Life Honestly: Strong Opinions for Smart Women, by The Pool
Pan Macillan, 2018
My copy generously provided by the publisher via Netgalley
I hadn’t heard of The Pool website before now, although some of the authors in this book are familiar to me. Having gone over to look, it’s probably a good thing that I wasn’t aware of the site before getting the book: advertising itself as “a platform for women who are too busy to browse” with tons of odd scheduling, with a layout that doesn’t fit onto my oversized laptop screen (?!), I think I’d have been a lot more sceptical about committing to this title if I had. I’m sure at one point my life philosophy would have fit more comfortably into The Pool’s “squeeze more essay reading into your Woke-but-still-trying-to-do-it-all middle class professional woman lifestyle”, and maybe one day it will again. But for now, I’m quite happily not doing it all, and don’t need a website to help me try to.
Anyway, this is not a review of my instinctive reactions to a website, it’s a review of my instinctive reactions to a book (which might, by definition, struggle to engage its target audience of “women too busy to read”, but I’m sure they’ve got their market research covered). Life Honestly is a collection of content that’s appeared on the website, alongside some things that haven’t, broken down by theme and covering a range of viewpoints within that theme. Although, as I note, the concerns raised are very much of a particular type of woman: aged 30-40 with a good career but living in London and therefore unable to get onto the housing market (a demographic I’m literally joining at my next birthday), there is attention paid to getting a range of viewpoints within that group: women of colour, trans women, one non-binary author and some disabled perspectives are all included. There’s also a real focus on lived experience in each essay – I can’t think of a single example which was not, in some way, connected to the author’s life experiences.
In grounding itself in the lived experiences of multiple authors, with all the contradictions and incompleteness that entails, Life Honestly is inherently going to be hit-and-miss for any given individual reader too. Honestly, I found large parts of the first half frankly quite irritating, and not just because the introduction gushes about creating space for honest conversations like those found in Cosmopolitan magazine, of all places. Sections on politics and work felt in hindsight like a necessary starting point for the book, but they’re also sections where the topics covered are quite narrow without any clear acknowledgement of what’s missing. The “love, sex and relationships” section was unrepentantly heteronormative. Similarly, “body” and “womb” sections contain no acknowledgement of the diversity of experience on these topics, particularly for trans women. I am sympathetic to the fact that feminist reproductive justice does mean autonomy over our wombs and vaginas for many women – and that the lack of attention paid to the needs of non-male, generally female-coded bodies, in healthcare is also an enormous problem – but that’s it’s not the only issue that women face, nor is it relevant for everyone.
It wasn’t until I got to the section on mental health that I started consistently appreciating the essays, and I’m very aware that this is because I reached a section which directly interested and impacted me. Even here, the slice of context being presented is narrow: it does feel at the moment that conversations around mental health are a constant call to arms over the need for conversation and assistance, without much acknowledgement that unless you can afford to pay for private healthcare, those of us in the UK are stuck with extremely poor and inconsistent infrastructure for meeting these needs. Still, it helped to reach a section that I actually enjoyed, because it set me up for greater enjoyment and less scepticism towards the rest of the book. Still, the nagging feeling that I was reading something incomplete that doesn’t really own its incompleteness never really went away.
So, by all means, if you are in its target audience, you will likely find things to enjoy in this book – although its probably one to be dipped into over a long period of time rather than read through from cover to cover in dedicated sittings. I guess my disappointment stems from the fact that Life Honestly feels shallow – less an Olympic swimming pool than a kid’s water play area. I’m not sure what the counterfactual to this looks like: I suppose it would be less reproduction of essays which worked in website format but don’t sit super well in a book, and more attention to coherent, dedicated content that would fit well in this format, which would entirely defeat the purpose of publishing a collection of essays from a website. Life Honestly also, unfortunately, joins a long and disappointing tradition of feminist viewpoints which – despite in this case including a range of identities within its authors – still centres the a particular type of White, middle-class, heteronormative female experience while relegating anything that does not fit this mould into the margins. And honestly, in 2018, I think we all need a bit more than that.
Rating: Six essay-inducing feelings about the London housing market out of ten