After a long career as an anthropologist, including years of fieldwork in remote Australia and Southeast Asia, I am now working on painting, photography, art and cinema and publishing fiction, memoir and children's stories. I spend most of my time in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and at a house on the Hawkesbury River, where my family has lived since 1923.
Since my last post – and thanks so much to everyone who liked it – I have been giving more thought to my writing career.
I realise that I shied away from confronting one of the core realities about the writing career today: namely, who are you? If you have to Put Yourself Out There to Reach Your Readers you have to first work out who those readers might be and then consider what kind of author they want you to be, which means, you have to look like that writer. Once upon a time a writer looked like him/herself, no matter what he/she looked like. Shirley Jackson (below) wrote Gothic horror stories about life in small New England towns. Her publicist would never have let this photo into the public realm if it was today. Actually her story is very interesting, see the link below.
And then there is Charles Bukowski. OK, this is a cheap shot, but hard to resist.
Actually when you look at photographs of famous writers going right back to the early twentieth century you can see already the aesthetics of writerly fame were already at work, in parallel with the growth of photography. There are profound existential questions here, but let’s skip them for the moment and go right back to Square One!
Everyone in this game accepts that Marketing involves being someone marketable. These days the author is a product, and like all products it does matter what she/he/they look(s) like and whether or not they fit the current paradigm for successful writers. There are countless guides to how to ensure a successful author photo. I like this one, especially for its analysis of specific published author photos. A certain look, a physically attractive or interesting persona, a hesitant smile that looks great on the back cover, a certain age, an air of reserve and mystery – possibly the hint of the exotic – that will work. But the thing is, if that is the author in their photo, then it has to be the author in real life as well, in the unlikely event they get asked to appear in public somewhere, like at the Podunk Valley Writers’ Festival.
What do you do when you don’t even dimly resemble any of the persons identified as successful writers in their photos? It has occurred to me that it might be helpful to hire someone. Good training for a budding actor! Hire a young person, able to manage the Internet, look great and make public appearances, that might be a good alternative. After all, the gig economy demands people work in all kinds of different careers so there must be hundreds or thousands of young people who’d love to be writers without having to write any books. As for the writer, if you can use a pen name, why can’t you use a pen body? There are ghost writers, why not writers’ ghosts?
Is this a good plot or what? I don’t think it’s been done before although back in 1976 Martin Ritt directed a very young Woody Allen in a movie, The Front, about a writer manqué who signs his name to scripts by real writers blacklisted during the darkest days of Hollywood, when J Edgar Hoover determined what would and would not be acceptable from writers and movie makers according to his own warped ideologies.
And there has been at least one movie about Ghost Writers – Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Ewan McGregor, 2010.
Maybe there are other movies with similar plots, and that great little series Younger, currently in Season 5 on Stan, takes up the issue of ageism in the publishing world, and the extent to which millenials are currently determining what is published and what isn’t – in tradpubland of course. Incidentally in researching this blog post I came across a list of films about writers here. I’d love to watch all of them in one big binge! That’s the only thing I might enjoy more than actually writing the stories myself.
Only a bit over three months left of 2018 and the silly season is almost upon us. Everyone in Australia knows that the country shuts down in early November with the Melbourne Cup and doesn’t start up again until the end of January.
As I don’t go to the races, have no travel plans for the summer and don’t drink alcohol this annual idiocy-fest should not affect me. But I am filled with fear and trepidation because I have so many writing projects which were going to be released “by the end of the year”. Score so far: NIL.
It’s not as if I haven’t written them. Almost all have been through several edits, I have a production method in hand, cover artists lined up … one final edit each, I say to myself, and they will be ready to go. I so much want to do this, because there are new writing projects I want to start. Sure, there are lots of things that get in the way of finishing books, ordinary life stuff. That’s bad enough. But now I am suffering a crisis of confidence. Maybe I should just embrace the silly season and forget about writing altogether, apart from dumb “Season’s Greeting” cards. Or I should take a leaf out of my own (unpublished) cook book and get going on the cakes and puddings. At least I could sell them at a cake stall!
A few short years ago independent publishing seemed so clearly the way to go. But it seems more and more difficult to get any purchase at all with the reading (buying) public without a huge effort in marketing strategy and general non-writing activity. Writing itself takes second place. I need to get serious, not about writing, but about the “writing career”.
