Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Louisa Reid: Posh boys have ‘learned how to make privilege hot’

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Sroll! Yes!” enthuses Louisa Reid. “Telephones have changed the way people read. Those short lines. Sometimes playful. Sometimes endlessly analyzed for deeper meaning. They prepared us for poetry.” YA (Young Adult) market. Authors such as Sarah Crossan, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jason Reynolds and Kwame Alexander have all used the form to explore the intense emotions of adolescence. These books inspired Reid – The Five Prose Novels for YA- Reader has published – to writing her first adult novel in verse.

consequently, the poet delivers the driving rush you get from watching shocking drama unfold on a friend’s social media account. In short, sharp lines, the story of Emma unfolds: a 25-year-old Oxford graduate who is in a toxic relationship with her former lecturer Tom. Their affair began when he was still her teacher (“that intoxicating burst of knowledge… my ass on your desk”). Working-class Emma won a coveted poetry prize and published her first book at 21. But four years of Tom’s scathing criticism of her work (“You bent your leg and pissed on my newly painted promise”) has persuaded her not to write. Instead, she’s stuck at home washing his socks while he bathes in the admiration of his students and capitalizes on his role as a celebrity academic with a blue tick on Twitter. When she googles it, she finds:

“You’re teasing me

a page listing your accomplishments,

news night apparitions,

radio 4

I’m playing a recording of a documentary

Watch as you stroll through a gallery

with a young artist, then on to the beach.

You pay attention while she speaks

so charming, so compelling.

I believe every word you say.

That was always my fault.”

On a video call from her home in the Greater Manchester town of Altrincham — where she teaches English at a local grammar school — Reid, 46, tells me that after publishing novels for the YA market, it was adult writing adventures. She enjoyed pinning posh Tom’s “terrible guy with pretense.” The book isn’t based on a real-life affair, she explains, but as a northern suburban, her own experiences at Oxford put her in touch with her fair share of “big, swinging intellect” and posh boys who “had learned how to make privilege hot”.

“This is really a thing, isn’t it?” she muses in warm Mancunian tones. “Some people think Rishi Sunak really is fit, Is not it. Dishy Rishy. There are women who find Boris attractive,” she winces. “The confidence that comes from their background can turn into charisma. And Tom turned it into an art form. When you’re young you crave validation, and he takes advantage of Emma’s self-doubt. He has the power, and when he says, “You’re real, my genius girl,” she believes it. And when he tells her she’s worthless, she internalizes that, too.”

Although Reid remembers “a lot of normal people” studying alongside her at Hereford College, she became acutely aware of how “the Toffs” used the university’s classes. She has stories to share of friends who were denied exclusive restaurants and invitation-only photographs of “the most attractive female freshmen – how mean!” More vividly, she recalls writing an Anglo-Saxon translation in her first year and “set about my work like a good state high school girl. But when I went to get my work from my desk, it was gone. I discovered that a privately trained chap had just walked off with my work and was copying it. He just assumed that this boring job wasn’t for him and that he could take a shortcut. I thought, ‘Damn it! What justification!’ That stayed with me.”

The casual theft of undervalued women’s work is the focus the poet Emma is writing a master’s degree on the work of Victorian poet Charlotte Mew, but Tom (who has previously despised women’s writing) follows the trend of ‘discovering’ forgotten female authors and secures a high-profile publishing deal for a book about Mew. Reid says, “He’s a vile hypocrite who doesn’t read anything written by contemporary women, but thinks he can use and abuse the work of dead women to bolster his ‘superhuman’ status.”

Reid shares her protagonist’s fascination with the defiant Mew. Born in 1869, the architect’s daughter was described by Thomas Hardy as the “greatest poet” of his life and by Siegfried Sassoon as “the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat”. But Reid does fret that the “tragic” details of Mew’s life (the fall from wealth into a basement apartment, the siblings’ sentencing to insane asylums, the rumors of unrequited lesbian love, and eventual death by suicide) received far more attention than to her work.

