Helaine Olen

How the Self-Help Industry Hustles America

For all the howls of rage from plutocrats like Tom Perkins and Ken Langone over possible tax rate increases, there has been relatively little public anger about the increasing wealth disparity in the United States — especially compared to the past.

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Banks Throw Hissy Fit After Elizabeth Warren Endorses Idea to Allow Post Office to Offer Financial Services

The U.S. postal service inspector general put out a report last week suggesting an intriguing way to shore up the ailing institution’s finances: Let the mailman double as a bank teller.

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How Focusing on Face Time at the Office Hurts Women's Pay

Late last year, Goldman Sachs made headlines by announcing they would no longer permit their younger recruits to work round the clock. So they banned them from entering the offices for a 36-hour period between Friday night and Sunday morning. Several other banks have taken similar steps in recent weeks.

This is what passes for work-life balance on Wall Street.

I suspect Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin would say we need to do better than that if we want to improve women’s position in the world of high finance.

Goldin presented a paper recently at the American Economic Association, making the argument that the male-female salary gap is not going to be fixed by begging men to do more at home, or by teaching women better bargaining skills.

Instead, look to the flexibility gap.

When men and women begin their careers, their earnings, in Goldin’s words, “are fairly similar.” According to the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 25 and 34 earned, on an hourly basis, 93% of men’s pay. And then … well, family life intrudes. Soon you have the infamous gender gap, where women overall earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Yet as Goldin goes on to report, some fields of endeavor offer worse returns than others. An earlier study by Goldin (with Lawrence Katz) showed that for 1990 Harvard College graduates, those with an MD degree suffered a 15% loss in earnings if they took an 18-month work break, but those with an MBA or JD lost a far more significant 41% and 29%, respectively.

So what’s going on? Are medical industry professionals more avid readers of Sheryl Sandberg than lawyers and investment bankers?

Goldin points to workplace flexibility. When an industry is structured so that part-time and flexible working positions are all but verboten, then women, who most often bear primary responsibility for managing their families, are the ones most likely to suffer.

Says Goldin: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours.”

How to do this? Goldin believes the answer does not rest in either government intervention or teaching women better negotiating skills. It rests in convincing companies, industries and their clients to change the structure of how they perceive and compensate workers, so that employees who seek flexibility are not financially penalized.

Is she right?

Well, yes … and no. I wish it were that easy.

Once upon a time, bankers’ hours meant nine a.m. to three p.m. The workday, even for those in relatively high corporate positions, often ended around 5 or 5:30 p.m. Yet that slowly changed, or at least it did for high earners. According to a working paper by Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano published several years ago by the National Bureau of Economic Research, work hours increased by 14.4% for the top fifth of wage earners between 1979 and 2002.

Employers like to claim this changed because that’s just the way the 24/7, forever connected economy works. They need those employees to be available. As a result, companies like Yahoo have all but ended flexible working arrangements, saying they don’t work for the company. As Goldin points out, many businesses believe their “employees meet with clients and accumulate knowledge about them. If an employee in unavailable and communicating the information to another employee is costly, the value of the individual to the firm will decline.”

This frankly, is so much horse manure. There is not much essential about the work young associates on Wall Street or Big Law do. One person is as good as another when it comes to putting together Excel sheets for financial deals, or performing grunt legal research. If that weren’t true, law firms wouldn’t be outsourcing the work formerly done by associates to places like India.

Moreover, even as our lifespans have lengthened and more women have entered the workforce, the world of employment has all too often remained wedded to a traditional model, where employees who want to make it to the top need to all but sacrifice their personal lives in their twenties and thirties to make it big in their forties. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this puts women at something of a disadvantage, since that’s also the prime age for women to have children. If they don’t do it then, it’s quite possible they never will.

So why not adjust? Why not be more flexible? Why not let people take time out in their twenties or thirties, and put in the face time in their forties?

Maybe it is just habit. But perhaps we need to consider something else: that these ridiculous work hours are just another form of sexism, but one that is legal in 2014. As Joan Williams, the founding director for the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law puts it, “Workplace norms cement felt truths that link long hours with manliness, moral stature, and elite status.”

Women were disproportionately impacted by downsizing in the financial services industry in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Numerous banks, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, have been sued for discrimination in recent years, with female plaintiffs claiming unequal pay, bias, and sexual harassment. The treatment is often quite blatant and crude. Just last year, hedge fund superstar Paul Tudor Jones told a gathering at the University of Virginia, “You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men.” The reason? “As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it. Every single investment idea, every desire to understand what’s going to make this go up or go down is going to be overwhelmed.”

Just the guy to approach about workplace flexibility and the right to equal pay, I’m sure.

I’m all for giving Goldin’s suggestion a try.  I work at home myself, and I suspect the flexibility it gives me can also improve the lives of quite a few men and women out there. But as for solving the gender pay gap, we’re going to need more than that.

CEO Pay Went Up 16% Last Year to $15 million -- How Much Did Your Pay Go Up?

Congratulations CEOs! You've been having a great time of it. Salaries are up, and up in a major way. The Economic Policy Institute says you brought home an average $14.1m in 2012. The New York Times, looking at slightly different numbers, claims the news is even better, saying the median number is $15.1m. That's a 16% increase in one year.

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Wake Up, America! We're Paying Billions for Personal Financial Advice, and It's Making Us Poorer

Wake up, America! We're paying billions for personal financial advice, and it's making us poorer. From financial "coaches" to leading academics paid to tout dangerous products, members of what former financial columnist Helaine Olen calls the "personal finance industrial complex" are ripping us off, preying on our fears and ensuring that our financial futures are anything but secure. Olen exposes the bogus -- and well-compensated -- advice issuing from the mouths of slick celebrities like Suze Orman, David Bach, Dave Ramsey, and Jim Cramer. She blasts through the mirages of 401(K)s, mutual funds and gimmicks of the do-it-yourself retirement plan that America has foolishingly embraced, along with the real estate schemes and stock market fantasies we turn to when the numbers in our savings accounts don't add up.

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Corporate Dominance of Every Aspects of Our Lives Is Suffocating us

Are we all corporate shills? That's the thesis of Doug Rushkoff's provocative new bookLife Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back.

