Australian faux pas and Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists

Well, hasn’t it been a week for women in Australia? I hardly need to count the ways in which misogyny has reared its ugly head, but, for future reference, I will: our PM, Julia, faced a barrage of media-driven nonsense; there was the vile Liberal party dinner menu where rich men poked fun at her body; her breasts, her thighs, and her vagina. Then of course, Mr Sattler pursued a line of questioning about Julia’s partner’s sexuality. She was calm and graceful in her response; I can tell she has bigger things on her mind than the insinuations of a twerp like Sattler. I’m lucky: I don’t think I know many men of the ‘back-slapping’ variety; the men I know and love are mortified by this crap.

I saw this picture in my Facebook feed yesterday and I love it:

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But how does all this pertain to the writing life? There was a lot of noise on Twitter and in the blogosphere about the Stella Prize a few weeks ago. The question raised: do we need a prize for women? I say yes, in the hope that any male reader worth their salt will pick up the shortlisted novels.  Today I discovered a whole website that encourages just this: http://guysreadgals.wordpress.com .

Women are writing some great stories, as evidenced here:

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Barry Divola’s tongue in cheek ‘sausage’ comment made me smile. If you don’t know about the background, look up ‘Miles Franklin’ and ‘sausage fest’. We’re all about the faux pas here in Oz.

I’ve been thinking about George Eliot quite a bit since my post about Elemental and The Mill on the Floss. I went back and read parts of her essay, Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists. I laughed aloud at some of the observations; observations that would ring true today.

It made me laugh, but here’s the thing: I think that, at least in today’s social milieu, these are intellectually elitist observations. Let’s be honest, not everyone in Australia can read the highest calibre of literary fiction. Some novels would read like Chinese characters to people who merely function at a late decoding or early comprehension stage of reading. Heck, some literary fiction is incomprehensible for me and I have an English degree. What I’m saying, is that I’m glad there are silly novels out there (by silly males and silly females- actually, sales might suggest their authors are not so silly!); maybe they’re a stepping stone on the journey to better fiction. Or they just provide vacuous entertainment for a few hours. Either way, who are we to judge?

Eliot’s major concern was that certain histrionic rantings typical of a particular genre would perpetuate feminine stereotypes. I sympathize with that sentiment.  Still, I’m going to make a case for contemporary commercial fiction here, because I have a bit of ‘underdog complex’ happening. What one reads shouldn’t be a value statement, because we’re all valuable. If melodrama and frothy prose are your thing, no probs. Vampires and misogyny? Go for it. At least you’re reading. I know plenty of well-educated women who read crap and not-so-crap commercial fiction for pleasure. And some of us (ahem) are known for our histrionic rantings.

I had an interesting chat with a good friend of mine the other day. She told me that she’s not a huge fan of my writing style; in fact, she only read half of Solomon’s Baby because she wasn’t wholly engaged. She feels that my sentences are too long; they require re-reading. I love this friend, I love her candour. I admire her for her insane intellect and her unwavering honesty. We’ve developed a sister-like relationship so we’re honest about our feelings, even when it hurts. Of course, feedback like this always stings a little bit; I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t.  But I’d also be stupid if I thought everyone should like my style. Goodness, I’m a writer; rejection comes with the territory!

What was most interesting about our conversation was that old chestnut, ‘What’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction?’
Is commercial fiction vacuous and populist? Most of the time, not always.  Does it sell better? Yes. Is serious fiction more obscure? Does it require more of the reader? Yes, I think so. Is serious fiction as entertaining, as pleasurable, as a light romp? Yes, indeed: it’s like the Kama Sutra for ten days straight when good literary fiction hits the mark.

It’s such a subjective thing though, isn’t it? The gatekeepers of the literary world, the publishers, the critics, seem to decide. In saying that, for me, serious fiction is about brilliant prose, complex characters, imagined worlds that I can sense in a visceral way. Most of the time, as I read literary work, I wonder if the author is a bit of a genius. I felt that way when I read Elemental. I feel that way at the moment, as I read The Last Sky by Alice Nelson (I believe she was in her early twenties when she wrote it??!! Genius.). Nelson and Curtin’s work is the real deal. Reading this kind of writing is part of my apprenticeship and the experience of good fiction can be transcendental; goosebumps, heightened senses, an ache in my throat, tears all a-prickle. That doesn’t mean to say that there is no place for commercial fiction in my life. I read the Twilight series in two days; NOT transcendental, but it definitely served a purpose at that particular time: escapism and relaxation (except for when I bristled at awkward turns of phrase or creepy gender interplay!).

You see, when asked to pigeonhole my work, I’ve been hesitant to call it literary fiction or serious fiction, because I’m full of doubt, and, like most writers I know, quite self-deprecating when it comes to my work. I’m just not sure that it’s good enough to be called literary fiction. Actually, right now, I know it isn’t of Curtin’s or Nelson’s calibre. I met an insightful woman in Margaret River who suggested that my work might be ‘commercial fiction with integrity’. I’m intending to purloin that phrase forevermore. At least until the doubt disappears…yeah, probably never.

