Exclusive book extract: Olivia Sudjic's ‘Exposure’
01 November 2018 01:23
In her first work of non-fiction, the acclaimed novelist turns her attention to anxiety, authorship, the consolations of reading, and the quest for a distinctive voice.
Fiction is never impersonal. Why then does ‘personal’ seem so doggedly synonymous with writing by women, used, more often than not, as an insult?
Recently I met a male editor who, when I admired his best-selling female author’s work, mere seconds into our most superficial of first encounters, said: ‘She’s mad. That person, the ‘I’ in her stories? That’s her.’ From there it only got worse. But it’s not only men who assume female authors who share even the briefest of vital statistics with their narrator or central character must be one and the same as them. One novelist described to me how, after the publication of her first novel, a woman in the audience approached her husband and smiled knowingly, greeting him as the fictional husband in the book.
We go to great lengths to separate art from artist if the artist in question is Woody Allen. When a woman asserts the fact of something — whether that her story is fiction, or that it is true — the instinctive reaction seems to be to undermine her and assume we know better. Whether she is writing an account of a real encounter or being inspired by one to write fiction, light ends up directed not to the world she’s created — or worldly issues the text raises — so much as back at her.
When I was in the pretending-to-write-my-first-novel stage of writing my first novel, when researching the rituals of other writers and their approach to the craft was like a drug, I listened as a self-confident young man described a story he was writing about another young man whose sex doll came to life. ‘But,’ he paused, poised to shock, ‘told from the perspective of the doll.’ He waited for this radical idea to sink in. This was another time, when misogyny usually appeared before me in fairly subliminal, normcore guises rather than fake tan and a toupee, so it took a whole five tube stops towards home to recognise: female subjectivity (of sex doll) as risqué narrative hook.
I’m sure many authors agonise over which perspective to write from. First person present? Third person past? I don’t imagine, however, many white, male authors deliberate too much about the legitimacy of their having a perspective at all.
Being white, amongst other accidents of birth, means I’ve fast-tracked a lot of the obstacles and self-doubt that inhibit many others, but a panel of ornery, paternalistic men still seemed to convene in the back of my mind every time a word doc was opened, quizzing me on what I could have to say that would transcend my own experience, limited and privileged as it was. It was internalised to the point of self-censorship.
At university I’d force-fed myself a syllabus of almost exclusively white men. My degree was a diet of Shakespeare, Shelley and Sterne. Female exceptions could be counted on one hand. Virginia Woolf, who reminds us that ‘Anonymous’ was a woman, George Eliot (not really George) and Julian of Norwich (not really Julian), who, as an anchoress, preferred to confine herself to a small cell than expose herself to medieval men.
Ferrante believes that the ‘male colonisation of our imaginations’ has become a strength. ‘We know everything about the male symbol system; they, for the most part, know nothing about ours’. Now I balance out these male voices with my talismans, but their existence is surely proof that female writers contain multitudes. I don’t quite believe there is such a thing as a ‘universal’ literary consciousness, but if there were, women would have no less claim to it.
When I decided to try writing fiction myself, I was seeking permission to move from the impersonal voice of my undergraduate essays and graduate job emails to a more personal perspective. I thought then that the only way to do it would be the third person, past tense — in imitation of a nineteenth century novel. Or to adopt a masculine mask. I wanted to ward off suspicion that I was writing about, or from the perspective of, Shmolivia Shmudjic. And I appeared to want that more than I wanted to write a good story. I sprayed third-person-past-tense over every page, as I’d once relied on liberal amounts of Impulse body spray to mask smoking. The imaginary panel were sure to smell the ‘she’ on me, and that would discount whatever perspective I adopted. But the third person pronouns weren’t working. The story was about the limits of connection and so I knew the interiority of the first-person was far better suited to my theme. In any case, I reasoned, an anonymous, omniscient narrator, without the buffer of character, might in fact turn out to be more exposing than the presumptuous ‘I’. I tried it both ways, both felt exposing. I realised I was held in this bind more tightly because I was a woman.
Female experience tells you that the personal is political while the world tells you there is something wrong with you personally and the system is fine. When (white, cis-gendered) men write, even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, like the erroneous beige of flesh-coloured tights, their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women, about women, are not. That’s Women’s Fiction, for which category there is no male equivalent.
As Kraus explains of ‘reclaiming’ the female ‘I’, ‘Even now, when women use the first person, its perceived as a little sullied, compromised … No one blinks at the male ‘I’ because it is considered to be the universal.’ Male readers rarely think of female subjectivity as having the power to contain flashes of the universal while women are used to reading male subjectivity that way. The late V.S. Naipaul commented on Jane Austen that he ‘couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world’, and he also dismissed his former publisher, Diana Athill, for writing ‘feminine tosh’. All fiction written by women, in fact, was inferior to that written by him due to female writers’ ‘narrow view of the world.’ In 2014, that was easier to dismiss as attention-seeking self-promotion. Now such misogyny has a presidential mandate, though the president doesn’t read. His talismans comprise a bookcase of his own ghost-written books.