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A New Way to Foster Parent

Editor's note: The following article originally appeared on Child Welfare Watch.

Allen Rose was watching cartoons in the kitchen of his foster parents' Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone when his father picked him up for the weekend. His dad leaned over and kissed his nose. "Mommy," the 3-year-old boy said, smiling.

"I'm not Mommy. I'm Daddy," said his father, Tom Rose.

Allen giggled and looked over at his foster mother, Allyson Green, the woman he knows as Mommy.

When Bruce Green, a car inspector for Metro-North Railroad, walked into the room a few minutes later, he picked Allen up and swung him over his shoulders. Allen screeched his pleasure.

Allen calls Bruce Green "Dad," too. "Sometimes when he says 'Daddy,' it's confusing," says Tom. "He has two dads and one mom."

The Greens, in turn, consider not only Allen, but Allen's father to be part of their extended clan, which includes numerous current and former foster children -- and sometimes, their birth parents. "Tom and Allen found a new family," says Allyson Green, a petite woman whose voice still carries the lilt of her native Belize. "When they go home, I will still be a part of their life if they let me."

But in the meantime, before the two leave for the weekend, Allyson Green makes Tom take moisturizer for Allen's eczema. "The other day Tom didn't have the right lotion," she says.

This is the kind of relationship between foster parent and birth parent -- cooperative, loving, supportive -- that child welfare officials around the country would like to see develop with greater frequency.

Traditionally, foster parents and birth parents had very little to do with one another. Child welfare officials often assumed birth parents were potentially violent or threatening to foster parents, or were simply difficult to deal with, and agencies routinely advised there be only limited contact between the two families. That attitude changed about a decade ago, when foster care agencies around the country began following the lead of the Family to Family foster care model, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Baltimore-based foundation designed Family to Family to give children in foster care as much stability as possible and to help them find permanent homes quickly. A key principle of Family to Family is that when foster and birth parents cooperate, foster children can find permanent homes -- be it through reunification or adoption -- more speedily than they would have in traditional foster care arrangements.

To that end, several cities and states now encourage what was previously considered counterintuitive: close relationships between foster parents and birth parents. The new model asks that foster parents serve as "resource parents" who are there not only for the foster child, but for the child's family as well. These parents are a combination of parent, coach and cheerleader to both the foster child in their care and the child's parents.

Though in recent years resource parenting has become more widely used, empirical evidence that it accomplishes what it sets out to do is scant. No one knows for sure whether it truly gets children into permanent homes faster. "There is a dearth of research," concedes Denise Goodman, an independent trainer and national consultant on resource family issues.

But anecdotally, almost everyone agrees it makes for a less traumatic experience in foster care and helps ease a child's transition back to his or her family. "We can definitely see patterns when the birth parents and the foster parents work together," says Goodman. "We see far less conflict, but it is purely anecdotal at this time."

"If the parents are empowered, there is a much better chance of them staying involved with their children," says Mary Odom, assistant executive director for family foster care and adoption at SCO Family of Services in New York City. "We are all creatures of habit. If you have no input into your child's life except for visiting two hours and then you are gone, you are not the parent and you are not there."

An ongoing relationship with the foster family also gives parents somewhere to turn for advice and support when things get tough after the children return home. Numerous foster parents report providing babysitting and other assistance for their former foster kids.

The concept of resource parenting is now ingrained in the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), the training many states and cities use to certify foster parents. MAPP includes a segment on foster and birth parent cooperation.

In New York City, where Allen Rose lives with his foster family, the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has also unveiled new initiatives designed to improve relations between the two families, like parent-to-parent "icebreaker" meeting within three to five days of a child's placement in foster care to help break down barriers between the two sides.

"It's an opportunity for the birth parent to share information such as 'She doesn't eat broccoli, she wets the bed at night, this is the name of her best friend at school,'" says Lorraine Stephens, ACS deputy commissioner for family planning services.

"There is a magic moment when the child first comes into care, when the birth parent knows more than the foster family," says Michael Wagner, director of permanency at the Children's Aid Society in New York. "This allows the birth parent to work in collaboration with the resource family instead of in competition, and the resource family gets to see the value of the birth family."

But implementation of and follow-up on resource parenting is difficult to track, and some child welfare workers believe this kind of collaborative parenting is more of an aspiration than a reality, especially in urban areas like New York where staff turnover is high and potential foster parents are in short supply. If a foster parent does not want to work cooperatively with a child's parents, caseworkers can have a hard time changing their minds. Some agency executives say they try to hold foster parents to the highest standards, but ultimately they don't want to drive people away if they are otherwise doing a good job caring for children.

It can be especially challenging to convince women and men who have been foster parenting for decades to change their stance toward the children's parents, says Wagner. When these people began in the field, they often saw themselves as providing the first stable homes these kids had ever known. "We were changing what they signed on to do," says Wagner.


Achieving a positive relationship between parents and foster parents can be like setting up an arranged marriage -- many end well, but some people are not meant to be together no matter what.

Most parents enter the relationship angry or at least resentful. After all, they've had their child taken from them by authorities who deemed them unfit. How foster parents deal with that anger can set the tone for months and years into the future.

Yet at the time of the initial placement, the question of how well parents and foster parents might get along is rarely considered. Many children come into foster care suddenly, sometimes in the middle of the night. With emergency placements, children generally go to whatever homes are immediately available. Agency officials say there is no time to carefully consider which foster parents will best mesh with birth families.

For Allen Rose and his father, it took four foster families to get the relationship right.

When Allen was born in the spring of 2005, he tested positive for exposure to drugs. The boy's mother was addicted to drugs, and when Allen was a few months old, she entered a rehabilitation program where she could be with her son. She quit the program, however, and Allen ended up in foster care. Allen's mother no longer sees her son. Tom Rose, who says he had been sober for nine years before these events, also relapsed, and eventually entered a rehabilitation program himself.

Allen arrived at the Green household at the age of 14 months, after other foster arrangements had collapsed. (Agency workers decided that in one of his foster homes Allen was not getting the care he needed. A different foster mother left the city for vacation.)

Tom Rose admits he initially bumped heads with the Greens. "The second time I visited, [Allen] had a shaved head and new clothes. I was cursing under my breath," Tom recalls. Other things got him angry too: Allen calling Allyson Green "Mommy," and food restrictions.

But Allyson Green would patiently explain to the boy's father that she wasn't putting Allen on a restricted diet arbitrarily, but because sugar and chocolate made the boy's moods and eczema worse.

"Tom complained about everything. He complained when I put jeans on Allen with a car on the pocket, saying I was raising a thug," she recalls. "I would tell Tom all the time, 'I'm here to help you with Allen. I love him, but I know you love him more because you are his parent.'"

Tom says a caseworker at the agency sat down with him and explained that the Greens were good people with an established record as successful foster parents. It would be easier, the official said, if he could work on letting his anger go.

Allyson Green worked on her issues, too. "I needed to pray a lot. I needed to learn to let him come around," she says.

And, in time, he did.

The Greens, who have a reputation at their foster care agency for being exceptional foster parents, make it a point to include mothers and fathers in their children's lives, if they are willing. They've taken middle-of-the-night phone calls from the mother of one of their foster children when she struggled with her recovery program. They've opened their home to Tom Rose for unstructured time with their family, and he frequently drops in for Sunday dinner.

"The secret is to be as natural and normal as possible," Bruce Green says. "If you are a family, you don't have to put on a show. We ask folks to go to the store and take out the garbage because that's what you ask family."

Many agency officials believe that the more flexible foster parents can be and the more informal contact the foster and birth family can manage, the better the outcome for children. This can mean allowing parents to call at will instead of only at specifically mandated times, allowing the children to see their parents outside of scheduled visitations, and including parents in important moments in a child's life such as school events and doctor visits, even without direct orders to do so from a caseworker or the courts.

"We have one foster mother who would tell her mothers, 'You can come and cook whatever you want, but you have to leave the kitchen the way you found it.' Many of the mothers would come and cook for their kids," says Odom of SCO Family of Services in New York City. "This same mother told another mother that she didn't do braids and made her come to the house every Saturday to braid the child's hair."


There have always been foster parents who practiced collaborative foster parenting even if they didn't know it was officially encouraged. When Audrey Thompson, who lives in the Bronx, took in her first foster child more than a decade ago, she did not expect to gain an entire family. But the day after Jonathan, then 8, arrived at the Thompson home, he accompanied the family to Coney Island -- where they literally ran into the boy's mother on the street.

"We turned around and they were hugging each other and crying. We stood apart and looked on," Thompson recalls. "Finally, my husband told her, 'You can walk with us,' and she tagged along."

Jonathan was one of six siblings, spread out among several foster homes in Brooklyn and Queens. He visited his siblings and mother on Saturdays in alternate boroughs. Tired of all the traveling, Thompson asked if visits could take place at her Bedford-Stuyvesant home. "This was unusual at the time," she recalls.

Thompson became more and more involved in the life of her foster child's family and, eventually, all six siblings became her foster children. She and her husband adopted the youngest two, and their mother remained involved in all of her children's lives. The two families became so intertwined that Thompson's husband helped the children's mother obtain a job as a home attendant via his employer, New Parkway Hospital in Queens.

"We could see the kids loved her," Thompson says.

Nonetheless, Thompson says she sometimes wonders if she should have been less accommodating with her foster children's mother. Maybe then the woman would have summoned the wherewithal to regain custody of some of her children, she says. None of the six siblings ever returned to her.

"Sometimes I think we enabled her because we accepted her as part of the family," Thompson says. "So I think she was quite content for us to raise the kids and for her to be there."

Another foster mother, who requested anonymity for fear the foster care agency she works with would penalize her for being critical, said she generally supported the concept of resource parenting, but found it hard to carry out. "Many parents come in with a lot of luggage and a lot of attitude," she says. "Advocates say we are a team, but sometimes that's not true. Parents have to get to know you, and then they will feel comfortable with you. We foster parents put in a lot and we put up with a lot."

With children currently in her care, this foster mother said she carefully monitors their contact with their mother. Negotiating boundaries was especially difficult because, at certain points in the case, the foster mother allowed the mother to speak with the children even when officials asked her not to. "She wasn't supposed to call, but I told her to call because the kids missed her. If they don't hear from her, it's hard on me," the woman says. She adds that she also speaks to the mom by phone when the children are not present, so they can share information.

Foster care agency officials say the best way to encourage resource parenting is to offer parents and foster parents greater training, counseling and support so they can focus more energy on forging collaborative relationships. Still, no amount of encouragement and sit-downs can mask the fact that collaborative foster parenting often involves a great investment of time and emotional reserves, and not all foster parents are equipped to handle the increased demands. "We try to make our families understand their roles with respect to the birth family, and to take on their roles as models for the birth family," says Wagner. "But that's sometimes not the role they were looking for."


Allyson and Bruce Green know it's likely Allen will one day return to his father's full-time custody. Tom Rose now has weekend visits with the boy, who turned 3 in May, and the two families are handling the pending change in the cooperative way they've always done.

Tom picks Allen up on Friday mornings -- and if he needs parenting advice, he knows he can call Allyson for input. If Allen is having problems adjusting to being alone with his dad, Tom will bring him back to the Greens for the night and take him again the next morning. Tom will often snap pictures of the boy as he plays in the park and at the library and send them to Allyson's cell phone. It's his way of thanking her for all the times she would call him when the boy did something new or amusing.

Perhaps most important, Tom moved to be near the Greens. He's even named them the boy's godparents. "The Greens are the closest thing to family my son has," Tom says.

In turn, the Greens have now found another way to show their love for Allen: The boy's mother recently gave birth to another boy, and they have agreed to be his foster parents.

How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking

Somewhere in between the ceaseless celebrations of the Baby Boomers turning 60 and the Millennial generation discovering they were suffering from a quarter-life crisis, the cultural powers that be forgot to take note of a major milestone: Generation X began to turn 40.

