Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Heads up: I will be giving away spoilers for everything I talk about here.
Until recently, I'd given up on American TV series.
The Sopranos was probably what kicked the whole fashion off: the revelation that a televised serial could be a serious work of art, combining the visual and dramatic resources of film with the length and consequent possibilities for suspense and structure of a novel. Like a great movie, only lots more of it? Everyone was excited.
What this ran into, though, was the problem of financing. To make a movie, you have a budget, and the budget is for a finite product. The movie has to have an ending. To write a novel, you need money to feed the writer but not much else: a three-page scene in which a fire-breathing dragon rampages through London and eats Buckingham Palace costs no more than a three-page scene in which a naked man sits an empty room and eats a Marmite sandwich. Movies are subject to financial pressures, but all the decisions need to be made by the time the film is completed; novels are subject to time pressures but not much else.
Movies and novels end before they're released.
Television series, though, have a specific problem: you can't plan them all at once. You plan them a series at a time, and whether or not there's another series depends on the ratings of the previous. You have to leave enough open for a follow-up and enough closure for a satisfying ending, a horrible set of incompatibles. Worse, you have no budget plan for your narrative capital. You create a story by setting up a certain number of key characters, each of whom has a their own situation and relationships with the other characters, and the drive to see this resolved is what will keep the story going. But if you don't know how long you have to keep the story going, you have a poor set of alternatives.
If you endlessly delay, the story gets dull and repetitive. Consider Barb in Big Love, first wife of the polygamous hero. Barb is established early as a mainstream LDS woman who accepted a second wife more out of fear of abandonment than any polygamous preference, but is unable to renounce the decision now it's done. She's also established also as a woman hungry for more education, achievement and outside engagement than her inturned family will allow. Barb is shown from the very first series to be trying new things - working outside the home, going back to college - only to have some family crisis crop up and force her to abandon her hoped-for self-improvement and return home in Christian resignation. It happens in the first series. Then it happens again, and again, and again; by the final series she simply walks out of a baptism into a more progressive branch of the LDS because she's decided she can't abandon her family for the nth time, and watching it is less like watching high drama than like watching the writers play with a yo-yo. Barb tries to break free then gives up at the last minute so many times that one ends up wanting to shake either her, or the writers, or everybody involved in the entire project. It degrades character complexity into the sexist stereotype that a woman who says she wants independence never really means it.
If you resolve, on the other hand, but keep the character around, that character has outlived their usefulness and becomes a drag on the narrative, an expired presence that makes everything feel tired. Take, for example, Dexter. Our eponymous anti-hero is a man traumatised in childhood, raised by a morally ambiguous father who channelled his violent impulses into a 'code' that allows him to be a successful serial killer who only murders murderers; in his attempts to pass for normal he cultivates a personal life, dating Rita, a woman with two children, and finding himself growing increasingly attached to them and the domestic comfort they represent. The story always had a complicated mixture of elements and worked best as a combination of suspense, drama and farce, but its central question was always, 'Can Dexter ever balance his violent secret life against the his family life?' - and by the end of the fourth series, the question is conclusively answered: no, he can't. Dexter involves himself with another serial killer who finally murders Rita. Question answered, counterbalance gone, story, for all practical purposes, finished. The fifth series manages to be an engaging ride as he involves himself with a woman out for murderous revenge against a gang of rapists, but her storyline resolves (appropriately) with her leaving him once catharsis is achieved, and from there on the show gets sillier and more desperate, the antagonists growing more extreme and implausible and the secondary characters collapsing into either fans or victims of Dexter with no serious storylines of their own. Once the protagonist's question has been answered, the engine's running on empty.
