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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women’s non-fiction writing

October 8, 2012

Today’s Monday Musings was inspired by a post last month in Overland literary journal’s blog. The topic – Women and non-fiction writing – is a big one, bigger really than I have time for now, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make a start.

In the Overland post, which comprised an interview with writer, Rebecca Giggs, Giggs discusses the issue of authority in non-fiction and the notion that “nonfiction writing is supposed to have a fidelity to the real world. Disgrace comes to the author who adds too much of the unreal to their mix”. She talks of how it is believed that “things must be stated, accounted for, and settled. Declared. The unknown turned into the known” and sees this view very much as a gendered thing. As male, in other words. And then she continues

But of course, this is not how the world actually is. Inner and outer worlds are not so easily divided! And permitting that fact – allowing such things as the corporeal, the uncertainty, the experiential in – doesn’t just make clear that falsity, it also lets in other modes of authority. It questions the role of women’s interior lives in our political discourse.

So much to unpack here that I fear getting bogged down, so will just keep to the surface (more or less). I have always been intrigued by the subjective in history, ever since I read EH Carr‘s What is history in which he argued, convincingly for me, the interpretive basis of history, that the role of the historian is significant in terms of what we come to know as “history”, as “fact”. I have no idea how Carr is viewed now as I’m not an historian but it would take a good argument to shake my belief in Carr’s basic premise.

And so, I like the changes I’m starting to see in non-fiction writing. I like the fact that the role of the historian – or, let’s broaden this to non-fiction writer – is becoming more transparent in the (in some anyhow) writing. And it seems that a lot of this is being driven (championed, even) by women writers (although my impression could be skewed by the fact that I’ve read more non-fiction by women over the last decade or so. I would love to hear whether you agree). In the rest of this post I’ll discuss a few of the writers who have come to my attention, in roughly the order I’ve read them.

Helen Garner

Garner was the first to confront me with a new personal way of writing non-fiction. She put herself in the picture and told us exactly what she thought about the subjects she was writing about: college master-student harassment in The first stone, murder/manslaughter and duty of care in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Garner caused quite a furore with these books, particularly the former, but I’m not going to go into that here. Google if you are interested. My point is that she was fearless in putting herself in the frame, and in documenting her process. It’s exciting writing – and it’s honest. I like that, whether or not I agree with her views and conclusions. I like the fact that she allows us to see her thinking and to engage in the discussion – and engage we surely did.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper.

Chloe Hooper (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

In a way, Chloe Hooper in her Tall man did for Cameron Doomadgee‘s death-in-custody what Garner did for Joe Cinque. Chloe Hooper is less emotional, less heart-on-sleeve, than Garner but she does also put herself into the story, taking us with her as she researches the situation, and admitting her sympathies. She specifically raises at one point the issue of “historical relativities” which I read as meaning that the facts can be seen from different angles depending on where you are in the spectrum – in many often overlapping spectrums in fact, the historical one, the black-white one, the power one, to name a few.

Anna Krien

Krien’s book Into the woods and essay Us and them work very much like Hooper’s book. She’s there in the story she is investigating. She researches all sides as best as she can. She makes her sympathies clear as they become clear to her, taking us, like Hooper, on her journey.

Francesca Rendle-Short

The Garner, Hooper and Krien books I’ve mentioned above are all pretty straightforward. They put the “I” in their nonfiction writing, something that was once a no-no. But they still focus on the “facts”, albeit recognising the subjective and/or interpretive aspect to them. Francesca Rendle-Short’s memoir-cum-fiction, Bite your tongue, though, is quite a different matter. And it is, I think, a good example of what Giggs is talking about when she talks about “letting the experiential in”. Rendle-Short’s story is powerful and no less valid or true because she has chosen to write most of it through a fictional voice. It’s a clever book. Most of it is told in the voice of the fictional Glory because “some stories are hard to tell, they bite back … [so] I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned” but the “real” Francesca has the odd chapter which comments on, validates, Glory’s experiences. The truths in this book are palpable.

Anna Funder

Funder has said that she initially planned to write Stasiland as fiction but for several reasons turned it into non-fiction. One was that she wanted to honour the people whose stories she was telling, that in fact “it didn’t feel right” to turn those stories to another purpose. But, another reason was that she felt the stories were so far-fetched at times (such as the story of the “smell samples”) that they would not be believed in fiction. And so Funder wrote Stasiland as non-fiction and she, too, put herself in the book. When she interviews her subjects we don’t get a dry reportage of the results of the interviews, nor do we get a simple interviewer-interviewee style presentation. What we get is her in the room – reacting to the person as a human being while also reacting to, and reporting on, the facts being presented. The result is something rich in which the particulars lead to a complex universality (or truth) that encompasses both sympathy and horror.

