Feedback: stay clear of false compliments, white lies, and set phrases
I’ve been on the hunt for a day job for some time now. With my disqualifications (age, immigrant, gay), not an easy task in a country as obsessed with young blonde people as Sweden. There’s a fear (so HR professionals have told me repeatedly) that immigrants just don’t blend into the Swedish “fika paus” (coffee break morning and afternoon) because they don’t understand the culture or the language. The fact that the “fika” is almost gone from Swedish workplaces is beside the point. Sadly the attitude survives. As a gay man, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re discriminated against because people these days know better than to say discriminatory things openly, but some employers are still disturbed by it, and as a married man with son, it’s hard to hide, lest I lie, and I just don’t lie. I once had a manager ask me (on our first business trip after his third beer) if it wasn’t disgusting “to take it up the ass”… Today I’d probably fire off a witty retort, but back then (twenty-one years ago) I just wanted to disappear into a hole in the ground, blushing all shades of crimson. But alas, not the topic of this post…
Age is a bigger problem. Sweden is extremely ageist. You can read job ads seeking managers with ten years experience from managing and still expect the candidate to hold an MBA and be between twenty-five to thirty years old. How that computes is above me, but it’s what you read, again and again. Not to mention that us old geezers are often considered too expensive. Why hire us when you can get a young moldable mind for less? There’s a certain logic to it. And there’s a reason we are more expensive. Experience is also a form of competence… What remains is this weird feeling that you miss out on great opportunities for all the wrong reasons, but you can’t prove it.
Anyway. I recently received feedback from a company where I had applied for a position, and it reminded me of what you shouldn’t write in a feedback message. Having worked in this field for some time, I’m still surprised to see senior managers make such colossal mistakes, lying through their teeth. Here’s a key paragraph from their message, and my interpretation what they “really” tried to say…
You have a super CV and a very broad experience. We need someone who can be very hands-on [apparently, in their view, I’m not] right out of the gates, understand the advanced technology [am I considered slow? dumb?] and work with “ordinary” tasks [ouch!] before we grow further. We believe that you are too “academically advanced” [this is just so wrong in so many ways, I don’t even know what to say…] for this position.
First of all, you should always, always provide feedback to applicants, whether they are called to an interview or not. Kudos for that. So many employers do not afford applicants this basic courtesy. It doesn’t make them more attractive, quite the contrary. Employer Branding is 99% about walking the talk and 1% about advertising the talk…
When it comes to actual feedback, personally, I believe that oral is better than written. That way you can avoid quotation marks… I mean, really? I remember the interview very well, and I know it wasn’t one of my best. Both my dad (skin cancer) and my MIL (blood clot) were admitted to the hospital that day, and I was preoccupied, worried. Things went downhill when I looked at my watch after one of the interviewers had been yawning for some time (it was a Friday afternoon) and I mistakenly thought it to be 4:45 pm rather than the actual 3:45. New watch and I wasn’t accustomed to the face yet. I rushed the interview and didn’t realize my mistake until I was in my car in the parking lot at 4:20, not 5:20 pm like I thought… Yeah, that happened. Needless to say, I immediately apologized, without mentioning the half-asleep manager stressing me. Decorum! 😉
About ten minutes into the interview I learned that both managers interviewing me had come from the same company, and it was the tell-tale sign that they were looking for someone with a background like their own. When a high tech company hires its staff from the same high tech company, they’re likely “set” in their views on what the most important competencies are: engineering, and here in Gothenburg, Chalmers. Don’t fit that profile, go on, look elsewhere. I knew my chances were minimal. When it took three months to finally get feedback, I had long ago realized I’d lost. I’ve been in this game long enough…
BUT, while I realize that, you don’t have to insult people’s intelligence with quotation marks and thinly veiled insults. Clearly, that paragraph was just intended to let me down gently. And it makes me wonder how they view engineers. Aren’t they academically advanced? LOL Last I recall, they study as long as everyone else to get their master degrees.
Here are some recommendations if you respond to applicants:
- Do it, do it as soon as you possibly can. To let people wait two to three months is rude. Not to respond at all is a disaster
- Be courteous
- Don’t lie. If you feel that what you want to say is “sensitive”, don’t say it.
- While I appreciate the attempt to provide feedback, if that feedback is not in any way helpful or constructive, don’t. I would have omitted the entire paragraph above and just left it at “you have a very impressive CV, but ultimately we decided that another candidate was a better fit given where our organization is currently at” and then move on to the blah, blah about keeping them in mind and yada, yada. After all, these aren’t unintelligent people. It would’ve said the same without the hollow compliments and white lies.