Everyone says you have to do it, and lots of people tell you how. Using the Internet strategically is obviously top of the list these days. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet and have done ever since it debuted back in prehistory, well, the early 90s or whenever it was. I love my blogs, both the writing and art sites, it feels truly creative putting them together, but I do that because I love it, not to build a following or expand an email list. I am a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and they put out some great stuff. but tweeting is troppo mucho and Facebook gives me a kind of hysterical indigestion, yes, I know, I shouldn’t have subscribed to those I-Love-Cats sites but there was a reason for that, believe it or not, although I won’t go into it here.
No, the real problem is I can’t wholly see myself as someone “building a writing career”. I am a writer, I love to write, writing is what I do. If I have any time at all, like those precious two or so hours before the world wakes up in the morning, I want to spend it writing or editing or thinking about better turns of phrases for titles or thinking about how to improve a story or how to introduce some new themes. I don’t want to spend it building my email list or tweeting or whatever. It’s bad enough that I have had to go through so much time just working out how to produce a workable manuscript which will go through the publication process smoothly, and identifying useful information sites to follow. But now I see I have to see I have to Put Myself Out There as well.
This morning I came across an article by Wendy Jones called How Being an Opportunist Helps Build Your Writing Career (republished 5 September 2018) here.
This article really made me realise that I just didn’t have the right frame of mind to be a successful Independent Author. Just not opportunistic enough. Read it and weep!
On the other hand maybe I should go to the Melbourne Cup and hand out leaflets urging punters to buy my books! Now that’s an opportunity.
In my previous post I mentioned the problems Australian authors are having under the new KDP publication model. I wanted to offer a couple of observations based on personal experience.
I have used KDP, CreateSpace and Ingram Spark in my experiments with publishing to date. I found Ingram Spark quite problematic – this was a couple of years ago – it didn’t seem at all friendly and had difficult protocols which had to be followed exactly for it to work successfully. IS charged a set-up fee (unlike CreateSpace/KDP) and you had to re-pay every time you changed anything eg because of errors you discovered only after the first files had been set up. I had problems with a colour shift in one of my covers and when I asked IS why this was so they were completely unhelpful, and didn’t want to engage in any discussion about it. They said the problem was in my files, but they came out perfectly on Create Space. If you have published ANYTHING on Kindle in the previous year, IS cannot distribute to Kindle, ditto Apple. There were heaps of others to whom they distributed though, and this became important when I realized that Australian readers could order my books through sellers like Book Depository and Angus and Robertson online. Booksellers could, if they wished, order them too. Amazon didn’t offer anything like it and seemed to have no Australian outlets. If someone in Australia wanted to buy a print copy through Amazon they had to pay a huge postage fee.
Now Australian readers can’t even buy from the US site. If they want a print copy of a book by an Australian author who has published with Amazon they have to order from the Australian site and pay the A$ price and the postage from the US as well. What’s worse for authors, they can’t access their own books for review copies or place bulk orders as they used to be able to do from CreateSpace. So the need for an alternative becomes compelling.
Ingram Spark has printing facilities in Australia, in Melbourne to be precise. So they can print one copy, or multiples, and ship them to the author directly. Their printing costs are higher in some cases than CreateSpace used to be, but having local access more than compensates. Ingram Spark seems to be making a much more active effort to engage with the self-publishing community. If you belong to the Alliance of Independent Authors IS was offering free set-up, for instance. Not sure if that is still the case, but will find out in a few weeks when I set up two of my new publications and will report back.
Now to the option of local printing. I have checked out two Sydney-based printers and am about to see what a service in my local regional area can do. This is not old-time offset printing, but Print on Demand suitable for short runs. One printer offered quick service and lovely-quality print (including good quality covers based on the CreateSpace files I provided) but the cost was so far in excess of what IS or CreateSpace offered and you had to arrange your own pick-up and obviously storage. Another couldn’t work with the type of files I had at all and said they weren’t going to be compatible with their machines.
Printers have their own expectations and facilities. I had a professional designer do both interior layout and covers for my previous books but local printers still had problems. Now I’m looking at using either Pressbooks or Vellum for the interiors and getting a professional designer for the covers. Whether this would work with the local printer, we shall see. Anyway, if you do go the local printer route, you have to be able to pick up and store your books, and forward/deliver them to the customer. And charge a much higher price. I am thinking of doing some locally printed good quality paperbacks for my own sales (through the website and maybe some local bookshops) as well as using Ingram Spark AND KDP. Steep learning curves all around.
Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.
Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings…
Ever get the feeling that independent publishing, which promised so much, is heading down the vortex, especially for Australian authors? When it all started rolling it seemed like writers would be able to reach readers without all the intermediaries deciding who and what would be allowed through the hallowed gates of author-dom.
It looked as if new technology would link writers and readers all over the world and open up the artificial geographic zones which for half a century had been creating unnecessary boundaries around the best new writing. Readers were forced to pay absurdly high prices in some areas, including Australia, to accommodate the outdated business model. You might have thought the response would have been to change the business model, but no, that didn’t happen, and now things seem to be in some kind of weird spiral.
In the US E-books are still selling, and selling well. In number they far outweigh trad pub titles, and just recently they have superseded print books in dollar value. Of course many of these sales are for traditionally published books from established publishers, who bring out an e-book edition along with their print editions. It is very hard to get accurate figures separating the different market components out.
When Indie publishing took hold, a network of new support mechanisms evolved to help authors bring their work to an eager public. Traditional publishers went on doing exactly as they had been doing (but added in e-book versions) and everyone else was free to try things out in all kinds of ways while Amazon provided the all-important technological platform.
For a while Amazon set the prices of the e-books from the traditional publishers. But after a legal case spear-headed by global giant Hachette Amazon was forced to raise the prices of the e-book versions so they did not compete with print books: take a look at the price box next to the Big Five published book you want to buy on your Amazon site and you will see “The price was set by the publishers”. This has pushed e-book prices higher for “good” books from all the global players who have eaten up the smaller niche publishers at least in the English-language market.
Meanwhile millions of other books are left wallowing about at the lowest possible end of the price scale in the hope that someone, anyone, will buy a copy. The unregulated indie market has turned out to be a ghastly place full of bad writing, creepy fantasies, idiotic space-nonsense, buff six-packs and bizarre arrays of erotica. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but anyone who takes a close look at what is going on in the Amazon indie market better not be a serious reader who thinks books have something to do with improving society and culture.
In Australia, the e-book revolution hardy took hold although Australians are known as early adopters of new technologies. Try asking around among friends and workmates and see how many actually have and use a Kindle. The answer, if you are an indie author, is super-depressing. It seems everyone longs for the olden days.
But there’s more to it than persistent nostalgia. It’s not just that people like going to physical bookshops, or buying physical books (often as presents for others), it’s that the guardians of Australian culture mounted an incredibly successful campaign against Amazon among booklovers. They were readily convinced that anything coming out of a corporate US giant like Amazon was automatically going to be a Bad Thing. This impression was shored up among the writers’ groups, in publishing circles, among academics and general literati, the local press, the network of book clubs and whatever other areas of public communication had anything at all to say about books and writing. Indie authors did not appear at Writer’s Festivals. Nobody mentioned them on the TV book shows (all now defunct); everybody interested in books and writing in Australia knew that good writing only appeared through a reputable publisher. The books by Australian authors hailed by the literati sold in modest to low numbers. Books written by Australian indie authors had to succeed in the US market, or not at all. There has never been an identifiable market for Australian independent authors in Australia.
Now things are even worse. Amazon won’t let Australians buy e-books – or any books for that matter – from it’s American site. This is supposedly because the Australian government didn’t like it that e-books were being bought by Australians who weren’t paying GST on them. Now the reader is forced back to the .au site, no option. Add the GST to the cost of the e-book and it looks a lot more expensive than when it was $2.99 on the US site. Previously, readers who wanted to order a print version could do so from the US site and pay horrendous postage. It seems that hardcover versions of Big Five published books are available through the Australian site, but still have to be sent at a high postage rate from the US. So guess what? You might as well buy a print copy of the book from your local bookshop, or by ordering online. Who needs Kindles and e-books after all? Somehow all this seems to have shored up the ultra-conservative elements in the Australian book world.
E-book author earnings are still very substantial, and when you consider that many authors identify themselves with a self-managed publishing imprint, the result is even more impressive. But of course this is happening in the US, not in Australia.