Oh dear, I have gone on haven’t I … so I will close here on Giggs’ point about these new approaches letting in “other modes of authority”. I’m not 100% sure what she means by that, but what I take from it is a recognition that this new “authority” can encompass something beyond the mere “declaration” of facts, something that encourages us to empathise, something that might force us to confront the moral dimension to the stories being told. And this is, to me, a good thing. What’s more, in the right hands, it can make for darned good reads.

I’d love to know whether you read non-fiction and what you look for in it, particularly in terms of “authority” or, dare I say it, “truths” …

24 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2012 01:51

    I’d heard of some of these books and the Cinque case. Haven’t read any of those mentioned though. I went to Amazon to take a look at reader reviews and at least some of the reviewers were not happy with the non fiction approach of Helen Garner. I haven’t read the book so I can’t say either way, but one reviewer said that it was later discovered that she manipulated the facts of the case for the book (paraphrasing here).

    There’s all types of non fiction. I just finished one about a death and a murder trial that took place in 1780. That was written with obsession and attention to detail. Perfect for that type of book. Of course if you write a book about people who died over 200 years ago, there’s a good chance that your offendability index is low. And the opposite is also true.

    I read a travel book which I couldn’t finish due to far too much “I.” Everything that the author saw became all about her. She should have stayed home. On the other hand, I read “Emma Larkin’s” book set in Burma and it was fantastic. So I’d say that it depends a lot on what you are writing about. If it’s non fiction travel, it’s better to focus on what you see and the people you meet instead of how tired you are or outraged by whatever comes your way.

    • October 9, 2012 08:26

      I’d need to check that reviewer Guy. The Joe Cinque case was very complex and I was bothered by Garner’s take at times but I didn’t think she twisted the facts … Not as I recollect. She certainly put her own spin on it … But she’s very clear about that.

      I agree re the I … Though I suspect it’s less a case of types of work than of how you do it. Certainly contemporary issues or stories the author is involved in lends itself more easily. I still have hat Larkin book on my TBR pile.

  2. October 9, 2012 02:22

    I remember finding ‘The First Stone’ very brave and rather disturbing. There was a lot of Garner in there, perhaps to the book’s detriment. I could definitely see her point – in fact it was hard not to see the point of all involved – but I’m not sure I agreed with her conclusions. I’d love to read Tall Man, sounds very interesting.

    • October 9, 2012 08:28

      No, I didn’t agree with all her conclusions either Catherine. In fact, she made me wuite mad as I recollect. But I did appreciate the way she wrote it and I admire her honesty though I’m not sure she was expecting quite the response she got.

  3. Anna Blay permalink
    October 9, 2012 06:38

    The role of the subjective in history has always intrigued me. I loved Funder’s approach in “Stasiland”. Another fascinating writer who puts herself into the non-fiction she explores is Inga Clendinnen, especially in her book “Reading the Holocaust”. If you don’t know it, read the New York Times review about how she “enters the fraught and jostling dialogue”.

    • October 9, 2012 08:33

      Thanks Anna … I had Clendinnen in my list, but in the end thought i was getting too long. I’ve read four books by her but not the Holocaust one which I’ve wanted too. I felt I needed to go back and refresh my mind on her works … I might devote a post to her one day if I can find the time to get all my thoughts together on her.

  4. October 9, 2012 13:36

    The social, cultural and feminist history approaches that might be preferred by women non-fiction writers still depend on facts and their selection and interpretation of these facts can be just as biased as other approaches to understanding the past. The ‘I’ and ‘unreal’ in these examples seem to be features of journalistic writing and memoir rather than academic history writing. In that area, prosopograhy seems to offer a lot of promise when it comes to collective truths.

    • October 9, 2012 15:47

      Thanks for joining in Judith. I certainly don’t think it’s either-or. And I agree that all approaches are in the end interpretive based on the facts we known at the point in time, the selection of which of those facts are believed important and/or relevant, and the further interpretation of those facts which tends to draw on some theoretical or philosophical bases. I think the critical point Zajac was making was that the “gendering” is accompanied by value judgements about validity.

