted and questioned, research reports disseminated instead of buried, great articles posted, and people cracking hilarious jokes about current affairs. At its best Twitter (and other popular media) calls people to account and provides information critical to any society.

Campaigns such as #YAsaves show the medium at its finest, spreading the love, acting up and offering immediate support to vulnerable people or groups.

But I worry Twitter is eating itself.

Some symptoms:

  • Some idiot somewhere says something insulting (about women, about the PM, whatever). Everyone insults them back. Fine, except some of those responding seem to have no self-awareness that they too are being insulting – sometimes really, horribly, personally, libellously, insulting. They are too busy being self-righteous. 
  • Certain people are becoming famous for shouting very obvious things.  They aren’t clever. They aren’t funny. They aren’t saying anything new, or even saying the same thing in new ways. (Misogyny exists! WHO KNEW?) They are, however, positioning themselves as “commentators”.  Just like my Nana was a commentator on World of Sport, but with more followers. And not nearly as entertaining.
  • Streams of posts from conferences focus on the morning tea and people behaving like it’s a school excursion. Are you getting paid to be there? Act like it. 
  • Many people automate not just their tweets but also their associated curation tools, like paper.li. So you see this stream of soulless announcement that the Joe Blogs Daily is out.
  • “Curation” apparently also extends to taking people’s links and sticking them on your own blog, or using some kind of scooping service, so you get the  extra click through – even though you’ve done nothing really to earn it, besides annoying people.
  • People appear to have forgotten that Twitter has a direct message function and do self-satisfied group hug streams that can last for hours. A little friendly chatter is lovely – acting like Mean Girls is alienating and tedious.

I could go on. And on. Instead, I’ve been giving the Unfollow button a good workout.

But the point is really that Twitter can and should be a force for goodness and niceness – and anger and righteousness, like all media.

Just don’t be so boring. Or I may start shouting. (Blame Nan. It’s genetic.)