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March 2, 2015 / Southerly

What is the new TV?

by Sunil Badami

Despite many (mainly white male) writers’ concerns about the effect of television on “serious culture” (which I discussed here) many others have suggested that TV is the new novel (as Salman Rushdie first did, albeit after writing the screenplay for an aborted miniseries of Midnight’s Children).

Even Jonathon Franzen, whom, as I mentioned in a couple of posts ago, blamed the state of the contemporary fiction on television, acknowledged in a recent interview that ‘TV [has] redeemed itself by becoming more like the novel, which is to say: interested in sustained, morally complex narrative that is compelling and enjoyable.’[i]

There’s no doubt, especially looking back at the phenomenon of Dickens’s serialisations, where the Boston piers would be crowded with people eagerly awaiting the magazine carrying the latest instalment of David Copperfield into port,[ii] that novels were TV before TV, offering the same sustained, morally complex, compelling, enjoyable narrative.

(indeed, sometimes I feel as if the box sets of all the shows I HAVE to watch—Breaking Bad, True Detective, Borgen, The Sopranos and more—are like all those books piled up reproachfully on my bedside table)

And there’s no doubt, despite the golden age of 20th Century fiction, between the First World War and the Vietnam War—coincidentally between the popularisation of film and before the popularisation of TV—where books were usually no more than 250 pages long (I once heard, though I can’t tell you where, that it was because most fiction bestsellers in the UK were sold to workingmen’s libraries and mechanics’ schools, which meant that they had to be read within a standard fortnightly borrowing period, after work), that books are getting longer and longer.

But you could hardly describe the first novels—Don Quixote (Vol. 1, 456 pages; 1056 in the Penguin Classics edition); Tom Jones (Vol. 1 of 8, 214; 1024 in Penguin Classics); Clarissa (Vols. 1-4 of 8, 612; 1536 in Penguin Classics)—as concise by comparison to even Norman Mailer’s most verbiose efforts, much less the big multi-volume doorstoppers of the 19th Century classical canon like Les Miserables, Bleak House or War & Peace.

Some, like Sophie Cunningham, suggest this is because writers write on computers the way the prolix Jack Kerouac used to type on a roll of butchers’ paper to avoid losing his train of thought [iii] (which is why many writers often write their first draft by hand, then edit as they type their pages up). Others, like Robert McCrum, because of the decline of editing at major houses.[iv]

And some, like Franzen or Mark Lawson, have criticised the move to historical fiction away from contemporary social-realist fiction as trying to appropriate the critical—and literal—weight of the classical 19th Century canon, setting stories during that time (or the past in general) because of a timidity or unwillingness to address complex and fast-changing realities and issues of the present or because ‘the current easiness of divorce, infidelity and serial monogamy would render useless the plots of many of literature’s greatest novels… in a society in which, at least in its nominally Christian sectors, guilt and shame have largely been abolished, fiction loses some of its best petrol.’[v]

(what to make, then, of recent film adaptations of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, or the recent success of miniseries The Affair?)

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Still, what TV as the novel—and the novel as TV—share, in addition to these sustained narratives, are two things.

Firstly, they share concise episodes of a specific length: on TV, they might be an hour; and in most 19th Century serialisations, short chapters that cover a particular moment or plot development, each ending on a cliff hanger, compelling us to want more.

In the case of an epically long novel like Anna Karenina, they’re especially short, running only a couple of pages or so. Indeed, what makes Anna Karenina so compulsively readable—apart from Tolstoy’s amazing ability to move between characters’ consciousnesses within the same scene, writing solely in the first person or the subjective third, something many (including me) find so difficult today—is that because the chapters are so short, you can’t help but read the next one. And the next one. And the next…

But most importantly, they’re free of the impenetrable, incomprehensible language so beloved of modernists like James Joyce or pseuds like Will Self. The language is as thin a meniscus between reader and character as possible, speeding us along the narrative, so that we can become fully immersed, not only in the characters’ stories, or their lives, but themselves.

Indeed, because the details are often so perfunctory—at least by comparison to so many modern novels which revel in such florid description–there’s even more space to imagine, and to empathise. I remember interviewing the late Michael Cox, author of a very good 19th Century detective novel, The Meaning of Night. The editor of several anthologies and encyclopaedias of Victorian writing at Oxford University Press, he let me in on a secret about why so much historical fiction failed to effectively evoke a period: they had too much physical description, particularly when characters describe their surroundings to each other. ‘It’s nonsense,’ he told me. ‘We don’t have to describe McDonalds to each other.’[vi]

And if you re-read contemporaneous fiction—say, for example, Dickens, held up as a paragon of the way history might tell us the facts about a place or period but how fiction helps us understand it—how often do you read exhaustive descriptions of all the furniture in a room, and how it was made, and where? Too often, misreading the idea of “show, don’t tell,” writers show us everything in the room but tell us nothing about what’s happening in their characters’ hearts. Much less anything at all: stuck looking around the room, nothing else much happens.

For me, literature is driven by four engines: one qualitative and subjective, the other three quantitative. The qualitative aspect is tone: you either like the voice telling the story, and the style, or you don’t (which is why I can’t read those clever young men novels now). The other three—plot, language and character—are quantitative, and although you can’t ever say criticism is entirely objective, these are not only indicators of quality, but of what kind of book you’re reading.

Although Bryce Courtenay famously—and foolishly—once said that he could ‘unequivocably write [Carey’s] kind of stuff,’[vii] much so-called “popular” trade or genre fiction, like Courtenay’s, fantasy or airport thriller novels, are driven primarily by plot. Things are always happening: planes are crashing, cars are being chased, bombs are being defused or going off. Nobody ever talks: they grin—as in “I’ll see you,” Ridge grinned.

Yet for all their contortions, or the height of the concept (dinosaurs being reanimated, a town trapped by a dome, or a plague of zombies, whatever), their narratives are usually riddled with clichés—although you might find yourself disgusted or dismayed by the ending, you’re rarely surprised. The hero gets the girl, the villain their just desserts, the story moving along well-rutted tracks to the inevitable denouement (usually loud, frenetic, and saved at the very last moment). The characters are tropes of heroism or stoicism or villainy or expertise or sexuality; the language, as Geordie Williamson put it, ‘like a McDonald’s menu: fat and sugar are the point; the food merely the delivery mechanism’:[viii] simplistic, kinetic, rarely revealing more than action.

But the kind of difficult literary fiction that Courtenay resents, Franzen finds difficult and many, such as Hanif Kureishi argue, is continually pumped out by university writing courses, is often just as unreadable, even though they’re defined by language, in which, creative writing students, as Kureishi puts it, ‘worry about the writing and the prose and you think: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next… they can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way to the end without people dying of boredom in between.”[ix]

In such novels, there’s often little or no plot, and the characters are symbols rather than people, often doing or saying little, caught up in their own solipsistic self-reflections; when they do speak, their utterances are stilted, stultifying, set-pieces or speeches rather than dialogue, buried under the weight of such weighty sentences, which say more about the author than them, or us.

For me, the best novels aren’t defined by plot, even if a lot seems to happen. Nor are they defined by language either. In these great novels, the meniscus-thin language, the speeding narrative in its own little world until something we could have never imagined, much less said, rises up off the page and inside us, in which the author and his style disappears.

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Indeed, other than perhaps the opening lines, what specific sentences can you remember or quote from, say, A Tale of Two Cities or Anna Karenina? Yes, I do remember Rodolphe’s famous reflection from Madame Bovary about language being ‘a tin kettle upon which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to while all the while we wish to make music that would move the stars to pity.’[x] But if you re-read those canonical 19th Century novels—the convoluted, subordinated clause syntax and occasionally fantastical, deux-ex-machinical coincidences aside—what’s striking is how simple the prose is, serving only to tell the characters’ stories.

As Akhil Sharma, who reduced a 7000 page autobiographically based manuscript into a 224 page book, Family Life (one of my favourites last year), acknowledged in a New Yorker essay, after ‘comparing fictional reality to factual ­reality and finding the former wan,’ and trying to find a way to tell the story in under 7000 pages, he discovered, having re-read Chekhov, that

‘somehow, in fiction, sound, texture and smell are stickier, lingering more than visual details … I began rewriting the book with these constraints, and found that … without [them], the reader moves through the narrative rapidly and so asks different questions about why time is collapsed or not collapsed, or why a scene is dramatised or summarised.’[xi]

Such questions of these comparisons between factual and fictional reality abound in Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed Neopolitan tetralogy. ‘The literary sensation nobody knows,’ according to The Guardian;[xii] ‘maybe the best contemporary novelist you’ve never heard of’ according to The Economist,[xiii] although if you Google her name now, you’ll discover over half a million results.

James Wood, who first revealed her and her work to the English-speaking world in 2013 (her translator is Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker, for whom Wood reviews), puts her name between quotation marks; her identity has been the cause of much speculation in Italy, with some suggesting “Elena Ferrante” is a collective like Wu Ming (whom I mentioned in a previous post) or even a man (Italian novelist Domenico Starnone).

The irony! That writers like George Eliot or Henry Handel Richardson had to resort to men’s names for their work to be taken seriously – and yet, as Ferrante (whose name is agreed to be a pseudonym) signs her work with a woman’s name, it must be assumed to be a male author, pulling a kind of Italian Koolmartrie job.

Originally an entire work split into four parts, Ferrante’s books—three of which, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, have so far been translated into English—most resemble both those big, classic, serialised novels, offering complex, tangled family trees (so much so each book includes a comprehensive cast of characters at the beginning, although by the end of the first book, the characters are so indelible you don’t need them); equally complex, tangled and over-arching plots, riddled with digressions and incidents; and breathtaking cliffhangers: each chapter ends on one, and so does each book, with the first book ending with such a jaw-dropping anti-climax in the middle of a scene you have to reach for the next.

