If you think people in your life are normal, then you undoubtedly have not spent any time getting to know the abnormal side of them. ― Shannon L. Alder
Stigma—or, more specifically, social stigma was defined by Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century, as “The phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.” It’s not the only definition but I think it’s a good one. (In another context, by the way, the plural of stigma is stigmata and clearly not all stigmata are viewed as bad at least not among certain Christians.) When I started researching this article I was immediately drawn to Goffman’s 1963 text because of the title: Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. The book’s still in print and required reading—the last edition I could find was 2009 and it’s even available for the Kindle—so he clearly got a lot right. It was the ‘spoiled identity’ that jumped out at me because the verb ‘to spoil’ is one that has specific associations for me. It was years before I realise that ‘spoil’ was something that could happen to food but I’ve never quite got my head around how spoils can be treasures. In my head ‘spoil’ is something one person does that affects others detrimentally: they talk over something the other person’s trying to listen to or they won’t play a game by the agreed upon rules or they tell you how the book you’re reading ends. I can still hear my mum: “Jimmy! Don’t spoil it for him,” ‘him’ being my brother. Spoiling something for someone is “plain selfishness” (another of my mother’s expressions) and I was, to be fair, a pretty selfish wee boy. I was most definitely the centre of my own universe.
Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places. – Wikipedia
The mark of Cain is the earliest example I can think of of someone being stigmatised. Whether he received a physical mark or not is open to debate—the Hebrew word translated ‘mark’ is 'owth and refers to a mark, sign, or token and is most frequently translated as ‘sign’—but the fact is he was ostracized because of antisocial behaviour, the murder of his brother. This was long before “Thou shalt not kill” was set in stone but it was pretty obvious to everyone back then, I’m sure, that murdering someone was not ‘normal’ behaviour. And that’s what stigmas are all about. They separate the normal from the abnormal, the stereotypical from the atypical. Goffman’s book opens with a sad letter which I’ll quote in full since its short:
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts
I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what to do. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.
I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.
What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didn't do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesn't know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?
It’s not a real letter although, of course, there will be girls out there who could easily have written it. It’s an excerpt from the novel Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West which was first published in 1962. Imagine though having no nose! That’s not normal. And at sixteen especially there’s nothing worse than not being normal.
Normal’s an odd word. Normal isn’t identical. Ideally it would mean that, if we were all clones. But we’re not. And although the thesaurus would have you believe that ‘average’ is an appropriate synonym for ‘normal’ I’m not so sure that most teenagers would agree with that. No one wants to be average. Average is not normal. Normal is accepted. Normal is often a fashion statement.
What prompted me to write this post was a comment made on Facebook by author George Straatman. In part he relates:
It is likely that in every novel ever written, one of the primary characters experiences that moment of epiphany…or crystalline, pristine insight in which everything resolves into an instant of perfect understanding. Real life seldom has the occasion to deliver such moments, but this past week I had mine. A person, whom I had just met for the first time, upon learning that I had written six novels, asked me if A REAL WRITER had ever read one of my novels. After re-hinging my lower mandible, I asked how they defined a real writer.
The response was…someone with the proper education and publishing pedigree.
This intransigent prejudice is very probably insurmountable and this is the sad reality confronting independent artists of every stripe…but none more so than independent writers.
To add nuance to this episode…the individual who opened my eyes…is a high school drop-out.
He’s saying nothing I’ve not read a dozen times or more. If you hang around with self-published authors it inevitably crops up: the stigma of self-publishing.
Is a ghostwriter a REAL WRITER then? They get looked down on too. Or what about session musicians? Or the bloke who sets up his easel alongside the Seine and paints portraits all summer long? Is he not a REAL ARTIST?
What is ‘real’ anyway? Reality is a matter of perception. We act like it’s something more solid, something fixed but it’s not. What’s real to you will probably not be as real—or it may be more real—to me. The person George met had formed a concept in his mind of what a ‘real writer’ should be. What he perceived in George didn’t match that ergo George was not a real writer. Of course George disagreed. As would I. As would thousands of others. But just because we say something’s so doesn’t necessarily make it so. Only when it comes to norms it actually does. When I was about fifteen it became the norm at my school not to wear a shirt. Jumpers were fine but no shirt underneath. One day it was cool to wear shirts and the next it wasn’t. Just like that. One day recording an album in your kitchen with your mum on backing vocals was roughing it, the next thing ‘indie’ music was a thing and a few years later is became an acceptable thing.
