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Polly Courtney about ... It's A Man's World

It's a Man's World by Polly Courtney
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Read the Book Review of It's a Man's World by Polly Courtney
Polly Courtney interviewed Oct 2011 by Sarah Rudd

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Hi Polly,

We’ll start off on the easy stuff: so, tell us a bit about yourself…
I always thought I’d grow up to be an engineer, not a writer. I studied sciences all through school and spent most of my time on equations and experiments, not words. But half-way through my time at Cambridge, I was lured by the bright lights of the City and got accepted for an internship with one of the large investment banks, along with a bunch of other engineers. Wooed by the fast pace and aggression of it all, I took a job with them after graduation, and that’s when I started to learn that banking wasn’t for me. After only a year, bursting with frustration and ridiculous anecdotes, I left the bank and started to write what was to become my first novel, Golden Handcuffs – the lowly life of a high flyer.

OK, let’s talk about your latest novel: It’s a Man’s World (IAMW for short) is set around the offices of lad’s mag: Banter – what lengths did you go to, to ensure you gave an accurate view of life in that kind of environment?
I was determined to reflect the reality of working for a magazine in today’s society – not just to guess based on clichés and stereotypes. I spoke with as many people as I could – editors and writers on magazines such as Zoo, FHM and T3, both male and female. I learned a great deal in this process. It feels to me that there are two extremes in terms of the attitudes of those working in the world of lads’ mags. There are those who are secretly ashamed of their title and what it’s doing to society, and then there are those who genuinely believe in the often-sexist attitudes portrayed in such magazines. Then, of course, there is a whole spectrum of people in between.

What was the catalyst for writing about female objectification in our media?
I have always been fascinated and frustrated by the inequality that persists between men and women in our culture today. For the last few years, I have been loosely involved with various organisations that aim to eliminate this inequality. It all started when I was asked to speak about sexism in the City, around the launch of Golden Handcuffs. One particular organisation, OBJECT, focuses specifically on the issue of objectification of women – in lap-dancing clubs, lads’ mags, beauty pageants, advertising and prostitution. They are a truly inspiring group of women and I wanted to use It’s a Man’s World to bring to light some of the issues they deal with every day in their tireless campaigns. But of course, a novel should never preach, so (I hope) the reader is left to decide what he or she thinks by the end of the book.

There are other issues that your book approaches, some obvious, some perhaps less so. Amongst the latter issues, we feel that IAMW poked around the concept that some of our preconceptions about being a woman are fed directly from our relationship with our mother. Alexa’s mother quite clearly made her daughter believe that in order to be worthy of affection, she had to achieve. Was this an intentional nugget thrown in for us to chew over?
It was intentional, yes – I am fascinated by the question of what shapes us, as people. There are so many theories within the nature/nurture debate and I can’t help thinking that the heaviest influences in somebody’s outlook on life is the attitudes of his or her parents in the early years. There is a fine line between offering a child support, guidance and opportunities and instilling a work ethic that means even the best is never enough. Too often, people tip into the ‘pushy parent’ bracket and the result can be disastrous.

In IAMW, Alexa is confronted with the dogmatic Georgie from REACT (a fictional feminist organisation) in your dealings with real-life organisation OBJECT; what struck you most about what they do?
OBJECT is a small but powerful organisation whose mission is to put an end to the objectification of women. This is a wide remit, and one that can only be achieved with persistent, coordinated campaigns. The first time I met anyone from OBJECT was on a protest against lads’ mags in a Tesco supermarket. The idea was to persuade the retailer to stop stocking the magazines or at least to cover them up. I was amazed by the professional manner in which the protest was conducted. These are activists who know the rules, know what they want, and work tirelessly to achieve it. I was also surprised by the positive reaction that the protest received from shoppers.

We were slightly confused about the point of the “Matt” relationship. The implication that Alexa was only trying to fulfil some misguided ideal of holding down a long-term relationship was more than a little worrying… do you think there are women who actually feel like this?
It sounds terrible to say, but I know of people who maintain a relationship purely to tick a box, as it were. I don’t think it’s common, but it probably stems from the ambition to ‘have it all’ that is thrust upon women in today’s society. If you really are the type who intends to be Managing Director by 30, you may have to make sacrifices along the way. Too often it’s the boyfriend or other half who suffers.

You’re quoted (by The Guardian) as saying you wouldn’t classify your novels as “Chick lit”: what would you classify them as? Is there an implication that there is a sub-genre the mainstream publishers are ignoring?
I find it hard to pigeon-hole. It’s undoubtedly ‘light’ – an easy read – but does that make it chick lit? I don’t see why we should exclude male readers. I think the terminology needs to change to allow for the ‘long tail’ of sub genres that has grown up and will continue to emerge as the internet connects readers and writers. The traditional publishers are frightened to take a risk on something that doesn’t appear ‘mass market’, because niche doesn’t suit their (high cost, high volume print-run) business model. For their own sake, they need to change.

If we’re honest, all of us at TTAB are pretty confused (and actually turned-off) by the insistence of publishers in splattering the covers of novels “aimed at women” with the froufrou: pastel shades, flowery borders and occasionally even glitter – what do you think drives publishers rationale for producing such simpering book covers?
I agree! Readers and writers alike would surely like to see book covers representing what is inside the book, right? From what I can tell, the reason for the ‘women’s fiction’ genre with its pastel pinks and crossed legs galore is a hangover from the days when chick lit first came in and there was a surge in Bridget Jones-type books on the shelves. Those titles sold in huge volumes because they were new at the time, and different. I think publishers are hoping to replicate this success by continuing to package content in the same way – despite the fact that the content no longer fits!

There has been a flurry of media attention following the recent book launch for IAMW and accusations are flying around: you’ve dumped HC, you’re abusing the “sexism card”, etc. What would you like to get out there, if anything, in response?
My main point? Don’t believe everything you read in the press. Seriously, it is quite amazing how words can be spun to make a good story. I did leave HarperCollins because I was deeply unhappy about the way they had branded my books (and by default, me as an author). However, I never implied that my books were somehow better than chick lit, which seems to be a common misconception. I just want it to be read by people who will enjoy the book. I’m very proud of It’s a Man’s World; it’s just a shame that a story that centres around sexual inequality has been packaged with a sexist cover.

So, what’s next Ms Courtney?
I will be starting work on my next novel in early 2012, but in the meantime, I have set up a virtual publishing house with two good friends and we are publishing our first novel later this month – War and Piste. The ski shows will keep us busy for the next few weeks and then we’re off to the Alps on a promotional tour in December. I think by January I will be in need of some quality time with my laptop!

Read our full review of It's a Man's World by Polly Courtney

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