I’m always amazed how organizations don’t consider the wider impact of their messaging. How do they think I will talk about their company to friends? My engineering friends (I don’t live in an author bubble 24×7)? Suppliers? Customers? You never know who people know…
What is your take on this? HR professionals? Let’s hear it! How do you coach your managers in how to write feedback letters? I don’t often write about my coaching/consulting career, but I still have it. LOL To learn more, head on over to my company site for further information. Feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good week.
Is our time’s sense of entitlement at the root of the right-wing populist upswing we see?
It’s not about you, or me, at least not all the time, but it’s always about us, as a society and where we are heading. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about a professor of literature in the U.S. who was dismissed from his tenure for apparently having “hurt” transgender students’ feelings. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the article anymore, but in one of the four instances mentioned that led to his dismissal, the professor was discussing a scientific theory about a book which two students found offensive because it didn’t match their world view. Another case involved the lack of a trigger warning in a literary novel about a rape which was discussed in class. A couple of days ago, a local paper in Sweden published a debate article about how “milk is a symbol of white supremacy“… I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder upon.
Today’s post, as explosive as the topic may be, isn’t about the specific articles quoted above. It’s about a phenomenon that I find in our society today, a sort of extremism of the “I”, or entitlement if you will, that is spreading like a wildfire through our midst. A couple of additional examples (random and anecdotal):
- There are people who feel that we should abolish gender pronouns. Period. Replace he, she, they, xe, s/he or whatever, with one gender neutral pronoun to be used for all of us. Now, I have absolutely no qualms calling people whatever they feel they are most comfortable with (and I beg for forgiveness if sometimes I slip back to a pronoun I may have used on them before), and I personally like to use the Swedish gender neutral pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unknown (e.g. in job advertisements), but why take it to the extreme and force others to give up the pronoun they feel comfy with? Why do to others that which has (or may have) been done to you?
- In Sweden, some cities have begun to replace certain “job titles” with new ones, which are supposed to be less “laden” with negative connotations, gender neutral etc. There are always different reasons for different words of course. One of the typical examples is the word for “handicapped”, which was replaced a few years back with “funktionshindrad” (“disabled”). However, apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Now they use the word “funktionsvariation” (“functional variation”), while at the same time reducing public support for the very people they try to linguistically “upgrade”. I understand the drive for the new word but don’t ostracize people for using an older version, because “handicapped” is still much better than the words I grew up with… Tell them instead why you’re suggesting the new one?
- Veganism vs Omnivores. Yikes, what a nightmare this one is. But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we, as a society, could reduce our dependence on animals as a food source? Particularly reducing the production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy and move toward a more sustainable and species appropriate treatment of animals? To expect an entire population to go vegan overnight won’t accomplish this, but produce a huge backlash and pushback from the vast majority of omnivores amongst us.
I am who I am, and I expect people to accept me as such. Why can’t we grant each other that same courtesy? Photo: Alina Oswald
As a linguist, I’m acutely aware that language changes, evolves. However, it’s rarely a good idea to force change top down. It rarely works. When the new director for the Swedish medical board, Bror Rexed, announced to his staff in 1967, that he was going to use “du” (second person singular) in dealings with his staff, he was riding on a wave that had begun earlier. Sweden’s traditional honorific to that date had been “han/hon” (third person singular, or preferably a title). Within months, the entire country adopted the new way of talking, and it is a proud accomplishment of our egalitarian society to this day, although, in recent years, the service industry has begun using the German/French version of the second person plural instead, something I personally find strange, but that’s another post. But the du-reform is a linguistic exception. When Germany tried to “simplify” the use of German with the infamous Rechtschreibereform in the nineties, they failed miserably. You can’t have state ministers dictate how to spell mayo. People generally dislike the reform and to this date, over twenty years later, some of the biggest newspapers refuse to use it, and entire generations of German speakers feel disenfranchised because their spelling is “outdated”.
Sadly, these trends go deeper than just language, and I acknowledge that these government institutions, the researchers, and activists mean well. But, they overreach, and they scare some of the more conservative people. I can literally see my dad and his generation’s reaction to no longer being a man, but a person, to be addressed as “it” (or whatever pronoun of choice the know-its agree upon) rather than “he”. And I think this is exactly where the populists, the alt-right, and others, chime in and find feeding ground. They paint a rosy picture of a world where men were men and women were women, where men gave away women to other men at the altar, a world where men came home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table, wife, and kids eagerly waiting for them. A two-polar world, black & white. Simpler, easier to understand, comfortable, just the way we knew it when we were little (or from TV). A world without marriage equality, and no trans people. The world of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin and their likes.
