A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.
From the jacket:
Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.
When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …
When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.
How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.
I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.
First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.
She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:
Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.
Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.pp 14 – 15
The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.
This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.
It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.
A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:
In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.page 352
Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.
Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.
Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).
But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:
Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.page 310
So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.
Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,
The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.page 294
Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.
At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:
The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.
Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.
I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.
That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.
As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:
“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”
Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.
It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)
So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”
Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.
Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.
So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.page 406
What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.
First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.
But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.
I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.
Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.
And In Conclusion
So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).
I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,
“I see what you’re doing there.”