First person singular
It’s often said that everyone has a novel inside them. That they have, of course, is a story – their own story – and nowadays the popular way of telling it is not as fiction, thinly disguised or otherwise, but as – to use that slightly arty term – creative non-fiction.
Memoir, autobiography, travel writing and the personal essay all offer authors (of widely varying degrees of ability and professionalism) the illusion of presenting the truth about themselves and others, and readers the illusion of revelation and intimacy. Judging by the number of such books pouring annually off the presses, publishers too think they’re onto a good thing.
Once upon a time the memoir or autobiography used to come at the end of a literary career, indeed was sometimes published posthumously. Now the story of the life is just as likely to kick things off, as with Andrea Ashworth’s Once in a House on Fire and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Alternatively, there is the memoir penned by someone with no interest at all in the writing life, but turned out because these days a book with one’s name on it is one of the more triumphant forms of self-validation. Hence the deluge of variations on the themes of What I Did On My Holidays, My Family Really Are Other Animals and I Was Paul Holmes’s Housekeeper.
But for some professional writers there’s an irony here. Martin Amis, for instance, spent three decades honing his skill at fiction, only to find that his memoir Experience quickly eclipsed all those novels, with readers and reviewers claiming that he’d never written better. Many who’ve never before read anything by Amis’ stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard, are right now scouring bookshops and libraries for her novels, having devoured Slipstream. And this is to discount the huge audiences for movies of classics like Sense and Sensibility and Portrait of a Lady, or bio-pics like Iris and Sylvia, largely comprised of those who have never read the original work.
Nor is this merely an overseas trend. For every ardent fan of Janet Frame’s Living in the Maniototo or The Carpathians, there must be five times the number who have read and reread To the Is-land. Lauris Edmond enjoyed an unusually broad-based and loyal readership for a poet, but, again, it was the publication of her three volumes of autobiography – Hot October, Bonfires in the Rain, and The Quick World – which gained her a really wide audience. And it’s a fair bet that recent releases like Peter Wells’s Long Loop Home, Marilyn Duckworth’s Living on the Faultline, and Tessa Duder’s In Search of Elisa Marchetti, have significantly increased the readership for these novelists.
The essay – long an endangered genre – has been energetically resuscitated by writers and readers. Landfall and Takahe have both recently established annual essay competitions. And over the last few years Lloyd Jones’s Four Winds Press has been regularly bringing out single-volume essays, the latest batch of which are reviewed on p13. Audiences turned up in droves for Jonathan Franzen’s recent tour, and clearly as much for his essay collection How To Be Alone as for his best-selling novel The Corrections.
Clive James, Jenny Diski and Eliot Weinberger – all terrifically entertaining essayists and/or memoirists – are sure to draw similar crowds when they appear at this year’s New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week. Remember, though, that the person on the platform is and is not the one who delighted you in the book. That charmer on the page was in their way as fictional a creation as David Copperfield, Bilbo Baggins or Kerewin Holmes. The real first person singular lives, as Janet Frame once put it, in that little room two inches behind the eyes – a room into which both page and stage can only give us at best the most tantalising of glimpses.
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway