US President Harry Truman
D.G. McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992)
Quoted in Kim Ghattas, The Secretary A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (New York: Times Books, 2013)
Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".
The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.
Twitter @FashionAbecedaiEmail: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com
US President Harry Truman
D.G. McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992)
Quoted in Kim Ghattas, The Secretary A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (New York: Times Books, 2013)
My 11 year-old snow bunny jumper
Purely in terms of cost per wear, this is my most profitable item of clothing. I have been wearing my beige snowflake jumper every winter for 11 years. My parents, as I had no disposable income at the time, bought it at Camaieu, the French ready-to-wear womenswear retailer, during the winter 2003 sale.
We’d gone to the local shopping mall, on a Saturday afternoon in January, for the express purpose of sale shopping, a bi-yearly family occasion scrupulously respected. It was the end of the day and, through the automatic glass sliding doors next to Camaieu, we could see that night had fallen. I hadn’t found anything I liked yet, which I’m sure would have annoyed me, when my mum picked up the jumper and told me that since I was small, I needed to wear something with interesting details. I’m pretty sure my sister hated it, if only because of the turtleneck, one of her fashion phobias. What I thought of it, I have forgotten. Taste, when it comes to this jumper, is secondary. This jumper is purely utilitarian. It has served me better than any of my other jumpers, of which there are many.
Normally, I estimate the worth of an item of clothing according to a very scientific formula: (price paid)/(number of compliments received). Des Petits Hauts and Diane von Furstenberg always win, as does a pale green Spring/Summer 2010 Burberry Prorsum skirt (bought at a sample sale) and all my Beatrix Ong shoes. This jumper never earns me any compliments (a sign in itself, my sister would say), but its original price, likely under 50 euros, divided by the number of wears, makes it different kind of wardrobe winner.
Although I have been wearing it for 11 winters, there aren’t many pictures of me in this jumper. It isn’t occasionwear, it is comfort wear - an item to throw on when I don’t want to get dressed or when it’s too cold but I can’t wear a blanket because that’s not deemed socially appropriate. This jumper is the promise of winter, of days leaving and coming back to the house when it is dark, of likely snow, of Eurostar return tickets and of Christmas approaching. It is a wardrobe holy grail, since it is bland enough to go with absolutely anything. To smarten it for work: skinny black jeans and heeled ankle boots at work; to be comfy at the weekend, old and faded jeans. During my first winters in London, I used to pair it with a Gryffindor-inspired scarf my grandmother had knitted for me, not because they went well together but because they were my two favourite items of knitwear.
The only photo of me wearing it is for my dad’s birthday, shortly after I had bought it. What can we learn from that picture? That on 7 March 2003, Nevers was freezing and I had gotten my first short bob haircut.
Six months later, the jumper followed me to London. I had bought it pre-relocation plans but its ease of care (machine washable knitwear!) combined with tales of grim British weather convinced me to add it to my suitcase. A Camaieu jumper was significantly less cool or expensive than what most of my Lycée français classmates wore but many of them came to identify me with it. In fact this winter, I have worn it to meet up with two people who knew me well at the time, and they both recognised it.
But despite accompanying me to London, to Lyon and then back to London, the snowflake jumper doesn’t evoke memories as much as it reminds me of my taste evolution. 2003 was the year I decided that browns would be the best colour palette on me. It seemed elegant and refined and so very grown up, because at 17, I really wanted to be grown up, which was synonymous with Having It Figured Out.
Most other brown items I bought that year are gone, since I’ve moved on, colour-wise, but the snowflake jumper remains, a steady presence in my winter wardrobe. It isn’t about being grown-up anymore, because I actually am a grown-up, it’s about reminding me of who I was when I bought it. When it’s cold outside, when I wonder why on earth I live so far from my family or why I am willingly putting myself through the madness of yet another Fashion Week, my Camaieu snow bunny jumper reminds me of the hopes, dreams and ambitions my 17-year-old harboured, and how I’m still the same person.
In 2012, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women. To get women’s voices read and recognised, the literary world needs companies like Linen Press, the independent publisher set up by Lynn Michell to champion “great writing, by women. For women”.
Going against the current trend in mainstream publishing, Linen Press never prints the pastel, lipstick-illustrated covers too often associated with and “for women”. Rather, Michell picks manuscripts which are “tough, honest, relevant and brave enough to take a broad look at the world and women’s place in it”.
Enticed by the company tagline, I interviewed Linen Press founder and writer Michell and her team to learn more about the ethos and the concept behind the publishing house.
Michell got the idea for Linen Press after a serious and sudden illness cut her career in academia short. Having always enjoyed writing and editing, in addition to lecturing English and psychology and her anthropology research, she started a creative writing class in Edinburgh, where she realised working with writers was her true calling. Setting up her own publishing house was the natural next step.
Naming the company Linen Press was the first homage to women. “I was thinking of traditional female activities and came up with fabric, texture, washing, ironing, folding, washing on the line drying,” Michell remembers. “In Edinburgh’s Victorian terraces and houses, there are very shallow cupboards called ‘a press’ which are fairly useless except with the doors removed for bookshelves, so I was playing with the words Linen Press - a shelf or cupboard where Linen is folded and stored. The phrase ‘The story unfolds’ came next. And finally my name is Lynn. Blend ‘lynn’ with ‘women’ and you get Linen.”
2013 was a successful year for Linen Press with the publication of two well-reviewed books: Sailing through Byzantium by experimental novelist Maureen Freely and Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night by Michell and Stefan Gregory.
Although Michell is mum on her plans for 2014, she reveals the company is hoping “for a Booker long-listing”.
Linen Press isn’t just a place for great writing: the company takes its championing of women’s rights in every domain very seriously. Last April, it started backing the One Billion Rising campaign, which demands an end to violence against women and girls, by giving £1 from the sale of each Hema Macherla novel to the cause.