      I’d heard the term prosopography but hadn’t really taken it on board … I like the idea of collective biography particularly where it recognise those of ordinary people. It reminds me of a book called Spaces in her day by Aus historian Katie Holmes … It is I think an example of what you are talking about. And I thought it an excellent history …

  5. October 9, 2012 23:07

    Thankyou for starting the discussion on Rebecca Gigg’s comments in the interview of her in Overland. There is so much to unpack from her interview and Overland essay.

    EH Carr is still taught at university but along with many other essays/books about writing history. Yes, history must be anchored in evidence but the pretence of historian as an impartial and objective writer has been well and truly discarded. Instead historians try to be fair but it is recognised that the same facts can be interpreted in different ways.

    I look for rigorous footnotes/endnotes in histories. I want to know that I am reading history, not historical fiction. I want to know that the author is grounding his work in evidence. In my blog post about footnotes I mention a biography which interested me but as I read it I started to wonder whether the author had embellished the story. I don’t know for sure because there were no footnotes, but I am sceptical.

    Your post caused me to reach for a book edited by Stuart Macintyre, The Historian’s Conscience. This volume has a number of essays written by Australian historians on the ethics of history. In it Penny Russell writes that history, “demands attention to detail, rigorous respect for evidence”. Yet she goes on to say that “history depends upon imagination”. She says, “we build from inadequate, frustrating, patchily illuminating records a version of the past… that matches the records yet remains the product of present imagination, present concerns, and the limits of present knowledge.” “Writing history… is a creative art. It requires empathy, intuition, a keen sense of drama and pathos, a distinct narrative flair.” p. 107.

    I thoroughly recommend The Historian’s Conscience to general readers who are interested in these issues.

    • October 9, 2012 23:53

      Thanks perkinsy … and, how embarrassing, I realise from your comment that I got the interviewer and interviewee wrong! I was reading the post from a printout and the print was tiny so I clearly glossed too quickly over the introductory para. I read it a couple of times too! Anyhow, I’ve now corrected it.

      You make good points, none of which I’d argue with. I like the idea that “writing history is a creative art”. It needs to be based on evidence and it needs to be clear where the gaps in evidence are and then it needs to tell a “good (his)story”. This following example is not a scholarly one but it’s relevant. It’s Carol Shield’s biography of Jane Austen. As you may know, there are significant gaps in the Austen historical record but Shields has managed to write a short but engaging and I believe valid bio. She does this by laying the groundwork – I’m a novelist writing about a novelist and looking at her from that point of view – and by being clear about what is known and what is not known. When she is confronted by the latter she suggests what might have been going on, providing reasons for her suggestions. I guess a better historian example might be Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with strangers. As I recollect, she very clearly lays the groundwork re her sources and their limitations, and she’s clear about what she knows, believes she knows, and what she thinks. It’s written with a certain sensibility, a certain viewpoint, but it’s as clear as it can be about its historiography I reckon. She also uses the “I”.

      I have more to say on Clendinnen but I’ll save that for another time, and maybe another post.

  6. October 10, 2012 02:47

    That was a good article wasn’t it? I do read nonfiction. I can’t say that I pay that much attention to whether the author is male or female, I am much more interested in the topic of the book. One of these days though I am going to get around to that science books by women project I had big plans for at the beginning of the year! However, thinking about it, women nonfiction writers can be really different. The book My Poets I read recently was a combination of poetry criticism and memoir quite like nothing I have ever read before. Dava Sobel in he biography of Copernicus includes a play in the middle of the book which totally threw me off but in hindsight was a really creative way of taking minimal information about a person’s life and offering up a possible scenario of how it might have been. Maybe women are more willing to admit they don’t have all the answers then men are?

    • October 10, 2012 08:13

      Thanks Stefanie … Now that’s a challenging question at the end! It would be a great issue to tease out but I reckon you could very well have a point given some of the other studies on the way women communicate.

  7. October 10, 2012 03:09

    A fascinating and important topic. I’ve been writing a post about it, too, and hope to post it in a few days. For years historians tried to be scientific and objective. Now they are admitting that the imagination matters too. I see it as partly a response and reaction against postmodernism and partly because profession has expanded to include new voices who tend to challenge older accounts (ethnic groups and women of descriptions.) Those of us newcomers have focused more on new topics and new research methods, but have stayed true to what can be “proven as factual.” I am not sure about women writing more “imaginatively” than men. I simply haven’t kept up enough to judge. I like the new experimentation and many of the histories I have read and reviewed this year take this new approach. More later about some of them. Yes, part of my interest in Clendinnen is because of the way she depends on and speculates about her facts and her discussion of the fact/fiction divide in Tiger Eyes.