Ostensibly, it’s the story of two talented, intelligent girls growing up in the same violent Naples slum: impulsive, dangerous, exciting, Lila and meeker, more diligent, less confident Lénu (whose real name is Elena, like the author’s). Though more naturally brilliant than anyone in their neighbourhood, Lila doesn’t progress past primary school because her parents won’t pay the fees; Lénu, the narrator, ends up going to university and writing a controversial book based on their childhood.

Despite trying to resist or escape the fate that befalls the older women around them, from their own defeated mothers to the mad woman upstairs—

‘they were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them… they had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble… when did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?’[xiv]

—they both end up, in each their own way, ‘enclosed in a glass container’ by marriage, ‘like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea,’[xv] Lila entrapped by brutality, Lénu by privilege, to men they do not really love; one by circumstance and sometimes misplaced rage; the other by aspiration and subdued anger.

As I’ve mentioned, too often novels by women about female lives and relationships are simply labelled “kitchen sink dramas” or “chick lit.” But Ferrante’s work, while deeply interested to breaking point in female experience, perspective and emotion, goes far beyond this, taking in a sweep of Italian post-war history—the reconstruction after the war, the on-going battles between the Communists and the Fascists, the insidious pervasiveness of the Camorra; of class, of bourgeois socialism, of sexism, of the differences between writing and doing—history, like their squalid, violent neighbourhood, becomes real, rather than theoretical, as much a part of what happens to them as their own personal struggles.

References:

Badami, Sunil, ‘Family life in all its frailties and force,’ The Australian, 14 June 2014.

Cervantes, Miguel, The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Frederick Wearne & Co, New York, 1800.

Cox, Michael, The Meaning of Night, John Murray, London, 2006.

Cox, Michael, quoted in Sunil Badami, ‘Restless vision,’ The Australian, October 7–8, 2006.

Cunningham, Sophie, ‘Sophie Cunningham: is writing evolving?’, Crikey, 25 November 2010. http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/11/25/sophie-cunningham-is-writing-evolving/?wpmp_switcher=mobile, accessed 15 February 2015.

Davies, Lizzie, ‘Who is the real Italian novelist writing as Elena Ferrante?’ The Guardian, 16 October 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/15/who-italian-novelist-elena-ferrante, accessed 18 February 2015.

Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, 2003.

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield, Penguin Classics, London, 2007.

Dickens, Charles, Bleak House, Hablot Knight Browne, London, 1852-1853.

Di Paolo, Paolo, ‘Il caso Ferrante, il romanzo italiano secondo il New Yorker,’ (The case of Ferrante, the Italian novel according to the New Yorker), La Stampa, 13 October 2014. http://www.lastampa.it/2014/10/13/cultura/il-caso-ferrante-il-romanzo-italiano-secondo-il-new-yorker-k6z6crdyRB5A6Z4ycRUrIO/pagina.html, accessed 17 February 2015.

Ferrante, Elena, My Brilliant Friend, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2012.

Ferrante, Elena, The Story of a New Name, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013.

Ferrante, Elena, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014.

Ferrante, Elena, quoted in ‘The Art of Fiction’, The Paris Review (forthcoming). http://www.theparisreview.org/issue-212-preview, accessed 17 February 2015.

Fielding, Henry, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (in Six Volumes), A. Millar, London, 1749.

Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary, Hackett Publishing, Indianopolis, IN, 2009 (1857).

Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Helena de Bertodano, ‘Jonathan Franzen interview,’ The Telegraph, 29 September 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/8022791/Jonathan-Franzen-interview.html, accessed 14 February 2015.

Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Susan Lerner, ‘A Conversation with Jonathon Franzen,’ Booth Magazine, 13 February 2015. http://booth.butler.edu/2015/02/13/a-conversation-with-jonathan-franzen/, accessed 13 February 2015.

Hugo, Victor, Les Misèrables, Dodd, Mead, New York, 1900 (1862).

The Internet Archive. https://archive.org/index.php, accessed 21 February 2015.

McCrum, Robert, ‘Why modern novelists need to watch their weight,’ The Observer, 19 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/19/novels-size-robert-mccrum, accessed 17 February 2015.

Miller, Sandra A., ‘When Charles Dickens Came to Boston,’ The Boston Globe Magazine, 18 March 2012. http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2012/03/17/when-charles-dickens-came-boston/LwCtpA83DGQWqFfVEoyfZL/story.html, accessed 15 February 2015.

Richardson, Samuel, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, Russell & Allen, Manchester, 1811.

Rushdie, Salman, quoted in Vanessa Thorpe, ‘Salman Rushdie says TV dramas comparable to novels,’ The Observer, 12 June 2011.

Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children, Vintage, London 2011 (1981).

Sharma, Akhil, Family Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2014.

Sharma, Akhil, ‘A Novel Like a Rocket,’ The New Yorker, 7 April 2014. www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-novel-like-a-rocket, accessed 16 February 2015.

Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina, The Political Messenger, Moscow, 1873–1877.

Tolstoy, Leo, War & Peace, The Russian Messenger, Moscow, 1869.

Williamson, Geordie, ‘Courtenay counts the cost of cultural capital,’ The Australian, 11 December 2010. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/film/courtenay-counts-the-cost-of-cultural-capital/story-e6frg8pf-1225966829106, accessed 16 February 2015.

Wood, James, ‘Women on the Verge: The fiction of Elena Ferrante, The New Yorker, 21 January 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/21/women-on-the-verge, accessed

Citations:

[i] Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Susan Lerner, ‘A Conversation with Jonathon Franzen,’ Booth Magazine, 13 February 2015. http://booth.butler.edu/2015/02/13/a-conversation-with-jonathan-franzen/, accessed 13 February 2015.
[ii] Miller, Sandra A., ‘When Charles Dickens Came to Boston,’ The Boston Globe Magazine, 18 March 2012. http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2012/03/17/when-charles-dickens-came-boston/LwCtpA83DGQWqFfVEoyfZL/story.html, accessed 15 February 2015.
[iii] Piirto, Jane, ‘The Creative Process in Poets,’ Creativity Across Domains: Faces of the Muse, (eds) James C. Kaufman & John Baer, Laurence Erhlbaum Associates, Inc./Taylor & Francis e-Library, Mahwah, NJ, 2011, 15.
[iv] McCrum, Robert, ‘Why movern novelists need to watch their weight,’ The Observer, 19 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/19/novels-size-robert-mccrum, accessed 17 February 2015.
[v] Lawson, Mark, ‘Contemporary fiction can still stand the test of time,’ The Guardian, 11 September 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/sep/10/booker-books-mark-lawson, accessed 15 February 2015.
[vi] Cox, Michael, quoted in Sunil Badami, ‘Restless vision,’ The Australian, October 7–8, 2006, 13.
[vii] Courtenay, Bryce, quoted in Jason Whittaker, ‘Peter Carey’s a snob: Bryce Courtenay in defence of popular writing,’ Crikey, 9 June 2010. http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/06/09/peter-careys-a-snob-bryce-courtenay-in-defence-of-popular-storytelling/, accessed 18 February 2015.
[viii] Williamson, Geordie, ‘Courtenay counts the cost of cultural capital,’ The Australian, 11 December 2010. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/film/courtenay-counts-the-cost-of-cultural-capital/story-e6frg8pf-1225966829106, accessed 16 February 2015.
[ix] Kureishi, Hanif, quoted in Alison Flood, ‘Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are “a waste of time,”’ The Guardian, 5 March 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi, accessed 18 February 2015.
[x] Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary, Hackett Publishing, Indianopolis, IN, 2009 (1857), 166.
[xi] Sharma, Akhil, ‘A Novel Like a Rocket,’ The New Yorker, 7 April 2014. www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-novel-like-a-rocket, accessed 16 February 2015.
[xii] O’Rourke, Megan, ‘Elena Ferrante: The global literary sensation nobody knows,’ The Guardian, 1 November 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/31/elena-ferrante-literary-sensation-nobody-knows, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xiii] ‘See Naples and die,’ The Economist, 5 October 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21587190-singular-voice-english-last-see-naples-and-die, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xiv] Ferrante, Elena, The Story of a New Name, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013, 62.
[xv] Ferrante, Elena, The Story of a New Name, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013, 34.

Image References

Image 401: Test Card and Bruton Music Compilation, Youtube, http://i.ytimg.com/vi/tUsvpxqm8iU/maxresdefault.jpg

Image 402: © Sara Felsenstein, Sketching a Story http://sketchingastory.com/2012/08/05/small-finds-pickwick-book-shop/
February 24, 2015 / Southerly

Please come to the launch of Australian Dreams!

Rust 1

Southerly is holding a mega double-launch of Australian Dreams 1 and Australian Dreams 2 and we’d love you to come! There will be wine and food and excellent company. There will also be readings from our fabulous contributors. The details are below.

See you there!

When: Thursday March 12th, 6pm
Where: Common Room, Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney
Map: http://sydney.edu.au/maps/campuses/?area=CAMDAR
RSVP: admin@southerlyjournal.com.au
Southerly 74-2 cover (LoRez)74_3Cover_595px
February 23, 2015 / Southerly

What’s in a name?

by Sunil Badami

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As I mentioned in my previous post, most of my characters and protagonists aren’t named; and nearly all of them are women. I couldn’t tell you why, other than that I was raised by a strong woman, most of my friends are strong women, and I’ve always felt more comfortable and able to relate to women than men.

But sometimes I worry, not just that I can’t ever really know or understand what it means to be a woman, and that I’ll get my depiction and evocation of female voices wrong, but that I am somehow appropriating or colonising the female experience and perspective.

