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Joanna Walsh: Social media was vital to my development as a writer

Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh is the author of seven books. The most recent, Break.up, was published by Semiotext(e) in the US and Tuskar Rock in the UK in April 2018. Her writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Granta magazine, gorse journal, Salt's Best British Short Stories and The Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction.

Joanna edits at online literary journals 3:AM Magazine and Catapult, and writes literary and cultural criticism for a number of publications including The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. She founded and runs @read_women, described by the New York Times as "a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers". On top of this, she is the UK Arts Foundation 2017 Fellow for Literature, and Centenary Burgess Fellow at the University of Manchester.

Here Joanna discusses her new book, gender discrimination in literature and why everyone is an author in the age of social media — subjects she'll be exploring further at FutureFest 2018 on 6-7 July.

How do you cultivate your online persona as an author?

When I first started using Twitter, my profile was anonymous for a few years. It took a while for me to adjust to the idea of having a public persona. But everyone with a social media profile has a sense of what it’s like to be a writer. They have to make their posts engaging and accessible, they want to provoke the right reaction. People who purely work with their hands, and don’t normally write much other than an invoice or a postcard, all have to be authors now.

In your work, you’ve explored how people present themselves in the digital space. Do you feel social media has enabled you or restricted you as a writer?

Social media was vital to my development as a writer. When I began writing I had no connections; I had never done a writing course and didn’t live in London. I used Twitter in particular to talk about writing and reading with people who were also often anonymous.

Living in a purely offline community can be oppressive: there’s little opportunity for reinvention.

But sometimes there’s a pressure rather than a desire to share. I find the expectation that I should promote my work sometimes oddly alienating, though I’m always happy to learn my friends’ new work, so I can’t quite work out exactly why this is. Occasionally I either log off for a few days or I don’t tweet about my writing.

Your #ReadWomen social media campaign was fueled by a desire to address the marginalisation of female authors. How did this come about?

I started #ReadWomen as a Twitter project asking for names of female authors to put on the back of some cards featuring women writers, that I designed when I was working as an illustrator. I thought it would be a month-long project but even after a year, readers asked me to continue, and currently four women tweet from the account. I see the account as a sounding board, to provide support and recognition for a range of other writers’ projects, as well as overlooked writers from the past.

There has been a recent backlash in the media against sexism within the arts world. Have you noticed this awareness influence the conversation about women in literature?

There's a #metoo movement within the literary world too. As for gender balance, in The Bookseller, Hannah Westland, the publisher of Profile wrote that she thought literary fiction is now an area of gender-parity. But the VIDA statistics show that women are still under-reviewed and underemployed by many publications, and areas such as play and screenwriting remain heavily male-dominated, not just in terms of who writes but in terms of who is represented.

I got involved with a group of translators — including Katy Derbyshire, whose research found that only 27% of contemporary fiction translated into English was written by women — and worked with them to found the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which made its first award last year.

It’s interesting, as you said people view it as a very progressive industry and people wouldn’t necessarily associate gender discrimination with literature. But it touches every industry and a lot of our prejudices are programmed within us.

They’re literally programmed into us. My English literature BA was taught from a very traditional perspective. I’m sure there have been changes since I studied, but there are still many readers, not to mention reviewers, whose reading tastes were formed in this way.

I was taught almost exclusively the work of male writers. Feminism, as a critical standpoint, was considered an optional extra rather than an integral part of the course.

In your previous work, you’ve explored the one-dimensional portrayal of female characters and the expectation for women to be the carers, sympathetic and sensitive to other people’s feelings. How have you challenged this perception through your writing?

In my story collection Vertigo, I wrote about women in family and romantic relationships: as wives, mothers, lovers, sisters, daughters. I wanted to tell what was happening in flat and simple language, in almost hyper-real detail — like looking at an overexposed photo with no depth or perspective. My characters have some distance and a sense of humor about their situations, and I think that comes through telling, through language. But they’re not often in a position to do much about their situations without upsetting the balance of not only their lives, but those of others. There’s a pressure on women writers in particular to provide role models. I wanted to write about women who are not stronger than their circumstances.

Tell us a bit about your new book, Break.up

Break.up is a novel in essays, I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of the novel form. It’s a break up story rather than a love story, with a hyper-linked form. Just as online you find yourself clicking through from site to site, in the book, essays on love become essays on boredom, time, music… and contain references to other thinkers and writers. It’s a wandering book in all senses: literally a story of a woman wandering around a physical space (the continent of Europe), trying to re-establish physical and subjective boundaries after a relationship which mostly took place in the ‘non-place’ of online.

Break.up is quite satirical at points — making fun of the passive aggressive side of social media; people posting photos instead of responding to texts. In a way, we are encouraged to be a generation of stalkers, always watching what other people are doing without engaging. How do you imagine this evolving for future generations?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s a question to do with narrative — how can we ‘tell’ ourselves online, and what sorts of technology will dominate our ability to express ourselves. I’ve been thinking about Eve Sedgwick’s essay on “paranoid reading”, which came out of the Cold War but seems made for the internet age. The essay critiques the idea of literary criticism itself, which mistrusts texts, and looks for subtextual meanings. Sedgwick calls for a different kind of "reparative" reading. All this could be applied to the way we read each other’s online ’texts’. I’m interested in the possibility of online expressions of what the British poet and critic Denise Riley calls "irony": shared identities that are finally neither exclusive or definitive.

Don’t miss Joanna at FutureFest 2018. This year’s line-up also features Paul Mason, Michael Ignatieff, Akala, Imogen Heap, Nick Clegg and many more.

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Lily Fish

Lily Fish

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Lily was the Event Marketing Manager in the Communications team. She worked on the marketing for FutureFest and explored how we can grow the event in 2018.

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