Stu sent me this post about women’s evident tendency to be not so great at self-promotion. The poster says: “They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”
I was talking with Gillian about this a while back, and promised I was going to write something, and never did, because I didn’t have a lot of evidence to bring up, just general impressions and personal experience. But now someone else has written about it, so I can nod and say, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that about women, too.” Not all women, but plenty enough. And obviously not all guys are topped up with self-confidence, either. But when I think about myself and confidence, my first thought is that I had it when I was a kid, and somehow lost it. I don’t know whether that’s a common thing for women, but I wouldn’t mind comparing experiences, if anyone wants to.
I remember being a sassy little thing with a pretty good opinion of myself. And my mother (sorry, Mum, for dragging you into this, but you went through this bullshit too, and worse than me) often told me that I was arrogant, and that I shouldn’t blow my own trumpet. So I learned to be coy. And we got that message at school (an all-girl school), too. Or rather, mixed messages. We were told not to hide our lights under a bushel (bushels, trumpets, wild ran the commonplace metaphors), but we were also told not to boast about ourselves, which somehow warped into not saying anything positive about ourselves. Which perhaps warped further into not thinking positively about ourselves. Say “I’m dumb, I’m not that good, I’m ugly” enough times, even out of false modesty, and you might start believing it. You certainly don’t get in the habit of putting yourself forward with confidence that someone might actually be interested in you for reasons beyond sex.
I think we were taught to be modest, also, for reasons to do with sex. “Bold girls” who “put themselves forward” were somehow “not nice” and were not “ladies”. Yes, I was brought up to be a fucken lady, mate. Not that many of us at school were particularly ladylike, but unfortunately the one ladyish lesson that we did seem to take to heart — as I see it, anyway, looking back — was the one about not drawing attention to your own accomplishments. You were supposed to be pleasing — your thoughts focused on the pleasure of others, not on your own advancement. Which is all very well in purely social situations, but not so helpful in the world of work. But while our educators and parents (it was the 70s and 80s) were all for us having careers, and did what they could to ensure we were prepared academically, perhaps they didn’t give so much thought to preparation for the non-academic side of work — the side that’s less about ability than chutzpah, and which includes the art of mining social occasions for career opportunities (which may start with something a simple as telling someone you’re a writer, rather than just mentioning your day job). I don’t know if the early education of girls, at home and at school, has changed much. I don’t get the sense that it has, really, but I’d be very interested to hear other people’s views — and I assume there must be differences between countries and cultures.
But while I learned early on to project a coy manner, my actual inner confidence didn’t sink until puberty, which is so normal as to be hardly worth mentioning (though it shouldn’t be normal) — but I’ll stick this idea out: becoming a woman just isn’t as cool or empowering as becoming a man, because of the way we’ve constructed ‘man’ and ‘woman’. And in the first years of womanhood, just as you’re maturing, you’re also at your most desirable (at least in the current culture), and therefore your most vulnerable. When you should be becoming a person, you’re sweet sixteen and all too easily become principally a sex object, or a rejected sex object; either way, your subjectivity takes a hit. There’s so much media emphasis on women’s appearance, and so little on women’s accomplishments, that if that stuff gets in your head, your accomplishments can start to seem unimportant, even worthless. In my case, at least, that attitude took hold and stuck. I saw myself as an object for a very long time. (I know this happens to guys too, but my impression is that women are in more danger of losing their sense of personhood in the teen years.) Once you see yourself as an object, it’s as if you don’t exist. It’s pretty hard to find the will, courage, or even desire to promote yourself if you’re not real — if you’re abject, if you’re the very opposite of important — in your own mind.
I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I haven’t had to promote myself much. Because when I started writing I couldn’t have done it. I was taught to wait for others to notice you, and that was exactly what happened. Next time I have to do it, I’ll be able to — but that’s partly because I’ve now got some sort of profile and won’t be working from square zero. But my story is pretty unusual. I happened to have a weird book ready to publish when weird books were enjoying a surge of popularity. When I first tried to get a publisher for TEC, back in 2000 or 2001, my early efforts failed, and I didn’t know what to do next. I thought I had a pretty cool book, but when the couple of publishers who seemed the best bets (and who took unsolicited manuscripts) and one agent I’d met turned it down, I got stuck. I knew I ought to get an agent, but I didn’t know how to begin finding one. I knew there were lists, but how to choose names from the lists? And, good God, so many of them were in New York. Why would an agent in New York be interested in a random Australian with a strange book? (So a bit of cultural cringe there, as well.) The thought of contacting a writer and asking “Who’s your agent?” would never have occurred to me. The notion of bothering someone else like that, intruding on their time, would have been D: D: D:. In fact, even the thought of contacting an agent was pretty scary — not so much because of fear of rejection, but more a general sense of unworthiness, as if I didn’t even have the right to try to get someone’s attention and have my voice heard, especially by a citizen of New York. (And there’s another thing: seen and not heard. Is it still the case that women are to be seen, and men heard?) In short, I wasn’t confident enough to do the self-advertising and persevering that it often takes to get a first book published.
Anyway, I got noticed — eventually by Jeff VanderMeer, who is not only great at promoting his own work, but is a generous promoter of other writers. But there was a whole lotta luck involved. Without that luck, without the attention and effort of people — starting with Geoff Maloney, and most of my helping hands have been male — who steered me first to Prime Books and then to major publishers, I’d probably still be sitting here with an unpublished book — unless I’d grown some confidence somewhere along the line, and I doubt I would have. I started to grow confidence when I got published, not before. And it grew slowly, and I think it’s still a work in progress. And I remember that when I was first given real, practical help, I was astonished. I could hardly get my head around the fact that someone thought my work was worth their time. And that attitude didn’t come from put-downs in the past, since I’d had a lot of praise for my work at school (art and writing); but while praise is nice, it isn’t half as good as help. Tuition, mentoring, initiation into professional networks, all the stuff that can actually bring results: that kind of real, practical assistance is the petrol to which praise is the car wax (lovely and validating though praise is). And I wonder — do girls get as much practical help, from birth to adulthood, as boys do? Does our society truly have as much goodwill towards girls’ ambitions as boys’ ? Do we want girls to succeed in the public sphere as much as boys, and show it with our time and our wallets, not just our words?
So I guess I’m just wondering about women and the confidence to self-promote. If you’ve got it, how did you get it? Could you imagine a scenario where being a pain in the arse might have a positive outcome? Would you mind being a pain in the arse to get what you want, or would your self-image revolt? Could you lie to get a job or a place on a course if you were pretty sure you could live up to your own boasts, and could you live with being caught out in the lie? Have men supported your ambitions? Have women? Am I asking the wrong questions? And guys, what do you think?