If, however, you write them out or kill them off, you lose their influence on the narrative. Consider Stringer Bell in The Wire, the capitalist drug dealer with Adam Smith on his shelf and murder on his list of executive strategies. Stringer is established early as a man of vision, resolution and blood: his ruthlessness in preserving his own interests, even at the cost of the family ties that motivate his partner Avon Barksdale, eventually alienates the gangsters around him to the point where the audience knows he must fall. A hit is set up, and Stringer dies in a magnificently appropriate scene, calmly assessing his chances once again and, realising there is no escape, getting shot halfway through saying with bitter courage, 'Well, get on with it, motherfu-' The scene recognises his virtues, his will and practicality and nerve, while providing him with the comeuppance that he's been narratively courting for three seasons, and the story really should have ended there - for Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale are the force that propels plot in The Wire. After they're gone, the story degenerates, still turning up some good writing but descending more and more into narrative pot-shots at the critics (the whole fifth season can feel like an expression of resentment for being positively reviewed as 'Dickensian'), and driven by antagonists less complex and less compelling.
The need to complete stories to keep the show interesting fights the need to keep stories going to keep the show onscreen. At best, one can have a show that begins and ends well with some variable quality in the middle - Ugly Betty would fall into that category, I'd say, with new characters introduced at intervals to keep things lively and some of them working better than others - but very often a show follows the dispiriting arc: start well, get an audience, get more commissioned, decline a bit, keep audience or even increase it as word about the beginning spreads, get more commissioned, and only get cancelled when you've gotten so bad that everyone just gives up on you. Bill Watterson ended Calvin and Hobbes while it was still popular because he didn't want to 'run the wheels off it', as he so graphically put it, but in a studio system, it's very rare to see that happen.
I was coming to the conclusion that under current studio systems it's impossible to create a TV series with a good overall structure. Then, surprisingly, I got talked into watching Breaking Bad.
For those unfamiliar, the premise is this: Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who missed his chance to co-own a major corporation because he doesn't get along with people all that well, is diagnosed with cancer that will almost certainly kill him and bankrupt his family. Refusing to go gentle into that good night, he seeks out Jesse, a former student of his who 'cooks' methamphetamine, deploys his own considerable talents as a chemist to synthesise an exceptionally pure product, and undertakes the dangerous project of becoming a meth kingpin. Tonally it's somewhere between Dexter and The Wire, with a tendency to veer into dark farce counterbalanced by an angry interest in how culture and politics create criminals and victims. Structurally ... it's halfway through its final season, and somehow it's managed to keep its quality up throughout. It looks set fair to be the best-structured series this current studio system has yet produced.
How do they do it?
The answer, I think, lies in two things: the willingness to focus on a character's psyche as an evolving entity, and more than that, a flexible approach to time.
Walt begins as a mostly sympathetic character. He's short-tempered, yes, and stubborn; he's too proud. He makes the decision to cook a drug that's portrayed as addictive, toxic and anti-social. He refuses the offer of a job with full medical cover from a billionaire former colleague because he doesn't want 'charity' - or rather, to accept anything from a man he regards as unfairly more successful than himself. (The partnership between them, we eventually gather, dissolved before the company struck it rich for personal reasons nobody quite wants to discuss, but Walter's uncompromising attitude seems the likeliest culprit.) He's under pressures everyone can sympathise with; he's trying to live up to a masculine image of wise provider that he's never quite managed before. But as the series progresses, his pride, his inflexibility, his anger and his thoroughness become more and more the attributes of a monster: a man without mercy or judgement, a man who creates conflict through sheer arrogance wherever he goes, wins himself needless enemies and destroys them without ever losing his belief that he's the victim. What we see is not the good man fall through hubris, but the man who has always been bad finally get a large enough stage for his badness; as London Review of Books reviewer James Meek puts it, 'he becomes an exemplar of the Nietzschean superfluous man, who believed himself to be good because his claws were blunt.'
It's the fine interpersonal dynamics of that revelation that drive the story. Situations can change between the characters without ever losing that essential drive. Walt's wife Skyler discovers his secret about halfway through the story, going from his naive supporter to his anxious accomplice to his terrified hostage; in none of these roles is she less of a narrative force because the drama of their relationship has always been created by the conflict between Walt-the-innocent and Walt-the-merciless, and the story simply shifts which of them sees which man, Skyler seeing the innocent suburban dad while Walt is cultivating his criminality until finally, when Skyler can see his genuine wickedness, Walt has become such a hardened criminal that he now sees attempts to protect their children from his folly as signs of him being a wronged innocent father. Walt's brother-in-law Hank is a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent who begins as a macho swaggerer looking affectionately down on the 'weaker' Walt while Walt fumes at the lack of respect; by the time Walt has become a more powerful man than the increasingly-traumatised Hank - for Walt's schemes create shootout after shootout that batter Hank physically and mentally - Walt is at pains to preserve the image of himself as an ineffectual brainiac that he once resented so bitterly. Self-image, the desire to be seen as other than you are, is what drives the drama, and that's a drive that can express itself through many narrative changes.