Molly Ringwald, of the quintessential Gen X film The Breakfast Club, celebrated her 40th birthday earlier this year. Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel might well be spending her days taking notes on perimenopause -- she's turning 41 in July. And if Kurt Cobain were still alive, no one would be thinking of him as an angry young man. He would be 40-plus too.

Yet Generation X, those born roughly between 1965 and 1980 (it's worth noting that demographers disagree about the group's exact parameters, preferring to use the dates 1963 to 1977), remains forever young in the public imagination, still those 20-somethings sitting around Seattle and Austin grunge bars and coffee houses exchanging ironic witticisms about life and doing not much else with their time. "Somebody seems to have forgotten Generation X," writes Jeff Gordinier, author of the just released X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. "The stodgy old species known as the 30-something has been shuttled off like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers."

Gordinier seeks to rescue Generation X from the shadows in this rollicking book. (Hint: if you don't think Gordinier is funny, read his hilarious take-down of a Newsweek article on Boomer friendships in his introduction), He revisits Gen X highlights from childhood in the inflation-ridden 1970s through slacking during the recession of the early 1990s to the dot-com boom and bust, and what came after. He looks at the careers of folks as disparate as director Paul Thomas Anderson and Meetup founder Scott Heiferman and his partners to prove that, well, Gen X doesn't deserve its slacker reputation. They work, those 30- and 40-somethings. They really do -- when they can get work, that is. Generation X, it seems, has a nasty habit of getting bushwhacked by bad economic conditions time and time again. Yes, they've produced a few Internet millionaires, but Census Bureau figures reveal that the men of Generation X are grossing less than their fathers at the same age. And if you think you detect a tone of slight bitterness in my reportorial voice, in the interests of full disclosure I admit to a birth date that marks me as a full-fledged member of Generation X.

Yet in his attempt to shill for a group that is genuinely in need of some good public relations, Gordinier lets some less than exemplary Gen X traits slide. When it comes to solipsistic spending, for example, Generation X puts Baby Boomers to shame. What other generation can claim to have made $1,000 architecturally inspired infant strollers and $5 cups of designer coffee into necessities? Gordinier could also have devoted more page space to the women of his generation, who are now on the forefront of the work/life balance debate.

Yet Gordinier is ultimately an optimist, believing Generation X is only now coming into its own as a true force for change. He points to a growing number of 30- and 40-something social activists, arguing that the sheer number of political, international, economic and environmental disasters that have occurred over the course of George W. Bush's presidency leaves Generation X with no choice but to begin to go about the business of fixing our society. In short, he believes the group will turn into the demographic equivalent of Winston Wolf, the clean-up character played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction:

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Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary

Hillary Clinton elicits reactions so intense, so vehement and at times so odd it's a wonder the poor woman manages to continue performing on the political stage. She's been called everything from a doormat to a drag queen, and her public image somehow manages to encompass both the story of Chaucer's Patient Griselda and the tale of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. She plays a large role in the internal psychodrama of many American women, who often seem convinced that Hillary Clinton finds them personally wanting.

There's something about Hillary, but what is it? Susan Morrison, a longtime editor at the New Yorker, decided to try to get to the bottom of our obsession with the former first lady and current presidential candidate by asking 30 well-known female writers and journalists to explore their thoughts about her. The result is a compulsively readable but ultimately erratic anthology devoted to all things Hillary: Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers (Harper 2008).

Morrison's goal was worthy, but one wishes she had gone about it by, well, mixing it up a bit. The vast majority of the contributors to her book are card-carrying members of the chattering classes, with more than half residing in New York City or the immediate surrounding area. Almost all identify as feminists and Democrats. As a result, there is a lot of hand-wringing over female competitiveness and the persistence of double standards for everything from grooming to likeability for men vs. women. A few more red staters, women who don't identify as feminists, or even a male viewpoint or two might have gone a long way toward shedding light on the topic of Hillary Clinton.

That's not to say the conversation isn't sometimes enlightening. Two of the best pieces in the collection are written by lawyers, who might well have a greater understanding than most of us for the environment that molded Clinton into the person she is today. Susan Lehman's piece "Firm Hillary: How the Culture of Corporate Law Shaped Hillary," ultimately attributes her controlled and controlling public persona, at least in part, to the 15 years she spent at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. She makes a compelling argument about what makes Clinton tick, even if you don't agree with her ultimate conclusion that after eight years of George W. Bush, a successful corporate lawyer is just what the United States needs.

In addition, Slate's Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick writes a compelling brief about what women do and don't like to see in other members of their sex. In her view, Hillary Clinton reminds us of "someone shrill and judgmental" like a know-it-all neighbor. The genius of the piece lies in Lithwick's refusal to let either herself or us off the hook for feeling that way, arguing we are unlikely to elect any American female politician to the top job until we learn to "judge female candidates less brutally."

Nonetheless, a number of the essays in Morrison's anthology are intensely self-involved, more about the authors' reactions to Hillary Clinton than Hillary Clinton herself. There's little examination of Clinton's political skills or her record in the Senate. Despite what some of the essayists in this anthology think, the personal is not always political. Our need for action on problems ranging from healthcare reform to ending the war in Iraq go way beyond what these writers think of Hillary Clinton's -- or any other candidate's -- various haircuts or personal life. And whether one is pro-Hillary, anti-Hillary or an agnostic on Hillary, that's a sentiment all voters should share.

AlterNet sat down with Morrison in her New York office to see what insight she could offer into our fascination with Hillary Clinton, why she chose to approach her subject in the way she did and how she plans to vote in her state's primary on Feb. 5.

Helaine Olen: Why did you decide to edit an anthology on Hillary Clinton?
Susan Morrison: She clearly pushed different kinds of buttons than other politicians pushed. When people are talking about her, they were, more often than not, not talking about policy and ideas. They were talking about kind of strange, personal, emotional reactions. We have different expectations of her just because she's a woman. That's the jumping off point for the essays in this book.

Olen: Why didn't you include any male writers in the anthology?

Morrison: I found that the most complicated and in some cases the most vociferous reactions to Hillary were reactions that women had. It's kind of a social commonplace that women can be toughest on one another. This just seemed like a way to explore that. How do women react to other powerful women? Are they more judgmental of them than they are of powerful men? Is there an element of competition? And I think that looking at all of these emotional reactions is a really useful and valid way to think about Hillary as a candidate.

