The link below is to an article that looks at fan impatience – i.e. as in waiting for George R. R. Martin to finish the next book.
The link below is to an article that looks at why some writers burn their own work.
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The link below is to an article that reveals the reading habits of some of the 20th century’s most important authors.
The link below is to an article that considers the voices in the heads of various authors.
The French true crime writer Stéphane Bourgoin’s trained at the FBI’s profiling school in Virginia and had interviewed 77 murderers, including Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. He had advised the FBI and Scotland Yard on difficult cases and his own wife had been murdered by a serial killer. He even had a short stint as a professional footballer for the Parisian team Red Star. His life seemed as interesting as one of his 40 books. Except none of it was true.
Following an investigation by the anonymous collective 4ème Oeil (Fourth Eye) Corporation in February on YouTube, Bourgoin was forced to admit he had fabricated much of his life story and CV.
This is not the first time a French author has fabricated a wild and interesting life. Some have done it to make a book more attractive to readers and awards committees. Others have done it to distance themselves from lowly roots and a back catalogue of pulpy fiction.
Embroidering the truth
Bourgoin has since admitted that the fictitious wife was based on a woman he met “five or six times” and “liked”. He did briefly meet Charles Manson, but only walked past him and never got to speak to his. And, instead of 77 murderers, he had only spoken to around 30.
In a series of interviews with French newspapers, Bourgoin now says he should have let his real knowledge stand for itself – that his books were good enough to sell without such a fantastical back story.
Writers have long used false histories and fabricated public personas to their own ends, especially if that’s what it takes to get a publishing deal or public recognition.
One of the most notorious incidences involves the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, which is awarded to “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Previous winners include Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir.
It can only be won once. But the prolific writer Romain Gary managed to win it twice through a feat of deception, first in 1956 for Les racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven), and then as the supposedly Algerian writer Émile Ajar in 1975 for Gros-Câlin.
His deception was only confirmed posthumously in the publication of a confession Vie et mort d’Émile Ajar (The Life and Death of Émile Ajar). Throughout his lifetime, Gary wrote under several names, including Fosco Sinibali, Shatan Bogat and Roman Kacew (his birth name).
Even one of France’s most revered writers, Honoré de Balzac, was not immune to a certain propensity for exaggerating the truth when crafting his public and private image.
Balzac is perhaps best known as one of the founders of literary realism. However, he started his career churning out potboilers under pseudonyms (one of which was Lord R’Hoone, an anagram of Honoré, and Horace de Saint-Aubin).
Later, to disassociate himself from these early publications, he had his assistant write a preface to his novel La Dernière Fée (The Last Fairy, 1823) in which Horace de Saint-Aubin meets the new, successful Balzac and, upon reading a few pages of the latter’s writing, is so depressed that he sets his own novels on fire.
To complete the transformation, he added an aristocratic-sounding particle to become “de” to Balzac. The surname itself was a creation, changed by his father from the more common-sounding Balssa in an attempt to move the family on from its peasant roots, and hinting at an illusory connection with the illustrious Balzac d’Entragues family.
It also so happens that it was a French writer, Serge Doubrovsky, who in the 1970s coined the term “autofiction” (fiction of the self) to describe his 1977 novel Fils (Son). The protagonist of Fils shares the author’s name and certain key characteristics, yet exists in an essentially fictional space. Doubrovsky described autofiction as “fiction, made up of events and facts that are strictly real”.
The term creates a problem from the not-so-straightforward relationship between autobiography and truth. In the words of the academic Alex Hughes, autofiction allows the author to transmit biographical facts “in a narrative format whose novelistic tenor permits him not to assume responsibility” for the truthfulness of his statements. Were he claiming to write within this genre, Bourgoin might have a leg to stand on. As things are, his books are on the wrong shelf.
What is perhaps most interesting about Bourgoin’s story is the keenness with which his fabrications were seized on. His exaggerations enhanced his credibility and opened doors for him. It’s as if Bourgoin sensed that by exaggerating certain specific details, and thereby producing a particular kind of narrative, he was giving the public what he knew they really wanted to hear all along.
As the critic Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in 1986, one problem with autobiography is that we all have been so exposed to the narrative conventions of fiction that we will almost inevitably reproduce them in the life story we write – even though this is likely to lead to misrepresenting the historical reality.
In writing himself into his books as the bereaved hero, Bourgoin was tapping into powerful patterns of storytelling that his readers were already attuned to. In The Science of Storytelling, the writer Will Storr suggests that the brain is primed to react with interest to stories of “moral outrage”, which Storr calls “the ancient lifeblood of storytelling”. When we see heroes squaring up to face baddies, our tribal instinct for justice kicks in and we root for Bourgoin’s fictitious alter-ego.
With Bourgoin’s confession, his narrative now unfolds anew. “When you’ve broken a character you can begin to build their story,” writes Storr. We want to see the bad guys punished, or at least remorseful. Bourgoin, and the organisation that exposed his fabricated claims, have unwittingly provided just that to our story-hungry brains. We readers have been had. And, to borrow Storr’s expression, “we’re fucking outraged.”