These people don’t understand why we allow people to use whatever religious clothing they like here in the west, while we must adjust to strict local laws when we visit certain countries. They don’t understand how we can allow mosques, temples, and synagogues to be built in our western cities while other countries wouldn’t allow the same. And so they believe their own faith to be besieged and threatened, even though sharing is at the very core of the Christian faith they claim to uphold and defend (Jesus breaking the bread, holding the other cheek etc.)
We, as western societies are risking further division, if we don’t “chill out” for a bit, and allow the world around us to catch up. We’ve been caught up in a frenzy of “me, me, me” which – quite frankly – is scary. The Internet and modern communication devices certainly seem to be a part of the explanation, the seeming distance between the device and our next shutting down our inhibitions around human discourse, enabling us to lash out at others with the vilest commentary and language, words we would never use face to face. And because we get away with so much, it emboldens us and we push further, and before long, it’s all about me, me, me. My rights, my demands, my needs, regardless of your needs, your rights.
If I don’t feel like working today, that’s fine. Many employers see a significant increase in sick leave and “unexplained absence” during days of sunny weather in the summer, causing huge problems in e.g. care facilities. My husband tells me stories from his job that’ll make anyone gasp…
In this book, there is an entire chapter dedicated to change management, what works, what doesn’t and why. Have a look if you’re interested. Lots of other smart tips included, too.
So what can we do to improve things? Talk to each other, explain things. Use incremental steps, as hard as this may seem. Don’t ask for too much too quickly, and never ask others to change on your behalf. Now I understand this last one is tricky. I remember coming out (eons ago) and basically giving my parents an ultimatum in accepting me for who I was. They asked for time, and time they got. For a while, we barely spoke, but after a couple of years, they openly accepted my partner at the time, and later my husband. But still, to this day, at times, we argue, my dad and I, and he’ll never be the perfect “ally”. But I understand that I can’t change him. I had to learn to live with the discomfort of him disliking e.g. that small magnet of two men kissing on our fridge, and his fear of how it would affect my son’s sexuality. My take is simple: it’s none of his effing business what we put on our fridge door, our sexuality is not defined by pictures we see on the fridge when we grow up (or I’d be straight), and I have to accept that he probably won’t change his mind. Then again, he does, continuously, but at his pace. A few years ago he told me that “men can’t raise kids” and now he’s super proud of the job my husband and I do. People do change, but rarely under duress (unless it’s for their own benefit), there’s an entire chapter in my book Common Sense on that topic if you’re interested in reading more.
A society only works when most members work together. Every society can accept and live with a few outliers, but when too many forces pull in too many directions simultaneously, the very fabric of society begins to fail, and we can see tendencies of that in recent events like Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, Poland, India, Russia etc. Rapid change, pluralism, followed by that “collective” urge for the good old days, which incidentally, in that picture presented by the populist, never even existed, but that’s a different story. So chill, forgive, move on, talk to each other, rather than explode, condemn and scream. It’s not about you, at least not always, only sometimes.
What’s your take? Do you share this (mind you, completely unscientific) analysis of mine? Am I onto something? Am I missing a piece of the puzzle? I welcome your thoughts on the matter… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.
Doctor Who? How a TV show highlights the world’s problem with equality
Do you watch or follow the English Sci-Fi series Doctor Who? I don’t. I’ll be honest. Never seen it, never watched a single episode. But I understand that it’s to the English what Star Trek is to the rest of us (sort of). Like I said, I haven’t seen it. But apparently, they announce new doctors every now and then, and this week, the BBC announced that the thirteenth doctor (anyone superstitious?) would be a woman, for the first time. In a healthy society, this would’ve been met with shrugs all around, because this would only matter to the aficionados. Some would love it (because they like the actor), some would hate it (because they dislike the actress). However, our planet is not a healthy society and before long, the Internet was overflowing with hatred, “too little, too lates” and then some… But it was this article in a Scottish newspaper that had my head spinning. Here was a “feminist” decrying the move as hurtful to equality. He makes some interesting points, which is why it took me a long time to wrap my head around it. Particularly since I don’t watch the show.
Captain Chris Pike and his female Number One (in the pilot of Star Trek) Pike was replaced by Kirk and Number One wasn’t cast again until the Next Generation in the eighties when it was – of course – a guy… The first female captain was seen in the first Star Trek Movie in 1979, in a small role. Source: Tumblr
Here’s the thing. I agree with Mark Smith initial statement: to cast a woman in the lead role of a sci-fi show in 2017 is hardly “edgy”. Had they done it in the 1970ies, yes, but even an “edgy” show like Star Trek couldn’t (wouldn’t? dare not?) cast a woman as First Officer aboard the Enterprise in the sixties. See the interesting pilot with Eugene Roddenberry’s wife as First Officer, aka Number One. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was later cast as a nurse (how female, right?) and as the computer voice. Eventually, in the movies, she advanced to Doctor (1980s). Here’s the problem: women are still universally seen as lesser beings than men. In every aspect of society with the exception of child rearing and ‘care’, where the opposite is the case. Naturally, both views are utterly wrong. Men can be as caring as women and men can be as “worthless” as women are seen.
