Short and Sweet

April 23, 2010 at 3:21 am (Uncategorized)

A few different topics in brief today:

  • You may have wondered what happened to the busted sewerage main gurgling beneath our communal laundry. Well, it’s still there. My good buddy Andrew from Sydney Water gave me a call at the beginning of the week to tell me I’ll be the first to know when they’re all set to start destroying our backyard. Thanks, Andy… although chances are I might have managed to piece it together anyway. I get the feeling something will give the game away.
  • All our appliances are dropping like flies. It’s a kitchen aid conspiracy. It started with the dishwasher, although that was months ago now. Then a few weeks ago we lost the coffee grinder and the kettle on the same day. The microwave has been making its own arrangements for quite some time, but we have to respect its demonstrated flair for keeping us guessing, so for now we’re just trying to give it room to fully express its individuality. But now we have a whopping great problem of some urgency: the fridge is dying. The freezer is currently operating as usual, but down below, all seems lost. Our first sign that it too was planning a dramatic exit was its staging of a miniature Ice Age a fortnight or so ago, in which a sub-zero surge froze everything from the milk to the lettuce rock solid. Cue much wastage of food. But the bricks of bread and petrified parsley were far preferable to what we have now: lukewarm everything, which makes our fridge full of food that’s dangerous now as well as being simply off-putting. And that’s because it’s a bacteria jungle in there, what with all these wild temperature fluctuations, and you know what that means: a health and safety nightmare for Project Baby J. It won’t do. It won’t do at all. All of which royally SUCKS, because there is nothing more tiresome and boring boring BORING than forking out a truckload of cash for white goods. Blech! So unimpressed.
  • One of the benefits of my changing routine is that because I am now walking instead of running, I’ve started taking Llew’s radio with me. I decided a little while ago I needed to start consciously engaging with the world more aurally because my workaday is so silent, and I must say, I’m really enjoying listening to Radio National on my walks. I’ve heard a couple of really thought-provoking discussions – one on the concept of merit I’ll come back to in another post – heard some fascinating history – including horrific details of young Australian soldiers fighting the Japanese in WWII along the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea – and picked up a couple of great book tips I otherwise almost certainly would have missed. On the Book Show this morning, for instance, I became more and more intrigued by Frances Partridge (1900-2004), lesser-known member of the famed and formidable Bloomsbury group, and the subject of Anne Chisolm’s new biography.

I’ve not read any of Partridge’s works yet, being in the main various published collections of her diaries, but I know now I definitely shall. I’m interested in diary-keeping, being a long-time amateur diarist myself, but the interview with Chisolm about the biography made it abundantly clear that while Partridge had a colourful talent for observation, the recording of real life and real people, she had no discernible talent for fiction (despite numerous and dedicated attempts). Apparently the surviving examples of her fiction (short stories, or so I understood from the interview) just aren’t any good.

Well, I’ve worried a great deal about this very thing myself.  And it’s something other people have often said to me, that my writing is better suited to non-fiction, and that I am barking up the wrong tree. I think you’d be surprised to learn how very free people are with these opinions about what sort of writer I am or should be – I’m particularly fascinated by this type of unsolicited counsel when it comes from individuals who aren’t writers themselves… I can’t quite imagine telling someone else how to do a job in which I have no personal background or expertise. Anyway, my problem is slightly different to Partridge’s (although my short stories stink too), because if consistent reader feedback is anything to go by, my fiction reads like non-fiction no matter what I do. And by that I mean, no matter what I invent using nothing more than my apparently limited imagination.

I actually rolled my eyes heavenward and groaned aloud reading the feedback from the agent who passed on the MS after a four-month deliberation, because her colleague said in her assessment, ‘I wonder if some of these experiences happened to the author?’ – Jesus!!!! Not this again!!!! While I would never pretend my own personality and experience of the world have had no bearing on the world and the characters of this MS, frankly I have created way, way too much out of thin air not to be sort of galled by this recurrent suggestion that it must be taken from my own life. It’s not, I could never make a non-fiction claim for it, it would be completely fraudulent to do so because it’s a work of fiction, and I don’t know what to do about my writing style somehow suggesting otherwise. I really don’t know what to do about it! But I do wonder if Partridge’s plight was at all similar, and if perhaps my own long years of diary keeping are in any way responsible for the current and evidently damning limitations of my fiction style. But irrespective of my own problems with the written word, I’m looking forward to reading about dear Frances’s forays.

