"Let's Stop Being Nice. Let's Be Ourselves Instead." Lauren McKeon Tackles Institutional Inequality In Her New Book
Despite optimistic think-pieces to the contrary, the gender-based discrimination women face both in and out of the workplace is still incredibly, depressingly, present. Tasked with having to work much harder than their male counterparts for the same base level of respect, and subjected to unfair, one-sided standards of conduct, the current experience of professional women stands starkly against the mythos of social progression often touted by the media.
Award-winning author and journalist Lauren McKeon knows this all too well. Her newest book, No More Nice Girls: Gender, Power, and Why It's Time to Stop Playing by the Rules (House of Anansi), is a whip-smart examination of the iron-clad systemic oppression women in every industry must overcome in order to succeed, and whether or not trying to win a rigged game is still worth the effort. Interviewing those who are upturning antiquated power models to carve out a new path, McKeon profiles trailblazers in a variety of fields who are refusing to play by male-dominated rules, and are instead creating their own.
We're thrilled to have Lauren at Open Book today to discuss the important difference between being kind and being "nice", what makes for a good title, and how it took a bit of brainstorming to come up with the title of her newest book.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
The title of my newest book is No More Nice Girls. I’ve had a few—okay, more than a few—people ask me if that means I want women to be cold, cruel, selfish. Of course not! To me, there’s a vast difference between “kind” and “nice.” Kind means treating people with respect, as deserving of dignity and worth. Nice, on the other hand, is often a mask women wear to get by. Niceness is a trap. If women are seen as too nice, they are often dismissed; if they are seen as not nice enough, they are punished. Niceness is palatable. It’s accommodating. And it’s expected. That’s what I want us to start pushing back against: this idea that we have to shrink ourselves to fit somebody else’s idea of who we should be—that we have to compromise who we are to get ahead. Let’s stop playing by the rules; let’s stop being nice. Let’s be ourselves instead.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
A good title draws you in. Maybe it makes you think, maybe it makes you laugh, maybe it’s so darn poignant it makes you want to cry. Maybe it makes you angry! But it should definitely make a potential reader feel something. It should convey a mood, or an idea. I don’t think a good title has to completely summarize the book—in a lot of cases, how could it?—but I do think it has to make you stop. Then, it has to make you want to read more.
How do you feel about single-word titles?
If you can find the perfect word, they can be incredibly powerful. Sometimes all you really do need is that single word to evoke a whole feeling or idea. I’m thinking both of non-fiction (Susan Faludi’s Backlash or most of Mary Roach’s books) and fiction (Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Emma Donoghue’s Room). It goes on and on. They could be an unforgettable place, character, or subject—or an urgent problem the book seeks to unpack. May I one day be so concise.
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What usually comes first for you: a title or a finished piece of writing?
It depends. I often think of a title when I’m writing—and then, just as often, change it a zillion times. For my first book, F-Bomb, the title stayed the same from conception to publication (although the subtitle, “Dispatches from the War on Feminism,” changed quite a few times). But for No More Nice Girls—well, I don’t think I could count all the different titles my editor and I brainstormed! Sometimes, concepts evolve as the research and thinking does. Sometimes, a title you loved no longer seems as unforgettable. Sometimes, someone else suggests something and it’s perfect. I think it’s okay either way—if the title comes to you at the beginning or the end. Just like with writing, sometimes you just know and sometimes it takes some work.
What quality in a title will consistently make you pick up an unfamiliar book?
If a title makes me laugh, I’ll pick up the book. I always appreciate humour and personality in a title. It doesn’t have to be L-O-L funny, but I’m a sucker for a title that’s playful or that makes me laugh. But I’ll also pick up a title that’s sad, shocking, angry, dramatic, mysterious. A good title has to make me feel something; it has to tug my curiosity. After that, I’m hooked.
Lauren McKeon’s critically acclaimed first book, F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize and was selected by the Hill Times as a book of the year and by the Feminist Book Club as one of their top five feminist books ever. McKeon is the winner of several National Magazine Awards, including a Gold in the Personal Journalism category. Her writing has appeared in Hazlitt, Flare, Chatelaine, and Best Canadian Essays, on TVO.org, and in the book Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life After Sexual Assault. McKeon has taught long-form writing at Humber College and holds an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from the University of King’s College. She was the editor of This Magazine from 2011 to 2016 and the digital editor at The Walrus from 2017 to 2020, and she is currently a contributing editor at Toronto Life and the deputy editor of Reader’s Digest.