Yet when a woman replaces a man after twelve instances, people are still either outraged or bored. Let’s assume the opposite. What about Doctor 14? 15? 27? What if the next thirteen doctors were all female? Imagine the outrage! Most major countries in the world have still not had female leaders, and once a woman has had the position, she’s replaced – almost assuredly – by a man. Because “they’ve had their turn, can we return to normalcy now?” NO, we can’t and we shouldn’t. Normalcy won’t be until we don’t even notice what gender, sex or sexuality a person has when it’s equally “normal” aka boring for a superhero to be trans as it is for them to be a man. But for now, we can assume that doctor #14 will be a guy again, that the next English PM is a guy again, that the next German PM is a man again etc. We could, of course, say the same about other countries and “occurrences”. While we applaud the fact that Ireland has a PM who’s gay, you can rest assured this won’t happen again (anytime soon), or that Iceland had a female AND Lesbian PM (her successor was straight, corrupt and yeah, a straight guy). It’s how our society works. For a while (2010-2012), Switzerland had FOUR female ministers in its seven head government (plus a female federal chancellor), a majority, for the first time, ever. Now? We’re down to two. And that’s what most people, even women, consider “normal”.
The “kiss” that rocked the south… Source: Wikipedia
It’s not just gender though, is it? When Star Trek “featured” their first Lesbian kiss it was only acceptable because one of the women was a man in a previous life, and the worms they carry inside their humanoid bodies are basically sexless (gods know how they procreate). And even though there was an outrage when Kirk kissed Uhura in the original show (she was black!) it was under “duress”, not because they wanted to. Imagine if Kirk had been of sound mind, wanting to kiss a black woman! The outrage! The show would never have aired. Even as recently as the 1980s, when Stephen Carrington came out as gay and had an (ex) boyfriend (subsequently murdered (!!!) by the show’s main character and Stephen’s dad), Stephen was almost instantly recast as “bisexual” to soften the blow and later married Sammy Jo. No wonder bisexuals have a bad rap… Bisexuals DO exist, trust me, but bisexuality is not to meant to be a tool to ease heterosexual discomfort… facepalm But yeah, I could go on and on and on, but just stay with Blake Carrington killing his son’s boyfriend and getting away with it, and his son forgiving him for it… Yeah, that’s what my youth looked like! And we complain about a TV show in 2017 casting a woman in the lead… If I have one complaint is that it’s at least fifty years too late (the show first aired in 1963, three years before Star Trek premiered).
Allow me to make it worse, if possible. On Facebook, some of the people I follow, decried the Doctor Who thing as “robbing boys of their last male role models” and it made me wonder: how did girls survive the past millennia with ONLY male role models? Utter rubbish, and utterly sexist, and yes, sadly women are as sexist as men and often step on their own feet of potential advancement. Why, please tell me why, shouldn’t a boy be able to see a girl as a role model? A hero? WHY? Am I missing something? Are girls so much smarter? Because they’ve had no problems seeing Spiderman, Superman, Aquaman, or Batman as role models. But I’m only a gay man, what do I know. We all know that I’m possibly located even lower on the scale than women, just above Lesbians and trans people… frown I do my best to let my son watch the movies/shows he wants, and he loves Elsa as much as he loves Merida or Moana/Vaiana, strong characters, “despite” being girls. And yes, he likes Spiderman, too, or his other cartoon characters in the shapes of trains, little buses, ambulances or what not. Oddly, he is still young enough to not have his mind polluted by the construct of gender. I cherish every moment it stays that way, although I know it’s a battle I’ll lose. Just the other week someone said that Sascha “looked more masculine with his hair short”. Needless to say, I’ll let it grow out again if he wants to. What an insolent comment. As if manliness resides in short hair! But yeah, that’s where we are in real life, in 2017! facepalm
Because in the end, that’s really what matters, right? REAL LIFE. How we educate our kids to be good citizens, respectful of everybody, no matter what, and I for one will do whatever I can so that my son has role models based on their actions, not their gender, sex, sexuality, age, skin color, ethnicity, faith, culture etc.
