The curse of being called Sharon

Sharon Bolton learned the hard way that people were quick to make judgements about her based on her name, which is why she published her books using her initials. Now, she's had enough.

He could have been six-two, movie-star gorgeous, brilliant of brain and side-splittingly funny; he could have adored me, but I still couldn’t have walked down the aisle with a Kevin (passionate Man United fan), a Darren (climbing his way up the estate-agency ladder), or a Wayne (dreams of breeding pit-bulls). Because after years suffering the stigma of being Sharon, no way was I going to compound the misery by hooking up with what society might perceive to be my ideal mate.

For a few years in the late Sixties, all was well. In the working-class north of England, Sharon was a cool name, more unusual than the Susans (chunky thighs and NHS glasses), Eileens (quiet, reliable, bit dumpy), and Lindas (more time behind the bike sheds than in the classroom) who littered the playground like discarded free-milk bottles. But the Seventies saw a blossoming of Sharons: in TV shows, lampooned in our newspapers. And these Sharons were rather common (to use the parlance of the day), not terribly bright, given to public displays of flesh, possibly a bit loose about the morals. They were the vacuous, uninterested shop-girls, the cheaply dressed bar-maids, the council-estate-dwelling single mothers. The name Sharon became synonymous with a) background, b) character and c) lifestyle. To this day it conjures up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell-suit.

I learned the hard way that people are quick to judge; will jump at the chance of a cheap ego boost at another’s expense. For a shy and rather sensitive girl it became agonising. I was introduced at social gatherings and saw instant judgment forming. Had there been a socially acceptable way of refusing to give my Christian name, I’d have found it. Guess, I could have said. Oh, you think I look like a Camilla? (Horsey type, dirty sense of humour.) How kind. Call me Camilla.(Let’s be honest,though, I’d have sounded like a hooker.)

"I don’t want to talk to any old Sharon," a disgruntled caller once told my secretary, as though I were a species, not an individual.

In an accountancy evening class an Irishman called Roger (lives with his mum, thinks she doesn’t know about his porn collection) asked my name. "And do you dance round handbags in your white stilettos with your mates Tracey and Wendy," he replied upon learning it. WTF! This was an educated man who considered himself intelligent. He wouldn’t have dreamed of being openly racist, blatantly sexist, or making a disparaging remark about a disabled person, but I – on the basis of a choice made years ago by OTHERS - was entirely fair game for his snap judgment and instant derision.

I’ve learned to modify my behaviour so as not to be the Sharon that others expect, at the same time dreaming of the fun-loving extrovert I might have become had I been called India (frightfully posh, rather deliciously bohemian) or Felicity (captain of Trinity College Ladies’ coxed eight). They can misbehave and be considered great gals, but if I get drunk and fall over at a party, well, isn’t it just what you’d expect? In my cash-strapped twenties, I shopped at Austin Reed because Sharons went to River Island. I steered away from bright colours, flouncy fabrics and anything tight, over-compensating for my acquired inferiority complex with sensible, sober suits. Amandas (plays tennis, mixes a stonking Moscow Mule) could wear white, high heels. Sharons had to stick to elegant black courts.

What’s in a name, well-meaning folkwould say. Everything! I wanted to yell back at them. Our names are an integral part of the faces we show to the world. If we’re judged first on outward appearances, we’re assessed next on our names. Change it then, they’d urge, but without considering how difficult it would be to do so.Or how pretentious I’d seem were I suddenly to announcethat I was to be known as Octavia? (Posh names always end in "a", have you noticed that?)

Nobody, I’ve learned, can resist a Sharon and Tracey quip, and I’ve yet to hear a funny one. I’ve met charming, intelligent, amusing women called Tracey and avoided them like suppurating sores because I will not be a part of a real-life Sharon and Tracey.

I’ve never once corrected someone who got my name wrong. Want to call me Sarah? (It’s usually Sarah.) By all means. So flattered you think I look like a Sarah.

So in 2006, when my first book was about to be published, I had qualms. Sacrifice had been described as "a dark, serious, exhilarating thriller". I already knew that men in the UK could be reluctant to buy a book by a female author. Could I honestly expect anyone to buy one written by a Sharon? So on the advice of my UK publishers I chose a sexless anonymity and published my first five books under the semi-pseudonym, S J Bolton. I was happy. I could hide behind a genderless, classless persona and let my creepy, psychological murder-mysteries speak for themselves. 

But you know what, I’m over fifty now and I’ve had enough. Keith Waterhouse, who was responsible for the stigma in the first place, is dead and his stupid prejudice should die with him. The Sharons (and Traceys) of today aren’t vacuous girls in their twenties with perma-tans and X Factor obsessions, they are grown women in their forties and fifties: married, mothers, educated to various degrees and in diverse occupations and I just happen to be one of them.

So here it is, my coming out. My name is Sharon. My books are published (and reviewed favourably) all over the world. They’ve been shortlisted for numerous awards and even won one or two. Above all, they are written for people who believe the quality of the story is more important than the gender, social standing, background or given name of the author.

My husband’s name, by the way? Andrew Charles: posh enough for the both of us.

Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton is published this week (Corgi, £6.99)

 

 

Pauline Quirke, Lesley Joseph and Linda Robson as Sharon, Dorien and Tracey in "Birds of a Feather".
Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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