Olen: Yet, the women writers in your anthology often seemed to be blaming men for their own reactions. For example, a number of your writers went on and on about men talking about Hillary Clinton's hair or looks. They said it was men. But they were also going on and on and on ...

Morrison: Well, men seize on her chubby calves and eyebrows and go nuts with it. But women do too. As Deborah Tannen points out in her piece, there's so many fewer bells and whistles that men can attach to themselves in terms of appearance. There's so many fewer kinds of hairstyles or ties and suits. There's an infinite array of ways that a woman can look. That's just the way it is historically. The fact is that culturally, for thousands of years, we're just used to evaluating women in terms of the way they look.

Olen: There is no question there is a misogynist edge to some of the talk that surrounds Hillary Clinton. Is it possible to be unaffected by it?
Morrison: Gosh, I guess I just think it's so pervasive that we don't even hear it. But of course if you really think about it, those things trickle down in their real attitudes. There is also a way in which it makes you defensive towards her. It makes you think, "Oh brother, this is insane."

Olen: The book is a very eclectic collection of essays. Some of the pieces are very political, others are extraordinarily personal takes and a few take on things like Hillary Clinton's eating habits. Do you think such an approach inadvertently trivializes Hillary Clinton?

Morrison: The intention was to create a pointillist portrait. Just lots and lots of different takes. I thought that the reader would be happy to have some things that were just kind of, like, the sorbet course in between the more complex, probing pieces. And there's been enough op-ed page stuff written about Hillary. This book isn't really trying to be that. It's trying to look at all of the different kind of little emotional reasons that we like her or don't like her. So I felt that having some things that were kind of light and lively worked. I don't think it trivializes her. You want to take the full measure of the person who might be president.

Olen: One of the criticisms of this anthology is that it is unclear if some of the essays are about Hillary Clinton or the essayist.

Morrison: I think that that tells us something. I think it tells us that we don't think about male politicians that way. It would never occur to me to look at Jack Kemp and think about my inner life in any way that's connected to Jack Kemp's inner life. And yet I think there's something about Hillary because she's a baby boomer, because she's a working mom, because she's a lot of the things that a lot of us are that make us project onto her. And even thinking about her makes us think about ourselves and our own situations. And that's what makes this such a rich and tangled up subject.

Olen: Which essay came closest to your viewpoint and why?

Morrison: I think Dahlia Lithwick's. There's just a couple of lines that really stuck out. I feel that she was really getting something. She said roughly, "Sometimes I think that successful -- that men look at a successful man and they think, I want to emulate that. And that women look at a successful woman and try to look, to see all the hairspray and bobby pins that are holding it together." She also, I think, got at some of the more subtle things that legitimately bother some of us about Hillary. There's a paragraph in the essay where she describes Hillary speaking at an event and saying, "Privacy? What on earth do I know about that? There has been so little in my own life. But I have a firm commitment to protecting it for the rest of you." She does have a bit of a self-righteous thing that way.

Olen: I confess that's one of my favorites too. But it's for the conclusion. I don't think you need to be a Clinton supporter to agree that with Lithwick that as long as we are expecting someone to be all things to all people, no woman will make it to the White House. And that struck me, because I can't think of a male politician we expect to be all things to all people. Can you?

Morrison: No. I don't think we realize that we have different expectations of a woman leader and a man leader. Jane Kramer puts it pretty well when she writes we are trying to look for the right combination of sweet and steely. There may be things about Hillary that aren't completely right. It may be depressing from a feminist perspective that the first woman presidential candidate is riding her husband's coattails. But as I think Lara Vapnyar says in her essay, once you break the ceiling, the ceiling's broken. And then however she got there, she'll have gotten there. And then we won't have to be going through this exercise anymore. I mean, it'll just be a level playing field.

Olen: Do you believe that?

Morrison: To some extent. I wouldn't advocate that women vote for Hillary just because she's a woman. You want to vote for her because she's a candidate who you think would be a good leader. A good president. But I do think that once that barrier is broken, it will pave the way for it to be easier.

Olen: Could you say Hillary Clinton is a strong feminist who got to this great achievement in the most traditional of ways?

Morrison: I think that's exactly right, and I think that's why some feminists have a problem with her. There is this sense among certain die-hard feminists that the first woman achieving this achievement shouldn't have got there in such traditional ways. She shouldn't be running for president because her husband was president, and there's something about that that's a little depressing and regressive.

Olen: You wrote in the introduction that you felt authenticity was shaping up to be the buzzword of the 2008 election. Do you still feel that way?

Morrison: Yes, even though I recognize that the concept of authenticity in politics or authenticity in a politician are completely at odds. As Amy Wilentz writes in her essay, what if you had to live a life where you couldn't let people know that you spoke French and you couldn't dress the way you wanted to dress. You couldn't order foie gras if you wanted it. Or everything that you did, every breath you took, had to be managed with an eye toward how it was going to be perceived.

To a certain extent, anyone who wants to be in public life has to be a little bit crazy and be at home with the idea that their personality and public persona have to be kind of market researched. People say, "Well, Bill is more authentic than Hillary." What does that really mean? Is he just better at being charismatic than her? Who knows?

Olen: Did you think Hillary Clinton's tears the day before the New Hampshire primary were authentic? A number of commentators -- mostly male -- did not.

Morrison: I did think that the tears were authentic. Although, at the same time, I think she's such a political animal that she must have been completely mindful of the fact that they weren't going to hurt her. Hillary is never more popular than when she looks like a victim, then when she looks vulnerable, particularly with women voters. I didn't mind it. I felt that she reminded me in that moment of -- I'll probably get jumped on for saying this -- well, I recognize this tone in my own voice sometimes when I'm talking to my children. It's like, "You kids, you don't appreciate what I'm doing for you."