Notice the representation on this stock image I once bought for my company? Yeah, no blacks and no Asians, but at least we have gender equality…
So how do we move forward? I’m a liberal (in the European, original, sense of the word), I don’t really (want to) believe in quotas or affirmative action, but I’ve also seen how we (in Sweden) have achieved a considerable level of equality, due to quotas. Here it’s a given that approx. half of our parliament is female, that half our government ministers are female. Sweden is far from perfect (re pay gaps), but we constantly talk about it and make slow and constant improvements. The current Canadian government is also a great example of inclusion, but look at how Trump rules in the U.S. and note the not so subtle difference.
So yes, quotas can help. When the Swedish government threatened publicly traded companies with legislation about a 40% female quota on their boards, companies began to look for women for their boards. Sadly, before that, they were mostly complaining about quotas and how they were looking for the right people, not their sex. Suddenly, they found women who were competent. Odd, eh? It’s getting better, slowly, way too slowly. In TV and film, various ratings (e.g. F on IMDB or the Bechdel test) guide viewers to movies with a healthy representation of sexes. And while I can frown upon commercial stock photos with your Asian, your black person, your brown person and a white one, perfect representation of the sexes, I also realize how important it is, and that companies have realized that. Problem is, we’d (as a western society) not accept a commercial with an all black cast or an all Asian cast, as we just wouldn’t see “ourselves” in it, which is problematic at best (I spoke about that with regards to love in my review last week.) This is something we all need to work on, and I believe literature has an important role to play, as our characters don’t have skin colors, don’t have ethnicities unless we give it to them. Why not let them be secrets until after a book is released and then tell people? Yeah, I know, most will assume an all white cast, and that’s at the core of this debate, right? But what if you had a character named Chris who turns out to be a black, Muslim, trans woman? Gotcha! You thought Chris was a straight, white guy… Yeah…
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this conundrum, but I know one thing: blaming a TV show for being too late won’t help. Instead, make sure they stick with it, not by being representative to the dot, but by being inclusive in all things, and that means not just adequate representation, but seeing beyond all that, to go beyond skin-deep, to the human core of us all, until we get to the point where “what” we are isn’t as important as “who” we are, our character. What’s your take on all this? Do you have any ideas on how to fix this?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
The latest installment of “Checking Him Out” works great as stand alone tackles crucial topics of our time
I was looking forward to reading this story ever since Leigh came into the picture (book 2 or 3, I don’t recall). Their condition, most easily described as a form of intersex, made me curious to learn more about their (Leigh’s chosen pronoun) background. As for Leigh’s love interest, Jesse, he has also appeared earlier and was always described in a very positive light, although he was always on the fringes of the previous tales. The Making of Us is the story of these two, their relationship, as it was alluded to at the end of book 3, told from Jesse’s point of view.
The cover of The Making of Us
I’ve reviewed many of Debbie’s books before, and I think I’ve loved all of them with the exception of one. There, it was my lack of understanding of English titles and nomenclature which left me confused. Here, this could’ve been an issue, as Leigh’s medical condition and some of the side effects of their biology could’ve been confusing. But it’s described very well and I’ve had no issues to follow it, even though I’m hardly an expert on the intricacies of intersex biology. Having read so many of Debbie’s novels, I often wonder what it is that makes her writing so appealing, so easy to read. Because her books are often low-key, they don’t throw the reader unexpected curve balls or include drama for the sake of drama. No, Debbie’s storytelling reminds me a bit of what it’s like to live an “ordinary life”, highly plausible, credible and totally believable. I hate to make comparisons, to TV shows, and I won’t, but since two of her main works have evolved (or are about to) into never-ending soap operas (in the best sense of the word!), reading these books is like being transported to England in general and Norwich and surrounding area specifically, to follow the lives of the people Debbie so lovingly describes. By now, after four books, I feel like I’m part of that greater family, they feel like friends or at least acquaintances.
That, and Debbie’s unique ability at describing her locales and locations make for great reading, and as a fellow author, I often envy her uncanny ability to draw pictures of a pub, or a house, or a beach, with just a few words. One more word about the aspect that this is book four in a series. I’m no fan of series, and I’ve shied away from Debbie’s other “universe”, that of “Hiding Behind the Couch” simply because it’s too daunting a task to tackle the x million words it’s grown into. I’ve read a couple of stand-alone novels from it, but I’ve sometimes felt that I’m missing a bit too much of the background, stretching over several years. If you’re like me, you need not worry about this particular book. In fact, The Making of Us works perfectly as a stand alone. Yes, there are mentions of other characters, and particularly the main protagonists from book 3 are mentioned frequently, but even if there had been no previous books, you could still read this without missing much.
Author Debbie McGowan has another great novel for us.