As Ruthven points out, ‘in the reign of identity politics… “empathy” becomes ideologically suspect. If nobody has the right to speak for anybody else, then to do so is an invasive act… in multicultural societies marked by social inequalities between different ethnic groups, “empathy” is unmasked as a myth of benevolence designed by the powerful to justify their practice of selectively appropriating the cultures of the powerless.’[i]

But then what to make of the work of A.M. Homes, most of whose characters are straight white men? In an early interview, Homes responded to questions about her work’s predominant “masculinity” that : ‘I choose the least likely person to tell the story, because they bring a perspective to it that I wouldn’t have… I feel that I understand men better than women.’[ii]

Surely depicting any person’s life outside our own is an imaginative act, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, no matter how closely they may resemble the author, demographically or otherwise? Isn’t what makes any depiction convincing not how mimetically realistic it might appear, but how closely it corresponds to the reader’s own perceived sense of themselves? Isn’t that the imaginative power of literature? As William Ian Miller argues, ‘my self is intimately tied up with my being embodied in a way that distinguishes me from others so that I am aware that I see their bodies differently and more fully than I see my own. That means the only full view I can get of myself requires others.’[iii]

I wouldn’t presume to go as far as Flaubert, who apocryphally said that ‘Bovary c’est moi.’[iv] And I think there’s a distinction between speaking of or for others that’s different, especially if it’s appropriative, in the manner Carmen’s imposture was, stealing the identity of an Aboriginal woman, only to prove, as academic Maggie Nolan so rightly put it, that ‘while [he] claimed he chose Koolmatrie as his narrator because her status as an Indigenous woman and member of the stolen generations seemed to him the most oppressed subject position he could think of to occupy, his hoax was grounded in an envy of the perceived rewards that came with that position, and the purpose of the hoax was to prove that Carmen is, in fact, worse off than [her].’[v]

I can’t help identifying with the diffident E. M. Forster’s defence of anonymity, including on the basis that unlike the signature, which belongs to the ‘surface personality’ (or celebrity, as we would call it today), literature tries to be unsigned. [vi] As critic Peter L Shillingsburg noted, ‘the agent of meaning, the reader’s sense of who it was that “did” the text, has a great deal to do with one’s enjoyment of or dismay with the text,’[vii] (which is why Helen D and Carmen’s impostures seemed so outrageous).

But Forster’s main argument for anonymity was that if readers thoroughly engaged with a novel and read it truly deeply, it allowed them to forget the author’s name and their own, in a way I do when I’m really reading, really writing (as I discussed in my previous post on Monday).

Ah! The irony of writing anonymously: that we can only tell the truth by lying, pretending to be someone else…

And yet… while I’d hope what I wrote got read regardless—or in spite—of who I am, but can it be, if I remain unknown, as illustrated by Doris Lessing’s publication as Jane Somers? And if someone is going to spend money on editing, publishing and promoting something I’ve written, surely it’d churlish of me to refuse to help in any way?

Can we even be truly anonymous today anyway, when all our demographic information is collected and stored for eternity on servers in secret locations? Even if we hide behind pseudonymous Twitter handles, we’ll all be doxed and found out eventually.

But don’t we all wear masks of some kind at some time, whether as children dressing up, in job interviews, on first dates, on stages at literary events, in the voices and feelings of the people we depict in our work?

Still, given how hard it is for me to choose my characters’ names, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to choose any possible pen name (I can only work out my supposed porn name, Rebel Orinoco, in that game where you take your first pet and your first street, because we had a dog in our old house).

Besides, doesn’t it seem as if the pointed reclusiveness of writers like Harper Lee, J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon only amplified their fame, with the eventual “unmasking” of the anonymous author of The Bride Stripped Bare seeming like little more than a marketing exercise to excite interest in an otherwise banal book?

(for an excellent discussion of the umasking of the anonymous author, and other reasons for anonymity, see David Donaldson’s great essay on the subject of anonymity here, and in the Lifted Brow’s Ego issue from last year).

But recently, I’ve thought about what about absence, real absence, in which a writer isn’t anonymous, or pseudonymous, or any-other-kind-of-nymous, but simply absent, might mean. Not within the book, where they are—via the people they embody and evoke to offer themselves to other people they may never see themselves—wholly present, but outside it, especially in relation to the mass-marketing and “social media engagement” publishing seems to demand today.

The Italian collective the Wu Ming Foundation, drawing its name from the Chinese word for “five people” and “anonymous,” and a name often used by Chinese dissidents after Tiananmen Square, is an interesting example of this, Wu Ming collaborate on metafictional self-reflexive revisionist historical novels, written with the pacy, page-turning energy and visceral detail of so-called ‘trade’ or ‘genre’ fiction, featuring outlandish and thrilling plots, such as Q and Altai, about a Zelig-like, shadowy, anonymous, Anabaptist protagonist seemingly involved in every tumultuous moment, rebellion, hoax and swindle of the Reformation; or 54, in which Cary Grant is torn between starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s upcoming To Catch a Thief and helping MI6 steal a secret McGuffin Electric Deluxe from Tito (Hitchcock fans will appreciate that).

Although every member of Wu Ming is individually well-known (Wu Ming 1 is Elmore Leonard’s Italian translator) they’re collectively anonymous. They renounce celebrity: although they do extensive book tours, they refuse to be photographed on the basis that ‘once the writer becomes a face that’s separate and alienated (in a literal sense), it’s a cannibalistic jumble: that face appears everywhere, almost always out of context. A photo is witness to my absence; it’s a banner of distance and solitude… I become a “character,” a stopgap used to quickly fill a page layout, an instrument that amplifies banality.[viii]

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And recently, I read three novels by a writer dubbed by The Guardian ‘the global literary sensation nobody knows.’[ix] They made me question, like all the best books, who I am, what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, why. I devoured them—all parts of a larger work, split, like the classic novels of the 19th Century canon, into four volumes (the fourth coming out later this year)—in one feverish week, in which I thought about them constantly, dreamt about them, neglected everything else to read them.

On the publication of her first novel, she wrote to her publisher, telling them that she’d do nothing for its marketing, because, she’d already done enough: she wrote it. She wouldn’t take part in writers’ festivals or accept prizes, if any were awarded.

‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of night time miracle… True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known…’[x]

Years later, she explained in one of those rare written interviews that:

‘I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence… I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage. This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one. But today, what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.’[xi]

Yet her absence has created speculation that she must be a collective like Wu Ming, or worse, a man. How could a woman write with such precision, such power, such truth?

Yet although women friends have enjoyed the things I’ve written, featuring female protagonists and narrators, I knew, the moment I read her, that there were things I could never know, I could never say, I could never write the way she, not only as a woman but as a great writer, could.

In one of the books, the narrator—possibly based on the author, but who knows?—encounters an old school friend who’s read a book she’s written based on her life, scandalous in her old neighbourhood because of a frank, raw, honest, unflinching depiction of the night she lost her virginity. The friend confronts her:

‘“In the book you wrote something else.”
So she had read it. I murmured defensively:
“I don’t even know anymore what ended up in there.”
“Dirty stuff ended up in there,” she said, “stuff that men don’t want to hear and women know but are afraid to say. But now what—are you hiding?”’[xii]

And next week, I hope we’ll explore those absences, of the writer, and of what they can and cannot write, of what August Strindberg once called ‘the meaning conveyed by the silence between words’[xiii] in her work, together.

References:

Alter, Alexandria, ‘New Jonathon Franzen Novel, Purity, Coming in September’, The New York Times, 17 November 2014. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/17/new-jonathan-franzen-novel-purity-coming-in-september/, accessed 11 February.

Atherton, C ‘“Fuck all editors”: The Ern Malley affair and Gwen Harwood’s Bulletin scandal,’ Journal of Australian Studies Vol. 26, No. 72, 2002, 149–157.

Carey, Peter, quoted in Radhika Jones, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 88,’ The Paris Review, No. 177, Summer 2006. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5641/the-art-of-fiction-no-188-peter-carey, accessed 11 February 2015.

Carmen, Leon, ‘Wanda and I’, Courier-Mail, 15 March 1997, p 27.

Donaldson, David, ‘The Artist is Not Present: Anonymity in Literature,’ The Wheeler Centre, 28 July 2014. http://www.wheelercentre.com/notes/f98bd93c7e1a, accessed 11 February 2015.

Doctorow, E. L., ‘Notes on the History of Fiction,’ The Atlantic Fiction Issue, 1 August 2006. http://bit.ly/12iMB7T, accessed 23 September 2012.

Ferrante, Elena, quoted in James Woods, ‘Women on the Verge,’ The New Yorker, 21 January 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/21/women-on-the-verge, accessed 11 February 2015.

Ferrante, Elena, quoted in Rachel Donadio, ‘Writing Has Always Been a Great Struggle for Me,’ The New York Times, 9 December 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/books/writing-has-always-been-a-great-struggle-for-me.html, accessed 11 February 2015.

Ferrante, Elena, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014, 124.

Forster, E. M., ‘Anonymity: An inquiry,’ The Atlantic Monthly, November 1925, 588-595.

Franzen, Jonathon, ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels’, Harper’s Magazine, April 1996, 35–54.

Greene, Graham, quoted in Richard Greene, (ed), Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, Little Brown, London, 2007), 148-158.

Guilliatt, Richard. ‘Black, white & grey all over,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1997, p 13.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Lamb, Karen, Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1992.

Leclerc, Yvan, ‘”Madame Bovary, c’est moi,’ formule apocryphe,’ University of Rouen, Rouen, February 2014. http://flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/ressources/mb_cestmoi.php, accessed 11 February 2015.

