Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In conversation

Now that Australian Book Review has extended its reach to Adelaide, where it has established a sort of home-away-from-home base at Flinders University, its regular literary events are becoming a feature here as well as in Melbourne and elsewhere. I'm just back from one such event, in the pretty Radford Auditorium at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where an audience that included J. M Coetzee heard Craig Sherborne 'in conversation' with fellow-poet-and-memoirist and ABR editor Peter Rose, talking mostly about Sherborne's 2005 memoir Hoi Polloi.

This was a relaxed and quite revealing conversation between friends who have known each other well for years. It's a scenario that can sometimes backfire quite badly, as in this situation it's very easy to make the audience feel excluded altogether, but both Sherborne and Rose kept the audience included in their eye-lines and in their questions and answers without letting the whole thing get too stilted.

Eavesdropping on punters as is my wont at this kind of gig, I overheard the people next to me -- clearly strangers to each other -- strike up a conversation, while we were waiting for the event to start, about how wonderful it was to be able to come to this kind of thing, how much they were looking forward to Writers' Week, how wonderful they thought the Adelaide Festival of Ideas always was and how astonishing it was that so far these events were still free.

Memo to self: find out exactly where the money comes from. I know it comes from a number of places (state government, publishers, Literature Board) but am terminally vague on details and percentages.

In the meantime, the most interesting thread to emerge from the discussion was the issue of authenticity and ethics. If you write nonfiction, what are your obligations to the people you write about and to the people who read what you write? Was Sherborne, in an account of his childhood that has been described as 'searing', motivated at least partly by anger and revenge? Did Peter Rose know for sure how his brother Robert saw his situation, or was he just speculating? What about James Frey's fraudulent A Million Little Pieces?

The key to these issues lay, I thought, in a phrase that Sherborne used during the discussion: 'in good faith'. I think this is a criterion you could apply to any of the 'fraud' literary scandals of recent times. James Frey was not writing in good faith, and neither was, say, Helen Demidenko/Darville. But if Sherborne's portrait of his parents was harsh or Rose's of his brother somehow distorted or incomplete, clearly neither was setting out with any intent to deceive, nor to settle scores.

Obviously whether a writer is writing 'in good faith' is something you can't measure or, in the end, say for sure. But it's as good a focal point as any for these kinds of discussions about authority, authenticity and truth, where there is inevitably more than one issue at stake.

And in the case of Frey, it seems to me that his single biggest crime in the eyes of those who have reviled him has been making a fool of Oprah. So here's a reading group discussion question: is that a bad thing?


  1. There's an interesting posting, about this point, on the Grumpy Old Bookman weblog today, dated February 16 2006:

    This is written about memoirs in general while reviewing the new Australian memoir DRINK ME by Skye Rogers. "This is an absolutely universal story: it is, in its way, Everywoman's story."

  2. Hi Kerryn,
    Sent you a couple of comments on this already - there must be a Blogger problem? I don't know.
    If you want to talk about this offline, I'm happy to continue the conversation, or you can edit this out of these comments and include them. If I don't hear from you, I will conclude you did not agree with me? Cheers, Genevieve

    Can't say I think it necessary to bag Oprah - I knew almost nothing about her until Jonathan Franzen snubbed her by asking for The Corrections to be dropped from her BookClub, until which time I had assumed it was pretty much a chicklit activity, like most of her work.
    However since then she has gone on to include the works of Faulkner in her bookclub's assignments, complete with online tutorials from university teachers. And since then, I've learned a lot more about her sad and difficult background. That's one talented broadcaster there.

    As regards Peter Rose's book, I've always felt that book stands on its own as a terrific example of the 'family struggle with disability' sub-genre - have read more than my share of them and I think he's more than entitled to his say as a sibling. If he sees with the clear eye of a latter-day Martin Boyd, so much the better.

  3. Whoops, it looks like it is working now. Sorry about the italics - can you get rid of them later? hope so.

  4. Sorry Genevieve -- if (as I suspect of not being the case) Blogger does in fact let me edit comments, as distinct from bin them wholesale, then I haven't yet found the way to do it. It is not possible to overestimate my technological ineptitude.

    Blogger was playing up sumpthink chronic the other night, so you may have coincided with that. Doesn't matter though -- would much rather have everything you've sent than none of it!

    I think I've already had the Oprah conversation somewhere else ... I do admire her guts and talent, but I really, really hate the way she pushes the already obscenely over-the-top levels of hysterical American materialism to new extremes. Watching her interact with her audience when she's giving things away is intensely disturbing.

  5. Yes, I have to agree with you there. I've just seen Brokeback Mountain and the poverty! suffered by Ennis Del Mar et famille made me weep as much as the story. It's not as though anything has improved in America since then either.

  6. I saw the Frey interview on Oprah -she does tend to 'go for the heart' so her guests tend to reciprocate and come out with all sorts of personal ephiphanies (not all can get the sincerity tone right). She ponder aloud on key scenes from Frey's book and ask him the emotional and spiritual costs of being a druggie. He didn't once say "I've embellished some for literary impact". He implied that it was a straight hand-on-my-heart autobiographyt. Oprah was careful to point out to her audience, no doubt hostile to druggies, that there were lessons in his life that we all need to learn, yadda, yadda. And he turns around and embarrasses her by not being 'real' but a 'novelist'. Lesson one - do not embarrass Oprah by faking it. She may be warm and fuzzy but she has been known to give guests the cold death-stare.