So what’s The Making of Us about, apart from teaching us about intersexuality and gender fluidity/queerness? On the surface, you might be lured into thinking this to be a romance, but you’d be disappointed. There isn’t as much as a breeze disrupting Jesse’s and Leigh’s relationship. Instead, it is mainly the characters’ internal struggle which is highlighted. For Jesse, it’s his weight and his life-long struggle to maintain, lose weight, as well as his severely challenged body image (self-esteem), as well as an interesting take on the inner workings of the LGBT community/communities, and how we work with our allies from the straight world. I won’t go into details in order not to spoil anything. There are very educational aspects to the novel, and yeah, it’s no surprise given that Debbie is both a teacher and a social scientist. She knows her stuff well. But they’re not the aspects of the story I will remember the most, and as befits great writing, Debbie allows both (or more) sides of the argument to be heard, and she doesn’t always resolve the inherent conflicts. Sometimes they endure, as they so often do in real life. Not all conflicts can be resolved, and the LGBT community is hardly a perfectly harmonious body.
My favorite aspects of The Making of Us are the instances where Leigh and Jesse get to know each other, intimate moments between the two (which btw doesn’t translate into ceaseless bunny-like fucking! If that’s your fare, look elsewhere), where insecurities come to light, be it their youth or inexperience, be it their struggle with their bodies etc. And more often than not, I found myself reminded of my own life, I recognized thoughts, wishes, and dreams I had when I was their age. That was very endearing and moving reading. It’s probably the most significant aspect of the story, the fact that I, I label myself a cisgender gay man, fully identifies with the emotions, the love & relationship of a bi-sexual, obese man and an intersex queer person. One of the great “morals” of this book: who gives a flying fuck about what your genitals are, what your gender is, love transcends it all and is the same for all.
Now, after all the accolades, is there nothing “critical” to mention in The Making of Us? Not really. This really is a good read, one I wish were mandatory high school reading, and compulsory for all “conservative” politicians. This book would make great educational material. There were a few instances where the “show” felt a tad “tell”, but given the importance of the subjects, it’s not only understandable but totally justified. If you’re curious about learning more about what we often refer to as “nonbinary”, gender-fluid, or gender queer characters and other social issues within the LGBT community, put this novel on your reading list. I guarantee that you won’t regret it.
The Making of Us is available from Beaten Track Publishing and is sold on Amazon and other outlets.
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend.
PS: Don’t forget to check back on Monday for an important message from me! 😉 #CoverRelease
Authors participate in political debates on the same basis as everyone else, but our tools may be different
I’ve been reading articles in papers recommending books to read for the summer, and I find them to be all over the place. There’s the light read, a crime novel or a thriller, suitable to drag along when you’re going to the beach, there’s the biography of this or that accomplished man (usually), then there are the heavy reads about precarious life journeys usually based on reality: difficult childhoods, substance abuse, sexual abuse and what not, and an interesting category: political essays about this or that.
This book isn’t about politics per se, but it’s political nonetheless, as issues like child abuse, trafficking and slavery are debated. I’m shining a light on issues the LGBT community usually doesn’t.
Authors have always written about society in one way or another. We comment, we reflect, but most importantly, we put up this mirror, for people to see themselves in. This weekend, I’ll be in Berlin, attending an author-reader conference, and the one panel I’m doing is about how politics influences writing. Mind you, most of the authors who attend the con are romance writers, and that is maybe the one genre where politics is absent from, probably by design. Romances are about escapism, to make you feel good, and politics, well, is almost an antidote to feeling good these days.
Which is odd. Half a century into my life, I have seen six decades and seen a great deal of stability. When I was born, the war between the west and the east was cold, but things were stable. We did well, economically, as I grew up. Politicians were boring men who mostly seemed to actually care about the well-being of their countries. They seemed to work, honestly for the betterment of society and humanity. Or maybe I was just naïve? When I turned eighteen, the cold war suddenly ended and Reagan and Gorbachev almost did away with nuclear arms after that summit in Reykjavík. When I was twenty-two, the Berlin Wall came down and suddenly, it seemed as if wars were going out of fashion. The Kuwait war seemed to prove that theory. The world, united, fought against a tyrant and defeated him. Then came the wars in Yugoslavia and we began to wonder, is this just the way things are slowly settling down into this new world order? But alas, we quickly began to realize that we’d indeed been short-sighted, naïve. All over the world, war was still raging, people still fighting, and ever new fronts were opening up, from Sudan to Eritrea, the Philippines, all across the Middle East and finally, in 2001, hitting at the heart of the western world, with the attacks on 9/11.