The author’s stories are the perfect fit for the campaign. “My Indian author Hema Macherla writes about taboo subjects like abuse in arranged marriages, the plight of child widows and fallen women, and the practice of suttee. Her approach is subtle and she is a born story-teller; her personal campaign is to write novels that tell the truth about women in India while pulling you into a page turner”, Michell tells me.
Raising awareness of women’s condition around the world isn’t limited to donating money. On its social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Linen Press shares links and insights directly related to the books and memoirs it publishes. “For those unfamiliar with Linen Press and its ethos, the social media networks are often a good introduction to what we are about”, Michell explains.
Followers can also click on general links about women and the literary world. Recent shares include a first person account by published novelist MM Finck of how she struggled to recognise the writer within herself and a New York Times op-ed by Amy Wallace about life as a female journalist. In other words, if you are a woman writer, or just interested in writing and or women’s rights, the Linen Press social media platforms are a good source of information.
This strategy is all part of Michell’s attempt to change the literary industry from within. “Women writers struggle to find a foothold in the male-dominated world of publishing which gives many more prizes to and reviews to male authors and often doesn’t include women on the shortlists for the glittering prizes. Linen Press regards the publishing industry as a only-just-ajar door to women writers and our mission is to help redress the balance.”
Much of the social media content is run by female interns. How does she reconcile championing women and employing interns, a hot topic in the news for its unfairness and its favouring of the most privileged? For Michell, It’s all about making sure the interns get actual experience under her mentorship and leave Linen Press equipped with all the skills they need to secure that hard-to-get first job in publishing.
Interns also play a key role in responding to the numerous submissions Linen Press receives. Michell trains them personally to make sure they, as well as the manuscript writer, get the best possible skills out of the experience. “When I take on a new intern, I work with her on a batch of submissions, checking her comments and criticisms, and asking her why she would accept or reject a piece. Most can do this pretty well, but they need to witness the very high standard of writing I expect”.
Michell has some advice if you are a female writer after that all-important acceptance letter from a publisher.
First, study the company website and make sure your manuscript is a good fit. Linen Press for instance is “looking for literary and top end contemporary fiction”. If your thing is illustrated stories or science fiction, your submission will be automatically rejected.
Secondly, “write about something that has truly moved you, changed you, or made you stop in your tracks to think and reflect, then make sure you have transposed that experience into fiction or memoir”.
Lastly, polish up your narrative voice. “I want to hear a strong, singing narrative voice that sucks me in and doesn’t let me go. That’s a lot to ask.”
Disclaimer: Linen Press has kindly provided me with copies of Sailing through Byzantium and The Making of Her for review.
How red carpet sexism is rooted in double standards: a short, non exhaustive list.
Outfit recaps after award ceremonies and red carpet events focus on women’s dresses. Women are asked to name who they are wearing more often than men. Actresses’ careers are considered more robust if they can be gifted custom-made dresses. Live coverage makes a point to show female, not male outfits in details (as recently pointed out by Cate Blanchett). Bill Murray can turn up to Cannes in a multi-colour, plaid mash-up and the most criticism he gets is that he’s “eccentric”. Were a woman to arrive in a sartorial equivalent, she would be shamed. Actresses are expected to turn up at each event in a new dress, if not to wear multiple outfits over the course of one ceremony, when actors could don the same suit again and again with hardly anyone noticing. Actors’ female partners end up in outfit recaps, being commented on for their clothes and body, whereas male partners get a pass. Reviews are spoken and written about how well a dress fits but rarely about how a suit fits, even though tight jackets are just as unflattering as tight bustiers. When was the last time you read a commentary on a man’s shoes or haircut? Women can’t win: it’s that damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t story that women’s mags love to use (i.e. too much make-up, not enough, too much flesh, too covered up). It takes much more money and time for a woman than for a man to get ready (I’ve seen the Rachel Zoe Project episodes). Suits suggest power whereas red carpet dresses are about the body they display.
I am a far too willing and engaged part of this red carpet double standard. I look at the red carpet outfit round-up before the winners’ list after an award ceremony. I have lost track of what Lupita Nyong’o has won so far, but I will remember for a long time how amazing she looked picking up her SAG award for Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role (or on any red carpet, really).
At work, we actually have little team gatherings to look at outfits. We spend a lot less time on the good looks than on the bad ones. I hate it when people say nobody bitches more about women than women, but award seasons seem to be a case in point. Most best/worst dressed lists are put together and written up by women. It’s almost as if there is a limited pool of awesomeness for women to draw from; slagging off actresses means there is more for the rest of us. It’s also rooted in our desire to see that wealthy, famous, and beautiful people are no better than us. If she - with all her money - can’t dress, it somehow validates my own inability to.
When I first started thinking about this post, I had planned it as a photoset before realising that if I want play a small part in stopping red carpet sexism, I can start by not singling out specific outfits. The sad thing is, based on four years’ of Tumblr analytics, this post will do a lot less well as text-only article than it would have accompanied by shiny gown pictures.
Yet looking at pictures in itself isn’t the problem. When I imagine a non-sexist red carpet, I visualise one where everybody, irrespective of gender, is dressed perfectly, not one where everybody turns up in a bed sheet (unless it’s Grecian style). If my money and my interest in your career is enabling you to be paid a pretty penny to keep doing something you love, the least you can do is make an effort when turning up to something the world is going to watch.
Politeness and audience respect aren’t the only reasons why I think people should dress well on the red carpet. It is one of the few places, bar fashion shows, where haute couture and bespoke tailoring can be seen by laymen, before the happy 85 snap them. The dresses currently on show in Paris, which will likely have their next and only public outing at the Oscars, are the result of skills developed over hundreds of years of dress design and construction, often by women. Wouldn’t it be sad if crappy red carpets meant nobody could admire the skills of these petites mains anymore?
