I had a Twitter conversation with Adele Chapman and Dawn Barker last night about the pleasure/pain principle in relation to reading fiction. I’ve started Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, and I feel perpetually cold, a constant sense of dread. And I wonder, why do we, as readers, do it to ourselves? Adele and I decided that we can enjoy the prose without enjoying the content. And even when a novel or short story is full of despair, most authors try to drop in a bit of ‘sweet’ to offset the sour. I felt this way when I read Elemental by Amanda Curtin. The ‘sweet’ parts acted like a palate cleanser, giving the reader the wherewithal to endure the next onslaught of suffering.
I bought Dawn’s novel, Fractured, at the Margaret River Festival and it’s been sitting in my ‘to-read’ pile for a long time. I can’t deny that I approach this one with caution. I know what it is about, and the subject matter scares me. I still haven’t read We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, because I’m a scaredy cat. It’s about finding the right time. I’m going to brace myself and read Dawn’s novel next.
It sounds silly right? I wrote a story about postnatal depression, and yet I’m anxious about reading Fractured. I suppose, for me, Solomon’s Baby is less about the experience of postnatal depression, and more about the notion of culpability. I’m particularly fascinated by the various inferences made by some readers of my story; people come to a text with such different attitudes! Within this current cultural milieu, we have some big ideas and expectations about mothering; the 24/7 media cycle feeds us endless messages about parenting, and it’s a rare woman who does not experience mother guilt or self-doubt or anxiety on some level. I’m most interested in the reader’s position: just how culpable are my characters? How often do we unnecessarily apportion blame? I look at the BATTLEGROUNDS that are parenting websites and I’m stunned by the defensive missiles and incredible level of judgement. Seriously, even the language surrounding parenting choices feels like warmongering: ‘militant breastfeeders’, ‘nipple nazis’, ‘helicopter parents’ and the like. Fortunately, I never experienced severe postnatal depression, but most women I know have struggled with early motherhood to some degree, and this kind of crazy rhetoric doesn’t help anyone!
So, if you’re feeling brave, and have some chocolate and tissues on hand, head on over to Margaret River Press and read Solomon’s Baby.