Today, I (well, my Granny and my book, really) was the subject of a big, front-page piece in the Guardian’s family pages. It’s a section I read, and know well – and I was interviewed by one of the best-known and potentially fiercest ladies in the business, Zoe Williams. (I mean this as a compliment, as a certain ruthlessness is kind of part of the job requirements. Nobody employs or wants to read ‘nice’ journos.) So, having sat through an almost 2-hour grilling about my book, my politics, my childhood and my parenting advice, I was understandably nervous all week about what Ms Williams would write – would she slag me off for being a pretty young Mum who writes pretty books about raising kids pretty well? Or would she see beyond the required fluff of my cross-stitch, pink and green book covers, the whole infuriating Yummy Mummy issue, my big blue eyes and bright ‘please don’t crucify me!’ smile, and try to actually understand who I am, and what my books seek to achieve?
I shouldn’t have worried, because in the event she wrote one of the most complimentary and understanding pieces about me and my work I have ever read, and all credit to her for taking the time to actually bother to do so, and to keep an open mind.
As she put it herself: “I had decided beforehand not to like her, and then I liked her.”
It’s a strange thing, being in the public eye, in however tiny, barely-noticeable a way. People feel they have the automatic right to comment on you – not on your work, which is fair game because work is put out there to be criticised fairly, but on YOU. You the person, as opposed to you the author/actress/presenter/artist/director or whatever it is you happen to be to get yourself in the position of ‘person in the public eye’. And comment they do – most often not very kindly. (Some of the comments that have already appeared on the Guardian page beneath the article illustrate this pretty well. Some are fair, and contribute something interesting. Others are downright nasty and pointless.)
It seems to be the rule that if you like something you just like it and maybe tell someone you like about it the next day in the queue at Tescos, but if you hate it you write about it online immediately for all to hate with you.
Nasty, personal comments on your lifestyle, your hair, the way you walk, or talk, or smile are commonplace on web chatrooms, and the truth is that, to the sub ject, they really do do hurt.
One reason for this is free-for-all, public, on-line flogging is jealousy (she’s written a book and looks half decent too. I hate her); another is boredom (nothing to do? Hey, slag someone off!); and yet another is because it’s so damned easy, and also, making a caustic remark about someone you don’t know but have read something about is a lot easier than taking the time to understand what they do, for yourself. And there’s the problem: about someone you have read something about. Not met for youself, or bothered to see their film/read their book/listen to their music and form an unbiased opinion. Read about. In someone else’s words….Which brings me (almost, ahem) seamlessly back to the journalists.
Journalists, like all the rest of us, have a job to do. They have to earn money, which means they have to get published. And it’s a lot easier to get published if you say somthing a little more scintillating than “I met this really nice author today, who was really sweet and lovely. And she’s written a lovely book. Which I haven’t read, but I’m sure you’d like. Because it looks so lovely.” Much better is to claw your subject to pieces using an armoury of character-busting adjectives, adverbs and telling details about what sort of mood they were in, if they arrived late, what a bizarre chin they have, how skinny/fat/heathy/pale etc they are or if they ate with their mouth full.
That sells copy.
I don’t criticise journalists for painting a dramatic, colouful picture of events, for exactly this reason. But I do mind – a LOT – when they describe something they just haven’t seen at all, or which influences the reader’s opinion hugely, simply because it makes a dull story better. Why write, ‘Liz entered the room and shook my hand’ when you could instead write, as happened to me once a few years ago (I forget the exact words but this is pretty much them) , ‘Liz breezed across the lobby, designer glasses in her glossy hair, skinny jeans beneath and expensive-looking denim jacket and a mega-watt, perfect smile.’
The first is factually correct. The second is a slanted, catty embellishment, written because he or she wants to portray me as a stuck-up, glamorous ‘Yummy Mummy’ ,as they perceive the term, with pots of money and manicurist. It’s not actually incorrect (I do often have glasses in my hair to keep the darned stuff out of my eyes!) but it’s not necessary to the story, and it clouds thre reader’s judgement.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of nonsense a fair few times, and I’ve learned to laugh it off. (Mostly!) But it’s a real pleasure to read an article written by somebody with enough intelligence and care for her work that she can admit when her preconceptions were competely wrong, and who can say
‘Fraser totally turned me around….Talking to [her] has unsettled, even destroyed, my understanding of the cultural trope.’
Who can admit that she hadn’t read any of my books before meeting me, (one does wonder though, why a leading national newspaper assigns the job of interviewing an author whose books the journo knows nothing about other than what she’s read from other, err, other journos, and whose subject – parenting – she has so very, very little experience of, but that’s for another blog…) and who can learn something new about being a parent, have their eyes opened to a new idea and do so while keeping her own ideas in tact. Oh, and have the sense to realise that not turning into the back end of a bus after having a baby is not the worst thing a woman can ever do, and doesn’t automatically mean she should be chastised for it!
Reporting the truth, especially if it’s not what you wanted to find, takes courage, and shows a genuine interest in your subject.
I was proved wrong too: I didn’t want to dislike Zoe at all, but I expected her to be pretty tough going, and not my cup of tea at all. Tough she certainly was, but also funny, and human, and beneath the Rottweiler exterior (which melted into an almost cute puppy at times) I found someone I wouldn’t actually mind spending a good deal more time with, and wished I could have met under different circumstances.
She was doing her job, and so was I.
And, though she’d deny this I’m sure, she has many of the hallmarks of Yummy Mummy-dom herself: she is undoubtedly attractive, very intelligent, she works hard, exercises (she arrived on a bike – good on her!), admits her failings on the parenting front and is just doing the best she can for her child, while keeping the ‘pre-maternity Zoe’ alive. That, my friends, is a Yummy Mummy.
Ms Williams for your honesty, wit, brains and ability to see deeper than my foundation, I salute you! If you keep this up I think you’ll make a very good Mum indeed.