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16 Comments

  1. Jewelene said,

    You are a scream!! Now I only have a sec but it seems imperative that I tell you I’m loving Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel (I’m probably the only person left standing who hasn’t read Life of Pi, incidentally). You know when you love a book so much you keep sneaking away to read a few furtive pages!? ALSO (equally imperative it seems) I need you to know I can make that dancer girl go either way by pretending I’m not really looking at her at all – though the purpose of doing this is elusive – but if I just LOOK she goes clock-wise which means (no surprise on this end) that I’m ‘fantasy based’ – however I wouldn’t mind knowing what ‘knows object function’ entails? Am I being patronized here, or applauded? (is object a fork, or something akin to an Epson Stylus photo R310 – whose functioning is very mysterious to me as we speak). And, don’t these two attributes seem unlikely friends? Pondering – and off to A.I. JBx

  2. doctordi said,

    I proudly stand alongside you, Jewelene, as Life of Pi and I currently remain unacquainted. But I know and adore that experience of a book becoming as urgent a companion as a lover, all that furtive time in a locked bathroom or unconventional hours spent lost in the bedroom are the stuff of pure book magic. No wonder we’re all so incurably unfaithful, even to our most beloved texts.

    Okay, honey… I think it’s time to STEP AWAY from the dancing girl… come on, I know you can do it. We’re all here for you.

  3. litlove said,

    Frances Partridge… the name is vaguely familiar although I can’t think why… I’m interested to read the biography, though, which sounds fascinating. And I hear you about the death of appliances – they really DO all go kaputt together, which is frustrating and annoying as well as costly.

    As for writing, I kind of think it’s inevitable that when you write non-fiction, everyone’s hovering over it and insisting you’ve fictionalised bits, and when you write fiction, everyone’s hovering over it insisting it’s autobiographical. Just do your thing, take what’s useful from other people’s critiques and bin the rest. Firmly.

    • doctordi said,

      I think there’s real wisdom and truth in what you say, LL. I’ll try and do just that!

  4. Fugitive Pieces said,

    -Yes, the drilling and the smell of sewage might well be a teensy clue.
    -The coffee grinder AND the kettle died? Simultaneously? That would have been a wop-wop siren emergency round here. Did all your warranties expire at once?…incidentally, my top tip is to buy a fridge whose door is hinged the right way round for your kitchen (left-to-right, right-to-left, whichever). Or face the next 15 years edging round said door. Or move.
    -Love Radio National, especially the Book Show. (Still furtively attached to BBC Radio 4 too.) I’ve never read any of Partridge’s fiction either, but I suspect she suffered from keeping company with literary legends, and her life being simply more interesting than her work. Some fascinating photos of her and other Bloomsburyites were published recently, from her own and Rosamund Lehmann’s papers:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/19/bloomsbury-archive-virginia-woolf-death
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1259029/Laid-bare-Bloomsbury-set-revelaed-fascinating-collection-documents-nude-photos.html

    Perhaps the agent’s concern with fiction/non-fiction is about marketing, post-James Frey. Where does your book fit? Is it true? Not true? Leetle bit true? Can we afford to believe it, or just to believe in it? How can we sell it?
    Besides, you won’t know for a long time whether you’ve got a drawn-from-life motif that you can’t prise from your work, and even then…it never did William Maxwell and his dead mother any harm. And I’m looking at you, Alice Munro, with that small-town obsession, and you, Lorrie Moore, with those disillusioned academics and you, Helen Dunmore, with your love triangles – still all brilliant, so do we care? Do we pfft. As for the specific or the one-off: If a reader can tell you WHY they intuit that one element of your story may be true (your voice? your narrative structure? a change of tone?) then it’s helpful – otherwise it’s just inchoate suspiciousness, and who needs that?

  5. doctordi said,

    That’s what I’m thinking.

    Yep, both of them gone. Then light bulbs kept blowing, and the light fitting in the bathroom fell from the ceiling, and it was all happening at the same time and we thought we either had a peevish poltergeist (been reading too much Hilary Mantel, I ‘ave) or a major electrical fault. We called in the sparkie and there was no larger problem, so we think it’s maybe just the coincidental timing of when things were purchased. Or gifted, for instance our wedding was five years ago so maybe the coffee grinder felt it had fulfilled its obligations.