The Lifted Brow #23, The Ego Issue, June/July 2014. http://theliftedbrow.myshopify.com/products/the-lifted-brow-23-the-ego-issue

McCurry, Justin with Flood, Alison, ‘Haruki Murukami fans queue overnight for latest novel,’ The Guardian, 13 April 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/12/haruki-murakami-colourless-tsukuru-tazaki, accessed 11 February 2015.

Marr, David, ‘Australia’s Satanic Verses,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1995, 4.

Maxted, Anna, ‘A Pen Name is a Writer’s Best Friend,’ The Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10180200/JK-Rowling-is-right-a-pen-name-is-a-writers-best-friend.html, accessed 11 February 2015.

McDowell, Edwin, ‘Doris Lessing Says She Used Pen Name to Show New Writers’ Difficulties,’ The New York Times, 23 September 1984. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/01/10/specials/lessing-pen.html, accessed 11 February 2015.

Miller, William Ian, Faking It, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

Murray, Les, quoted in Dennis O’Driscoll, ‘The Art of Poetry No. 89,’ The Paris Review, No. 173, Spring 2005. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5508/the-art-of-poetry-no-89-les-murray, accessed 11 February 2015

Murukami, Harumi, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Haruki Murukami: I’m kind of an outcast of the Japanese literary world,’ The Guardian, 13 September 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/13/haruki-murakami-interview-colorless-tsukur-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage, accessed 11 February 2015.

Nolan, Maggie, ‘In His Own Sweet Time: Carmen’s Coming Out’, in Who’s Who: Hoaxes, Imposture and Identity Crises in Australian Literature, Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2004, edited by Maggie Nolan & Carrie Dawson, 134–149.

O’Rourke, Megan, ‘Elena Ferrante: The global literary sensation nobody knows,’ The Guardian, 1 November 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/31/elena-ferrante-literary-sensation-nobody-knows, accessed 11 February 2015.

Peres da Costa, Suneeta. “Tautological Modernity: Democracy, Magic and Racism in the Demidenko-Darville Affair,” Cultural Studies Review 8.1 2002, 72–92.

Ruthven, K. K., Faking Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

Sherrill, Matthew, ‘Ditching Dickensian’ The Paris Review Daily Blog, 30 April 2014. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/04/30/ditching-dickensian/, accessed 11 February 2015.

Shillingsburg, Peter L., Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997.

Strindberg, August, Ghost Sonata from (ed) Thaddeus L. Torp, Ghost Sonata & When We Dead Awaken, Crofts Classics Vol. 17, Harlan Davidson, Wheeling IL, 1977.

Takolander, Maria, ‘Faking it for Real, ’esc: English Studies in Canada, Vol. 31, Issue 2-3, June/Sept 2005, ACCUTE (Association of Canadian Colleges and University Teachers of English), University of Alberta, Edmonton CA, 307–325.

Takolander, Maria & McCooey, David,‘Fakes, Literary Identity and Public Culture,’ Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature, Vol. 3, 2004, 57–65. http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/34/53, accessed 11 February 2015.

Taylor, D J, The Real George Orwell, BBC Radio 4, 14 January 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013qs8w, accessed 11 February 2015.

Turner, Graeme, ‘Australian Literature and the Public Sphere,’ Keynote Address to the 1998 Conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, ASAL, Toowoomba 1998, The Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Special Issue, 1998. Eds A Bartlett, R Dixon and C Lee, 1–12. http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/2761/3172, accessed 11 February 2015.

Turner, Graeme, ‘Nationalising the Author: The Celebrity of Peter Carey’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 1993, 136.

Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Second American Edition), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA, 2001, 43.

Webby, Elizabeth, quoted in Debra Jopson, ‘Writing wrongs,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1997, 38.

Wu Ming, quoted in Alessandro Bertante et al, ‘The Perfect Storm, or rather: The Monster Interview,’ 2007. http://www.manituana.com/documenti/0/8246/EN, accessed 11 February 2015.

Citations:

[ii] Homes, A.M., quoted in Gregory Crewdson, ‘A.M. Homes in Wonder Land,’ BOMB 55, Spring 1996. http://bombmagazine.org/article/1954/, accessed 11 February 2015.
[iii] Miller, William Ian, Faking It, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.
[iv] Leclerc, Yvan, ‘”Madame Bovary, c’est moi,’ formule apocryphe,’ University of Rouen, Rouen, February 2014. http://flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/ressources/mb_cestmoi.php, accessed 11 February 2015.
[v] Nolan, Maggie, ‘In His Own Sweet Time: Carmen’s Coming Out’, in Who’s Who: Hoaxes, Imposture and Identity Crises in Australian Literature, Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2004, edited by Maggie Nolan & Carrie Dawson, 146.
[vi] Forster, E. M., ‘Anonymity: An inquiry,’ The Atlantic Monthly, November 1925, 592-3.
[vii] Shillingsburg, Peter L., Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997, 160–162.
[viii] Wu Ming, quoted in Alessandro Bertante et al, ‘The Perfect Storm, or rather: The Monster Interview,’ 2007. http://www.manituana.com/documenti/0/8246/EN, accessed 11 February 2015.
[ix] O’Rourke, Megan, ‘Elena Ferrante: The global literary sensation nobody knows,’ The Guardian, 1 November 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/31/elena-ferrante-literary-sensation-nobody-knows, accessed 11 February 2015.
[x] Ferrante, Elena, quoted in James Woods, ‘Women on the Verge,’ The New Yorker, 21 January 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/21/women-on-the-verge, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xi] Ferrante, Elena, quoted in Rachel Donadio, ‘Writing Has Always Been a Great Struggle for Me,’ The New York Times, 9 December 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/books/writing-has-always-been-a-great-struggle-for-me.html, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xii] Ferrante, Elena, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014, 124.
[xiii] Strindberg, August, Ghost Sonata from (ed) Thaddeus L. Torp, Ghost Sonata & When We Dead Awaken, Crofts Classics Vol. 17, Harlan Davidson, Wheeling IL, 1977, 22.

 

February 20, 2015 / Southerly

What’s my name?

by Sunil Badami

When I was younger, I was so thrilled by the idea of seeing my by-line in print, nothing else mattered. As I’ve gotten older, how I wish I’d had the foresight, like my idol, Eric Blair, to get a pen name!

Why, especially in this age of celebrity, where children’s greatest ambition now seems not to be a doctor or even an actor, but just to be, like the Kardashians, simply famous, would I want a pen name? Not even actors bother with stage names now.

Pseudonyms have existed as long as literature has: what other vocation has two names for the assumption of a false identity (or, indeed, so many eponymic adjectives to describe it, from Dickensian to Kafkaesque, Brechtian to Orwellian)? One of Australia’s greatest writers gave her pen name and her actual name to two national literary awards, the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize.

We all know about anonymity and pseudonymity in Australia, where we’ve had a long and ignoble history of literary hoaxing and identity imposture, from Ern Malley to Helen Demidenko, Wanda Koolmartrie to Walter Lehmann.

I’ve always hated my name. Not just because, as I describe in my story, Sticks and Stones and Such-like in Growing Up Asian in Australia, nobody could ever pronounce it, or because, in those newly post-White Australia days, when, despite the emphasis and onus being to assimilate, no matter what I did, I wasn’t ever Australian enough, and my unpronounceable name just seemed too Indian, making me change it for a few weeks until my mother found out and told me the story of its meaning (click on the link, it’ll take you to the story).

A few years ago I discovered that our family name was, despite all the recorded history behind it, made up. My grandfather, tired of being confused with other honorifically-named Raos at the Court of the Maharaja of Mysore, had changed it, taking it from the small temple town from whence family legend said we’d originated (itself a corruption of another name). In India, you can know everything about someone from their name: their religion, their caste, their mother tongue. It is as much a locator as a designator. ‘Badami’ often draws a blank (unless we’re in an Indian restaurant and someone orders Lamb Badami)—not just as a label telling someone in India where I’m from, but from anyone at a book launch who the hell I am.

Still, what does my name say on something I’ve written? I’m all too aware of what a former agent called my ‘USP’ (or ‘unique selling point’): NESB (‘non English-speaking background’), hybridised identity, ‘exotic but familiar’ etc etc etc… Is it any wonder I feel even more fragmented by all that demographication? Sometimes, I wonder if a “non-ethnic” name might have offered me some kind of freedom from perceptions or performances of authenticity—much less whatever a nom-de-plume once did for Orwell or it does the Italian collective Wu Ming or Robert Galbraith, the recently exposed pseudonym used by J. K. Rowling.

At the height of the so-called history and culture wars, what Richard Guilliatt described at the time ‘surely Australia’s greatest cultural identity crisis’[i] occurred: in the space of only a few months, the Ukrainian identity of the Vogel, Miles Franklin and ASA Medal-winning Demidenko was revealed to be untrue; and celebrated Dobby Award-winning Aboriginal memoirist Wanda Koolmatrie was revealed to be middle-aged white taxi driver, Leon Carmen.

Much of the criticism of the initial praise for Demidenko and Carmen—and their own disingenuous justifications for their impostures—was based on the erroneous assumption that, as Demidenko (or Darville, or Dale, or, as David Marr called her, “Helen D”[ii]) put it, ‘ethnic essentialism had reached such a state that if you tried to tell a multi-cultural or ethnic story and you weren’t then you either wouldn’t get published or you wouldn’t be given any sort of credence… So I had to find a way around it.’[iii]. Carmen’s excuse was that ‘the time seemed to be ripe. Authors as personalities were attracting more attention than their books… it seemed the only way to get into print.’[iv]

While we might like to think of literature as some kind of ivory tower, it’s not. Publishing has always been the awkward embrace of art and commerce. As Graeme Turner noted in his keynote to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Conference in 1998, while ‘we have tended to see the writer as a scourge of such processes, indeed of all media-constructed identities… the mass-mediated promotional world of fashion and celebrity, literature also appears to have become largely about the author’s saleability rather than primarily about the book’s “literary” quality.’[v]

Writers’ names are brand names now: not just bestsellers like Rowling, Bryce Courtenay or James Patterson whose names are writ large over the top of their books’ titles, but celebrated authors like Carey or Jonathon Franzen. Indeed, isn’t Peter Carey’s name on the cover of a book as important to its sales and reception as ‘Demidenko’s’ supposedly was, or Patterson’s is (and what does it say that like Patterson and Courtenay, Carey—and fellow Booker winner Salman Rushdie—worked in advertising)?