Through all this, the “West”, reunited with Eastern Europe and a more benign Russia, seemed to be stable. The “enemy” was suddenly Islamic terror, and warlords in faraway lands, no longer the evil empire to the east. How wrong we were, and how little we understood just how fragile this bright, new world order was. Suddenly people are questioning the “raison d’être” of the EU, who’s kept the peace in Europe for six decades and running, Poland and Hungary are run by fascistoid governments, France’s historical political parties are all but extinguished after the recent parliamentary election, the U.K. is in turmoil about which way it wants to go, and the heart of the western world has ceased to beat, with a regime combining one man’s sociopathic need for self-praise with a fascist slogan from WWII (America First), while society is so deeply divided that most people cease to even watch/read the news. I look at the past few years in politics and wonder: WTF?
Family Ties depicts a family in crisis, one gay, one straight. Highly political as it showcases just how normal, the unusual can be.
As a minority author, I could, of course, depict this grand picture. I could write political thrillers about the state of the world. But I leave that to others. I find reality exciting enough. My mission is still a political one though. Who I am is still not fully embraced by our societies, not even one as liberal as my own. I might not get a job because of who I am. Never mind that it’s illegal to discriminate, but how do you know? And even if you were to know, how do you prove it? My husband and I may be the legal parents and guardians of our son, but every day we see how society (papers, TV, radio, etc.) refers to parenting as a function of primarily motherhood, trying to engage fathers more. Whenever, wherever my husband, my son and I go, we see the glances, the stares. Yes, we’re not a common occurrence. Neither are red heads, but people rarely stare at them.
And for as long as we are somehow “special”, “unusual”, and “uncommon”, that’s how long I’ll be writing about us, and my point isn’t to make us something else. Quite the contrary, our struggles, our fears, our fights, our vacations, our everyday lives are just as exciting, just as mundane as everyone else’s. That’s what I aim to show society. To my own LGBT siblings, my gay brethren, particularly the young ones, I aim to show that we are everybody, that we can be anything we want, do anything we want. We can be successful, we can fail. Most importantly, our intrinsic human value will always be the same as everyone else’s. This may not be politically opportune, but it’s my ongoing contribution to make my society, my world, a better place. In this, I am like most other authors, don’t you think?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due this Thursday. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful week. This Friday will mark the final post before my summer break. I don’t know when or how I’ll be able to blog. Maybe I’ll write something about our vacation. We’ll see. On Friday, I’ll talk more about the upcoming convention in Berlin.
Genres are a necessary “evil” to help readers find stories, and to help publishers market their books to specific groups, but…
I believe I’ve written about genres and genre placement before. It is something that was extremely important to me at the beginning of my writing career. After a while, my own take on it was a bit more relaxed, but recently I feel a choke hold around my throat from the restrictions it places on my storytelling, and I feel this really strong need to lash out, to free myself. I just don’t know how.
I recorded a video just yesterday about why I am no romance writer. I can’t see J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Dan Brown ever having this kind of struggle or dilemma. But for a very specific reason, in LGBT fiction we do. It’s due to “gay romance”. If you’re not in this particular part of the writing world, imagine the world of the aforementioned authors completely dominated by “Da Vinci romances” or “Shining / Cujo romances” or even “Harry Potter romances” to the degree that you can’t find the books that are not. In LGBT fiction, that’s our reality…
I’ve always defended romance, and gay romance in particular, simply because it offers so many positive stories, stories I didn’t have when I grew up. That is a huge step in the right direction, and I’ve seen dozens of young men (since 95% of the books are about gay men) with glazed over eyes talk about the importance of gay romance in their own identity building, in gathering the strength to come out, pursue relationships. However, much of romance is more about fantasy, escapism, not reality. Therefore, romance will only take you so far. As soon as you look for something more “serious”, more realistic, you’re our of luck.
An example. Five years ago, when we got pregnant with our son, I was looking for books that dealt with the topic of gay parenting. Not having any real life gay parents in my circles back then, I was really curious about what we were in for. I found a few books about that topic. But not one of the books I read were about gay parenting. No. They were all romances, and therefore only about the parents’ relationship, how they met, the struggles they had to become a couple (where the child sometimes was a hurdle to overcome), their sex life etc. I even read a book about a gay grandfather who fucked his love interest after returning home from a school meeting about his grandson being bullied. I was appalled! I decided there and then, that I would have to find my own path. Fucking as a way of “coping” or dealing with parenting issues just didn’t appeal to me. I doubt it works in the long term. I’d rather be there for my son…
In this book, I not only tell the story from Willem’s point of view, but also from Hery’s and others. But it’s Willem on the cover, and the other main character, the Tafel mountain. Not very romantic…
With almost two-hundred thousand romance books in LGBT literature, among a total of 230K, finding issue-based fiction is like finding a needle in a haystack. As the author of non-romance novels, I want to make it easier to make my books available to those who look for them, but it’s not easy. But even more than that, it’s really challenging for me as a writer. Because I don’t always decide what genres my books are placed in on Amazon. Their algorithm does that automatically. My books are about gay families, which automatically involves a couple, and thus a relationship. Amazon interprets that as a romance, even though it’s not. I’ve played with more than one genre, I’ve even written Erotica once, a book born from a project of trying to make more money. Alas, if failed, but I managed to save some of the text and turn it into a stand-alone novel.