    Oh yes, apparently great pics in the biography too. I think you’re right – what hope did she have in that company??!!

    The other comment that’s really doing my head in when I read the agent’s email over is from her own feedback rather than her colleague’s, and it really constitutes all she told me of what was wrong with it in her opinion, and that was that at times she really felt ‘at arm’s length from the story.’ There’s no example of this to illustrate her point, there’s no further explanation from her at all; it’s the colleague who unpacks her own interpretation of what the receiving agent meant by it, and she decides it’s the lack of ’emotional closeness’ I told you guys about at the time. And it’s really vexing not knowing more precisely what left her feeling that way. As to why the colleague wondered if some of the story was real, I have no idea. She didn’t say. But I get it all the time, and I’ve been told it’s variously the narrative voice or the structure, so maybe we can add tone just for good measure?!

  6. Grad said,

    Well, I really can’t comment about your fiction writing since I haven’t read it…yet. I’m absolutely convinced I shall. But I’ll have to admit you ARE extremely good at the non-fiction writing you do here. So… And I love getting new appliances! So clean, so sparkly. And you have a perfect excuse! My stove is clinging to life out of pure spite. It saw me looking through appliance brochures and suspected I had developed a wandering eye. It sputters and clangs at me when I come near, but it refuses to die. Damn belching coughing box of bolts!

    • doctordi said,

      The fridge man cometh!!!!

      We love the fridge man. He fixed things. And is there anything more terrifying than a malevolent appliance holding you hostage in your own home? I don’t think so!

  7. Pete said,

    You five-year theory on the appliances sounds most plausible to me. I wondered if the dodgy sewer was involved somehow. But very frustrating I’m sure. The baby J project is an excellent excuse to get a new fridge.

    Am interested to hear more of your thoughts on the non-fiction / fiction issue. Also never heard of Frances P so let us know what you discover.

    • doctordi said,

      The fridge is now fully recovered and sparkling and spotless. The fridge man thinks we can expect another two or so years of obedience out of it, so here’s hoping.

      My thoughts on the non-fiction/fiction issue are somewhat coloured at the moment by repeated failure. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this demoralised, Pete!

  8. plumbean said,

    hello!

    i just discovered your blog and it is marvelous! frances partrige is an interesting figure in the bloomsbury set. she was part of the interconnectivity that made them so self reflexive and bold. her photos are also wonderful!

    i am a novelist (my book comes out in feb 2011 from touchstone/simon and schuster) but i do not write fiction in the conventional sense. i write historical fiction done in a pastiche of diaries and primary documents. fiction can take lots of shapes! you can definitely write non fiction fiction if that suits you!

    • doctordi said,

      Welcome, welcome Plumbean, how good of you to join us!

      Though I’ve already said this on your own blog, congratulations again on your novel, it’s such an achievement and very, very exciting to be able to watch your debut unfold.

  9. plumbean said,

    by the way that photo is not me! i have no idea who it is! sorry!

    • doctordi said,

      That’s really funny about the random photo. And odd.

  10. Norwichrocks said,

    The white goods are in fiendish league with the minions of Beelzebub. Just keep them well away from your pooter and printer, don’t want ’em infecting the others with their nonsense…

    I have no idea what your fiction writing is about but, as a general rule, I tend to find that most criticism reveals more about the critic than about the artist/author. Do you know which books would make that agent’s Top Ten, for instance? Possibly not the ten you’d pick, in which case, they’re clearly after something different from what you look for in fiction. I mean, I thought The Da Vinci Code was utter, unmitigated twaddle and badly written to boot – but I seem to be in the minority!

  11. doctordi said,

    NR, might this explain the sudden paralysis of the RETURN key on my beloved MacBook Air???

    What is my fiction about…? My fiction is contemporary. My literary interests are predominantly contemporary, and my personal, creative ones are largely contemporary too. I’m interested in reality, space, post-modernity, and people. I like all the blurry places in fiction, but it’s become clear I have very limited range in terms of voice. The narrative voice of my fiction is doggedly familiar because it’s the same voice as my non-fiction, and fecked if I know what to do about it.

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