The other factor is the simple but in this context rather startling decision: time is genuinely a fourth dimension. We can go backwards as well as forwards; we can skip over undefined periods or stay right where we are: there is no formula. Because the story is driven by self-image more than 'this happens then that happens', seasons can end on a thematic rather than a plot climax, freeing the story to go wherever it needs. We begin the second season right where the first one ended, standing in the same junkyard talking to the same people, only now we have to deal with the consequences of what was, at the end of the first series, a murder that merely illustrated the life they'd committed themselves to. Images persist throughout the second season of bodies in Walt's garden, trailing a big change of the kind that generally explodes plots - only to be revealed as bodies fallen from an air collision that Walt indirectly caused, signs not of a change in the plot but of a moral event horizon Walt will pass. Story is sometimes generated by cycling back in time - a vehicle we thought Jesse bought, for instance, it turns out that he stole, with consequences to follow; a kingpin who employs Walt turns out to have a long-running score to settle with the Mexican cartel - cases no so much of extended storytelling as narrative backstitch, making it stronger without making it longer. Rather than moving consistently forward, the story works on make-do-and-mend, patching and doubling with remarkable economy, employing either redoubled narrative or thematic climaxes rather than climactic events, so that the story is deepened rather than extended.
Breaking Bad, in short, manages to do things that allow it to maintain a consistent level of quality even as the tone darkens to disaster. Tensions between characters, an essential component of storytelling, rely on the basic dynamic that people do not see Walt the way he wants to be seen: as what he wants changes according to what he's doing, there's always a path for the tension to follow him. The handling of time is flexible and imaginative, almost modernist in its willingness to abandon regular forward motion and dig ever deeper into the same short stretch.
At this point there's half a season left to go, which should be released a few months from now. There's always the possibility that something will happen to destroy the quality in the last few episodes ... but it really seems likely that they'll pull it off: the last screened episode ended not just on a cliffhanger, but on the final revelation that had to happen, that we couldn't not see without feeling disappointed. There are ways in which Breaking Bad is smaller than The Wire, but in terms of narrative sustainability, of sheer unphased freedom when it comes to handling time and generating plot, it's really something new.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Earlier this month, the novelist Hilary Mantel gave a lecture subsquently published in the London Review of Books concerning the nature of royalty, physicality and publicity. This lecture began with the controversial comparison of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Marie Antoinette.
Actually, 'controversial' is perhaps the wrong word. The beginning of her speech has attracted massive and disproportionate opprobrium in which even Prime Minister David Cameron has deemed it necessary to declare that Mantel was 'completely misguided and completely wrong'. Heavy-handed, pompous and downright inappropriate as this comment was (since when was it a Prime Ministerial duty to rule upon cultural analyses?), it was far from the most malign; Hadley Freeman gives an eloquent run-down, remarking, for instance:
It is worth looking at what is going on here. Lazy journalism, clearly, and raging hypocrisy, obviously: what has any paper done with Kate for the past decade but use her as decorative page filler? Indeed, when the BBC covered Mantelgate (Mantelpiece?) it included lingering shots of the duchess's fair form while quoting in horror from Mantel's speech about the royal women existing to be admired. This is also a good example of how the Mail fights back when it feels it is being attacked. For if Mantel was attacking anyone in her talk, then her aim was clearly at the Mail with its obsessive, prurient fascination with Kate. To see the Mail gasping at Mantel's suggestion that the duchess is "designed to breed" when it has been on "bump watch" since she walked down the aisle is the Fleet Street reenactment of Captain Renault in Casablanca proclaiming himself to be "shocked to find gambling is going on here" while collecting his winnings. It then added helpfully that Mantel is "infertile" and "dreams of being thin". Yeah, no wonder she's jealous of our Kate, the fat childless cow.