Last September, when Drudge Report put a make-up-free Hillary Clinton on its homepage, Erin Gloria Ryan wrote about appearance sexism for Jezebel, in an article since quoted endlessly on social platforms: “You may not agree with a woman, but to criticize her appearance — as opposed to her ideas or actions — isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all you. Insulting a woman’s looks when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand implies a lack of comprehension on your part, an inability to engage in high-level thinking. You may think she’s ugly, but everyone else thinks you’re an idiot.”
Commenting on whether a dress looks good or not isn’t sexist. Some designers’ work, no matter the price tag, is objectively pretty abysmal. Suggesting however that it makes the wearer look fat, or that her choice implies a lack of intelligence on her part, is.
True, these actresses should be talked about for their camera work more than for the clothes on their back. After all, this (and Harvey Weinstein’s power) is the reason why they are walking the red carpet. Yet fashion and cinema are so intrinsically linked through costume and advertising contracts that discussing one without the other would be ignoring a large part of the industry.
Red carpets are one of the few cases where a woman’s look has to do with the issue at hand. If you are the face of Dior for what is at least a seven-figure deal, you bet I’m going to have an opinion on your Dior dress, and you bet Dior wants me to have one too (preferably positive). Uma Thurman might not have known what she was getting into when she wore that lilac Prada dress at the 1995 Oscars but two decades on, no actress can argue the same.
Cate Blanchett was right to ask “Do you do that to guys?” to the E! News team when the camera took a full body shot of her, yet she did so wearing a spring 2014 Givenchy, Chopard jewels and Roger Vivier sandals, an outfit which landed her on many best dressed list and showed she understands and plays the game. I dream of a time when E! News will do full body shots of guys. We shouldn’t stop asking women what they wear, we should start asking men too.
Obviously, to change red carpet sexism, we, the audience need to stop clicking on articles about best and worst dressed, we need to stop commenting and echoing. However, we can still appreciate a proper fit, an intricate beading, right-length trousers or a well-cut jacket. There is nothing sexist about that.
Fashion brands, not normally known for their feminism, are playing a role in balancing red carpet expectations between genders. If not by conviction, because of the financial imperatives that drive them, as menswear is emerging as an untapped, revenue-driving market.
In a Material World blog post published after the Golden Globes, Financial Times journalist Vanessa Friedman, who has been writing about the fashion industry for over 15 years, explains how struck she was by the number of fashion houses that sent her press releases about dressing men. She points to Prada, who only dressed men for the 2014 Golden Globes, probably a first.
Brands can also help get rid of another double standard, rarely called out but which really bothers me, probably because of my own body temperature issues: in the middle of winter, or in a torrential downpour, women wear small dresses, often made from silk and sleeveless, whereas men turn up in suits, which could be in a wool or cashmere. Or they even turn up wearing a coat, like George Clooney at the 2013 BAFTA.
Every time I see a London premiere, my first thought isn’t “amazing dress”, it’s “she must be freezing”. Awards so far have taken place in Los Angeles, a pretty warm city, even in January, but wait till the BAFTA in London next month. There’s no way Marion Cotillard didn’t risk hypothermia in that yellow Dior gown last year.
Here, brands are both culprit and potential saviour. Culprits, because when was the last time you saw a warm evening dress on the runway? Saviours because surely, direct sales of coats from a red carpet could be more important than sales of dresses. At the moment, red carpet ROI is more about brand awareness than direct sales. Unless your lifestyle fits, you are unlikely to buy a floor-sweeping dress. A coat, which you can get more wears out of; well you just might fork out the money for that.
You know who doesn’t do cold on the red carpet? Anna Wintour. She wears fur and coats and she has never struck me as looking cold. Stylists would do well to take note.
Vanity Fair France vs Vanity Fair US
“Vanity Fair (VF) is read by people who like to think they are important and in-the-know.” That’s how a fellow student described the magazine when I first bought it during my second year at the LSE.
Since then, I haven’t missed a single issue of Graydon Carter’s publication. In fact, being published in it one day has become one of my writer’s goals. When I moved house last May, I sent all my other magazines to France for archiving, but kept eight years’ worth of VF. So when Condé Nast France announced it was finally launching a French version of the magazine, I was pretty excited.
Over the years, I have imagined what a French VF would be like, thinking at times that an English article would have done well with the French public, at times wishing there was a French edition to look into stories in the news. For instance, the Liliane Bettencourt and Jérôme Kerviel scandals would have been that much more exciting had VF been around to write them up.
Yet there was one uncertainty: could the French reproduce the original vibe of the magazine, self-described as “Hollywood, politics, royals, Wall Street, international news, fashion, society, scandal, and real estate—filtered through the exclusive prism of Vanity Fair”? My answer, seven issues in, would be a resounding yes.
The first issue was published in June 2013 under the editorship of Michel Denisot, a seasoned journalist who used to anchor Le Grand Journal, a cult chat show/news program broadcast every evening and a must-go for any actor/singer/politician with something to promote. Confirming his glitzy credentials and that the Vanity Fair name pulls weight, he shot Scarlett Johansson, “An American in Paris”, for his first cover.
Magazine covers are telling. Even if you can’t read French, you can deduce a few things about the publication from its seven cover stars: it isn’t as obsessed with the Kennedys and the Windsors as Carter’s VF, nor is it as likely to feature the deceased. It has also found a good balance of French and international stars.
Does that make it less Vanity Fair, if you take the US version as benchmark? Not at all. From the first reading, the magazine was exactly what I expected of a French VF. It kept the same fascination for glitz, culture and glamour. It added the French neurosis for les élites, a love of snotty intellectualism and an unhealthy dose of Parisianism: monthly recurring features such as Vanity Flore, where journalist Dorothée Parterre sits in the legendary Left Bank café and reports on overheard conversations; Le Gang, where industry insiders get photographed with their posse; endless series on The Networks That Really Rule France, such as le Club XXIe siècle (promotes diversity among French elites) and the ENA class of 2004. Exactly what you’d read if you were French and you like to think you are important.
For an English-speaking reader, French VF started off slowly, and demonstrated the Gallic tendency not to read English news. For its second issue, it repeated an old American cover with Audrey Hepburn, as well as translations of four articles: the one on Hepburn, one on Lena Dunham, one on John Galliano and one on Oscar Pistorius. All were published under the sole authorship of the original English writer, a slightly unfair decision for the translators considering the length of these features.
The translated features, the tone and the spirit aren’t the only things British or American readers would recognise. The layout and fonts are essentially the same. There is something of McDonalds’ in the VF franchise: no matter which language you read in, you are guaranteed to get the same thing: the about-to-be-big ingénue photo, the party accounts, the Best Dressed list…Denisot has taken them all on board and made them his.
Despite all this, the magazine is not yet perfect. Much like the English version, there are issues I read in one siting, cover to cover, whilst Ieaf through and discard others, considering not buying the next one. I always go back though, no small feat in London where few newsagents, even in “frog central” (South Kensington), sell it.
Distribution has actually been my biggest surprise with the magazine. It is hard to find in London, despite the size of the French community, which would be the perfect the VF audience. And when I went home to Nevers at Christmas, the first newsagent I tried to buy it at had sold out and told me she kept getting asked for it. Yet I hadn’t taken Nevers as the typical VF public.
Rumour has it Denisot has been given a goal of 100,000 magazine sold per issue so hopefully Condé Nast is going to make the it easier to find. Us French really like feeling we’re in-the-know. And now I have an added writing goal: being published in the French and English Vanity Fairs. I even have an article idea that would fit in both rather well.
I started my first *popforms Sparks email course, which delivers leadership coaching straight to your inbox, in October 2013. The topic: How to overcome and manage your stress.
Just over a week later, I received an email from one Kate Stull apologising for a glitch: some subscribers had received the second week’s email twice, while others, like me, hadn’t received it at all.
I was very impressed by the move. *popforms was voluntarily flagging up something which hadn’t bothered me at all, apologising for it and offering me an additional free Sparks to make up for it. I chose Speak at a conference - an intro to pitching and public speaking and, since I was speaking about women in foreign policy just over a month later, immediately put it to good use.
Although I haven’t signed up to any more Sparks (they have a lot of points to work on and revisit), I have been following its blog closely for its mixture of leadership and management advice. So when Kate Stull got in touch after learning I was looking for bloggers to feature on Fashion Abecedaire, I jumped at the chance to learn more about how this (now key) part of my work week is created. Oh, some more about her personal blog, commenting on her boyfriends’ outfits…
You are the main writer of the *popforms blog. Why was it important to have a blog to support the *popforms products?
At Popforms, our goal is to make tools that help people be really good at their jobs. But beyond that mission, we are not tied to any one product or idea to help people achieve that goal. Instead, we have used our blog and email newsletter to talk to people about work and what being happy and successful at work really means to them, so we can build the best products possible for them.
We put a huge focus on studying what is driving people to our blog, what blog posts get the biggest reactions, and what questions people email us or ask about most often. Then we write posts that address those needs, and get more insight about what kinds of paid products or resources we can release to solve those needs or problems.
For example, a huge traffic source for us for a while was people wanting to know about asking better questions and being better 1:1. So we wrote a couple of blog posts on those topics, and when we saw they were addressing big concerns for people, we eventually turned the idea into a paid spark (our email-based courses) that has been one of our biggest sellers.
How do the blog and the Sparks complement each other?
The Sparks came about because of our content-first vision. We launched the blog before we ever had a product, and the Sparks (our first product) came about because of blog posts we wrote that impacted people.
When talking to potential customers, we found out that people were not as interested in software tools that help them track their productivity or success as they were in receiving coaching and resources that they can use as they please on the journey to becoming more successful.
We launched Sparks as email-based courses “to help you be smarter, happier, and better at your job” so that people could have the kind of versatile, read-it-when-you-want, coaching-style information that they wanted for a low price. I think of them like a career coach in your inbox, but that costs a lot less than a career coach in real life.
How do you choose the topics you cover?
For a while, we just wrote about whatever was on our minds. And that really worked, actually! We live and breathe career stuff, and so we always had something new to say or a guide we wanted to put together.
Over time, though, we’ve gotten more organized and I’ve taken more of a leadership role with the content to give it a more strategic plan. At the moment, we’re planning blog topics based on certain projects. For example, we recently wrote a series of posts on being a new manager and turned it into an ebook to help boost email newsletter signups.
That being said, we do still write a fair number of blog posts just on topics we discover our customers want to learn about. I have been surprised to learn again and again that although (or maybe because) many of our readers and customers tend to be engineers and really analytical people, our content on soft skills have consistently been some of the biggest hits.
How do you select the professionals you feature every week?
Our Leader Of The Week feature has been one of the best surprises we’ve uncovered in doing the blog. We initially just reached out to people in our network, but now I often browse my Twitter feed for inspiration, and whenever I read about someone doing something cool, I’ll generally send them a pitch. It’s great to see people from outside the startup and tech world, so I’ve been working to incorporate people with different perspectives lately which has been awesome.
What’s your blogging routine? Do you have an editorial calendar, a limit to post length etc.?
Our blogging routine is fairly unstructured. We do two posts a week (one by me and one by my co-founder, Kate Matsudaira), plus a Leader Of The Week post. We talk every Monday and go over what topics we want to cover, but nothing is set in stone and if we get a brilliant idea for a post on the day we’re supposed to publish, we usually just go with it.