Australian authors often made print versions through CreateSpace and ordered fifty or a hundred or whatever copies to distribute themselves in Australia, sell through their own website or send out as freebies. Now CreateSpace has closed down and everyone is supposed to use KDP for their print books. But nobody, not even the author, can order print books from their US-based Amazon account, and Amazon is not going to be printing books in Australia anytime soon. You can’t even order a proof copy of your new e-book from KDP, apparently, because that would involve sending it at the US price. I believe this issue is currently being looked at by Amazon, but the bulk print copies will never be available again. So it’s back to the Australian traditional publishers.
Several correspondents have asked why authors don’t just have their own books printed locally, instead of worrying about the whole Amazon/e-book experience? Well, there are three good reasons. Firstly, local printers quote for a paperback version around two-three times the cost CreateSpace used to be able to supply them at, even with shipping from the US. They can look a lot better with much nicer paper but the price needs to be set very high if the bookseller gets the 40-50% discount they expect. The author may finish up getting even less than the miserable payout from a book priced at $2.99 on Amazon. Second, local bookshops are very reluctant to stock books from independent authors unless there is some local reason to do so – like a book about riding bicycles along back paths here in the Blue Mountains, which sells well from just two or three bookshops. The author supplies the copies personally when the bookshops run out. But if you are trying to sell more widely it means you have to keep stocks of your printed books somewhere – in your garage, or in your bedroom, or in a warehouse-type space, then you have to post or send or courier copies to whoever wants them, then pick them up again if they aren’t sold.
There is no simple answer, obviously.
BTW I want to thank Anna Castleton for her recent comment (August 31st) which prompted me to write this post sooner rather than later. I also should mention that my e-books, such as they are to date, have been illustrated and cover-designed and the interiors formatted by a well-regarded professional (in Mexico, as it happens) and the colour shift problems I had with my children’s book The Priceless Princess when print copies were made on Ingram Spark were the result of the Ingram Spark presses not “reading” the PDF files correctly. Ingram Spark seems much more responsive these days and is making a significant push into the space being vacated by Amazon. And it prints in Melbourne. More on this in a later post.
Last post I was carrying on (at too much length as usual) about auto-fiction and Christ Kraus’s books (among others). I’m still wandering around in that terrain, definitely feeling less lost. I mean, I’m getting it. And want to say a few things about Kraus’s bio of Kathy Acker as well as a strange new publication from Semiotext(e), a collection of email correspondence between Kathy and former socio-cultural Wunderkind McKenzie Wark, who I knew and liked when we worked together in the same department back in ancient times.
But not right now. This is to issue a correction, or an expansion rather, about the Chris Kraus effect. A body of seemingly random writing by faintly famous people and people who know other faintly famous people has suddenly emerged into the literary firmament after years of obscurity. It is a bit like suddenly discovering the Bloomsbury circle, decades later, featured in comic books, sorry, graphic novels.
Not that I really think the Semiotext(ers) are comparable to Virginia Woolfe’s circle, but maybe that’s not so far-fetched. My question was: why these books? Why now? Where did this new prominence come from?
I said: I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know.
Well how dumb was I! Obviously I hadn’t done my homework. My apologies. IT IS A SERIES! Not a Netflix one, but made for Amazon Video and you can stream it right now on Prime if you sign up. Why are we toiling away writing books when we could be writing directly for television? Or does television need our books? If so, why?
“I Love Dick” – the book, and the people around the book – have been discovered because of the TV series. Although Chris Kraus had a role in the production, it was helmed and mostly written by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins. A “sleeper hit” of 2017 it was canceled after one season. Apparently it was too popular with the wrong kind of people, that is to say, not the masses. Jill Soloway is the show-runner, director and sometimes writer on the Amazon series Transparent. It’s showing on Amazon right now too. It is about a family where the pater-familias turns himself into a mater. There has been a lot of drama about the show, not only onscreen. Soloway identifies as non-binary and the show has been hailed as a main-stream acknowledgment of the powerful rise of the non-binary in contemporary culture. The star, Jeffrey Tambor, was recently pink-slipped largely because he himself is not a non-binary which makes him inauthentic in the role according to various critics. He has been lashing out about it. It would make a good TV series. But it looks like Amazon wants to get out of its quality niche offerings and go back to the masses. Yawn.
Anyway that’s part of another story. All I wanted to point out is that Chris Kraus’s books have suddenly been re-discovered BECAUSE their sensibility works so well in today’s edgy uncertain social spaces among the creative classes AND BECAUSE AMAZON MADE A TV SERIES OUT OF IT. It will be interesting to find out what the effect is on sales of her books, along with Kathy Acker’s and the various other outliers which are popping up. But if none of the streamers want to take up this kind of niche, I guess it won’t be happening again. But it was fun while it lasted.