    • October 10, 2012 08:19

      Thanks Marilyn … I thought you’d be interested. I can feel more posts coming on … If I can get the brain space to think more on’t. You might like to check out Clendinnen’s Agamemnn’s kiss, a book of essays. I had included her in my post above initially and then cut her out because I have some things to say that I really want to think out. I’ve read four of her works and found every one riveting reading. To write on her I really need to refresh myself.

      • October 12, 2012 03:34

        Clendinnen certainly does give much to think about. I didn’t know about that one and will see if i can get it. Thanks.

  8. October 10, 2012 09:51

    Sorry for not being clear. It was the sexual harassment case that the reviewer was talking about.

    • October 10, 2012 10:22

      Oh, I did wonder, Guy, thanks for clarifying. I went and looked at some of the Cinque reviews and couldn’t see anything. It’s a long time since I’ve read The first stone and read about it. I might try to check the reviews. I’d be surprised if she knowingly manipulated the facts … if there’s one thing I respect Garner for (besides the quality of her writing) it’s her honesty. That book really brought out the daggers … I didn’t agree with her take, but I didn’t like the vitriol with which many responded either.

  9. October 13, 2012 08:57

    Wow, this is really, really fascinating. The comment ‘Disgrace comes to the author who adds too much of the unreal to their mix’. That’s pretty harsh – what exactly is ‘unreal’? Sometimes (often?) I think that it’s fiction that’s better at getting to the real and true, and perhaps that’s even fiction’s mission. Can anything that sets out to present the facts and nothing but the facts ever actually do that? As to Garner: ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ is a wonderful book, partly because, as you say, she’s so fearless. Side-note: Is ‘The Spare Room’ any less non-fiction? While we’re on side-notes, what are we to make of JM Coetzee’s ‘Summertime’, when the author writes about himself…except the author’s died? I guess this comment is a plea for fiction and non-fiction being allowed to slip and slide between each other. That’s what Garner does so well, and it’s better reading because of it. Rendle-Short does it beautifully as well. In the end, the truth is the point, not the way that we get to that truth.

    • October 14, 2012 00:01

      Ah Nigel, I think we are on the same page here. I have been known to argue that fiction can be more honest than non-fiction because it admits that it’s made-up (while at the same time being more than able to get to the truth). But, in the end it’s not a black and white issue, is it, which is what makes reading so interesting. As you say, Is The spare room any less non-fiction? I haven’t read Coetzee’s Summertime, though have it in my pile, but similar games in a way are played with in Diary of a bad year I think? I’m glad you raised him because he’s been really interesting in playing with the form/s.

  10. buriedinprint permalink
    October 15, 2012 13:27

    How interesting; I haven’t read any of the fiction to which you’ve referred, but I wholly enjoyed reading your post anyhow. (I did, as a student, study Carr’s work, and felt similarly about it, though, like you, I’m unaware of its standing now. It just *made sense* and I wondered that the idea had never been communicated to me, as a history student, before third year.)

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 15, 2012 14:33

      Thanks buriedinprint and welcome. It did just make sense didn’t it? From the responses I’ve had it sounds like his general theory holds though some of the ideas around it have moved on as time has. I did it in a second year history course, the only history course I did in fact, but it was all I needed to do I felt!

  11. November 11, 2018 21:08

    This is such an interesting post. I often say that my goal is to read a fifty – fifty mix of fiction and non – fiction but always end up reading more fiction.

    When it comes to non – fiction I tend to read around specific subjects and sometimes concentrate on a subject for a year or so.

    I think that when it comes to subjective verses objective writing in non fiction there is room for both. I try to read a mix of things.

    • November 11, 2018 21:19

      Thanks Brian – I certainly know what your recent non-fiction reading has been.

      That’s interesting about your goal. I think mine would be more 1/3 non-fiction to 1/3 fiction, though if I could find more time to read I’d probably even that out a bit more.

      I agree with you about there being a place for both in non-fiction. It just has to be clear to the reader.


  1. Bite Your Tongue reviews – francesca rendle-short

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