Indeed, what is the difference between brands like Clancy and Patterson and authors—a word very different, I think, to writer—like Carey or Franzen? Much less Helen D?

IMAGE 201

As academic and novelist Suneeta Peres da Costa argues, perhaps the only difference between the identity construction of a “fake” author like Helen from that of a “real” author like Carey is only ‘the extent that it [has been] demystified as such’.[vi] One of Australia’s foremost hoax scholars, Maria Takolander, along with David McCooey, proposed that the very reasons Helen D was celebrated were the very same that a “real” author like, say, Peter Carey is:

‘At his appearance at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival to promote My Life as a Fake… the session chair… while ostensibly parodying media representations of Carey, nevertheless reinforced in an intensely personalising and fetishizing introduction not only Carey’s status as both familiar Australian and exotic internationalist.’[vii]

If, as novelist E. L. Doctorow argues, ‘the public figure… makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point… they are not the same, nor can they be,’[viii] then perhaps the fiction is intensified when the novelist—whose consciousness is already split between themselves author and the fictional narrator whose voice they assume in their work—is the public figure himself.

‘What happens,’ asks Takolander, ‘as in the case of celebrities, when the performing self overwhelms the “real-self”? Are the potential pathological consequences of fame due less to losing touch with the “real-self,” which in all probability doesn’t exist, and more to do with an unnatural reification, a kind of death in life? The split between a public and a private self has the potential to develop into something neurotic.’[ix]

Could this self-splitting be an explanation for why so many writers are so neurotic? Perhaps, because they’re required to ventriloquise or imaginatively sympathise with the characters whose consciousnesses they depict, novelists’s consciousnesses are constantly split between the actual and imaginary, themselves and their fictional characters. But I’m only speaking for myself here… or is that myselves?

And could this be why so many prominent male writers paradoxically proclaim their outsiderness, despite being such a part of the literary establishment? Carey has made much of his humble beginnings in Bacchus Marsh and his lack of interest in reading until he was eighteen, a myth established by one of his first profiles in The Australian Women’s Weekly, titled ‘Author who hadn’t read a book before he turned 18.’[x] In a 2006 Paris Review interview, he reiterated his ordinariness—pointing out his father’s lack of formal education, his mother being the daughter of a poor, country schoolteacher.[xi]

His supposed lack of reading, however, makes you wonder what the hell they were up to in the Geelong Grammar English Department, doesn’t it? As Lamb opines Carey’s reshaping of the past and media personality of ‘ordinariness’ in marketing of his ‘non-elitist’ credentials contradicts the evidence of someone who slipped easily into his years in a school[xii] he asserted to the Paris Review was ‘more about class than anything else.’[xiii]

In 2005, the much lauded, perennially Australia Council-granted and Nobel-nominated unofficial Australian poet laureate Les Murray told The Paris Review that ‘it’s a deep dirty secret, in Australia, that I’m the wrong class to be a poet,’ adding (and echoing Takolander and McCooey’s observation of Carey) that ‘I remain an exotic.’ [xiv]

It’s not just old white blokes, either. In 2013, the equally perennially Nobel-nominated Haruki Murukami, whose last book, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, sold over a million copies in Japan alone, with excited readers lining up overnight to buy it, told The Guardian on its English publication that ‘I’m a kind of outcast of the Japanese literary world. I have my own readers … but critics, writers, many of them don’t like me.’[xv]

It’s a familiar line, offered by Jonathon Franzen in ‘The Harper’s Essay’ (originally published as ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels’) or David Foster Wallace in ‘E Pluribus Unum: Television and American Fiction’, where, according to Franzen, ‘multiculturalism and the new politics of identity bear to corporate specialty-marketing-to the national sales apparatus that can target your tastes by your zip code and supply you with products appropriate to your demographics’and ‘the current flourishing of novels by women and cultural minorities may in part represent a movement, in the face of a hyperkinetic televised reality.’ As Foster Wallace contended in Franzen’s essay:

‘Just about everybody with any sensitivity feels like there’s a party going on that they haven’t been invited to–we’re all alienated… And it’s not an accident that so many of the writers in the shadows are straight white males. Tribal writers can feel the loneliness and anger and identify themselves with their subculture and can write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture’s alienated them. White males are the mainstream culture. So why shouldn’t we be angry, confused, lonely white males who write at and against the culture?’[xvi]

But a sense of alienation is not the same as the marginalisation suffered by others who are not white or male. And Franzen and Foster Wallace have never had to negotiate, as I and many other non-white people do, with trying to express themselves in a language that has historically been used to subdue and silence them, denigrate and discriminate against them (which is why, as Malcolm Knox so eloquently argued, the weight of history lays more heavily on a “black cunt” than a white one[xvii]).

All of us are alienated or marginalised at one time or another—even middle aged white men—and reading and writing, as I mentioned in my previous post, exist because we feel like outsiders whom nobody else understands, saying to us the things we cannot say to anyone else, even to ourselves (and even as we ironically isolate ourselves from others to connect to others who don’t exist).

IMAGE 202

Fiction, ever since Plato banished it from his Republic, has—despite its privilege in the academy and literary circles—always been a little suspect and has traded on its transgressiveness.

Given its historic, eternal unreliability—which, paradoxically, by opposing and questioning the “official record” gives it its essential truth—making what the pseudonymous Simon Leys called ‘lies that tell the truth,’[xviii] the best writing is—and must be—transgressive: the book you shouldn’t be reading, rather than the one you have to study. The screed or satire that mocks the powerful and makes us, in laughing at them, laugh at ourselves (indeed, the best literature, like the best jokes, aren’t funnier for being explained, are they?)

The first great novel, Don Quixote—still funny because it’s true—was a picaresque, and writers must question the official record and purported truth. In such a light, is there any more oxymoronic phrase than “literary establishment?”

According to Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, the novel’s early readership was almost entirely female, and determined its content to a large degree[xix] (and any quick walk through publishing offices from London to Melbourne will attest to how many women work in publishing, even if it isn’t necessarily dominated by them, given how many CEOs and marquee authors and reviewers still overwhelmingly male).

But while the notion that gained ground in the 19th Century that “popular” culture was somehow associated with women as “real, authentic” culture remains masculine, as Andreas Huyssen points out, the traditional exclusion of women from the realm of “high art” takes on new connotations in wake of mass cultural commodification and consumption.[xx] Contrast the male “state of the nation” novel with the female “kitchen sink drama.” How will Franzen’s forthcoming novel, Purity, featuring a female protagonist, be labelled, I wonder?

(Franzen himself acknowledged this in 2010, agreeing ‘to a certain extent [that] when a male writer simply writes adequately about family, his book gets reviewed seriously, because: “Wow, a man has actually taken some interest in the emotional texture of daily life”, whereas with a woman it’s liable to be labelled “chick-lit.” There is a long-standing gender imbalance in what goes into the canon, however you want to define the canon.’”[xxi])

Although her family and friends did call her Miles, you can’t help thinking Franklin chose to use that name in the same way Mary Ann Evans chose George Eliot or Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin chose George Sand—just as nearly a century after Miles, Joanne Rowling chose J. K., apparently on the advice of her publisher, because ‘he thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman.’[xxii] As Anna Maxted notes, ‘the Brontës published under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell 170-odd years ago because, as Charlotte said with admirable understatement, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”’[xxiii]

Indeed, one of Australia’s best literary hoaxes happened when the great Australian poet, Gwen Harwood, sent in two sonnets to The Bulletin, Abelard to Heloise and Heloise to Abelard, to protest the relative lack of representation or respect given to what then-editor Donald Horne patronisingly called “lady poets” and the way in which her poems’ meticulously contructed lines were blithely pushed flush by an indiscriminate style guide.

Because the sonnets’ caesural indentations were marginalised (both literally and actually) they revealed the acrostics SO LONG BULLETIN and FUCK ALL EDITORS. Harwood continued to publish under different pseudonyms, including Francis Geyer, Timothy (T.F.) Kline, Alan Carvosso, W.W. Hagendoor (an anagram of her own name) and others.

But the designation “lady writer” is just as offensive to me as “authoress”—much less “Indian-Australian” or “South Asian” writer. When’s the last time you heard of Peter Carey (or Tim Winton or David Malouf or Les Murray) being described as a “white male writer”? And who gets to decide where the “black” or “women’s” writing goes, much less the “literary” fiction?

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are white men, and I can’t deny the influence Carey and Murray, Franzen and Foster Wallace have had on my work as a writer and me as a man. But as Graham Greene said, ‘For the [writer], disloyalty [is] the queen of virtues…. Loyalty confines us to accepted opinions: loyalty forbids us to comprehend sympathetically our dissident fellows; but disloyalty encourages us to roam experimentally through any human mind: it gives to the novelist the extra dimension of sympathy.’[xxiv]

Surely greatness should not—as Turner alleges Carey wants, resenting suggestions that he’s had a very direct involvement in the construction of his public persona, and critical reviews of his work[xxv]—preclude or exempt scrutiny, but demand even more?

