Category Archives: women in the writing world

SO IT’S AUTO-FICTION AND SELF-SAUCING THEORY

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While still musing (fretting, angsting, brooding) about the memoirs (Outside the 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 Weekend Australian 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”.

serge dubrovsky
Serge Doubrovsky, originator of auto-fiction – “Fils” and “Le Monstre” None of his books seem to have been translated into English.

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 Lonely City (2016) she wrote about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, among other art works which offer insight into urban alienation.

nighthawks
Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” –  most famous visual meme for 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?

 

John Berryman
The poet John Berryman, late 1960s. After numerous stints in rehab he suicided in 1972. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

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 After Kathy 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 53 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.

Kathy_Acker
Kathy Acker: rediscovered after twenty years?

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.

Dick Hebdige
Dick Hebdige, cultural theorist and object of passion.

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.

Chris Kraus quote

More on memoir: inspirations

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.

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.

Joan Didion with her husband Greg Dunne and daughter Quintana
Joan Didion, after the death of her husband

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD:  MY STRUGGLE

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Karl Ove Knausgard – publicity still

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!

ferrante-book-covers

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.

 

Memoirs to the rescue …Tara Westover’s “educated”.

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-writig. 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 women 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.

Tara dad

A Kindle binge with Helen Garner …

Jenny Sages portrait
Jenny Sages Portrait of Helen Garner. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

The best thing about getting older is realising that others are getting older at the same rate, especially your favourite writers. They’ve been writing for years and years, and you’ve been reading away alongside. In traditional publishing it means that they write and you read at different moments of the Zeitgeist, so you experience them in different ways according to where you both are. Helen’s recent book of essays Everywhere I Look felt both familiar and dazzlingly fresh. Preoccupied with my current volume of memoirs, this and the publication of Bernadette Brennan’s study of Helen’s work (more on which in another post), sent me scurrying off to rediscover her work in the present moment, 2017.

A lot is now available on Kindle. I had purchased her print books over many years but most had gone off into the mysterious places books go when you move your stuff around a lot. Now I could repurchase and reread all at once. Yes, it is a Kindle binge. A wonderful short novella about a trip to the Antarctic was the first surprise: I had never heard of it before. I reread The First Stone and This House of Grief and The Spare Room and then I came to Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I had never read before..

What can I say? Absolutely riveting, so moving, so saturated with a personal truth which is at the same time a collective experience of being “us”, people in Australia, experiencing things in different ways, and it is these differences which Helen tries to clarify and explore but in the end the mysteries of human behaviour defeat explanation or even understanding.It is great that Helen is getting the praise she deserves in the US at last. Reading some of the reviews on Kindle is sobering, though. They are not negative, rather, puzzled, a bit confused. Why is it that some writing travels seamlessly through English-language markets while other books falter? Why was The Dry such a hit in the US? Why does Liane Moriarty work everywhere?

I hope a lot of people discover and rediscover Helen Garner now. Nobody could have guessed back in Monkey Grip days what she would become. If you could give a medal to an Australian writer, Helen should be first on the dais.

everywhere_i_look

Once more with irritation: high e-book pricing does no-one any favours.

Sometimes books appear and you know right away you want to read them. Nikki Gemmell is already a very well-known writer, with a lively career as a magazine journalist as well as ten plus full-length books, the best known being her first, The Bride Stripped Bare. I have to confess it is the only one I have read. I’m not quite sure why.  Her books seem to fall between a few stools: genre fiction, literary fiction, self-help, essay.

the bride stripped

But her new book, After,  is definitely in my territory. Memoir, true story, traumatic experience, mothers and daughters. I’ve already written my own version, about the death of my mother and my ex-husband within three weeks of each other back in 2008. I wrote it not long after but haven’t been able to bring myself to go back and edit it, let alone publish it. But it is on my list and should be finished by mid-year. I don’t think it will be much like Nikki’s book.

after

Nikki’s mother chose to die; mine didn’t. My mother never intended to die, ever, and the stupid accident which killed her could easily have been avoided. She was 93; she might conceivably even be alive today if she hadn’t lost her dentures. But that is my story, this is about Nikki’s, sort of, but not really, because I haven’t read it.

Tomorrow we are going to hear her talk about her book at a “meet the author” event in Katoomba, courtesy of the wonderful Gleebooks in Blackheath and Varuna Writer’s Centre. I have been looking forward to it. It’s so much better when you have read the book being discussed. So I did what I always do, and looked for it in a Kindle version from Amazon.  Yes, it was there, so that was good, until I looked at the price. $14.99.  In hardcover it’s $22.50. There doesn’t seem to be a paperback. What? Yes, it’s Harper Collins’ strategy to get you to buy the hardcover, or at least to stop you buying the e-book. Who would pay $15, even if it’s a great book and you really want to read it? And who is getting the lion’s share of the inflated e-book price? You can bet it’s not Nikki. No, for those who do pay for the e-book, Harper Collins will get the major part of it, even though their production cost for putting it up on Amazon as an e-book is probably near zero, since all the editing was done for the print version, the marketing costs cover both, and tweaking an already existing cover design for Kindle is so easy a kindergarten child could do it these days.