I’m extremely grateful for my readers, and I know that most of the people who read my books normally read romance novels. Without the romance readers, I’d sell a book a month, instead of a book a day. This is of course also something my publisher must keep in mind in their efforts to push my books. Why publish a book if it won’t sell? On the flip side, of the (few, I’m lucky) bad reviews I receive, they are usually from people with very narrow definitions of what a good romance book is all about. And my books where the relationship is placed in the farthest background (The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, Willem of the Tafel) have been read a lot less than those where the couple’s relationship is more prominent, albeit for specific storytelling reasons, not because it was the relationship per se that is the main protagonist (Jonathan’s Hope, The Opera House).
For a while, I was perfectly comfortable with writing and I didn’t care if people mistook my books as romances. In a futile attempt at selling more, I even began to place people on my covers. Willem of the Tafel was my first book with a model on the cover. I felt anxiety and looked for the right model for the longest time before I finally settled on my Willem. It’s still, to this day, my favorite cover. The book didn’t sell. A single man on a cover just doesn’t “signal” relationship. Had I also placed Hery on the cover, who knows, maybe it would’ve. But to me, that wasn’t even on my retina. Willem of the Tafel isn’t about the two men’s relationship. It’s about politics, it’s about society building, racism, global warming and the sacrifices we have to make for society, for the betterment of our species.
In this novel, our two main characters look after Frank, a young child with cerebral palsy and form a family against all odds. The book aims at being a positive role model for young people with disabilities, but I realize that the cover screams something else. A shame for a great story…
For my next novel, Spanish Bay, I figured I’d take that extra step, and actually place the couple on the cover. I’ve lived to regret that decision. I like the cover, but yes, it’s a sell-out of my values. It’s very “romance-ey”, the kissing couple (none of which look like the main characters, and having found the same couple on another cover, although only if you’ve seen the entire series, you’d know), the font of the title… If I ever were to change a cover, this is the one: remove the couple and focus only on the beach, change the font. But at the time, I really tried to please readers who came from that corner of the world. And yes, I do feel like a sell-out.
I haven’t had a person on a cover since, and I won’t again. And it pains me that people read my books through a certain lens that keeps them from seeing the “bonus” I hope to provide. Needless to say, this is something authors have to accept. Once a book is out there, it’s really not up to us to have any views on how readers interpret a novel. I would never tell people how to read a novel. Believe me, people have asked. Yet at the same time, when people stand on the magnificent rim of the Grand Canyon, with one eye covered, they’ll never really get the full impression of just how magnificent the place is, the full depth of field. And if you read Harry Potter as a romance series, don’t you think you’re missing something? I mean there are two couples forming, and Hermione and Ronald have been in it from the get-go… Jinny comes into the picture a bit later, but still.
I said in my video yesterday, that I feel that the whole genres thing also has begun to affect my writing. I consciously dismiss writing ideas that are “positive”, “hopeful” and focus on things that are of a darker quality. When people keep telling you that you’re a cow, you have two choices: either you begin to grow those additional regurgitation stomachs and begin to eat fresh grass or you try to chance people’s perception of you. I try to change people’s perception, and I do so for very personal reasons: I grew up with people assuming I was straight. They assumed I’d get married to a nice girl, produce nice grandkids, become a provider to my family.
When I came out, risking to shatter those illusions, I was told that “it’s just a phase”, that “you haven’t met the right (magic?) girl yet” and “how can you know this?” For me, when people force me into a genre that isn’t mine, I instinctively feel that way I felt when I was seventeen and my parents shoved me back into the closet and threw away the key. They felt they knew better than I, they felt that their word weighed more than mine, and since I was a minor, I had no choice but to acquiesce. As a middle-aged man, I no longer feel the need to let others tell me who to be, how to be, what to be. I finally have the chance to be me, and that includes being the author of gay (and sometimes LGBT) fiction. Simply because I say so.
Readers, do you care about how your authors place themselves in genres? How do you find the books you read? Authors, what is your take on genres? Do you feel restricted by genres or do you find them helpful in your writing? I’d love to hear how others view this…
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend. Next week will be the last week that I write before I break for my summer vacation.