But I think the more interesting observation about the tears incident is that I don't think that she won because she wept. That clip was played on TV over and over and over and over and over again. And yes, she was looking emotional. But also, she was saying again and again on television, "We do it, each one of us, against difficult odds. We do it because we care about our country. Some of us are right, and some of us are not. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not." It's a brilliant attack ad. So under the guise of this kind of womanly tearful moment, she basically had this kind of killer attack ad playing dozens of times on national television. I can't tell you if it was intentional or strategic or not.

Olen: You wrote and said today you wanted to do this anthology to try to figure out what buttons Hillary Clinton pushes in people. Did you change your views about what buttons she pushed in people over the course of working on this book?

Morrison: No, I just knew she pushed different buttons on different people. And you can see how some women are really turned off by the fact that she didn't throw Bill out after Monica. Some women are turned off by the fact that they think that her whole marriage is opportunistic. Some people are turned off by the fact that they think it's anti-feminist to ... you know, has she paid her dues out of her own account or her husband's account? And then some people are just bugged by her mannishness. You know, there are people who compare her to a drag queen. I think everybody has different buttons.

Olen: What was your ultimate take? Where were you at the beginning? Where were you at the end?

Morrison: Well, in the beginning I think I saw Hillary as obviously an intelligent woman, but I didn't have such a great, positive feeling about her. When I started working on this book, I read more about her, learned more about her, I found myself quite liking the woman that she was in her 20s, and I found her passion very convincing. Her passion for different kinds of traditional liberal social causes and children's welfare and all that, and I found her to be an incredibly impressive person. Also the more I thought about her, the way she is often criticized and judged now as a candidate, I began to realize that this American obsession with likability is kind of ridiculous, and at the end of the day, she would be a really competent president. I was as guilty as anybody of judging her more harshly than I would a man just because she wasn't particularly charismatic.

Whether you agree with her vote on the Iraq war or not, I have this idea that deep down inside she's closer to that person who battled for social causes and children's rights when she was in her 20s. And I came to feel that all the criticism of her being charmless, grating and calculating were not such terribly important things.

Olen: What do you want people to take away from this book?

Morrison: I would hope that the thing that people will get from this book is a realization that the reactions and judgments that we make about people, including political candidates, come from our personal histories, come from our relationships with other people, and are both very subjective and objective. But it's worthwhile and interesting to really think about why we come to the conclusions we do, and then try to evaluate which of those reasons are rational and which are irrational, and that perhaps will help us make a better decision.

Olen: So are you voting for her?

Morrison: Well, like a lot of Democrats, I'll vote defensively. I mean, I'll vote for whoever we can get into the White House who isn't a Republican. In a primary I'll probably vote for her. But I feel like we have a lot more to watch between now and then. I would be very happy to have Edwards, Obama or Clinton in the White House. I feel actually good about it.

The Medical Credit Card Trap

Reprinted with permission from Helaine Olen, "The Medical Credit Card Trap," The American Prospect Online: August 15, 2007. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.

Michael Moore's film Sicko opens with the haunting vignette of a man who loses part of two fingers in a sawing mishap. As he lacks both health insurance and a bottomless bank account, hospital authorities give him a choice of which finger to re-attach.

It's a wonder the hospital finance office didn't simply tell Moore's hapless accident victim to apply for a line of credit -- an increasingly popular way for the cash-strapped under-insured to cover their medical expenses. Health-care chains such as Kaleida Health, which includes five hospitals and numerous outpatient facilities in upstate New York, advertise credit cards as a way for patients to commence receiving services. Kaleida helpfully notes that G.E.Money's CareCredit "lets you begin your treatment immediately -- then pay for it over time with low monthly payments that are easy to fit into your monthly budget."

In the years since the failure of President Bill Clinton's health-care reform package, credit cards have come to play an ever-expanding role in the American medical system. Not only do most doctor's offices and hospitals now routinely accept MasterCard and Visa as well as specialized cards like CareCredit, many help patients set up new accounts.

But as use of credit to pay for medical expenses becomes more and more common, a new concern has begun to worry reform advocates and other players in the system: Have we unwittingly given the nation's financial sector a seat at the table when it comes time to once again discuss restructuring our health-care system? The question takes on an even greater urgency with health care shaping up to be a significant issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

"It's always hard to get through legislative change, and change is even harder if it is going to cost someone money," says Elizabeth Warren, the nationally known bankruptcy expert and co-author of a 2006 study on medical debt. "The consumer finance industry is becoming a stakeholder, and as they increase their profit from people who are struggling to pay their bills, it's going to make needed change much harder to accomplish. This is the central problem with these cards."

Americans are expected to spend $250 billion in 2007 on out-of-pocket medical expenses, and most observers expect that sum to grow over the coming years as employers and insurance companies continue to shift more and more medical costs onto the patient.

Many medical practices encourage patients to turn to plastic to cover their shortfalls, and those who study the issue say that it's easy for small bills to spiral into large expenses. When high-interest credit cards are used as a way of paying bills, many consumers find themselves on a financial treadmill that they find impossible to escape.

"There are hundreds of billions of dollars that patients are responsible for paying in medical costs every year, and each year health-care costs are escalating," says Mark Rukavina, the director of Access Project, a nonprofit consumer health advocacy group. "The credit card companies are moving in, and they are moving in quickly."

Numerous credit cards are pitched to consumers as a way of financing so-called "lifestyle" (read: unnecessary) medical expenses, things like Lasik eye surgery and cosmetic dentistry, on consumer-friendly terms. Take Citibank's Citi Health Card. Offered by ophthalmologists and dental practices -- and even veterinarians -- Citibank promotes the Health Card as a gentler credit card, with no annual fee, and, at least on some plans, no interest if consumers pay off their bills within a certain timeframe.

But critics point out that Citi Health cardholders who cannot pay off their debt by the end of their agreed-upon payment period face interest rates exceeding 20 percent -- beginning from the date of the first purchase. In addition, Citi Health can also be used to pay for more urgent medical procedures such as dental surgery since the practitioners who offer the card can allow patients to use it on all the services they offer, not just those deemed nonessential. As anyone who has ever had, say, a root canal knows, quibbling over treatment costs or looking over the fine print of a credit application for terms, interest rates, and penalties are not high priorities for a patient in a lot of pain.