A female intellectual has once again drawn the unedifying spectacle of personal abuse disguised as social analysis, it would seem, of a fairly typical kind: not declaring outright that her sex renders her unreliable, and laced with nods to feminism, but still subjecting her to attacks that would simply not occur to most writers to level at a male equivalent. Freeman suggests that Martin Amis would not have drawn the same ire for the same speech; I would add, I expect Martin Amis would like to be taller, but I have yet to see anyone bring it up when criticising his comments about our Muslim fellow-citizens.
Freeman also makes the point that liberals have a habit of accusing women of being 'unsisterly' when they express 'an opinion about an industry that exploits their own, as invariably happens when a woman discusses, say, Page 3 girls or strip clubs.' It's a fair point ... and yet, reading the speech itself, it feels just slightly wide of the mark.
You can read the speech on the LRB website, and of course if you're going to form a judgement about this whole unseemly business, you should. Having done so, and speaking as a female writer - it evokes a complex reaction.
If this speech were made by a man, I think many woman would feel a certain caution towards it. The problem is not that Mantel criticises the tabloid objectification of women; there's a more complex issue which is twofold. The first issue is this: in condemning the commodification of female royals, Mantel often doesn't draw a clear line between a woman's public image and her actual self, which at best lends itself to being taken out of context. Take, for instance, the conclusion of her first paragraph:
It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.
When she says 'becoming a jointed doll' and 'she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own' is she talking about the real Kate, or the press portrait of Kate? Is she saying Kate is a genuinely inane woman, or that she's been portrayed inanely? Taken in context, the later references to what 'the press will find' suggests that 'becoming' and 'was' refer to the fictionalised Kate of tabloid text rather than the actual woman. It is, however, carelessly phrased and highly open to misinterpretation, more so than a public comment on a contentious subject really ought to be. In context Mantel is probably not saying that Kate is a stupid woman, but she doesn't do much to make sure we don't get the wrong end of the stick.
Hold that thought, because it's important.
The second problem is this: the way she chooses to interest herself in male versus female royals. Probably the best thing to do is to quote each of her monarchical descriptions in turn; however, do read the full piece, because quotations out of context are exactly what's caused this whole debacle in the first place and I have no desire to contribute to that.
On Marie Antoinette:
Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity.
On Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, as compared with Diana, Princess of Wales:
[Kate] appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. .... Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth.
On Prince Charles:
A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! ... I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up on stage in shirtsleeves to receive his cheque. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.
On Queen Elizabeth II:
And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.
On Anne Boyleyn:
Anne Boleyn, in particular, is a figure who elicits a deep response, born out of ignorance often enough but also out of empathy. The internet is abuzz with stories about her, as if everything were happening today.
On Henry VIII:
In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites. He had few mistresses compared to other grandees of his time. I think it was more important to him to be good, to be seen to be good, than to be gratified in this particular way. In fact I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic. Later in life, when he married Anne of Cleves, he didn’t want to have sex with a woman with whom he wasn’t in love; it was a scruple that baffled his contemporaries.... When we call him paranoid, we must acknowledge he was right to think his enemies were everywhere, though he was increasingly bad at working out who they were.