Of course, there’s danger in suggesting novelists have any greater sympathy—much less imaginative empathy—than anyone else, least of all their readers. And for many writers, especially young writers, writing autobiographical fiction—even as there’s no greater fiction than autobiography—there’s a reluctance to speak for others. As Franzen perceived it, ‘unfortunately, there’s evidence that… writers today feel ghettoised in their ethnic or gender identities,’ in which, imprisoned by the first person, they’re ‘discouraged by from speaking across boundaries by a culture apparently ‘conditioned by television to accept only the literal testimony of the Self.’ [xxvi]

Whatever, whoever that is.

Indeed, what’s most fascinating about these authoritative assertions of otherness by Carey, Franzen, Foster Wallace, Murray, Doctorow, Murukami and more, are the cultural assumptions, perhaps inspired by the linguistic fallacy of the “I,” that imply that the normal self is a solid and singular quantity, where, according to Takolander, ‘the lack of a sole and stable identity appears variously as pathological, monstrous, and central to female identity.’[xxvii]

For someone who’s always being asked where he’s really from, who can’t tell if he’s Australian or Indian enough, and who wonders why he has to be sutured together with that hyphen between them, the idea of a sole and stable one is just that. An idea, rather than reality.

Still, although Dobbie Prize judge Elizabeth Webby called Carmen’s hoax ‘an act of colonisation,’ she also warned against ‘drawing some arbitrary line which artists cannot cross. “I do not think there is any line as far as the imagination goes… the claim we make for writing and reading is that it allows us to experience other lives we wouldn’t otherwise experience.”’[xxviii]

Which, of course, makes me wonder about all this in relation to my work. Although most of the protagonists and narrators in my fiction aren’t named because I’m hopeless at naming things, from characters to titles, pretty much every single one is female.

Am I, a supposedly post-colonial writer, colonising other people’s lives and voices myself? It’s a question, among others, I hope we can try to answer on Monday.

References:

Alter, Alexandria, ‘New Jonathon Franzen Novel, Purity, Coming in September’, The New York Times, 17 November 2014. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/17/new-jonathan-franzen-novel-purity-coming-in-september/, accessed 11 February.

Atherton, C ‘“Fuck all editors”: The Ern Malley affair and Gwen Harwood’s Bulletin scandal,’ Journal of Australian Studies Vol. 26, No. 72, 2002, 149–157.

Carey, Peter, quoted in Radhika Jones, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 88,’ The Paris Review, No. 177, Summer 2006. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5641/the-art-of-fiction-no-188-peter-carey, accessed 11 February 2015.

Carmen, Leon, ‘Wanda and I’, Courier-Mail, 15 March 1997, p 27.

Doctorow, E. L., ‘Notes on the History of Fiction,’ The Atlantic Fiction Issue, 1 August 2006. http://bit.ly/12iMB7T, accessed 23 September 2012.

Franzen, Jonathon, ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels’, Harper’s Magazine, April 1996, 35–54. http://harpers.org/archive/1996/04/perchance-to-dream/, accessed 11 February 2015.

Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Helena de Bertodano, ‘Jonathon Franzen interview,’ The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/8022791/Jonathan-Franzen-interview.html, 29 September 2010, accessed 11 February 2015

Guilliatt, Richard. ‘Black, white & grey all over,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1997, p 13.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Lamb, Karen, Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1992.

McCurry, Justin with Flood, Alison, ‘Haruki Murukami fans queue overnight for latest novel,’ The Guardian, 13 April 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/12/haruki-murakami-colourless-tsukuru-tazaki, accessed 11 February 2015.

Marr, David, ‘Australia’s Satanic Verses,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1995, 4.

Maxted, Anna, ‘A Pen Name is a Writer’s Best Friend,’ The Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10180200/JK-Rowling-is-right-a-pen-name-is-a-writers-best-friend.html, accessed 11 February 2015.

McDowell, Edwin, ‘Doris Lessing Says She Used Pen Name to Show New Writers’ Difficulties,’ The New York Times, 23 September 1984. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/01/10/specials/lessing-pen.html, accessed 11 February 2015.

Murray, Les, quoted in Dennis O’Driscoll, ‘The Art of Poetry No. 89,’ The Paris Review, No. 173, Spring 2005. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5508/the-art-of-poetry-no-89-les-murray, accessed 11 February 2015

Murukami, Harumi, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Haruki Murukami: I’m kind of an outcast of the Japanese literary world,’ The Guardian, 13 September 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/13/haruki-murakami-interview-colorless-tsukur-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage, accessed 11 February 2015.

Peres da Costa, Suneeta. “Tautological Modernity: Democracy, Magic and Racism in the Demidenko-Darville Affair,” Cultural Studies Review 8.1 2002, 72–92.

Ruthven, K. K., Faking Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

Sherrill, Matthew, ‘Ditching Dickensian’ The Paris Review Daily Blog, 30 April 2014. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/04/30/ditching-dickensian/, accessed 11 February 2015.

Takolander, Maria, ‘Faking it for Real, ’esc: English Studies in Canada, Vol. 31, Issue 2-3, June/Sept 2005, ACCUTE (Association of Canadian Colleges and University Teachers of English), University of Alberta, Edmonton CA, 307–325. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/view/1341, accessed 11 February 2015.

Takolander, Maria & McCooey, David,‘Fakes, Literary Identity and Public Culture,’ Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature, Vol. 3, 2004, 57–65. http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/34/53, accessed 11 February 2015.

Taylor, D J, The Real George Orwell, BBC Radio 4, 14 January 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013qs8w, accessed 11 February 2015.

Turner, Graeme, ‘Australian Literature and the Public Sphere,’ Keynote Address to the 1998 Conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, ASAL, Toowoomba 1998, The Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Special Issue, 1998. Eds A Bartlett, R Dixon and C Lee, 1–12. http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/2761/3172, accessed 11 February 2015.

Turner, Graeme, ‘Nationalising the Author: The Celebrity of Peter Carey’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 1993, 136.

Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Second American Edition), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA, 2001, 43.

Webby, Elizabeth, quoted in Debra Jopson, ‘Writing wrongs,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1997, 38.

Citations:

[i] Guilliatt, Richard. ‘Black, white & grey all over,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1997, p 13.
[ii] Marr, David, ‘Australia’s Satanic Verses,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1995, 4.
[iii] Darville, Helen, quoted in Helen Dalley, ‘Helen Darville breaks her silence,’ Sunday, Nine Network Australia, 8 June 1997. http://www.9jumpin.com.au/sunday/cover_stories/transcript_163.asp, accessed 20 June 2013.
[iv] Carmen, Leon, ‘Wanda and I’, Courier-Mail, 15 March 1997, p 27.
[v] Turner, Graeme, ‘Nationalising the Author: The Celebrity of Peter Carey’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 1993, 138.
[vi] Peres da Costa, Suneeta. “Tautological Modernity: Democracy, Magic and Racism in the Demidenko-Darville Affair,” Cultural Studies Review 8.1 2002, 72–92.
[vii] Takolander, Maria & McCooey, David,‘Fakes, Literary Identity and Public Culture,’ Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature, Vol. 3, 2004, 61.
[viii] Doctorow, E. L., ‘Notes on the History of Fiction,’ The Atlantic Fiction Issue, 1 August 2006. [http://bit.ly/12iMB7T, accessed 23 September 2012.
[ix] Takolander, Maria, ‘Faking it for Real, ’esc: English Studies in Canada, Vol. 31, Issue 2-3, June/Sept 2005, ACCUTE (Association of Canadian Colleges and University Teachers of English), University of Alberta, Edmonton CA, 312. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/view/1341, accessed 11 February 2015.
[x] Brass, Keith, ‘The Author Who Hadn’t Read a Book Before he Turned Eighteen’ The Australian Women’s Weekly 24 December 1980, p 20.
[xi] Carey, Peter, quoted in Radhika Jones, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 88,’ The Paris Review, No. 177, Summer 2006. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5641/the-art-of-fiction-no-188-peter-carey, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xii] Lamb, Karen, Peter Carey: The Genesis of Fame, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1992, 5.
[xiii] Carey, Peter, quoted in Radhika Jones, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 88,’ The Paris Review, No. 177, Summer 2006. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5641/the-art-of-fiction-no-188-peter-carey, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xiv] Murray, Les, quoted in Dennis O’Driscoll, ‘The Art of Poetry No. 89,’ The Paris Review, No. 173, Spring 2005. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5508/the-art-of-poetry-no-89-les-murray, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xv] Murukami, Harumi, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Haruki Murukami: I’m kind of an outcast of the Japanese literary world,’ The Guardian, 13 September 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/13/haruki-murakami-interview-colorless-tsukur-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xvi] Foster Wallace, David, quoted in Jonathon Franzen, ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels’, Harper’s Magazine, April 1996, 51.
[xvii] Knox, Malcolm, ‘Context the key when punishing racial vilification,’ Backpage Lead, 11 October 2010. http://www.backpagelead.com.au/index.php/league/2792-context-the-key-when-punishing-racial-vilication, accessed 12 October 2010.
[xviii] Ryckmans, Pierre (Leys, Simon). ‘Lies that tell the Truth’. The Monthly, November 2007. Melbourne: Black Inc Publishing,
[xix] Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Second American Edition), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA, 2001, 43.
[xx] Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1987, 47.
[xxi] Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Helena de Bertodano, ‘Jonathon Franzen interview,’ The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/8022791/Jonathan-Franzen-interview.html, 29 September 2010, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xxii] Rowling, J K, ‘Pen Name’. http://www.jkrowling.com/en_US/#/timeline/pen-name/, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xxiii] Maxted, Anna, ‘A Pen Name is a Writer’s Best Friend,’ The Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10180200/JK-Rowling-is-right-a-pen-name-is-a-writers-best-friend.html, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xxiv] Greene, Graham, quoted in Richard Greene, (ed), Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, Little Brown, London, 2007), 148-158.
[xxv] Turner, Graeme, Turner, Graeme, ‘Nationalising the Author: The Celebrity of Peter Carey’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 1993, 136.
[xxvi] Franzen, Jonathon, ‘Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels’, Harper’s Magazine, April 1996, 47-48.
[xxvii] Takolander, Maria, ‘Faking it for Real, ’esc: English Studies in Canada, Vol. 31, Issue 2-3, June/Sept 2005, ACCUTE (Association of Canadian Colleges and University Teachers of English), University of Alberta, Edmonton CA, 310–311. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/view/1341, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xxviii] Webby, Elizabeth, quoted in Debra Jopson, ‘Writing wrongs’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1997, 38.