In 1999 a then-unknown singer called Kathryn Williams recorded her debut album Dog Leap Stairs for the now-legendary sum of £80 and released it on her own record label Caw Records. Her follow-up, Little Black Numbers, went on to receive a Mercury Prize nomination. She sold 40,000 records from her bedroom and landed a three album deal with Warner Brothers label East West. Is that when she became a REAL MUSICIAN?
I could waffle on and on about the humble beginnings of various creative types who are now household names—Van Gogh probably tops the list there—but it likely wouldn’t change George’s friend’s opinion. Society’s opinions do change. It takes time but it happens. Sometimes it’s impossible to gauge when things that were verboten when we were kids stop being frowned upon and switch to becoming not only the accepted but expected mode of behaviour. Other times, as we see with the recent very public protests over the rights of homosexuals, it’s easier to identify history’s bullet points. In the fifties dads were always screaming at the kids to get off the phone. A change in technology and landlines the world over are suddenly free and kids, who once only communicated verbally, spend more time texting each other. What’s normal? We never even had a phone until after my dad’s first heart attack in 1971—my mum had to knock a neighbour up to call the ambulance—and that was the only reason we got one and even then it was a shared line.
Is blogging normal? Tell someone you were a blogger in 2003 and most people wouldn’t’ve known what you were on about. Not so nowadays. Now some of those blogs have been running for ten years and have developed reputations and not all of them bad. The Huffington Post, for example, is at its core still a blog and no different to the blog you’re reading right now:
The history of political blogging might usefully be divided into the periods pre- and post-Huffington. Before the millionaire socialite Arianna Huffington decided to get in on the act, bloggers operated in a spirit of underdog solidarity. They hated the mainstream media - and the feeling was mutual.
Bloggers saw themselves as gadflies, pricking the arrogance of established elites from their home computers, in their pyjamas, late into the night. So when, in 2005, Huffington decided to mobilise her fortune and media connections to create, from scratch, a flagship liberal blog she was roundly derided. Who, spluttered the original bloggerati, did she think she was?
Respect has to be earned. I’m not suggesting for one moment that that’s not the case. And trust takes time to establish. I bought my first self-published book in 2000. It was called Dancing with Patience by Jonathan Dyer. I’d been thinking about using iUniverse back then and bought the first thing that half-appealed to me to see what the standard was. I wasn’t terribly impressed. The book was actually okay—a poor man’s Catcher in the Rye—and it was the first book I’d read from cover to cover in ages; I still have it. What let the book down was a crappy cover, poor editing and not-great printing. It looks like something a POD machine sneezed out, not a REAL BOOK. That’s not the case nowadays. The printer I use is the one Alma Books uses. There’s no difference between their books and mine apart from the content.
When you look in a mirror what do you see? I see a writer. Nah, who am I kidding? I’d like to see a writer but I’m not actually sure what ‘a writer’ looks like. I don’t look like Stephen King or Virginia Woolf or, well, pretty much any REAL WRITER I can think of. I’ve written novels, stories, plays, poems and I’ve even been paid on occasion (albeit not a living wage) but none of that helps. This bit in the Goffman’s book struck me:
When I got up at last . . . and had learned to walk again, one day I took a hand glass and went to a long mirror to look at myself, and I went alone. I didn't want anyone . . . to know how I felt when I saw myself for the first time. But there was no noise, no outcry; I didn't scream with rage when I saw myself. I just felt numb. That person in the mirror couldn't be me. I felt inside like a healthy, ordinary, lucky person - oh, not like the one in the mirror! Yet when I turned my face to the mirror there were my own eyes looking back, hot with shame . . . when I did not cry or make any sound, it became impossible that I should speak of it to anyone, and the confusion and the panic of my discovery were locked inside me then and there, to be faced alone, for a very long time to come.
Over and over I forgot what I had seen in the mirror. It could not penetrate into the interior of my mind and become an integral part of me. I felt as if it had nothing-to do with me; it was only a disguise. But it was not the kind of disguise which is put on voluntarily by the person who wears it, and which is intended to confuse other people as to one's identity. My disguise had been put on me without my consent or knowledge like the ones in fairy tales, and it was I myself who was confused by it, as to my own identity. I looked in the mirror, and was horror-struck because I did not recognize myself. In the place where I was standing, with that persistent romantic elation in me, as if I were a favoured fortunate person, to whom everything was possible, I saw a stranger, a little, pitiable, hideous figure, and a face that became, as I stared at it, painful and blushing with shame. It was only a disguise, but it was on me, for life. It was there, it was there, it was real. Every one of those encounters was like a blow on the head.