Australia’s literary journals are produced in a fragile ecosystem propped up by a patchwork of volunteer labour, generous patrons and, with any luck, a small slice of government funding.
The Sydney Review of Books, the Australian Book Review and Overland were among a group of publications who sought four-year funding from the Australia Council in 2020 but were unsuccessful.
The Meanjin funding cuts: a graceless coup?
These magazines are vital for today’s publishing industry. For many authors literary magazines provide the first opportunity for publication. For editors and arts administrators, they provide a training ground for life-long careers in Australia’s creative sector.
The past decade has seen a steady decline in arts funding going to individuals and organisations. According to Chairman of the Copyright Agency and former media executive, Kim Williams, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald:
[…] if funding for literature had been maintained as in the mid-70s, considering inflation and population growth, it should be at $12 million, at least. Today, it stands at just $5 million (compared with $4.2 million 30 years ago).
The list of defunded writing-focused organisations in the most recent multi-year funding round is stark. Those losing their multi-year status include Artlink, Eyeline, Art Monthly, the Australian Script Centre, Playwriting Australia, Sydney Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.
Without securing medium-term support, these organisations face an uncertain future.
In response to the 2020 funding announcement, editor of Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, stated the decision demonstrates
little understanding of [the magazine sector’s] contribution to the literary ecology, and no appreciation of the dire consequences for readers, authors, contributors and publishers.
The cultural discussions within the pages of literary journals set the agenda for the more higher-profile but slower-moving institutions such as publishers, prizes and festivals.
Literary magazines are often the first place authors are published. Against the backdrop of an industry largely staffed by white, middle-class people, small magazines are at the forefront of bringing more Australian writing to the surface from writers of colour, First Nations writers, disabled writers, trans writers and working-class writers, challenging those who hold power at the top of the sector.
Writing in 2015 about the position magazines such as Island or Overland occupy, Emmett Stinson noted these publications:
[…] are essential to contemporary literary culture: they showcase new and emerging writers; […] offer more extended literary debates and discussions than the broadsheets; comprise a venue for journalism that contains views outside of the liberal mainstream; serve as rallying points for different communities of readers and coteries of authors […]
Ben Etherington’s essay about the parallel lives and deaths of Mudrooroo and Les Murray, Cher Tan’s exposition and critique of taste production on the internet, and Blak Brow – which was written, edited, illustrated, curated and performed by First Nations creators – are among countless examples of the ways literary magazines carve out space for critique, expression, consideration and reflection.
In shifting funding away from small magazines, we lose the place for these discussions.
Not a competition
Uncertainty, instability and fragility are perhaps the defining characteristics of small magazines.
The decisions to not fund literary magazines not only have a significant impact on the individual publications, but also to Australian cultural discourse.
What gets published within the pages of these magazines can entertain us, it can inspire us to critically examine the world around us, and can help us understand culture that moves us.
Vibrant discussion about culture, society and the arts does not happen by accident. It must be carefully nurtured and requires financial support.
The Australia Council make extremely difficult decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t.
Not every organisation and publication and festival can receive funding. Those who don’t secure funding are no more or less worthy than those who do. Reduced financial support for Australia’s creative endeavours encourages artists to turn against one another in judgement of what should and should not receive funding.
Australian artists entertain us, challenge us and allow us to see things from different perspectives. Fulfilling a capitalist desire for competition, however, only distracts from the importance of Australian artists and the contribution the creative sector makes to our lives.
Correction: a reference to the Wheeler Centre has been removed as they did not apply for funding in 2020.
The link below is to an article reporting on an emergency fund that has been set up for author during the coronavirus pandemic.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at some names (and the story behind the names) that writers have given to their pets.
Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up? Jordan, 14, Indianapolis, Indiana
One of my favorite novels is “Charlotte’s Web,” the famous story of a friendship between a pig and a spider.
I often talk about this novel with my students studying children’s literature. At some point, someone always asks about “deeper meaning.” Is it really a story of, say, the cycle of death and rebirth? Or the importance of friendship? Or the significance of writing?
Or is it just a story of life in the barn, with talking animals?
In a way, it doesn’t matter. Because every writer is also a reader, and that means that whatever a writer puts into a story probably came from somewhere else, whether it’s another story, or a poem, or their own life experience.
And readers, too, will bring their own experience – of other stories, other poems and life – and that will direct their interpretation of what they absorb. We can see one example of this if we look at the spider in “Charlotte’s Web.”
The meaning of character
That spider, Charlotte, is based on a real spider. We know this because E.B. White drew pictures of spiders, studied them and made sure to be as accurate as he could when he wrote about them.
But, to a reader she may also represent Arachne, the talented weaver who challenged the goddess Athena and was changed into a spider for her pride. Or she may be the “noiseless patient spider” of Walt Whitman’s poem, who flings out thread-like filaments as the poet flings out words.