Add these together, and there's a certain common quality: when she speaks of male royals, she speaks of interior experience. She pretends to be Charles to look through his eyes and attributes to him her own analysis of royal experience; she considers the personality of Henry VIII and casts his misdeeds in the forgiving light of emotional stress. Meanwhile, what does she have to say about the women? Or rather, what does she take an interest in? Novelistic imagination is clearly in play when picturing the male royals, but when she 'writes' female royals, her imaginative gaze is directed from the outside in far more than the inside out - not just to emphasise that female royals exist 'to be looked at', because that's a phrase she used about Henry VIII, but because she simply doesn't choose to exercise the same imaginative sympathy. She steps into male shoes far more readily than female ones. Of the female royals she does choose to consider emotionally, we have two very doubtful cases. There is Diana, whose myth is created by 'something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity' and nothing to do with the undoubted and active intelligence Diana employed to manipulate and navigate her myth to best advantage: the old idea that women do things 'naturally' rather than strategically is present in positively Victorian force here. Then we have the living Queen, written as vulnerable like Henry, but here, the story is largely a boast that Mantel managed to intimidate her with a stare - a claim that empowers Mantel at the expense of her subject. (Which may or may not be true - it's a little speculative, let us say, to assume that an open stare would have power to startle a lifelong monarch in her twilight years - but it invests as much imaginative power in Mantel's gaze as Elizabeth's inner life, and it makes the act of appearing onstage in shirt sleeves seem a small score by comparison. Assuming, of course, that the unjacketed writer wasn't simply too hot; again, her sympathy goes to the male royal; stature as well as masculinity seem to intrigue her, else why find the unremarkable sight of stacked chairs so 'tacky'?)
It's the same aspect we see with a lot of writing dominated by what feminists call the 'male gaze': as it were by coincidence, male 'characters' attract imaginative sympathy and interest in their inner lives while female characters attract visual sympathy and interest in their exterior presentations; their insides and outsides are conflated without due care for distinguishing the two.
Now, it's possible that Mantel was simply trying to convey the different roles of men and women and didn't manage to make that quite clear. It's also possible that as a novelist - which is what she is, a novelist with a BA in Jurisprudence; she is not an historian - she simply did what novelists do and wrote characters as her narrative instincts prompted her. Some female novelists write better men than women. It's also possible that she genuinely sees women through a 'male gaze' and the undertones of her piece are an accurate representation of her attitudes.
But here's the thing, the thought I suggested you hold. As a female novelist myself, and as a woman who has expressed opinions in public, I had a certain shrinking feeling as I read Mantel's piece. I didn't know - I don't think the speech really makes clear - exactly what she meant to imply about female selfhood and the personalities of female royals. What I did feel, instead, was a reflexive cowering, an automatic battening down of the hatches: Oh boy, this is going to be trouble...
There are men who respect women but disagree with or dislike particular opinions expressed by particular women. But there are also men who do not like women, and who, while they will probably not admit it even to themselves, have a deep-down aversion to respecting any woman's opinion. When a woman makes a public statement of any kind, these men read not with the tabula rasa interest they would display towards a man, but with an automatic antagonism, not searching for the meaning or point of a woman's words, but for the opportunity to tear her down. Some men don't argue with women by questioning their conclusions, but by finding opportunities to misrepresent, excuses to degrade, reasons to dismiss her as a human being. For some men, the ultimate argument is always 'How dare you expect real people to listen to your opinions, you uppity bitch?', and reading a woman's words is a search for the slip, the infelicity, the loose thread they can yank out and wave as a banner to prove this woman had no right to waste our time talking in the first place.
If you're a woman who talks in public, you are talking into a siege. Let me illustrate the point thus: as I typed that last sentence, I felt an instinctive cringe, because I could already hear the voices screaming in my head: sexist bitch, how dare you imply all men are like that. I felt the automatic impulse to quality, to reiterate that no, saying there's a siege does not mean all men are participants, even though I already said as much at the beginning of the previous paragraph, and even though doing so would slow down the flow of words with repetition. For a novelist it's very frustrating to break off and add a disclaimer every single time you make a statement. But as a female speaker, it's the only way to minimise - not prevent, but minimise - the amount of vitriol-throwing.
Mantel didn't. She went with the flow.
And besides my doubts about her piece as a piece, there's also a frightened woman inside me who twitched as I read her words - words I myself could find cause to argue with as one mind to another, but words I am not eager to see brandished as proof that yet one more uppity bitch needs to shut up and sit down. Didn't she anticipate this reaction, whispered my instincts? Didn't she see this coming? Didn't she know?