 

February 19, 2015 / Southerly

Australian Dreams 2

After a decade of ragged, terror-driven politics many people’s dreams of and for Australia are looking battered, but the dreaming continues. Essays and other contributions here reflect the wide range and complexity of a nation’s dreaming. Calls for a fairer economy, a more direct democracy, animal rights, a more subtle and respectful understanding of the rights and rites of place; reflections upon the dreams of migrant communities; examinations of the dream factories of our poetry and cinema. Lost dreams, shattered dreams, strangled dreams, stranded dreams, even a few that might be coming true. Some of the best new work from some of the finest writers of the region, new and established, and our customary contingent of reviews of poetry and fiction.

Read more…

February 16, 2015 / Southerly

Who am I? My Life as a Writer

by Sunil Badami

Writing

Who am I? Reading the excellent, eloquent, engaging entries on this blog before me by much better writers and performers, you’d be forgiven for asking the question. I’m always surprised when people recognise me and my work; the most common response when I admit I’m a writer is ‘have I read anything you’ve written?’—which, I suppose, is a question that answers itself, much like asking a bouncer turfing you out of a nightclub ‘do you know who I am??’

For years, I never actually said I was a writer; given how little I actually wrote in comparison to how much I talked about writing, that was fair enough. Still, when my first short story was published in Meanjin over ten years ago, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was.

Unfortunately, the fee didn’t quite match the thrill, and so, when, after giving my mother a copy, I asked if I could please borrow fifty bucks to cover the electricity bill? she looked at me quizzically, and as kindly as she could, said ‘Why do you persist in living this writer’s cliché of drunkenness, dissolution and debauchery, only to become famous a hundred years after you die? Why don’t you break the cliché and start a family? I’m not getting any younger, you know.’

Even now, I demure when people press me about what it is exactly that I do, what kind of ‘stuff’ I write. ‘I’m really just an adequate speller,’ I sigh. At least on that count, I suppose, I’m not making anything up.

I never imagined I’d ever be a writer. As the son of Indian parents, it’s kind of expected you’ll become a doctor who marries a doctor who puts their sons through medical school. As a child, I’d always assumed—because most of my parents’ friends were doctors too—that that was what you did when you grew up. I’d always been fascinated by medicine, by the body, by its myriad miracles and variations and deformities. It’s amazing to think a veterinarian can treat goldfish and dogs, cows and monkeys, yet each part of our bodies requires a specialist (what makes someone decide to devote their lives to colo-rectal surgery, or sinuses? It’s something I’m always fascinated by as my specialist prods me; the answers are always enlightening).

But I digress! You’ll have to forgive me—and watch me.

As I say, I never imagined I’d ever become a writer. I’d always been a reader: when I was a child, according to my mother (who, if you ever read the story of my name in Alice Pung’s wonderful collection, Growing Up Asian in Australia, can tell a pretty good story), when we when we went to an especially sacred temple in India, in which the gods would bestow any boon you wished for, while my brother asked for toys, I asked for books, books and more books. A lonely, weird, lost child, my only friends growing up were books and the people in them.

But writers seemed so clever and talented and remote from me: growing up in a bookless, broken home out in Sydney’s Outer Western Suburbs, where all you’d hear in the yellowing heat was the faint moan of trucks on the Great Western Highway or the plaintive call of crows, out on the bare, flaccid trees by the stormwater drain. It was easier to imagine I’d become an astronaut when I grew up, rather than a writer.

Despite my fascination with medicine, I never ended up a doctor, after my father told me in no uncertain terms that not only was my education an investment he wasn’t seeing much of a return upon, but that I lacked the drive, the intelligence, the character to become a doctor (it’s always fascinated me, though, how many writers I love and admire were once doctors or the children of doctors: Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Bulgakov, Blake Morrison, William Carlos Williams, Peter Goldsworthy).

Still, just as I’d always read, I’d always written. Although I was always coming second in English to someone different every year, I always did very well in ‘written expression.’ Given how I’m always regretting something I’ve said, writing enabled me, as Rebecca Solnit put it so much more eloquently in her recent, powerful essay on reading, The Faraway Nearby:

‘Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?’

But although I wrote stories from time to time, usually when the inspiration struck me—which was naturally not very often at all—I never thought I’d ever become a writer.

From Our Correspondent - Peter PontiacBefore I became a writer—or at least when I thought I might like to become one—I always assumed the writing life would be much like Graham Greene’s: writing 500 words in the morning, going out for a long, lubricated, literary lunch with clever and talented people, seeing where the night took you, travelling to exotic places.

Even now, I read of other writer’s routines with great interest (collected recently in Mason Currey’s sometimes chastening, occasionally inspiring and always fascinating blog, Daily Routines, also published as a book, Daily Rituals; or the Paris Review’s excellent The Art of Fiction series). Writing is such a singularly solitary pursuit, in which you must allow your imagination to run wild, it’s easy to let it get away from you, especially when the page is still blank and the muse is missing in action, and imagining that everyone else is having a better time of it somewhere else.

And it’s easy to wonder what you’re doing wrong, when you—or at least me, who’s spent more of his life writing his novel than he ever didn’t—read that Aravind Adiga (whom I grew up with, making it even more painful) wrote his Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger in six febrile weeks, or Andrew McGahan his moving, Vogel-winning classic Praise in three. I’d always written at night—it’s still the time I find my mind racing with ideas, images, plots, quotes, so much so like many writers I have to drink sometimes just to get to sleep (a phenomenon chronicled by Olivia Laing in her book, The Trip to Echo Spring, on the relationship between writers and alcohol).

Still, when I first started writing—or rather, when I was still someone who wrote, rather than being a writer (a distinction I’ll elaborate on a bit later)—it came so easily. Reading that first story (which was recently republished in Sharon Rundle and Meenakshi Bharat’s lovely collection, Only Connect [Brass Monkey Books, Melbourne, 2014]) I’m struck by how fluent it is, how daring, how fearless. I remember I wrote it in all of a couple of days; I changed a couple of adjectives here and there after I’d drafted it, but it came out in one assured burst. I could easily write 2, 3, 5000 words a day with no revision.

It’s very different now. I remember Geoff Dyer saying at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few years how writing was one of the few professions that got harder as you got older, in which you paradoxically lost more and more confidence as you became more and more experienced, and, along with an increasingly aching back, it’s something all too true for me.

Now, everything takes five, ten, twenty drafts, everything written out of order, moved around, deleted and un-deleted; it’s full of false starts and fizzlings out, so that although I keep old drafts on file, just in case I might be able to later use something from an earlier version, I can never just write what I think I want to say: everything’s somehow more tentative, less confident, so that where my earlier work seems like a brash statement about the world and everything in it, now it’s like a question asked of no-one else but me (similarly, where I once callowly assumed my work would be read by many, now I can only hope it’s read by someone other than my wife).

Don’t get me wrong! In so so many ways, I’m glad for that. The brash assumption of my youth, that, like so much bad, didactic writing, I could offer profound answers to life’s complicated, perplexing problems, makes for embarrassing reading now. And though I can’t write with the same blithe self-assurance I did then, neither could I have ever written then the way I do now.

Although I couldn’t tell you where I heard it or read it (or even if, because as I get older, I’m more and more aware of how imagination and memory seem to blur more and more into each other, making everything uncertain, fictional), I remember Norman Mailer saying of Gore Vidal in the course of their long, bitter feud that the patrician Vidal ‘lacked the wound.’

As I’ve gotten older, and the wounds have accumulated, still always ripe for re-opening, even as my skin—or at least that callous, made hard by years of rejection and failure—has gotten thicker, all I can offer is my own questions and doubts and fears, and hope that in the course of raising them and asking them, someone somewhere—‘the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them’—can find some solace in them too, seeing something of their own lives and problems, questions and doubts and fears in mine, so that by writing and reading together alone, we can try to find some way of reconsidering—as opposed to trying to answer—that endlessly vexing question: who am I?

(As Marjorie Garber observed in her heartening book The Use and Abuse of Literature: ‘literature is a form of writing that offers unanswered [and potentially unanswerable] questions. Literary language is rife with figures of speech, allusions to other writings and characters facing ambiguous moral decisions… the absence of answers or determinate meanings is exactly the set of qualities that make a passage or a work literary.’[i])

But I digress again—you’ll really have to watch me there!

Where was I? Oh, yes! Back at the desk. If my writing routine were ever recorded in something like Daily Routines, the reality would be much more prosaic. Getting the kids to school, putting the washing out, working out what we’re having for dinner (is there any more disheartening, existential question than that, straight after breakfast, when all you can taste is toothpaste? What are we having for dinner?). Responding to all the emails I’ve left too long, chasing the still unpaid commissions for freelance work I did months ago.

And there’s no better time to clean the lintels or re-organise the medicine cabinet when I’m on deadline, or worse, when I’m faced with another blank page, with no idea what’s going to happen next.