Kraus writes that ‘No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her.’ There is only room here to cherry pick examples from what I’ve read to illustrate the double standard, but: Flaubert, Tolstoy, Roth. Each drew extensively from his own personal experience, each devised characters based on himself, and each wrote novels deemed universal.
Would I blink if I saw a woman reading Tao Lin or Ben Lerner? No. Would I double take if I saw a guy reading Roxane Gay? I mean… I’d be mesmerised. That’s not how it should be. Men have much to learn from female subjectivity. It can surely only help them in the modern age, in which they perceive themselves as under threat. As Jong said of Sexton: ‘The poems … will be understood in time —not as “women’s poetry” or “confessional poetry” — but as myths that expand the human consciousness. Like all such myths, they are a bit frightening. Some people would rather pretend they do not exist, or do not exist in the temple of art.’ Sexton’s readership understands that as a person she was troubled and abusive, and that though she began writing poetry on the recommendation of her therapist, she saw the exposure of her personal life as a formal technique: ‘I use the personal when I am applying a mask to my face,’ Sexton wrote, ‘like a rubber mask that the robber wears.’
That was the 1950s. Decades later, in order to write about the inner lives of women, Ferrante felt the need for a mask both to protect her and as an integral part of her craft. It affects the text in ways she is still exploring. That is to say, the mask is not simply for her to hide behind but to create the work she puts out into the world.
Many male readers (and female too) don’t view her mask this way. They see it as a cheat or a ploy. A personal indulgence that hinders our reading of the text. In the month before Trump’s election, when Ferrante was ‘exposed’ by the male journalist, Claudio Gatti, the Twitter community expressed their desire for him to use his financial sleuthing skills to unearth Trump’s taxes rather than harassing a female author. She’d promised she would never write again if her identity was revealed, and his actions thus potentially silenced one of the most important voices in contemporary literature exploring female subjectivity.
Over two decades in her literary career, the reasons for Ferrante’s absence shifted — from timidity and fear of public exposure, to a desire for the work to stand alone that has made her hostile to the media — but throughout, her reasoning has been underpinned by a ‘somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility.’ For so long women have suffered from feeling unseen, and given this, it could seem a regressive decision in the age of exposure, in the age of #MeToo, not to come out into the open. But if women’s texts are read as metonyms, ultimately, for themselves, their own narrow, biologically determined mind, Ferrante’s decision is a bold refusal to comply. She considers a book a self-sufficient body, with no need to sell her own alongside it: ‘I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.’
The text is public while the pseudonym protects her freedom and guards against self-censorship. It is the ultimate irony that Ferrante, by writing under a pseudonym, is suspected of being a man — or even a committee of them. She is also accused of using her authorial absence as a marketing ploy, without which her books would not be successful. Her absence is often met with hostility and suspicion, as if withdrawal were just as offensive as exposure. Because we do not know her true identity, we cannot charge her with solipsism or narcissism or selfish candour at the expense of friends and family.
To Gatti, Ferrante’s anonymity, her repeated and clear ‘No’ to those who called for her public exposure, was a coy invitation. Her books were provocative clothing to be ravaged for clues to the female body beneath. Female subjectivity needs more than two million copies sold worldwide to be OK. It requires a face, a body (the true meaning of a witch hunt) — specifics that turn the telescope on the author and make her easier to dismiss. This ensures she speaks for herself alone. Clearly this is not just a problem in the literary world, it is a problem in the world which the literary
Post-Truth, everything is personal, from Fake News to autofiction — fact depends on perspective, who listens and who is speaking. In this place of absolute relativism, narrative voice becomes its own plot.
Trump speaks not for himself or his self-serving family, apparently, but for The People, while Hillary spoke only for herself, except when she spoke for her husband, or was blamed for the words and actions of her husband, or Obama, or Antony Weiner, or those who voted for Trump.
Maybe the equivalent of Women’s Fiction is Locker Room Talk, but when men want to shake up world politics for attention, they can tweet at 2am and instead of being dismissed as drunk and emotional, the tweet will become policy — a roomful of men will be standing by as he autographs the latest Executive Order. Perhaps that’s why women writing about women is seen as self-indulgent solipsism. Why would they bother?
The way Trump threatens the freedom of the press, mocks them personally, sidesteps and dismisses their words as subjective, biased and Fake News is what, to differing degrees, women have dealt with forever. The marginalisation of a woman’s voice, relevant to women only, is followed with the blame for their limited perspective. It is an extension of the way women’s bodies are used as a metonym for women’s selfhood. They are tied to something that is then wielded as a weapon against them. Sad!