Writers have notoriously fragile egos, so many of us that you’d almost think it a requirement for the job. And REAL WRITERS safeguard that ego with all the books they’ve published. I doubt there’s much Stephen King could even hear as he cowers behind his pile of books. They are his defence. They are his proof. They are his shield. And yet when you read in between the lines of On Writing what do you see? I saw a wee boy going, “I am a real writer. I am. I am. I am.” I don’t think it ever goes away. It’s not a matter of being self-published or traditionally published. It’s simply being a writer. Normal people aren’t writers. I never met another writer until I was a grown man. When you’re the only one of anything it’s easy to feel different because you are different. Normal people don’t write books. They like to pretend they’ve all got a book inside them but most of them haven’t. They do normal stuff instead, stuff everyone else is doing.
People don’t like different. Actually that’s not true. They’re intrigued by different. As long as it’s not too different. Chocolate-coated coffee beans are a possibility. Chocolate-covered crickets maybe not so much: too big a leap from Maltesers and Revels. It’s all about comfort zones. Books are paper things with words on. They have a certain feel and smell and, after a few years, that can be not such a pleasant smell. They’re not pixels on a screen. That’s not a book, at least not a REAL BOOK. Even if a REAL WRITER wrote it it’s still not a REAL BOOK. It’s pretending to be a book. We’re creatures of habit. We don’t like to come home and find our wife’s rearranged the living room. We like our chair to be where we left it.
So when someone comes along and tells you they’re a self-published writer of course they’re not a REAL WRITER. A real writer never feels the need to say when asked what he does for a living, “Oh, I’m a real writer.” He’s just a writer, end of story. I rarely mention how my books get out into the real world. In absolute strictness I’m not self-published. I write the books and my wife does pretty much everything else. But I still don’t feel like a REAL WRITER.
Of course it’s not just individuals that get stigmatised. Entire nations can be—perfect example, the Jews—or whole races—i.e. the Blacks—and yet within those groups there will be some who insist on stigmatising others: Orthodox Jews consider themselves true Jews but then so do the Hasidic Jews and the Masorti Jews and the Reform Jews and the Humanistic Jews and the Jewish Scientists. You’d think being a part of a stigmatised group people would bond together. Yeah, right. In a comment on the Mystery Writing is Murder blog author Perry Wilson writes:
I work on multiple books each year, aiming to publish 4 - 7. I find one of the hardest things to deal with is overlapping tasks. I am usually outlining one book in a series, drafting a book in another series and revising/polishing a book in my third series.
I wonder if she thinks of herself as a REAL WRITER. She probably thinks I’m bone-idle because it’s taken me twenty years to write five and a half novels. I know of a lot of writers who regularly aim to churn out a book every three or four months. I don’t think they’re REAL WRITERS; REAL WRITERS need to suffer for their art and the only thing you’ll have time to suffer from if you’re churning out books like that is repetitive strain injury and probably back problems. They don’t think I’m a REAL WRITER because I don’t put the hours in. George’s friend wouldn’t think any of us were REAL WRITERS.
A multiple sclerotic noted:
Both healthy minds and healthy bodies may be crippled. The fact that `normal' people can get around, can see, can hear, doesn't mean that they are seeing or hearing. They can be very blind to the things that spoil their happiness, very deaf to the pleas of others for kindness; when I think of them I do not feel any more crippled or disabled than they.
I think this is George’s friend’s problem. His vision, his perception and conception of what one needs to be in order to be thought of as a REAL WRITER is skew-whiff. He doesn’t recognise a REAL WRITER when he sees one. And that’s life. The world wouldn’t be the world it is without a few narrow-minded bigots thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.
Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity. If you’ve been reading me for a while you’ll have heard my definition of a writer: A person whose natural response to life is to write about it. Writing is natural for me. It didn’t make me a good writer but it gave me a leg up. It made writing pleasurable. It made me want to write. And once I saw what I could do with my writing it made me want to write better. I identify with fellow writers. I don’t always get why they insist on writing zombie novels but if that’s what excites their writing … buds I suppose is as good a word as any … then get on with it. Just don’t hang around waiting on me writing one. I don’t think it’s wrong to write zombie novels. I just don’t get why anyone would want to. The same goes for being gay. I don’t get it. I don’t see why they don’t see what I see in women and I certainly don’t see what they see in men but I do understand the need for human intimacy. I just choose not to be intimate with another bloke or dressed up in rubber or in the changing rooms in GAP. How many gay men have been made to feel that what they were doing was wrong, shameful but were unable to stop doing what, to them, came naturally? People have spoiled being them for them. If there’s nothing else in the world worth living for at least a person should be able to enjoy simply being themselves without being made to feel bad about it. The problem is when something spoiled it’s spoiled. You can’t rescue milk when it’s gone off. And the crap thing, the really crap thing, is that you can’t rescue people either.
Individuals get shunned but what about groups? They get segregated:
Stigma heightens our senses to the notion of difference and creates a tension within the self in relation to the context in which the stigmatised person is perceived. In healthcare settings these perceptions of difference may become professionalised, and thus to some degree legitimated, as they occur within a medical framework. That is, in this context treating someone differently becomes accepted because they are deemed to be in some way ‘dis-ordered’. However, outside of the illness context the stigmata are often viewed as blemishes, and for some this legitimates ridicule, avoidance, fear or disgust. For example, while the professional may accept the noise uttered by an autistic child in a residential home, some members of society are generally reluctant to accept such disturbance in the supermarket. (bold mine)
Be Jewish if you have to but if you could do it in that nice ghetto over there we’d be very grateful. There’s a danger that this is what will happen with self-published authors. We’re already excluded from submitting our work to many magazines and competitions: Fine, self-publish if you have to but go and play over there with all the others like you. Of course there’s good reason why those who’ve decided to go it alone have been ridiculed in the past. Just have a wee read at this article (actually it’s more of a rant): Why Indie Authors Still Suck. And here’s the comment I left on the Facebook thread where a number of indie authors were venting on the subject:
The answer to this guy is very simple: prove him wrong. He has a case. It’s our fault. When I was a kid in the seventies we used to tell jokes about Skodas: What do you call a Skoda with a sun roof? A skip. Skoda’s answer? It made better cars. In 2010 it was voted best manufacturer in the 2010 What Car? Readers Awards, with Porsche second and Daihatsu third. That didn’t happen overnight nor can we expect self-publishing to stop being a joke overnight. It will take time. A bad reputation doesn’t go away overnight but people’s memories are short. They do forget unless we keep reminding them.
It’s not normal to self-publish—at least up until recently it hasn’t been. What’s ‘normal’—and by ‘normal’ I mean socially acceptable—changes. Gays have long been stigmatised. Now they have rights. They’re not fully-integrated into society—just look at the recent fuss over the 2014 Winter Olympics—and it’s still a little odd to see two guys holding hands walking down Sauchiehall Street—actually I’ve never seen two guys holding hands walking down Sauchiehall Street—but they’re getting there. They still have a way to go and so do the self-published. Homosexuals have been tolerated for centuries but as long as they were content to stick to their clubs and cottages people turned a blind eye. Indie authors write indie books which are read by other indie authors: all very incestuous. I remember after the public found out that the writer Alan Bennett was gay—which they’d suspected for years—they subsequently learned he’d also been having an affair with a woman and you could sense they were a bit put out because he wasn’t a REAL GAY. There’s no pleasing some people.
I don’t much care for hip hop but its origins are noteworthy:
The origin of the culture stems from the block parties of the Ghetto Brothers when they would plug the amps for their instruments and speakers into the lampposts on 163rd Street and Prospect Avenue and DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where Herc Herc would mix samples of existing records with his own shouts to the crowd and dancers..– Wikipedia
It began in some bloke’s house and then it spread to the local area, then the borough and then the city, the country and finally the whole world. Love it or loathe it everyone knows what hip hop is. And, as with everything else, there is good hip hop and bad. And there always will be.
There will always be crappy self-published books out there for all the reasons stated in the article I linked to. It takes time for anything to find its feet, be it an artistic movement, a culture or a lifestyle. At first it feels unnatural and that unnaturalness can hang around for a long while. I drank coffee with two sugars and milk up until a couple of years ago. Now I drink it black sans sugar sans milk sans caffeine and it’s beginning to feel natural. Beginning. Give me another twenty years and we’ll see.
Ask me about self-publishing in another twenty years. And we’ll see.
 K. B. Hathaway, The Little Locksmith, p. 157 quoted in Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, pp.8,9
Stigma’ in Stigma and Social Exclusion in Healthcare, p.29