I know it’s not scalable, and just this week I created a content calendar for us. It’s simple and only goes out a few weeks, but so far, it’s working. We’ll keep adapting as we need to.
You also write a rather different blog on your own website focusing on your boyfriend’s outfits. How did you come up with the idea?
It actually was totally my boyfriend’s idea and I am forever grateful to him for it!
I knew that as a writer, I needed to have a blog, but I just couldn’t get inspired for what it should be about. I was complaining to my boyfriend that the only blogs I ever seemed to find were by girls documenting their daily outfits, and he jokingly suggested, “Well, why don’t you document mine?” And so, my blog was born.
It turned out to be kind of a genius idea because opening each post with his outfits (which are basically the same combination of pants and sweatshirts, every single time) gave me an instant icebreaker and something to riff on if I had nothing else to say in a post. I found that once I had a way to begin each post, I actually had a lot of things I wanted to write about, joke about, and engage with readers about.
Writers often say that if the introduction of a piece is giving you trouble, that you should jump ahead to other stuff and then write the introduction last. In a way, having his fashion photos first enables me to skip the introduction that I found so daunting, and skip ahead to having fun with writing.
The intersection of technology and leadership seems to be your specialist area, for instance with your involvement in the Technology & Leadership News TLN. How did you land on it?
The TLN is a project my co-founder Kate Matsudaira started, actually. When I first started working with Kate, I used to help her copy/paste links into the newsletter and occasionally wrote some article summaries too. Now I definitely contribute much more, though the link-finding is still mostly Kate M. She has often said she likes to spend her free time trying to get smarter, so she is always browsing for interesting reads on leadership and technology.
You’re also quite active on Medium, sometimes with posts that feel like they would have been at home on *popforms too. How do you decide to write on this platform instead?
Well, some of my posts on Medium actually have been on the Popforms blog, but I chose to republish them on Medium as a way of saving them in a beautiful space. On my personal website, I called my Medium posts my “greatest hits”, as it’s an easy way to curate some of the posts that I like best, so that I (or anyone else) can quickly see some of the things I am happiest with.
How do you think all the blogs you write for interlink and complement each other, if at all?
I think they all interlink in the sense that they have been how I have found my footing as a writer and a startup/leadership/marketing person.
They also overlap in their intention, too. What I mean is: when I write something, I only ever publish it if I think it will make someone’s day better for having read it. On Popforms, that means giving someone an incredibly thorough post on a skill I know they want to learn about; on my personal blog, that means telling a really funny story or sharing photos that can take someone inside a recent experience in my life.
I don’t think the audiences for my writing overlap much, because people go to each of the blogs for really different reasons. But I think they go to whichever one they go to because they can count on what they will get there.
You’ve written before about being an introvert (for The Billfold) - how does it influence the way you blog?
Being an introvert, I am slow to say anything in person; I don’t jump in with ideas right away and I tend to have a hard time expressing myself, especially to a large audience.
Blogging gives me the opportunity to let my ideas simmer and come together, the way they do most naturally for me, and to express myself as fully as I want to (which I often feel unable to in person). As such, I try to bring people totally in, to say exactly what I mean to say, and to create a whole picture when I am writing. It is the most clear that I’ll ever be, so I try to make the most of it every single time.
Imagine that your only memories of your mother are through early childhood impressions and, more recently, a photo of her and two unknown men found in your adoptive mother’s papers. Clothes, all of a sudden, take on a new role. They become clues in your search for her personality, hints to follow as you redraw a life you’ve fantasised but never heard about.
Hélène Hivert, a Parisian archivist, never got to know her mother Nathalie: she died in a car crash when Hélène was an infant. Raised by her father and his new wife Sylvia, she spends years in ignorance until she finds a picture of Nathalie photographed against the Alps.
Nathalie is “dressed in white” with a “white hat, worn at an angle, complet[ing] her elegant look, reminiscent of the Seeberger brothers’ early fashion photographs”. This is Hélène’s first clue: her mother played tennis in the summer of 1971 with two unknown men. One of them, Pierre Crüsten, is about to posthumously unlock her past, through his London-based biologist son Stéphane.
Stéphane sees the photo in one of the dailies Hélène published it in, in the hope that someone would recognise the people pictured. He immediately gets in touch. Thus starts The People in the Photo (Eux sur la photo), a French bestselling, prize-winning epistolary novel spanning letters, emails, text messages and real-life meetings interwoven with descriptions of the pictures of Nathalie and Pierre that Hélène and Stéphane find during their inquiry.
As the novel progresses, engaging the reader in the identity search, s/he starts picturing Nathalie through these descriptions. Most of them only start making sense in the latter part of the book, when the mystery of Nathalie and Pierre’s relationship, and the intrigue that surrounds all of the people orbiting around them, is solved. Only then do the photos find their true meaning, dresses suggesting happiness or heartache, haircuts hinting resolution or dilemma.
Throughout the narration, Nathalie is described as elegant and of her time, fashion-wise. My favourite outfit, after reading the book twice, describes her as “wearing a typical 1960s sundress with a wide rectangular neckline, bold geometric cut and diamond pattern. The straps of her bra which compresses her breasts are visible through the fabric”. It’s my favourite description because in that picture, Nathalie is pregnant, a rare photo of Hélène and her mother which starts a particularly emotional letter to Stéphane (“My past, which had always seemed so hazy and shapeless, suddenly had a face, pictured in such sharp focus that my heart skipped a beat”).
Hélène, as an archivist and a postcard specialist, has a critical view of every photo. Describing her mother’s 1963 driving license picture, she explains “her striped blouse brings an element of geometry to the composition and reveals a glimpse of long, white neck featuring a fine chain”.
All descriptions are made in a factual, objective manner, from the point of view of an almost omniscient narrator. As the other two narrators are the emotional, involved and unreliable children of the people we are learning about, the reader needs an anchor, something suggesting that there are clues s/he can rely on as s/he journeys alongside Hélène and Pierre.
