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Leveling Up: In Praise of Writer Dads

Image: iStockphoto - FunSand [1]
Image: iStockphoto – FunSand


According to my kids I’m “funny a lot” and make them laugh. I’m a goofball. My wife says I’m excited because I have my perfect audience right now. I’m yucking it up for all I can get, because I know that shit’ll evaporate come twelve or thirteen. Hopefully by then they’ll like video games, or books, and we can continue bonding there.

Tobias Buckell [2]
Tobias Buckell

New York Times bestseller Tobias Buckell [2] is a Hugo-, Nebula-, Prometheus-, and John W. Campbell-nominated author.

His twins are four years old.

When I was their age I basically didn’t have a father. By the time my stepdad arrived, I was a thirteen-year-old pretty set in his ways, so I don’t really relate to anyone on that level.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez [3]
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

Buckell is the interview subject of Guy LeCharles Gonzalez [4] in the debut of his new series of such profiles, “Writer Dads,” at VQRonline.org [5]—Virginia Quarterly Review, the digital edition of which is directed by Jane Friedman [6], our great, good colleague and friend.

In the inaugural outing of the monthly series [7], Gonzalez introduces a new focus on a member of our community who has been overshadowed for a long time: the writer dad.

The writer dad.

“The writer who,” you ask?

We know the writer mom, of course, as a cherished icon in today’s authorial community and in publishing.

VQR [7]Even to say we “know” her is an understatement. We rightly revere her. We find her nourishing energy at every turn in writing today. Whole communities, major ones, revolve around the concept of the writer mom, this brave, inspiring soul who manages, somehow, to tackle the exhaustion of having and raising children, running a household, usually working outside the home as well, and writing.

Not for nothing, after all, are Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, the creators of Writer Unboxed, itself, referred to as “Founders & Mamas.”

If anything, it’s not rare for the writer mom’s story to sound like this passage from Buckell in his interview:

When the twins were first born, as I write late at night, I just took on the late shift. My wife would go to bed at 10:30-ish, and I would be on. I’d write, and then wake the twins up with bottles, feed and change them, then put them back to bed every few hours until about six a.m. (at first they were on a strict feed-every-three-hour due to jaundice, and it became a regular schedule). Then I slept during the early part of the day. We teamed up for late afternoon and evening. We each got seven to eight hours of sleep.

[pullquote]I’m grateful to Gonzalez for spotlighting this subject so many are hesitant to touch, not with a 10-foot poll of how many among us think family men can have as viable and praiseworthy a challenge in writing as family women do. [/pullquote]

But we don’t hear or read such passages frequently by or about writer dads…who also know exhaustion, sacrifice, the wry laugh about “finding balance” in life, and the everyday heroics of struggling to keep a manuscript fed along with everyone else in the house.

It was such an apparent lapse, in fact, that prompted Gonzalez’ creation of this welcome, long-needed series, “Writer Dads.” In his introduction to it, Gonzalez writes:

Back in the spring, VQR published an interesting article by Becky Tuch, “The Choice and Challenge of Being a Writer-Parent [8],” that raised an interesting premise but wasn’t terribly representative, as few of the writers quoted directly were actually parents, and only one was a male writer, inadvertently reinforcing cultural stereotypes around writing as a career and the challenges of “life with babies.”

As a married father of two who has long struggled with finding the right balance that allows for enough time to write, I was disappointed by the absence of voices that resembled my own experience, and was inspired to do something about it. And so, “Writer Dads” was conceived as a series of interviews with professional writers who are also fathers, discussing how they balance the two, what the real challenges are, and how it affects both their writing and parenting.

I commend this series to you. I commend “Writer Dads”—and writer dads—to you.

I thank Tobias Buckell for his candor and generous humor about himself in this first installment.

[pullquote]Wouldn’t you think that for both business reasons and cultural enrichment, it would do us more good to work on getting more men into literature than to keep downplaying women’s clout in the field?[/pullquote]

I’m grateful to Gonzalez for spotlighting this subject so many are hesitant to touch, not with a 10-foot poll of how many among us think family men can have as viable and praiseworthy a challenge in writing as family women do. Try putting writer dad into the search field on Twitter. Stand well back from your computer. The hits you get will stretch from here to China. Or from Beijing to us.

So why would so many intelligent people, including Tuch—who is with The Review Review [9] and Beyond the Margins [10] and teaches in Boston’s pivotal Grub Street [11] program)—see women and not men as well, when they hear or read or write the phrase “writer-parent?”

How easily what is politically correct can outstrip what is simply true.

Tuch’s last line in the piece to which Gonzalez refers, reads:

Any conversation about balancing parenthood with writing ought to include the specific circumstances of writers’ lives.

Well, then, might not “the specific circumstances of writers’ lives” include male gender? Most parenthood, not all, is gender-balanced. Until we give more same-sex couples the chance they deserve to be parents, “balancing parenthood with writing” cannot be assumed to be a women’s issue. And yet, it usually is claimed as just that.