While still musing (fretting, angsting, brooding) about the memoirs (Outsidethe Frame) I noticed a recent comment in The Guardian by Alex Clark (Sat 23rd June 2018). There are booms in things that we in slow old Australia sometimes don’t know about for ages, or they are overlooked in the very few outlets where local readers find out about what books to read eg The WeekendAustralian Review (sorry, Stephen Romei, we love you anyway). The hot new thing, Clark says, is autofiction. Another recent comment asks plaintively, “Why have novelists stopped making things up?” here.
So it’s a big trend, and it’s led me into a further vortex of reading and thinking about the question of life-writing, or whatever it is, and the enormous burst of genre-busting (like bunker-busting) which seems to have suddenly become possible. The old divide “fact/fiction” is wobbly and feeble, although nobody has told whoever writes the Amazon categories.
Autofiction is in the space between fact and fiction but goes a bit further. Its origins lie with French writer Serge Doubrovsky, whose 1977 novel Fils (Son) did away with traditional elements including plot and character development. It might or might not have been “telling the truth”.
Lately the autofiction trajectory has ramped up and it’s getting really really complicated because all kinds of writers are writing about others living and dead and they are all in a kind of gang and once you start with one of them you finish up with a whole crowd. It’s like inviting a new acquaintance over for a drink and they ask if they can bring their mate and the mate bring some other mates and they all know everything about each other and are planning a sleep-over and you didn’t know any of them before today.
Olivia Laing has written a couple of personal non-fiction narratives, the kind of book where the author takes a personal experience and turns it into a form of sociology/history. In The LonelyCity (2016) she wrote about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, among other art works which offer insight into urban alienation.
I came across this book while researching Hopper who I had studied for my painting degree. She draws heavily on the classic biographies – Gail Levin’s fantastic book on Hopper, for example. I then discovered Laing had published The Trip to Echo Springs: Why Writers Drink (2013). Are there really good excuses for the bad behavior of great artists, or, as Sarah Ditum says in the New Statesman (20th June 2018) is all that artistic stuff is a lot of hokum and they are just regular drunks who happen to be writers?
But now Laing has somehow fused herself with the late Kathy Acker, and written Crudo. published by Picador in July 2018. It is about the summer of 2017, you know, Trump, Mosul, Grenfell, celebrity deaths. But the story is Laing’s own, about her marriage to poet Ian Patterson, and about another book, the new biography AfterKathy Acker by Chris Kraus. The narrator Laing identifies herself as “Kathy” and has somehow appropriated the life of Acker, who died horribly of untreated breast cancer aged 50 in 1997. Kathy Acker is having a big surge with millennial girls/women after years of non-recognition. She wrote, among other things, Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations, both recently reissued by Penguin.
What the hell is going on? If you felt confused by what I just said about Laing’s book you’ll be even more so when you come to another autofiction booming in reprint, written by that self-same Chris Kraus.
This is a seriously weird piece of work. I Love Dick may sound like a pornographic come-on (excuse me!) but instead it purports to be (or is?) a whole lot of different sorts of writing put together by failed film-maker Chris Kraus and her husband, French theorist Sylvère Lotringer. Chris forms a sudden and irresistable passion for Dick, an English theorist who arrives in Los Angeles via Melbourne and fancies himself as a cowboy. She doesn’t name him in the book, but he’s outed by the New York Times (I think) as Dick Hebdige, author of that most famous 70s sociology book, Subculture: the Meaning of Style. I taught cultural anthropology courses using that book for years. Hebdige went on to write on contemporary art, design, media, mods, reggae, postmodernism, improvisation and Takashi Murakami. No wonder Kraus and probably Lotringer fell madly in love with him. Chris pretty much started stalking him, in a literary kind of way.
A little research reveals that he was appalled and issued a legal “cease and desist” order which was ignored completely. Poor man, he is still teaching in California and who knows how he faces up to those rows of eager students all of whom know he is “Dick” and that he has been “loved”. Even worse for him now with the Amazon Prime mini-series, where “Dick” has been turned into a cultural studies/art cowboy who makes gigantic sculptures in the Texas desert. Kevin Bacon plays Dick.