Descriptions aren’t limited to grown-up pictures. Early on, Hélène discovers one from a parish choir which shows that her adoptive mother and Nathalie knew each other. One “has on a plain, pastel dress with a slightly low-cut neckline, the hem just above the knee; ankle boots, a neck scarf and a small bag demurely hanging from her arm”. The other “stands tall, thin and rather gawky in an oversized man’s raincoat and strap shoes”. The mystery thickens and the reader’s imagination starts running wild. Was there an affair? Were both women after the same man they eventually both married? How evil could the woman in the pastel dress be to deserve being whipped from her daughter’s memory?
Fashion clues aren’t limited to pictorial descriptions. As Hélène starts to explore her Russian roots, she explains that some Slavic words hold a particular connotation to her. “The adjective goluboy always reminds me of a certain fabric, with beads and gold thread. The first time I heard the word kotyonok, a jumble of images came back to me: a bedcover, a fur throw”. She compares these Russian words to Proust’s madeleine.
The People in the Photo is also a reminder of the subjectivity of photography. We use it to commit happy moments to memory: one’s involvement in a choir, a pregnancy, an engagement, or more in official moments such as a driving license. But it can’t depict what emotions the subjects were going through at the time, it can’t paint unravelling marriages or the love of a mother for her child. That’s partly why the novel finds such an easy echo in its readers: we’ve all gone through family members’ and friends’ photo albums, trying to imagine what was going on, relying on our own albums to complete a faltering memory.
A few photo descriptions however depart from the rule of only picturing happy moments. One has Nathalie in “a round, black felt hat, slightly too big for her”, “wearing a white blouse and a thick, shapeless woollen waistcoat”. The oversized detail, like her “voluminous woollen skirt from which a thread hangs” suggest a woman who has given up on the pretense of clothes, wearing her unhappiness for her daughter to see. “But how sad she looks. She could be a different person from the bubbly girl in the choir photo”, Hélène writes to Stéphane.
The family secret genre, whether in literature or movies (Un secret/A Secret, Pour une Femme/For a Woman, Elle s’appelait Sarah/Sarah’s Key) is well-established in France. Most of the time, the secret has to do with the Second World War, often with Jewish families. The People in the Photo is unexpected: the secret has nothing to do with the war. It is a lot more mundane, a lot more expectable and because it happens in normal circumstances, rather than in the midst of the heightened difficulties of the War, easier to emphasise with rather than be horrified by. The characters might come from the 1970s but you get the feeling this is something that could happen with our generation, or any of the ones to come.
The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (translation Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz) will be published in the UK in February 2014 and in the US in June 2014. A review copy was kindly sent to me by Gallic Books.
I’ve never met Ashley Milne-Tyte but I hear her voice more often than many of my friends’. Every other week, Milne-Tyte produces The Broad Experience, a podcast about women in the workplace where she interviews high quality guests on their career, their recipe for success and general life advice.
Her podcast has become one of my favourites and could be taken as one-way mentoring. Every time I listen to a new one there seems to be advice I can draw from, and apply to, approaching work situations and I was curious to learn more about all the work and preparation that goes on behind Milne-Tyte’s great reportage. I also asked her about her career and, in this month of reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the one to come, on what she had in the pipeline for 2014.
I’d suggest that subscribing to The Broad Experience on iTunes is a great way to start the new year; and that listening to it is the easiest new year’s resolution to keep.
Why did you decide to set up The Broad Experience as a podcast? What did the format bring that writing couldn’t?
I’m a radio reporter by background, so it never occurred to me to start a media brand that was anything other than audio. I’ve started blogging on TheBroadExperience.com this year, but that wasn’t really part of my initial plan. I love the intimacy of audio. There’s something about hearing a person’s voice – especially when it’s going directly into your ears via earphones – that brings a direct connection between listener and speaker that you don’t get when reading something off the page.
How do you pick your topics and prepare your podcasts?
The topics are a combination of things I want to talk about and topics listeners suggest. It’s all pretty random. I had imagined initially having a much more organized process, but the fact is I just don’t have time to plan the shows the way I’d like. I’m doing this on top of hustling for actual paying work and then doing that work, which doesn’t leave as much time as I’d like for planning and organizing The Broad Experience. I’m lucky that topics keep falling into my lap either through something I come across in my reading, or something a friend or listener suggests. Putting a podcast together once I’ve done the interview(s) is pretty labour-intensive. I’ve never timed it from start to finish, but it’s hours and hours of work spent cutting tape and weaving together a story around it with my own writing. I voice it in my closet and then mix in my own voice tracks. I’m no engineer so sometimes I have to re-do things because there are P’s popping, the sound of me swallowing, or something similar. It can be hair-tearingly frustrating, but I want it to sound as good as it possibly can given the production environment.
What are the three best pieces of advice your podcast guests have given you?
I’m not sure I can pick the best three, because I’ve interviewed so many people and I take something useful away from virtually every conversation. I’ll give you a few but I can’t promise they’re the best. I do think FT columnist Mrs. Moneypenny (Heather McGregor in real life) has some good advice about not succumbing to guilt, something that bedevils a lot of women and sucks away our energy. She describes it as a wasted emotion, which it is, and advises women who want to try to do everything at the cost of themselves to compare the situation to the airline oxygen mask scenario where you’re asked to put on your own mask before that of the child next to you. In essence, if you’re OK and taking care of yourself, everyone else in your life will be better off than if you’re running yourself ragged trying to be perfect.
Recently-retired McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh appeared in an early podcast with Mrs. Moneypenny, and one of the many memorable takeaways from my interview with her has to do with risk. A lot of women tend to say ‘no’ to things (I’ve done this), because we think we can’t possibly pull it off, so our default answer is no. She said you have to say yes first, then work it out. At least if you want to get ahead. Usually, things will not prove as difficult as they seemed.