But eventually I get to work: slowly at first, as though what I’m writing and I are dancing cautiously around each other, until eventually, if I’m lucky, and even after the inevitable wrong turns and awkward missteps to start, when the spell could easily be broken by a ringing phone, a knocked door, Facebook, we’re swirling and spinning together, the room and the world and everything outside our tight embrace has disappeared, until, when the alarm has rung to remind me to pick the children up from school and get the homework done and take in the laundry and start cooking dinner, I rise from my sweat-drenched chair, my legs stiff, my back groaning, my wrists and elbows ringing, my head aching; I’ll have forgotten to eat dinner, missed calls, I’ll be distracted and displaced, returning from that vivid inner world of my imagination into the saturated glare of every day life.

Of course, that doesn’t happen every day, either—or very often at all—which is why it’s so intoxicating when it does. When I first started writing—whenever the inspiration struck me, which naturally wasn’t very often at all—even though I could easily write thousands of words, I often abandoned whatever I was writing at the first hurdle. Like most writers, I had drawers (or computer folders) filled with unfinished stories.

Indeed, while, like Alex Miller, I love editing, I hate drafting. Hate it. No matter how great the idea was the night before, no matter how powerful the dream, like Coleridge closing the door on the ‘person from Purlock’ and finding Xanadu gone, like dust blown from a lonely road, or Alden Nowlan’s wife entering the room as he’s writing of his love for her and losing the poem, that whatever it was that moved me as I fell asleep is now only provisional, and I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to catch it—and that too, only if I ever had it in the first place.

Even before the dance begins, I’ll creep upstairs to my desk with trepidation, resignation, not knowing if the day ahead holds wonders or despair. But that’s what makes it so exciting, for all the frustrations and disappointments. Besides, what’s the pleasure in staying close to shore, doing the safe thing anyway? As Salman Rushdie once rightly pointed out:

‘the real risks of any artist are taken in the work, in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think. Books become good when they go to this edge and risk falling over it—when they endanger the artist by reason of what he has, or has not, artistically dared.’[ii]

In those rare moments, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—in which you’re ‘completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost’[iii]—more than make up for the disappointments and disconsolations, when you, and whatever you’re writing, seem to go nowhere (check out Czikszentmihalyi’s inspiring synthesis of it here). But I don’t just write for those moments alone, anymore than I write for fame or fortune anymore.

Like Haruki Murukami, whose arduous writing routine’s daily repetition (which includes getting up at 4am, writing for five or six hours, going for a 10km run or 1500m swim—or both—in the afternoon, reading a bit and listening to some music before going to bed at 9pm) is, according to him ‘a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’[iv] For the same reason, I aver from writing in public places or accepting writing residencies. I need that prosaic, quotidian routine, stuck in my little suburban house, doing boring, repetitive things, so that everything around me apart from the page in front of me can disappear, and my subconscious is free from worrying about anything apart from what I’m writing.

I’m all too aware that the things that might make me a competent writer are the very things that often make me a less than competent person. My mind is always restless, unsatisfied, sometimes neurotic. The persistence I must devote to writing can easily turn into obsession, taking over my life and the lives of everyone around me. The sensitivity that enables me to notice little unseen, unsaid things can easily become paranoia, inferring slights in every innocuous gesture or word. That thrum of thought that often rushes two sentences, three chapters ahead can bubble up into analysis paralysis.

That feverish, dark time while I lie in bed, too exhausted to read or even sleep, is riddled with regrets and fears, anguishes and shames, suddenly vividly alive, and my only way to tame them is to face them by containing them on the page.

Yet writing and reading—which I’d love to talk about with you soon—are as close as I get to meditation, when in those moments of still silence, lost in someone else’s life and world, I can find a reprieve from my petty neuroses and pointless worries, from the reverberating whorl of thought and chatter and criticism that fills my head day and night, the noise of it competing with car alarms and mobile phones and ads on the telly or competing voices on the radio or the internet.

But most importantly, it offers me a reprieve from myself. Paradoxically, as I lose myself in the lives of the people about whom I’m reading or writing, I find myself; and it’s this I write for: not fame or fortune or any prize, nor even for myself (although, given I have none of these, I suppose it’s easy for me to say that, huh?). Something I hope my writing will one day offer readers like you.

All writing is a kind of revision of all the writing before it—whether we wrote it, or we read it. And if it’s good, it keeps reminding us of the question Aristotle realised that, unasked, made life not worth living. Who am I?

It’s easy, reading writers talking about writing, to imagine that writing is the hardest job in the world. Having had a lot of terrible, boring, arduous jobs to support my writing, I know it’s not. Despite all the frustrations and penury, the disappointments and heart (and back) aches, those fleeting, flowing moments make those other imposters disappear. As the old saying goes, I don’t like writing, but I like having written.[v]

Still, just as my parents’ profession was so wedded to their sense of self that they had to preface their names with it (what other profession does that? Have you ever met someone who said ‘Hello, I’m Actuary John Doe’? Just saying), I can’t imagine not being a writer, even if I still tell people I’m an adequate speller.

As I’ve gotten older, and more used to criticism and rejection—if not entirely inured to it—I’ve also found that a great consolation of age, apart from being more and more sure of what you like and don’t like, and more and more confidence to say so, is becoming freer of judgment and envy.

Where the successes of my peers once made me nauseous with jealousy, I know all too well now—in a way I couldn’t have when I was someone who wrote, rather than a writer—how hard it is to write, whether it takes six weeks or six months or (as in my case) twenty years, because every book, every story, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word can be, must be, uncharted territory, where the journey may end in desolation. Everyone’s journey—lonely, long distance, perilous—is their own. Besides, we cannot discover any secret in the hours they keep, only in the things that they write.

As Pablo Picasso is supposed to have said, inspiration has to find you working. Years ago, when I was applying to creative writing courses overseas, a writer I admire greatly admonished me. ‘What do you need a creative writing course for? Writing can’t be taught; it can only be learnt’—the distinction’s an important one, if you consider it—‘all you need to do to become a writer is to listen carefully, observe acutely, read voraciously, live enthusiastically and write, write, write!’ (she still wrote me a glowing reference, for which I’m eternally grateful). Tom Keneally, who’s written more than I know now I ever will, told me something similar: that whatever you do, whatever else happens, write every day, even a sentence, but write it. Whether you’re tired or hungover or depressed, elated, busy, distracted, no matter what, no matter how long it takes you to get going, no matter anything else, just write. If you write long enough, soon enough, something will come.

Looking at writers’ rooms or reading about their routines can be a fine diversion from actually working, but in the end, all you can do is write. That’s all you can do, that you must do, if you’re a writer.

If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with something; if you’re really lucky, it will be something someone else will find worth reading.

References:

Adiga, Aravind, The White Tiger, Grove Atlantic, New York, 2008.
Czikszentmihaly, Mihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Classics, New York, 2008.
Czikszentmihaly, Mihalyi, Flow: The Secret to Happiness. TED 2004. http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en, accessed 10 February 2015.
Currey, Mason, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, Picador, London
Currey, Mason, Daily Routines. http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/, accessed 10 February 2015.
de Botton, The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel, Macmillan, London, 1994.
Fowler, Harold (trans), Plato, Apology. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA/William Heinemann, London, 1966, 38a. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=plat.+apol.+38a, accessed 10 February 2014.
Garber, Marjorie, The Use and Abuse of Literature, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011.
The Guardian, Writers’ Rooms. http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/writersrooms, accessed 10 February 2015.
Laing, Olivia, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Picador, London, 2014.
McGahan, Andrew, Praise, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991.
Murukami, Haruki, quoted in John Wray, The Art of Fiction No. 182, The Paris Review, Summer 2004, No 170, The Paris Review Foundation, New York. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182-haruki-murakami, accessed 10 February 2015.
Nowlan, Alden, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Bread, Wine and Salt, Clarke, Irwin, Toronto, 1967, 59.
Pung, Alice (ed), Growing Up Asian in Australia, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2008.
Rundle, Sharon and Bharat, Meenakshi (eds), Only Connect, Brass Monkey Books, Melbourne, 2014.
Solnit, Rebecca, The Faraway Nearby, Guernica Magazine, New York, 23 April 2013. http://www.guernicamag.com/features/the-faraway-nearby/, accessed 10 February 2015.

[i] Garber, Marjorie, The Use and Abuse of Literature, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011, 259-260.
[ii] Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta/Picador, London, 1992, 12
[iii] Csikszentmihaly, quoted in John Gierland, Go With The Flow, Wired Magazine, Issue 4.09, September 1996. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/4.09/czik_pr.html, accessed 10 February 2015.
[iv]  Murukami, Haruki, quoted in John Wray, The Art of Fiction No. 182, The Paris Review, Summer 2004, No 170, The Paris Review Foundation, New York. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182-haruki-murakami, accessed 10 February 2015.
[v] O’Toole, Garson, Quote Investigator, 18 October 2014. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/10/18/on-writing/, accessed 10 February 2014.

February 12, 2015 / Southerly

February blogger – Sunil Badami!

A huge thanks to Sulari Gentill for her excellent posts.

This month our blogger is Sunil Badami. His bio is below.

Sunil Badami is a writer, performer and broadcaster. He has written for publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, The Australian, The Monthly, The New Daily, The Australian Literary Review, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Southerly, Island and Meanjin. His work has been published in Australia and overseas, including in The UTS Writers’ Anthology, Goldfish: The Best Writing of the Last Five Years, Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. He has appeared on stage at the Sydney and Melbourne Writers’ Festivals and the Belvoir Street and Griffin Theatres. He appears regularly on ABC and Fairfax and presented the national ABC Local Radio show Sunday Takeaway. He is currently re-writing his first novel.

SBadami

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