And right there, in the automatic assumption that a woman should have seen how her words could be twisted and should have headed this twisting off: that, there, is the burden of women speaking in public. A female writer-speaker must monitor her words for imperfections as frantically as a model must monitor her body, and therein lies the real problem. It's not just that women are cast as clothes-horses: it's that every woman, princess or author, beauty or intellectual, is under a hostile gaze, a gaze that prefers the 'jointed doll' and seeks with furious attention for any slight waver, any extra pound or faltered smile or careless phrase, to justify the pitchfork and torches.
Mantel wasn't wrong that culture monitors a princess for cracks. She just didn't go far enough: she didn't, in fact, connect the misogyny that polices female beauty with the misogyny that polices female speech - and for that, she ran afoul of misogyny in her turn.
You know, I don't like that speech she gave. I think there's an argument to be had about it. But it's almost impossible to have that argument in the midst of a culture screaming about a woman's weight and family and unacceptable femaleness in response to her making a debatable set of remarks, and we have a bigger problem than what a single female novelist said about some public figures. It's almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion about 'an industry that exploits' women, about women's rights to participate and what is and isn't empowering. It's almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about women in public.
I don't think Mantel's speech was a stellar contribution to the debate. It's almost impossible to say that without lending support to a set of people who would like Mantel and me and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and every other woman in the world to sit down and shut up. These people seize the debate, scream too loud for nuanced thought to be heard, and everything becomes a matter of binary alliances.
If only they'd sit down and shut up, we might get somewhere.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The other day I was reading a book by an author unfamiliar to me, and enjoying it rather a lot. The writing was picturesque, the atmosphere was enjoyable, and it was an all-round pleasant experience - so pleasant, in fact, that I decided to look up the author on Amazon to see if they'd written anything else.
As it turned out, they hadn't; this was their first novel. But what they had written, evidently, was their own author biography. Now, there's nothing unusual in that; I wrote my own author biographies, and I suspect the same applies to more or less everybody: authors know the facts about their own lives and are presumably coherent enough to write a book, so they're the best people to get on the job.
The trouble is, unless you've done something in your life that's both interesting and relevant to the book, there really isn't a lot to say. Here's the UK biography for my first book:
Bareback is Kit Whitfield's first novel. A graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She lives in London.
And to tell you the truth, the only reason I included that middle sentence about my university degrees was that I simply couldn't think of anything else to say, and 'This is Kit Whitfield's first novel and she lives in London' was embarrassingly bald. The second book's biog wasn't much more fulsome:
Kit Whitfield is a graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge and completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, Bareback (published in the US as Benighted) was shortlisted for the Author's Club Best First Novel Award and longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award. She lives in London.
Not particularly interesting stuff, really. The educational stuff was still in there because I only had one other book to talk about; the only reason it's longer is that by this point I had a couple of things to say that supported the only point an author biography is really about, which is to suggest that the author is capable of writing a decent book.
The thing is, there are two ways you can push that point. The first is listing accolades, which is what I did: this author has an education, this author has written something that other people officially liked. The second is a concept one sees more and more of as blogging and other social media become popular, and particularly social media that allow people to interact with strangers: what I tend to call the performance of personality.
When one has a soapbox, one needs a persona. Everybody does it. Ceci n'est pas Kit Whitfield; ceci est Kit Whitfield's blogging voice, which is not the same thing as her novel voice, which is not the same thing as her speaking voice, which is not the same thing as her. But in a crowded field where everybody's fighting for attention, it becomes tempting to go for an exaggerated persona, to foreground certain qualities in a simplistic way ... and when it comes to author biographies, it's a risky business.
So it was with this book I'd been reading and enjoying. The author biography was full of cute little details about the author's quirks and whims; a biog not about what the author had done, but about what the author owned - or rather, a description of the author's lifestyle. Rather than quote, I'll parody myself:
Kit Whitfield lives in a study shed in London surrounded by a collection of home-made shadow puppets known as the Pointy People, and occasionally goes into the house. She has a husband, a son, a cat who has more fans than Kit and doesn't let her forget it, and too many books for her shelf space.