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12 thoughts on “Australian faux pas and Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists

  1. Thank you re Elemental, Kristen—very kind of you. You’re right about doubts never going away—they haven’t for me, anyway. But then, I would be worried if they did; I think it might be part of the process. Someone (I can’t remember who) once put it very well: you never learn ‘how to write a novel’; you just learn how to write one—and then you have to learn how to write the next one.
    Lovely meditative post. What a week, indeed.

    • It was Helen Garner who said that about learning how to write. I think it was in her introduction to ‘True Stories.’ And she’s absolutely right. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to ‘teach’ creative writing for that very reason – that it’s hard enough to teach myself what I’m supposed to be doing every time I sit down in front of the blank page, let alone trying to steer other people with theirs. And yet when I think about this, I suppose there’s inevitably an element of this same ‘steering’ whenever I give another writer feedback, even though I mightn’t be specifically spelling out HOW to improve something or HOW to solve a problem. So it’s likely there’s an element of hypocrisy in what I say here. It is a truly skilled person who can grasp another’s artistic vision and advise on how to advance THAT, as opposed to their own predilections. They ought to be named as national treasures.

      Alex Miller’s response is just as helpful; when asked in an interview, “What advice would you give to aspiring writers?” (that horrible question that interviewers always put to ‘name’ writers) he replied, “I cannot give advice, only encouragement.” I quote him on that regularly, and I add that there is nothing that I could say about the process of writing that somebody else couldn’t quite reasonably contradict. Beware of anyone who tries to give you prescriptions on how you should do it, or when, or how long it should take, or what it should feel like etcetera.

      I think a sense of proportion about one’s strengths and limitations is essential, Amanda. And that (probably) means that self-deprecation is the most appropriate default setting, at least some of the time. We all need to enjoy our successes when they come, and I hope you’re enjoying yours at the moment with ‘Elemental’ because it is richly deserved. But the moment anyone starts to believe their own b*llsh*t is the moment they are lost.

      P.S. I avoided the commentary following the dinner menu, so I don’t know what was written in it. But the Sattler episode was diabolical.

      P.P.S. Alice Nelson was twenty-six when the novel that became ‘The Last Sky’ won the TAG Hungerford. She was twenty-eight when it was published. But she was good enough to be accepted into the Masters program at the City University of New York prior to that.

      • Ah, Helen Garner, was it? I know several writers who have quoted that but I didn’t know the original source. Thanks, Glen. Re teaching: I think many aspects of creative writing can be taught (although it doesn’t follow from that they’ll be learned), but, like you, I am wary of the prescriptive. We find our way, and our ways are different—whether via formal (i.e. educational) routes or circuitous meanderings; through collecting little bits of gilt and glitter from this source and that, like the bowerbirds that writers are; from being exposed to how others do it and working out, from that, whether there is something there for us. But Garner’s point, my reading of it, is that it doesn’t matter what you know or what you’ve learned when it comes to the staggering task of beginning something new, because only *it* can teach you what it needs. That’s why I think that doubt is part (an agonising, necessary part) of the process.
        What a fabulous quote by Alex Miller!

    • Thanks Amanda. I once heard Ian McEwan say that he always loses the faith after writing a novel; that he can’t imagine that he’ll ever be able to do it again. Luckily, he’s proved himself wrong many times.

      I’ve wanted to tell you: my grandmother finished Elemental quickly and raved about it. Thanks on her behalf. 🙂

  2. Love your work Kristin. I agree too about some literary writers. What on earth was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf about? Mostly though they are brilliant – I just love every word Helen Garner (for instance) writes. She captures the ordinary. And thank you for defending Julia. It is incredible the negative press she is receiving. What is that when she has worked so hard with Gonski for instance? Enough of me though….

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Leanne.

      I’m yet to see anything that warrants the kind of vitriol directed at Julia. I’ve been impressed by Labor policy: the NDIS, school funding, the national curriculum ( people have tried beforehand not succeeded!), carbon tax, apology over forced adoption…the list goes on. I’m not an economist, so sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something important. But Julia is always so eloquent under pressure. What a brave, self assured woman to even go on Sattler! Meanwhile, Abbot has avoided Q & A for how long??? Okay, the histrionic ranting might start here, so I had better stop!

      Re ‘To the Lighthouse’: I’ve never read it but I studied ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘Orlando’ at uni and loved those. In saying that, both, particularly Dalloway, are challenging reads; it’s one thing to study these texts at uni; quite another to read them for pleasure. I have a romantic vision about a time when I’ll be able to tackle the old and new classics. Maybe a year long sojourn somewhere quiet…at this stage, it will be when I retire! I’m just not sure I have the brain space right now. Xxx

  3. Hi Kristen,

    I have just discovered your blog and I really enjoy reading it. Keep writing, keep believing in yourself! And if you want to call your writing literary fiction then go for it because it’s yours! I always do too, even though there is a niggling voice at the back of my head that says everything I right is too silly to be Literary. Wonder what George Eliot would say about me?

    Totally agree with you about Alice Nelson… amazing book!

    Emily

  4. The kama sutra for ten days straight? sounds exhausting! I rarely choose to read ‘commercial fiction’ – usually only if I need something to read and there’s no other choice. But almost every time I’ve been ‘forced’ to read something out of my usual realm for this reason, I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

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