I Love Dick is kind of a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. Kraus and Lotringer are definitely real people. They probably did write all those letter and make all those phone calls. But here’s one clue as to why this is such a weird read, because it includes a lot of faxes, and faxes are so … well …. yesterday or, to be more precise, last century and indeed look up the publication history and you will find that this book was published originally in 1997 by Semiotext(e), a well known French-theory inspired journal/magazine/publisher which, guess what, was run by Lotringer and is still going today, releasing all kinds of strange and interesting books about Foam, Morocco, Versace and has also just published Chris Kraus’s new book on Kathy Acker. So we’re back in a circle.
Now I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know. There’s an Afterword by Joan Hawkins – there are several people who could be her, one an academic, one a psychotherapist. Hawkins calls Kraus’s writing “theoretical fiction”. This is because theory becomes part of the plot, where debates over theory form an intrinsic part of the narrative. Well, that covers things nicely.
It is an 80s story, although set in the 1990s, by which time everyone, filmmakers, theorists, academics and famous former roués were all expected to have become tamed and obedient to the emerging neo-puritanism bursting open the last seams of the millennial sofa to get rid of all that old-school libertarian stuffing. These characters still say “dig” – as in, “people who dig each other’s references”. Well!
As a veteran of French theory I am kind of thrilled to see it resuscitated even if it is in a quasi-romantic/pornographic pretend novel. And now Kraus’s earlier totally neglected book has been republished, or just published, not sure which, and it is about the same couple before they met Dick although they have different names so it’s a kind of prequel. In Torpor the couple in 1989 or 1990 go to Romania to adopt an orphan. I’m loving it.
It’s very exciting to be thinking about where these various forms of fictive narrative or narrative fictions or Me-Moirs are really going. Sadly though it has shown me that what I am writing might be far too archaic and old-fashioned being full of plot and narrative and cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and efforts at transparency and truth-telling. Even bothering to write this much about your own life is pretty radical when you are as old as I am and have no idea if anyone will ever read it. Although there is theory in my books, it is not so obvious that it will annoy anyone and probably no-one will even notice. But I am a bit sad about it too. I’d love to be writing something crazy and unacceptable and scary and disgraceful and dripping with it, a self-saucing theory-fest.
After the last few months of dizzying dance around the Memoirs, I’m pressing on now with a radical plan – submitting to an Australian publisher’s open call with The Dying Year, about the events in 2008 when my very elderly mother and fairly elderly ex-husband die in the same three week period. The events sparked off a cascade of disaffection from which this formerly tight family has never recovered. It is my third book of memoirs and will be the first to appear. Many recent memoirs are about a late parent or a deceased husband so I’m on trend here. If the publisher says no, I might try finding an Australian agent, and if that fails, well, it will be a DIY job, although I know it’s far from ideal for this kind of writing.
In my previous post I commented on memoir-writing which has inspired (and dis-inspired) me. Two of the writers I mentioned stay close to some version of “what really happened”. As far as Ferrante is concerned, who knows?
But now I am thinking about the rise of the definitely-not-really-me memoir, sometimes described as fictionalized non-fiction. In volume IV, still in progress, about my time in New Guinea, I found myself writing a long section, quite disconnected from the actual story, about a writer who I seem to have been shadowing for the past fifty years. I am thinking of appending it as a personal epilogue to the main account. She is a very famous figure in Australian women’s writing and you could say she was at the beginning of the movement of the semi-me-moir , as I think of narratives written in the first person about real people and actual events, who are nevertheless distorted and disguised.
One chapter in The Dying Year talks about G. W. Sebald’s book Austerlitz, where the narrator recounts a story told to him by the purported subject, so you read it as a biography but by the end you realize that it could be a completely fictional character but there are all these photographs and pieces of documentary evidence which lead you to suppose this person really did exist and these things really did happen.
I was so sure it was “real” that I found a copy of the famous Theresienstadt concentration camp film and searched through it to see if I could find the image of the woman who might have been Austerlitz’s dead mother and then I thought how insane this was as the image could have been of any woman at all and I couldn’t even find it anyway even though the text stated exactly at what minute and second the tiny briefly flickering image supposedly existed. But of course the film itself could have been edited to different lengths a hundred times.