And the still relatively new frontier of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts has also offered financial institutions fertile ground to ply their trade. Wells Fargo, for example, has issued more than 100,000 debit cards linked to these plans. Other companies have extended credit to consumers who have not fully funded their HSAs and need to borrow the money to pay the high insurance deductibles linked to these plans.

"The financial services institutions are becoming much more active in the medical marketplace than ever before," notes Richard L. Clarke, president and CEO of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, a trade organization for financial professionals ranging from controllers to accountants in the health industry. "They see a huge volume of transactions, large dollar amounts flowing back and forth, and they see themselves as the middle person being able to process those transactions, manage that cash, and make some money."

To be fair, consumer credit allows doctors and other providers to receive payment for care quickly. But when consumers turn to plastic in lieu of adequate insurance, they unwittingly collaborate in masking the societal cost of Americans' ever-higher personal health-care expenses. "The shift from direct medical debt to credit card debt hides the degree of stress on families," Warren argues. "It looks like too many trips to the mall, not a family who couldn't pay for an appendectomy."

No one expects the gravy train to stop anytime soon. After all, banks and other issuers of credit can make money from medical services in numerous ways: collecting a fee from the medical provider for handling a transaction, charging interest on patient bills, and charging employers for acting as administrators of their HSAs and other medical spending accounts. It seems unlikely that any business would give up on this growing income stream without a fight. "If there was Medicare for all in which the private health insurance industry had little or no role, that would have a very dampening effect," Clarke observes. "The insurance companies would be much more vocal than the banks ... but the banks would be right behind the insurance companies."

This article is available on The American Prospect website.© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

The Trouble With Chick Lit

It's hard to believe it has been a decade since we first met scrappy singleton Bridget Jones. Her semicomic everywoman trials and travails launched the modern publishing phenom of "chick-lit," in which twenty- and thirty-something women with lovable flaws hunt successfully for both the perfect man and the ultimate pair of designer heels.

Yet of all the things that might mark the 10th anniversary of "Bridget Jones's Diary," an anthology titled "This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers," edited by Elizabeth Merrick, might be the most unexpected gift of all.

"When 'Bridget Jones's Diary' came out in 1996, as a young woman writer, I was just elated," recalls Merrick, a New York author and writing instructor. "Then it just got harder and harder to find literary works by women."

The fictional empowerment of chick-lit heroines, it seems, comes with a real-life cost: less attention paid to serious women scribes. Merrick points out that as the Jonathans -- that's Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer -- saw their careers take off for the literary stratosphere, many of their female contemporaries found their own work languishing, receiving less press and sales than their male counterparts.

All, that is, except for chick-lit writers. By 2004, Publishers Weekly was estimating more than 200 chick-lit tales were being published annually, even as women remained dismally unrepresented in literary magazines and op-ed pages.

Merrick, 33, is not the first to wonder about the effect of chick lit on women's writing. Over the past few years, novelists Francine Prose, Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing have all attempted to take on the lack of respect they feel is accorded to serious writing by women. But Merrick and her inflammatory title touched a nerve in the collective conscious the others had not.

When Random House last year announced the forthcoming publication of "This Is Not Chick Lit," with contributions from such A-list writers as Jennifer Egan and Aimee Bender, the roar of outrage from the literary blogosphere was immediate. "We've got the country's (self-proclaimed) best women writers turning up their noses at their fellow women authors' more commercial efforts," wrote one of the most famous chick-lit authors of them all, Jennifer Weiner, whose works include the novels "Good in Bed" and "In Her Shoes."

This was, in some ways, a followup to a post Weiner had made on the popular lit blog Beatrice.com earlier in the year when she wrote, "The best chick-lit books deal with race and class, gender wars and workplace dynamics, not just shoes and shopping." As for more literary works, she noted their depressing insistence on exploring "death (often sudden), regret and disappointment (always permanent)."

Soon plans were announced for a competing anthology, "This Is Chick Lit," edited by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. "Where do these women get off naming themselves 'America's Best Women Writers?," she wrote on Beatrice.com. "The reason chick lit sells in such great abundance is that it provides readers with a reliable form of entertainment. Is there something wrong with this?"

Many say no, seeing positive qualities in the genre. "Women have professional opportunities they didn't have in earlier generations, but now women have to find a lasting personal relationship while running a corporation. The old demands on women have not disappeared," notes Suzanne Ferriss, an English professor and co-editor of the nonfiction anthology "Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction." "A lot of people say chick lit is escapist froth. We think they are wrong. It is trying to engage with real women's lives."

It is indeed true that many women -- myself included -- can viscerally identify with the problems chick-lit heroines face. I will never again sign up to deliver snacks to my son's school without thinking ruefully of Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It," in which would-be mistress of the universe Kate Reddy finds herself smashing in store-bought mince pies in the middle of the night to make them look homemade. Nonetheless, the cry that chick lit deals with real women's concerns in a relatable way while literary fiction spins off into greater degrees of irrelevance is somewhat disingenuous.

First, it is not as though literary fiction doesn't -- at least some of the time -- trawl the same terrain as chick lit, though Weiner is not wrong when she says the stories tend to not end as happily. But perhaps more important, the formula of chick lit itself -- with its comedic farce and fantasy solutions to real-life problems -- ultimately undercuts its claim to social relevance. Super-consumer Becky of Sophie Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series never files for bankruptcy protection. Kate Reddy quits her job and moves to the country with her family only to find -- lo and behold -- a small toy factory in need of saving. Deus ex machina and coincidence reign in the world of modern gal fiction.

Chick lit begins the feminist conversation but does not even come close to suggesting any answers. What it does, ultimately, is offer both its characters and readers an easy, fantasy-based way of viewing significant social issues in apolitical terms, making it the perfect literature for George W. Bush's America. That nasty workaholic boss or those pesky 10 extra pounds? Not to worry. Chick-lit heroines are always just a few chapters away from a happy ending. A boyfriend or husband, a fun job, a gay best friend, designer shoes and pocketbooks, a credit card. What more -- besides a book contract -- can a girl want?