In another early show I talked to Tiffany Dufu, who now works for Levo League in New York. She said to free up our heads to achieve more at work, we have to give up some control of things at home. I think this is huge for women. I admit I’m a total control freak a lot of the time. I like things to be the way I want them to be. But Tiffany emphasised that too many women drive themselves crazy trying to do everything. She asked her husband to fix a leaking tap one day because she had too much to do at work to think about it. He did. She was not keen on the replacement tap he bought and installed, but she had to live with that - it was the price of going off to work, keeping her day on track and delegating. If you want a saner life, give up some control.
You name and review a lot of books on The Broad Experience. How do you select them and find the time to read them?
The books I’ve talked about on the show have come to my attention through a combination of friends mentioning that a certain book, or author, might be a good fit for the podcast, of me knowing the author’s work, or, in the case of Lean In, the fact that it was exploding into everyone’s consciousness and I couldn’t possibly ignore it. I don’t have time to read them all, frankly. I often don’t finish them before the interview, but I aim to get at least halfway through.
The Broad Experience website also hosts a blog where you write about women and work issues. How do the blog and podcast complement each other, both for the reader and in terms of how you prepare both?
Answering these questions is making me want to become much more organized! The fact is I’ve never thought about this much. I do the blog because I’m aware that bringing out one piece of content – the show itself – every two weeks isn’t enough to keep people coming to my site. I want to provide something else that may expand my reach beyond the podcast’s listeners and that keeps me on people’s radars as someone to watch on the women-and-work front. Plus, I enjoy writing. I love radio/audio – I always have the radio on at home (yes, an actual radio), and the kind of storytelling I do on the show is something I couldn’t do on video or in print – but I’m well aware that many people never get their news or information that way. I know I have some readers who are not listeners to the podcast. When it comes to the blog, it’s a way for me to quickly write about something I’ve just thought or read about, or to write up an event I attended, such as a panel discussion at Columbia University where Anne-Marie Slaughter and Alison Wolf (who I recently interviewed) were speaking about women and the workplace. Also, some of the posts contain tips and takeaways I’ve picked up at an event that I think could be helpful for others. I hope it complements the podcast.
Why did you decide to focus on women in the workplace?
When I was a reporter for Marketplace, the US public radio business show, I did quite a few features about aspects of women’s lives – career stuff, their relationship with money, how they are marketed to, etc. – and I found it fascinating. I’d never thought much about gender stuff before. I’d never – have never, to this day – read any of the famous works of feminism. I really wasn’t interested. But a combination of reporting those stories, and then looking back at my own behaviour in the workplace and realizing how many typically female ‘mistakes’ I’d made, convinced me women still have a lot to overcome if they’re going to do well at work. I should add that I was inspired by the BBC programme Woman’s Hour. If millions of Brits can listen to 45 minutes of women-oriented content five days a week, it shows there’s a market for intelligent journalism about women’s lives.
Why/how did you decide to become a radio journalist? What advice would you give to people who want to follow?
I loved the way radio journalists told stories – you have to do a lot of work with your writing because there are no pictures to keep people engaged. It’s all down to you. As I said earlier, it’s an incredibly intimate medium, and I wanted to be part of it. I’m a frustrated actress, so radio storytelling is my way of getting a bit of that drama in. It’s tricky to give advice because the job situations are different in each country. I got in as an intern, and I got on the air after a few months. I think the advice would be the same as with any other job – show keenness, have initiative, etc. But also, listen to the radio a lot if you want to write for it. I’ve had students in the past who are writing for radio in class but they’re not listening to any radio in their spare time so they no idea how to write for the ear. If you want to write for the ear, you have to be used to listening to those stories so you know how to use punchy language, short sentences, conversational language and so on.
Is there any situation in which you consider The Broad Experience wouldn’t be necessary again, the way for instance AIDS charity wouldn’t be necessary if AIDS was completely eradicated?
I suppose if women were in almost as many senior positions as men, I might think my work was done.
What are your plans to evolve The Broad Experience?
In 2014 I’d like to get some more content partnerships off the ground – I really want to expand the show’s reach – and I’d love to find a couple of big sponsors so I could actually do this full-time and concentrate on it properly. So the key things are getting more listeners and landing at least one sponsor who would enable me to earn enough from the show that I could spend more time on it, and possibly hire someone to help.
During my only year in French higher education, my literature teacher imparted two pearls of wisdom to me: by the end of the curriculum, I would have enough reading to last a lifetime and there was no clever way to organise one’s bookshelves.
Bookshelf sorting has been a pastime of mine ever since I was a child. I’ve tried the by-author method, the by-collection method, the by-topic method, sometimes getting into quite anal Excel spreadsheet cross-referencing during the Summer holidays. On Sunday afternoon, I tried a new method of sorting: the books I have read vs. those I haven’t.
Book buying has been an ongoing budgetary issue. Books are heavy. Books take up a lot of space. Books are expensive. But books are also so easy to justify. I could be spending the money on less worthy pursuits, like drinking or smoking. On less lasting ones, like going out. On less educational things, like so many things available for purchase.
Books, on the other hand, are perfect. They teach me and they talk to me. They entertain me. They feed my writing. They help me fall asleep and busy the hours in between segmented sleep cycles. Books can be bought from charity shops and then it’s not just buying a book, it’s donating For The Greater Good (although not the good of the publishing industry).
Yet in 2014, I won’t buy another book until I have read all the unread and half-read ones on my bookshelf. This will be my new year’s resolution. No more book buying. My Sunday afternoon sorting was to see exactly how many unread books I have at my disposal. My estimate was around 40. I stopped counting after 52, when I realised that, unless I read one book a week, this new year’s resolution would have to carry on into 2015. Possibly long into 2015, since quite a few books are over 750-pages long. And we’re talking Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln here, not Harry Potter 750-pages long.