All more or less true, allowing for comic exaggeration, but of an entirely different style, and one that I'd be unwilling to use on a book. It sounds nothing like my novelistic style, and it doesn't suit the books. Of course, it's perfectly understandable that a first-time author might feel the pressure to sound interesting, and perfectly probable that they might have led a pretty quiet and unremarkable life; after all, a bit of peace and quiet is what you need if you're going to get anything written. And as we all have our little ways, most of us have a habit or two we can dress up to sound charmingly whimsical if it comes to it. There are situations where it can work to the author's advantage, two in particular: first, if the author is an established star, in which case a low-key, personal biography can sound disarming and self-deprecating, retaining the charm of modesty while paradoxically flaunting that the author needs no introduction, and second, if the author is a comic writer who is able to write a genuinely funny blurb that functions as a demonstration of their talents in action.
But if one is neither of those things, it tends to sound a bit ... desperate to be liked.
Which authors are, of course; being liked is your living. But the problem is this: plenty of quite lovely and fascinating people write quite dreadful books, and it's perfectly possible to have a 'writerly' persona without being able to write. Playing up a 'writerly' persona in an author biog is like putting 'poet' in one's letterhead: by not letting the work speak for itself, it shows a lack of confidence in that work - or rather, a lack of commitment to that work, a lack of acceptance that it's the work rather than the worker that people will be reading. Unless you're Oscar Wilde, your social persona has very little to do with the writing you produce, and presenting it as if it proves that your writing will be interesting doesn't sound focused. It's all about the book, the finished product; 'death of the author' is a phrase much misused in popular culture, but it does remain the fact that it's the book, not a relationship with the author, that a reader is going to consume. There are people who write to write, and there are people who write to 'be writers', and it's the former kind of person whose writing you actually want to read, and biographies that play up just how whimsical and writerly the author is tend to make you sound like the latter, even if you're not.
I read the author biog, and then I carried on reading the book I'd been so enjoying. And ... well, I still enjoyed it; it was imaginative and vivid in points and that hadn't changed. But little things started to stand out to me, things that I'd found easier to ignore before. Points where the logic of the plot had been scamped. Points where the author was, as Virginia Woolf put it, 'thinking of something other than the thing itself.' Woolf was writing of female novelists breaking off from their story to address the then-burning question of whether a woman could write at all:
One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was "only a woman," or protesting that she was ''as good as a man." She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It doesn't matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. And I thought of all the women's novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.
(A Room of One's Own, chapter four.)
But while the issue of whether women can write has been conclusively dismissed by now, there's always the question of whether I can write, whether you can write, whether this particular person sitting at the desk trying to come up with something can write or not. One may not be criticised for one's gender, but there is always the knowledge that criticism of bad writing exists and one might be about to incur some. I'm not saying, of course, that criticising bad writing is morally akin to dismissing female intelligence: it's a sin to tell a lie and of the statements 'Women are too stupid to write' and 'Bad writing is bad writing', only one is untrue. Insecurity, though, comes in many forms. And it can come for many writers - as it did for this one - in little asides, little diversions, moments in which the act of reading was elevated beyond what the plot required, moments in which the act of appreciating the picturesque things the book came up with was pushed as making someone special. Moments, in short, where the author lost focus on writing the book and started preaching about why people should read the book and why they were justified in writing it. Moments where they were thinking of something other than the thing itself.
And it was there in their biography: the biography was about something other than the thing itself, because it was about the writer, not the writing. Biographies are only nominally about their subject, when it comes to author blurbs. What they really are is a showcase for how the author navigates the difference between self-as-writer and self-as-self - the difference between writer as person-who-writes and writer as person-who-occupies-social-role.
There is such a thing as a personal author biography that showcases a writer's style, of course, and as long as it's writing style rather than lifestyle, that's appropriate. And there's such a thing as an artist whose persona is one of their works of art. But if an artist is going to do that well, they need to make sure that the persona complements their work rather than consuming it. A persona is a dangerous thing to put alongside serious work because its focus is out towards an audience rather than in towards the imagination: performing introspection is a paradox at the best of times, and it takes both focus and talent - a specific kind of talent that doesn't necessarily go with the talent to write a book - to to keep the paradox from collapsing into triteness and twee.
Books have to speak for themselves. Author biographies do best when they don't get in their way.
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