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Who me?: Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture

September 20, 2015

One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.

Robert Drewe, Shark netThe Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)

The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.

Memoir, or autobiography?

Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. Gass ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.

Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.

Memoirs, Drewe said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.

Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!

All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of playOver to meTime to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries. 

Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!

Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!

There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.

Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.

I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!

Memoirs named by Drewe

During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:

Top selling Australian memoirs

  • Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
  • Albert Facey, A fortunate life
  • Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways

Other memoirs

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
  • Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
  • Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
  • Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
  • Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)

So …

Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.

Makes sense to me …

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    September 20, 2015 11:37 pm

    Excellent analysis, reflection. I note how in some recent writing up of childhood/adolescent experiences that – dependent upon the starting point – it changes the mood, the flavour. That yes, I can see how more memoir than autobiography it is – and I really appreciate this distinction as you have made clear via Robert DREWE’s presentation. Thanks.

    • September 21, 2015 8:04 am

      Thanks Jim. Yes, I thought Drewe put very articulately the distinction that I’ve come to understand in my readings.

  2. September 21, 2015 10:52 am

    What an interesting post! I’d have love to have been there…
    I’m not a great enthusiast of memoir, but some can be really terrific. I’d put Facey’s in that category, and Sally Morgan’s, and of course Anne Frank’s too (even though it wasn’t written as memoir of course). The one I’m currently reading, however, has some rather unrealistic dialogue and interior thoughts from the family’s more distant past, and it makes for clunky reading, perhaps because it’s hard to create distinctive voices when you don’t actually know the people you’re trying to depict. (I find this a common problem in books that began as family history and afterwards morphed into a book).

    • September 21, 2015 3:26 pm

      Thanks Lisa … I do think you have to pick and choose your memoirs. Good ones can be excellent, but … Your point is interesting about trying to create dialogue for people you don’t actually know. That sounds like it’s probably not a good decision on the part of the author, and that perhaps a more traditional memoir approach, i.e. not using dialogue, would have been better?

      • September 21, 2015 3:49 pm

        I don’t know what the answer is… this is where good editing comes in, eh?

  3. September 21, 2015 3:58 pm

    In my home suburb (in Perth) many people around me know or knew the Cookes and so were particularly fascinated by The Shark Net. And that seems to be one of the advantages of memoir, new ways of thinking about something or someone with which (or whom) we are already familiar.

    • September 21, 2015 4:47 pm

      Good point Bill. It’s an interesting work isn’t it because, from memory, it’s not necessarily immediately recognisable as a memoir.

  4. September 22, 2015 6:48 am

    What a fascinating lecture! I like very much his distinction between memoir and autobiography. Do man people even write autobiographies any longer? Seems like most go for the memoir. Wonder why?

    • September 22, 2015 7:52 am

      Good question Stefanie. I think autobiographies tend to be written near the end of one’s life. But most self-writing we see now, anyhow, seem to be memoirs written by people in early or middle life, almost, it feels, as catharsis? Maybe there never were a LOT of autobiographies but the preponderance of memoirs these days shows that up?

  5. September 23, 2015 7:59 pm

    This is a great post, Sue! I forwarded it to my boyfriend who is sceptical of the difference between memoir & autobiography and, by extension, of my own memoir (‘How can you write a memoir? You’re not even 40!’ he says). Rest assured, he will be more appreciative by the time he’s finished reading it!

    • September 23, 2015 10:08 pm

      He’d better! I think you can definitely write a memoir, but I’d be very suspect if you said you were writing an autobiography. So, you go, girl, and tell him I said so.

  6. Trinity permalink
    October 8, 2015 2:35 pm

    audio and transcript up now! https://www.nla.gov.au/audio/robert-drewe

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