by Sunil Badami
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]
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.
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.
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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.
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[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.