Nikki Gemmell

Sorry, Nikki, but I guess I won’t be reading your book for quite a while. I can put my name down for it at the local library, or maybe I will find some friend who has bought the hardcover. But I will not buy any more hardcover (or print) books unless they absolutely cannot be obtained any other way and I really really need them. And although I’m sure your book will be great, I just won’t support greedy publishers who expect readers to cough up absurdly high prices just to keep their existing legacy business model going. Just a reminder: when you “buy” an e-book you don’t really “buy” it in the traditional sense. It isn’t yours. The company who release it can remove it at any time. You can’t lend it to anybody else. You can’t give it away as a present. You are just hiring it. A price above $10.00 is wholly unjustifiable.

 

Would you want to be published by these people? Farewell to faux-Knausgaard …and what about his wife?

I suppose it is ethically dangerous, or at least raises certain issues, to introduce characters in a TV series who are so obviously based on “real people”. The super-famous Swedish writer who appeared on Younger, clearly based on Karl Ove Knausgaard, didn’t look like him and didn’t behave like him, or at least the version of him one can deduce from reading his books and watching his Youtube videos here or here. He is an altogether smoother, yet somehow more smarmy character. Did Kelsey just go for him because he was so famous?

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Kelsey and the Swedish writer

Introducing his wife to the narrative was an interesting move, as a way of getting rid of him from the plot. They made her out to be old-looking, skinny and hysterical.  The real Mrs Knausgaard, Linda, is something else altogether.

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Linda Bostrom Knausgaard
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Linda and Karl Ove

She has written her own book, Welcome to America (but it is only in Swedish, no translation so far) and the only interview with her I could find was also in Swedish, without subtitles, here.  Wow! I really want to read this book. I love books written by authors’ (and artists’) wives. One of the weirdest is the book written by French ultrabad-boy Michel Houllebecq’s mother – another post on that shortly.

In “Younger” the Swedish writer’s fling  with Kelsey, one of the main girl-publisher characters in the series, is brought to a decisive end by the major tanty Mrs. False-Knausgaard  put on in a restaurant, even though she got it wrong and thought it was our heroine Liza who was doing the dirty deed- and exit stage left for both of them. Poor Kelsey was left with that hideously boring and repulsive Thad. It was a bit amusing when she decided to buy him a super-expensive (and ugly) watch as a kind of “I’m sorry” present, and even more amusing when she decided not to give it to him but he gave her a super-expensive bracelet which she oohed and aahed over until she grasped what it mean … that he’d been having a bit on the side too, although in his case it was with a lap-dancer. Much tackier than a tasteful Swedish author.

Still, it was a shame to see these character go. At least he seemingly wrote real and engaging literature, something the readers could really get into. And it would have been such a great sub-plot if the girls had discovered his wife wrote books too, and decided to publish hers instead of his.  Dream on … that is a step way too far for a popular US TV series.

The books the girls have been trying to deal with since have been less and less worthwhile. One, the plot of which covered intergenerational trauma, turned out to be completely plagiarised by a lady writer desperate to be published, no matter how, and after that the books have got worse and worse, the highpoint of tacky being the “list” of 69 things women supposedly think about when performing a certain deeply subordinate sexual act on men. Yuck! Why would Kelsey have championed that book?

For any frustrated and confused writer who can’t understand why they can’t find a traditional publisher for their work, this series is a godsend. How could anybody want to be published by people like these? If this is the publishing industry, no wonder actual writers can’t get published.

Women in publishing and faux-Knausgaard on “Younger”

INSPIRE YOUR OWN LIFE: BE WHOEVER YOU WANT TO BE! DROP FIFTEEN YEARS AND WORK IN PUBLISHING!

you-inspire-your-life

Thanks to my new exposure to streaming television (thanks,  Stan) I have just started watching a  program about women in the publishing world, “Younger”. The premise is a bit like Suits for Girls: a forty year old woman who used to be in publishing (trad-pub old-style) has been out of the workforce raising her daughter and now wants back in. Ha-Ha. Forget it. Too old! No credits for child-raising or good sense. So she has to pretend she is in her twenties and become a Millenial. Luckily she has great skin and a fabulous figure, with only a few dodgy emergent crows-feet which she can put down to her entirely fake years volunteering  among the despbelieved-she-coulderate and impoverished  in India.
younger-cast

She spins a new identity: long streaked hair, pull-on beanies, short skirts, high boots… you follow. She gets a fake ID and claims she finished an English degree at Dartford or somewhere then spent four years volunteering and writing a novel.  This is a wholly acceptable cv. Yes!!! She gets a job for a horrible mean lady publisher, also in her forties – a kind of Meryl Streep /Anna Wintour but showing it. Liza (our heroine) has to keep up the pretence that she’s young but it’s so HAAARD! Especially when the workmates see the decorations on her lady garden in the gym ( the grey bush which she quickly trades for a landing-strip) and she’s being pursued by a super hot tattoo artist guy who says he “likes things that are old”. He’s referring to vinyl records but we know it’s really old ladies like Liza.

younger-1

Well, the point of the story here is that one of her associates wants to sign up the newest hottest literary writer: they make him a relatively smooth well-dressed Swede but there’s no mistaking he’s meant to be Knausgaard.  swedish-writerim-your-editor

 

 

 

 

It’s a shame they didn’t make him even more like Knausgaard, would have been lots more room for hilarious comedy.

Haven’t got past Episode Three yet so I don’t know what’s going to happen.  Who knows, maybe Elena Ferrante will be next cab off the New York rank for our “Younger” heroine. But it’s a wry and knowing reflection on the idiocies of the contemporary publishing world. Great script so far.