She may also be the spider who weaves “the silken tent” of Robert Frost’s poem. Maybe we’ll think about how the spider, like a human storyteller, generates something seemingly out of nothing, which makes her web miraculous.
Each of these spiders symbolizes different things. When we read about her, then, we may think of all those other spiders. Or we may just think about the spider we saw on our own front porch that morning, weaving her own web.
As the writer Philip Pullman said, “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”
The reader is in charge
What Pullman is suggesting, then, is that it’s up to readers to make the meaning they want out of the stories they hear and the books they read.
It’s a powerful statement: We are in charge.
This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Meanings come from context, from convention, from older stories and from previous usage. But it’s up to us to interpret what we read and to make the case for how we’re doing it.
Or, as the novelist John Green writes of his books, “They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing – because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”
What we do with the books we read matters, Green tells us. It’s up to us to make the meaning and up to us to decide what to do with that meaning once we’ve made it.
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And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.
In Dervla McTiernan’s book, The Scholar, published earlier this year, women are consistently used as the “fall guys” for men with high aspirations. Two young women are killed when they uncover fraud. Another female colleague is then framed for the murders.
Before writing crime fiction, McTiernan worked as a lawyer for 12 years, for international companies like the one in The Scholar. Her background lends her book authority, even though it’s fiction.
McTiernan joins a batch of crime writing women bringing professional clout to their books. Others are Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Marcia Clark, Alafair Burke, Anne Holt, and Lisa Scottoline. This list is a tiny fraction of the trailblazing authors.
Crimes close to home
Last week, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that “crime fiction is the morality drama of our time” that can “heighten and dissect the battle of good against evil enacted daily in our living rooms, cities and streets”. She compared crime books about violence against women with Australia’s deplorable record on domestic violence and rape.
In books written by ex-justice professionals, we are asked to examine our cultural and moral compasses. These authors don’t just write about serial killers – who are thankfully more common in the pages of crime books than in real life – they more often focus on murders by spouses, family members or colleagues of the victim. Some push for changes to how rape trials are prosecuted. They focus on the justice system problems that women face, as victims and as professionals.
The stories also ask us to question how we perceive professional women. These authors’ characters, who often have much in common with their creators, face a barrage of harassment on the job. Lisa Scottoline’s fictional all-women law firm is consistently targeted by abusive prank callers. In her latest book, Feared, the firm is sued for “reverse” sexual discrimination.
What’s the appeal?
Australians are avid readers of crime fiction. In a 2017 study, 48.5% of respondents read crime fiction, making it the most popular genre for enjoyment.
While researching my book on the topic, I had the opportunity to read Dorothy Uhnak’s fan letters, held at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Readers (many of whom were prison inmates) repeatedly told Uhnak that her books touched on inequalities in the justice system that rang true for them, and reading her work was therapeutic.
Cosy vs hardboiled
We are used to reading about women as amateurs, from Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, to Janet Evanovich’s bumbling and untrained bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum. Since the 1970s, more authors have written about women as hardboiled private detectives.
Now, we are increasingly seeing women characters in professional roles. When the author is also a professional, she has even more authority. She has “insider knowledge.” Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones surveyed women who read feminist crime series and found that readers identify with the struggles of characters who are realistic professional women. Often, the fictional investigations have similarities to real ones the author has worked on. Central Park 5 prosecutor turned crime author Linda Fairstein received pointed criticism about these similarities.
In Australia, ex-police officer Y.A. Erskine’s debut The Brotherhood tells the story of rookie cop Lucy Howard who is blamed when a senior sergeant is killed on a routine call-out. She can’t join the brotherhood of the Tasmanian police force, because, in her words, she doesn’t have the “standard-issue penis”. She is an outsider inside the system.
In Erskine’s follow-up, The Betrayal, Lucy is raped by a colleague. When she makes a complaint, she is vilified and blamed for tarnishing the reputation of the police. The complaint is briefly investigated before being dropped.
Another Australian ex-cop writing crime is P.M. Newton. Her debut, The Old School (notice the theme in the titles?), follows Australian-Vietnamese officer, Nhu “Ned” Kelly. She deals with the racism and corruption of her male colleagues before being shot by one of them.
Newton’s following book, Beams Falling (a reference to Dashiell Hammett’s Flitcraft parable within The Maltese Falcon), tracks Ned’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder. While fictional detectives usually bounce back quickly after violence, Ned never fully gets over the trauma, and her work offers little support.
Ex-cop Karen M. Davis, has also created a character damaged by her policing experience. Davis’ Lexie Rogers has been stabbed in the neck, and fears facing her attacker in court – a fear exacerbated by her insider knowledge of the justice system. Davis has spoken about how she retired from the police because of trauma, and began writing as a kind of catharsis. Erskine has spoken out about how the rape of Lucy in her books is based on her own unreported rape by a colleague.
These authors have seen the inside of the criminal justice system, its flaws and the experience of women within it. They bring this cachet of lived experiences to their crime fiction. Bestsellers by Marcia Clark or Anne Holt could spark moral reflection, validate women’s experiences, and be part of the cultural shift needed to end violence against women.