My decision not to buy anymore books had two catalysts. I feel quite shameful about sitting on this pile of books, which is essentially a pile of cash and knowledge, and not reading any of it. I might discover I hate some of them and that they should have been donated to the charity shop a while ago. I need to save money and my estimate is that I can save between £10 and £200 a month by not buying books. As I said, I am a big book buyer.
So how do I not buy a book? As stupid as this question might sound, and as obvious as the answer might be, I need a strategy. Even though I won’t be buying books, I will be reading them - and reading calls for more reading. The second I finished The Sense of an Ending, I had to find as much Julian Barnes as I could. Laura Jacob’s feature on The Group in the July issue of Vanity Fair prompted me to buy it. Hearing Lionel Shriver talk last September resulted in my buying two more novels of hers on eBay. After going to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in August 2010, I bought my first biography of the couturier. One thing led to another, and now there are five biographies about him on my bookshelf, not to mention one of Pierre Bergé. Just minutes ago, looking on the Oxfam Books site for the sole purpose of linking to it in this article, I got thoroughly tempted by some Ian McEwan and The Future Homemakers of America, and I don’t even know what this novel is about. Nothing deserves to be called a rabbit hole more than the world of books.
To not buy books, I will stay away from eBay, Amazon, the paved street next to work which has both an Oxfam bookshop and a normal bookshop, Waterstones…in fact, any place where books are sold. I will also refrain from the Amazon wish list or the Amazon basket, because not buying any book for 52 weeks and then bulk buying dozens on 1 January 2015, isn’t exactly the point of my new year’s resolution. I might sign up to my local library. I’ve registered on Read It Swap It, a website which enables users to swap books with others. My sister introduced me to the concept in October through Bibliotroc, its French equivalent. Except on Bibliotroc, you collect points for each book sent, which you can then spend on any book available. No need to wait for an alignment of book desires between you and another user, which makes the journey slightly better (though both sites have terrible UX). I might ask my friends more often if they have a book I am looking for. And lastly, I might just use this blog to ask some publishing houses if I can review books.
So here’s to 2014: a year of reading books, but not buying them.
When I was a child, around this time of the year, my mum would put catalogues from toy companies and stores on the kitchen table and my sister and I, armed with scissors and glue, would cut and collage our way to a Dear Santa letter. I am not sure we believed Father Christmas would read it but I retain fond memories of this early Advent tradition, which was usually accompanied by the sound of soup stewing in the pressure cooker. It meant “Christmas is coming” more surely than the festive lights being switched on in the city or the trees in display windows.
Although I definitely do not believe Father Christmas will read my Christmas wish list anymore, I have been trying to find a more elegant way to send gift ideas to my family than an email with loads of hyperlinks.
I settled on a Pinterest board for a few reasons:
1) It somewhat reproduces the feel of my childhood Dear Santa letters by being mostly visual-based. Pinterest could develop the concept by offering alternative backgrounds to its uniform grey, especially during the Festive season. Some users have already created Dear Santa boards, though they are more for photos of actual letters to Santa rather than present desires.
2) It is easy for the board recipients. Say you are after an Alex Monroe necklace (a random idea, of course). You can pin it straight from the site where it is sold. If members of your family live abroad, you can find it on a site which delivers to the country where you will spend Christmas together. You can even add prices to pins so everyone knows what they are getting into. It takes away part of the fuss of gift purchasing; making the chore easier probably increases the chance of you getting what you want. It might not be a LEGO set anymore, but this is the aim of the Dear Santa letter.
3) It can be updated throughout the year and only shared in the run-up to Christmas. This avoids the “Mum do you remember that thing I said I wanted for Christmas back in July? No? Me neither” conversations. Unless it’s my mum of course, she is so organised she would have actually bought that thing in July.
A pinned Dear Santa letter isn’t without a few issues. Making your board available to others could reveal, for instance, an interest in a cheesy 1970s French TV series about a Nordic princess falling in love with an ambassador (another random idea, of course), which you might not want the whole world to know about. The secret feature Pinterest launched this time last year to enables users to track present ideas discreetly, but what happens if some family members are not on Pinterest and don’t want to join?
Another issue, if a board is shared with multiple family members, is how each person will know whether a present is still available to purchase. We can assume some will talk to each other, but it would be helpful if Pinterest could create an easy way to signal something is taken, ideally without forcing them to sign up to the site. On a much larger scale, this could be useful for wedding lists, a huge Pinterest demographic.
Since Pinterest has been working towards monetising its platform, for instance with promoted pins, how can brands integrate the Dear Santa concept in their marketing strategies and drive sales in the process?
1) Pinterest contests have become a part of most self-respecting social media strategy with user generated content. In June, jeweller and luxury watchmaker Piaget, celebrated its Rose collection, Piaget, by asking customers to follow Pinterest.com/PiagetBrand, its official profile on the site, and create a new board called “La vie en rose”. The result? Additional followers and conversation generated across social media. The concept could easily be adapted to Dear Santa letters: pin everything you want from brand X for Christmas, maybe with the added incentive that a few users could win the contents of their board. Or, there could be evolutive boards: a brand encourages followers to pin articles, to take photos of the present being unwrapped, and then of themselves using it. This could provide good cross-platform user engagement in combination with Instagram and Twitter.
2) For a company, having an item pinned is one thing, but the real money comes with conversion. Pinterest represents over a quarter of all social media sales, and in 2012, the average order value was nearly double that of Facebook. Although brands might be happy you want their product for Christmas, the actual spenders, in this case, are your family members. This is a unique chance to convert them to the brand so initiatives like free shipping for customers coming from Pinterest would be appreciated.