I spoke with Elizabeth Merrick recently by phone to find out how she came up with the idea for her anthology, and why she thinks male writers are often viewed as more significant than their female counterparts.

HELAINE OLEN: How did you get the idea for this book? Why do you think it was needed?

ELIZABETH MERRICK: The book was a natural progression from my reading series, which focuses on women writers of literary fiction, which came about after years of being appalled, as a young writer, at how little promotion serious women writers get, and how few bylines in our major American literary publications. You need review space, and review space is still very biased toward men and bylines at our literary publications. Look at Harper's or The New Yorker. It's a very good week if there are 25 percent or 30 percent female bylines.

As that was happening, serious books by women were edged further off the front display tables by these knockoffs of "Bridget Jones's Diary," and then it just got harder and harder to find literary works by women. I wanted to make a way for the audience of readers who want more literary work to be able to find it. And so that's how this anthology was born.

OLEN: I've worked in book publishing, I've worked in journalism, and I don't think badly intentioned people are going into this field, or into book publishing for that matter. So what's going on?

MERRICK: It's not malicious, and it's not conscious. The editors in power I think often have an aesthetic that may be a more male writing style. That's my best guess. It is absolutely not malicious; it is just a big, big, cultural blind spot. I think this is something that is still a cultural space where we're processing a shift after 30 years of the feminist movement.

OLEN: And how does the economics of book publishing factor in? We know fewer and fewer people read either a book or a newspaper every year …

MERRICK: We know that the book-buying audience is diminishing, and it's just such a heroic effort to stay alive. We know that the reading audience is diminishing; we know that certainly this generation of kids has a lot more to do to distract them from reading books than one or two generations ago even. So part of it is the changing economics of publishing, and the need to have a healthy bottom line. And commercial work always, in the history of publishing, ensures the bottom line whereas literary work never does. And that's just the way it is, and that makes sense.

However, there is this golden moment of women writers right now; it's like a golden age and a blossoming of women fiction writers, and it's not getting that much attention.

OLEN: OK, then, what about buyers? I assume publishers would be bringing out and promoting female literary fiction if women were buying those books. I mean, they want to make money.

MERRICK: I think we're about to take an imaginative leap in terms of the marketing of serious books by women. It just hasn't happened yet. Actually, chick lit is almost the first step in that. When "Bridget Jones's Diary" came out in 1996, as a young woman writer, I was just elated to just see a book by a woman writer about this stuff get out there in the bookstore. But now you have like the eight-millionth generation knockoff of it, which is just so much more poorly written than that book (which I actually thought was quite funny), and it's a whole different situation. So I think it's just a matter of discovering.

The publishing industry is an industry that people are involved with because they're passionate about literature, and they're generally pretty overworked and working with very tight budgets and a diminishing audience so I think it just will take a little more time to figure out how to find a good way to bring books to their audience.

OLEN: How much are women responsible themselves? After all, they are buying -- or not buying -- these books.

MERRICK: I think you're dealing with 5,000 years of patriarchal culture there. There's an informal poll, I think it was the U.K. Guardian that said women read men's and women's books, but men actually just read books written by men. I don't have a problem if men don't want to read books by women; I think that's fine. My issue is equal pay for equal work, and that women writers need to be able to have careers, so we need to get these byline discrepancies changed, and we need to really make sure that women's books get reviewed.

OLEN: Do you believe serious fiction written by women has a harder time getting published than that written by men?

MERRICK: Yes, I do. I think it will get easier over the next few years, but for now, my big lament is: We have a slot for the Big Boy Genius Book. The Foers, the Lethems, the Whiteheads, the Eggers, the Franzens. Do we have a slot for the Big Girl Genius Book? An ambitious novel, epic, that doesn't just ape male novels but deals with women's lives and themes? That gets a big marketing push because it is taken seriously?

OLEN: But there are some well-known women literary writers. There are "big" female names -- Kathryn Harrison, Jhumpa Lahari, Zadie Smith come to mind immediately. They get reviewed by the New York Times, they get rather respectable reviews, and certainly in literary circles they're well-known.

MERRICK: Look at any other field. I think it's great that we have Hillary Clinton in the Senate. That is wonderful, and it's great that Zadie Smith gets lots of attention. However, because Hillary Clinton is in the Senate doesn't mean that we have more than 15 percent of the Senate women. It's great to have our really noticeable women literary writers, but the reality across the board is still really unbalanced.

OLEN: Why use such a provocative title?

MERRICK: It's funny. When I was recently at a wedding and asked what my own novel, "Girly," was about, I gave the overview -- that it's epic, told in seven voices, about sexuality and spirituality and two intense sisters -- and the woman who asked, smirked, "So it's NOT CHICK LIT." She didn't know about the anthology, and isn't particularly literary, so I think it's just a sense that it's in the ether: What else could we be reading now? The title is a reminder that there is a huge amount of amazing work by women that is not this formulaic stuff that has taken over the front of the bookstore.

OLEN: What, if anything, is wrong with chick lit?

MERRICK: We all need light reading, light entertainment from time to time--I'm certainly not against that. You will see me at the gym with Us Weekly now and then. But there is an amazing flourishing of women literary writers at the moment that is being obscured by a huge pile of pink books with purses and shoes on the cover. Women readers are having a hard time finding substantive reading material because of the dominance of these narratives.

OLEN: Yet the announcement of the book last year aroused an enormous negative response.

MERRICK: The strength of some responses was a surprise to me. … I think some people perceive it as, "Oh, that's anti-feminist," but I don't think it's anti-feminist to suggest, "No, we don't have just one story, we have many stories, they're not getting heard." It's essential that they be heard, because if we don't hear them and we just hear that it's all about marriage and designer shoes, then that diminishes us. It diminishes our imagination."

OLEN: A number of writers are now publishing their stories in "This is Chick Lit," timed to coincide with the publication of your book. Do you believe this will help or hurt your book?

MERRICK: I am thrilled that there is a debate and such an opportunity to notice the difference between literary fiction and the chick lit genre, and put a little more emphasis on the literary. I don't see how it can hurt. I'm so proud of the quality of the work we're including; it just shines. These 18 writers are truly remarkable.

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