[pullquote]There are also powerful and remarkable writer dads here with us. To make them labor in a pink shadow is wrong. [/pullquote]

I am not a parent. I am one of those people who is more than happy with that. But Gonzalez is a dad. He and his wife wrangle two kids of their own, just as Buckell and his wife do.

Does the idea of one writer dad interviewing another writer dad—about being writer dads, precisely—make you think that you’re going to hear either overt or veiled diminution of writer moms? Do you assume that when the boys get together on this, it’s “let the dissing” begin, and the girls don’t have a chance?

Then  you need to read the whole Gonzalez-Buckell interview. These lines from Buckell may surprise you:

Women have a harder time of balancing this stuff. The expectations of society, the biological necessities of nursing, and so forth, plus the fact that women often end up doing more of the household and parenting stuff, means that it’s simply a matter of many women having less time. Many women writers who have kids don’t have the option of daycare, and the kids are around until kindergarten. If they’re doing the writing part time, it’s got to be tough. I can’t even imagine.

Have I given you a pause yet? You can answer silently, that’s just fine. No show of hands will be required. I prefer low-impact rumination when I need to rethink one of my own assumptions, too.

Not being the writer dad I so profoundly admire Gonzalez and Buckell for being, I’m casting about here for some little way I can help. I’m, at least, one of the boys. And a lot of us need to speak up, not only for all the writer parents of our industry, of course, but also for a more even-handed recognition of gender when we use that phrase “writer parent.”

[pullquote]It shows us to be at best over-compensatory—and at worst flatly bigoted—to suggest that a woman’s struggle to write amid family obligations will be automatically and in every case weightier than a man’s struggle.[/pullquote]

These are both writer moms and writer dads.

It does us no good to prize one above the other. As we try to overcome the centuries of stupid, shameful oppression of women, it shows us to be at best over-compensatory—and at worst flatly bigoted—to suggest that a woman’s struggle to write amid family obligations will be automatically and in every case weightier than a man’s struggle.

Maybe from my own unique viewpoint  I can offer a couple of observations that are, as this column’s “Provocations in Publishing” branding seeks to remind you, controversial. They are nonetheless true.

(1) Any seeming exaltation of women’s challenges in literature over men’s actually helps perpetuate the imbalances we see in men’s and women’s participation. Keep saying “Oh, guys don’t read nearly as much as women,” and you’ll make it true, just as surely as you’ll make girls (and boys) think they have to be skinny if you keep showing them svelte models in fashion ads.

From (Nielsen) Bowker 2012  Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review [12]
From (Nielsen) Bowker 2013 Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review

(2) Any denial of women’s market dominance in literature over men’s obfuscates what statistics invariably tell us. Bowker Research—now Nielsen—has reported in its 2013 Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review [13] that more women buy books than men; they buy more books (units) than men; and they spend more dollars on books than men. We know this, we see it, we report it.

So wouldn’t you think, then, that for both business reasons and cultural enrichment, it would do us more good to work on getting more men into literature than to keep downplaying women’s clout in the field?

Gonzalez always has ready the right hashtag for this: #cmonson.

Are you willing to tell me that Buckell doesn’t speak brilliantly for writing women as well as for writing men when he says this in his interview:

I don’t want to be the parent who always is away from the kids writing, I want them to know I can be there for them. On the other hand, at some point, they have to learn I’m not just a father-robot. I am a fellow human being. It’s okay to not completely dissolve into this role of parent, kids are smart enough to realize we will have our own hobbies and careers. So will they.

If you don’t agree with me (and it’s just fine if you don’t, my Writer Unboxed colleagues know this by now), your beef is strictly with me, not with these two good guys who are addressing the topic together at VQR.

Porter - Provocations in Publishing logo header WU [14]
Porter-provocateur branding by Liam Walsh

But I hope these writer dads’ courageous pickup of this sensitive issue is something you’ll allow a little play in the quiet honesty of your thoughts. Roll it over in your mind.

There are supremely effective and eloquent writer moms among us, and we are so much richer for their battles to be productive, articulate members of our profession. We honor them, we thank them, and we love them.

And there are also powerful and remarkable writer dads here with us. To make them labor in a pink shadow is wrong.

If we allow the brilliant efforts of writing women to eclipse the important realities of writing men’s travails as if they’re somehow less praiseworthy, then we are in bad faith. We know this. We have only to say it to come clean, to move forward together, to be better people in literature.

The time has come for us to honor, thank, and admit that we love these guys, as well.

I have a theory that in each of our lives, we appreciate the writer dads we know personally just as much as the writer moms we know. But somehow, the “branding” on the wider scale tends to skew things. (“I really like that guy, it’s men I can’t stand.”) What do you think?

About Porter Anderson [15]

@Porter_Anderson [16] is the 2019 recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [17], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [18] in London. Priors: CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media including #MusicForWriters [19] series. More:PorterAndersonMedia.com [14] | Google+ [20]