“I love their chutzpah,” says Reid. “I love their disinterest in social mores and demands. ‘Excuse me, good five o’clock folks,’ she wrote, ‘I lost the last few words. And my heart is in the woods above the church tower, I’d rather have tea with the birds.’” Reid is also moved by Mew’s exploration of “the impassable distances between people”. “‘The Farmer and His Bride’ [is] a brilliant example. I read The women of Stepford recently and was intrigued how Mew’s bride’s escape across the fields, being chased by the community, was reenacted in a similar scene The women of Stepford. [It’s] It’s so interesting to see women in texts running through time and being pursued, trying to avoid social forces trying to imprison them.

As a teacher, Reid is “shocked and angry” that the curriculum she has to teach is “heavily biased toward men’s work at GSCE and A levels. From 14 poems from the high school anthology love through the ages, only one woman (Rossetti) is included. It’s almost as if women didn’t have an opinion on love or matters of love before 1900! The GCSE anthology is also weighted in favor of male pens.”

Reid is among the many teachers struggling to restore this balance by introducing students to a wider range of texts. She recalls “introducing a couple of sixth year boys to Highgate [the fee-charging independent school in north London] to Angela Carter The Passion of New Eve. They didn’t like it and actually refused to read it. Imagine girls refusing to read texts that marginalize, harm, or belittle women!” Her ongoing attempts to bring more women’s work into the classroom are met with “limited resources, which means we don’t have bookcases easy to modernize. More money from the state please!”

Reid began writing fiction herself at age 27 and endured “a lot of rejections” before landing her first book deal at 33. She still struggles with impostor syndrome, which makes her feel “like I gave the industry a huge confidence trick by getting published in the first place.”

Writing in verse felt like another hurdle. Poetry can feel like an exclusive club, and she was aware that she “had no qualifications to use the form”. But a visit to Styal Women’s Prison in Cheshire convinced her that poetry “should not be an elitist medium”. She tells me: “The librarian invited me to have a session there with a group of women and we read a poem together called ‘The posh mums are boxing in the square’ by Wayne Holloway-Smith (about the cancer diagnosis of the Mother of the poet and how the poetic person wants to give her the tenacity to fight). They wrote individual responses based on what they would give someone if they could and I found their responses incredibly moving – the women were in tears. For the first time, I really saw firsthand – outside of a classroom – the absolute need to empower people (particularly vulnerable women) to express themselves. The women were dying to write (apart from one woman who didn’t write and just cried) and to be heard. The librarian later typed and printed out their answers and told me they were very proud of what they had accomplished.”

After her visit to Styal, “Reid decided to dive into the verse and it was such a liberating experience. Just happy.” It’s poetry that Emma and Tom use to seduce each other. And it’s lines of poetry that they hurl “like rockets” as they later try to destroy each other. Tom’s knowledge and authority (“language, dear,” he scolds) contrasts with Emma’s fresh talent, “sharp and dark with the ink of waiting.” You can sense the joy Reid felt as she danced between references to long-dead poets and modern slang as she described Emma’s avoidance of her work on Mew as “ghosting.”

When she was done, Reid was surprised to find that the publishers’ opposition was not to the form but to the subject. One editor rejected her book “on the grounds that the power gap between men and women had already been quite thoroughly researched in modern times. I think it’s an ongoing issue that needs to be revisited, especially as there’s now a sense of backlash against the MeToo movement.” Reid thinks we see that backlash in the “really nasty” social media responses to can see the Depp/Heard process. “It’s like an open season for misogyny. Structural systems allow men to win arguments against women all the time, but there is an indication that this is a major victory for an oppressed group who are prey to cunning and deceitful women out to harm them . I wonder if we are allowing popular, talented, charismatic men to get away with horrible things when we can justify their behavior if we demonize a woman enough.”

I finished the poet, in a late-night binge, and was smitten with its Coleen Rooney-esque Mike-drop ending. I closed it feeling that every new university student should be given a free copy to help them identify and navigate the power dynamics in the game. Reid laughs and says, “That would be lovely! Identify patterns of abusive behavior.”

She knows fiction can work this way because a friend “was in a coercively controlled marriage and she told me that she didn’t realize her situation until after she listened The archers and follow the story where Helen was controlled by the terrible Rob. Thank goodness she found her way out of this relationship, so who knows what power art can have when acting as a mirror or a door?”

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