In the Introduction to my Memoirs I vowed not to write narrative non- fiction or fictionalised autobiography, I wanted to write “the truth” as far as I could see it … but of course, there’s the problem right there, since the Rashomon effect is in full swing before you even dredge up the first images in your mind especially where it concerns deeply felt emotional stuff and your own family and your own memories and your own self-love and ambivalent feelings and your inability to remember even a fraction of things that actually happened in your past life and the absolutely refractory nature of “truth” as told by anyone let alone a self-absorbed and self-justifying author.
I think I will be saying a lot more about this frustrating phenomenon. And if you are wondering, I’ve written a bit more about the project on this site, click on the tab above labeled, unapologetically, Memoirs.
Last time I wrote a bit about the memoir I am currently reading, by Tara Westover. This led me to reconsider other memoir writers who have been especially influential (and otherwise) in my current project. I think it’s incredibly important to remain aware of the link between what you are reading and what you are writing. There are thousands of memoirs around, a lot of them extremely boring. But memoirs of writers … especially of writers who mainly write memoirs … it’s a whole area of literary scrutiny which seems weirdly appropriate in the present era of compulsory self-curation. So here are some thoughts about three recent literary memoirists who have had a big influence on my recent work.
Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and her later book about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (2011), were important for me in understanding how differently writers can inhabit and explain their inner worlds. The story itself is heart-wrenchingly painful. From a young, happy creative woman with a loving family life, Didion suffers the ravages of time and random chance, far beyond what she ever could have imagined, with painful dignity. The passage of time itself seems almost a character in her books, enhanced by the publication in various places of photographs (though not in the books themselves). I have been wondering about whether to put lots of photographs in mine. I love looking at other people’s snapshots of themselves and their families and friends as I am reading their memoirs. On the other hand, sometimes the imagination is the best illustrator.
KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD: MY STRUGGLE
Knausgaard showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce component volumes of different lengths and time periods in episodically random order. His first was A Death in the Family (2009 in the English publication sequence) and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.
Like most English-language readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love (2013) about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a typical woman’s story, now being written by a man who had acceded to feminist expectations. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgaard only to go away again. There is something challenging about entering so deeply into this man’s mind which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail. Good feminists aren’t supposed to enter this terrain at all, or so it seems, but I found it liberating. Knausgaard exemplifies a masochistic hysterical masculinism which seems to have become a default position for many hetero male writers today.
NOT AN INSPIRATION:
Elena Ferrante (well, that is not “who she really is”; all l the hoo-haa has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary thought) is very popular with women readers. Everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and I don’t get it. Just look at those covers: Mummies and little girls in silly clothes, dollies and fairies, nakedness in the mirror, and a headless woman in a bright red dress. Really!
One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century, Ferrante might be the feminine counterpart and not in a good way. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, she works from the classic masochistic feminine position. It is so depressing that a great many women still seem to find this compelling.
Everyone who writes is supposed to read all the time. I certainly do that, in part because of increasingly chronic insomnia. But reading too much (and watching too much Netflix) gets in the way of actually writing. So I am cutting right back. But at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival (the one sponsored by Varuna at Katoomba, and only for one short day unfortunately) I heard Tara Westover talk about her just-published memoir educated and I had to buy the book and read it at once. Not finished yet, and will write more about it soon, but am loving it so far, and finding it inspires me with confidence about the value of life-writing. I love the fiction universe of course, the worlds created there, but the actual real world is pretty amazing!
As mentioned last time, memoirs are at the front of my priority list at the moment. I realise in retrospect that I have been reading memoirs now for several years. Westover’s book is about a young woman who is raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household on a mountain in Idaho. The thing is, she never went to school – shock horror – and yet became a highly successful writer, historian and academic at the top universities in Britain. I haven’t found out exactly how she accomplished this, but I kind-of relate to it. Of course I did go to school, and my family was hardly survivalist or fundamentalist, but the ethos of my early life was pretty similar: anti-Government, pro-self reliance, no emphasis on education, the constant awareness that you weren’t like other people who took city life and money and happiness for granted. And of course, being in Australia in the 1950s meant something different: the shadow of World War Two, family disruptions, deaths and secrets and silences.
I have read – what? – maybe thirty or forty memoirs about growing up in communes or remote communities or outside the mainstream world. In many ways I was doing the same until the mid-1970s and then, strangely, I slid back into it, but that older life never leaves you, and I think, from what Tara was saying in her talk, it has never left her either.
And today I am reflecting on the strangeness of it: reading other people’s life stories allows you in some way to rescue or re-inhabit your own.