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Verifiable Someones

The SRB is delighted to be hosting a seminar devoted to women readers and writers at the Writing and Society Research Centre on Friday 22 March 2019.  Sara Knox will be elaborating on the ideas presented in this essay at the seminar. She’ll be joined by Beth Driscoll, Frances An and Julieanne Lamond in a discussion chaired by SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike and WSRC Deputy Director Dr Anne Jamison.

Lately I’ve noticed a lamentable tendency in the audio editions of contemporary literary fiction: the double-header performance. Take the Penguin audio edition of The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s 2018 take on The Iliad, for example. The Briseis sections are read by a female voice talent, Kirsten Atherton, and since the majority of the book belongs to Briseis, Atherton gets first billing. Michael Fox does the Achilles chapters: chiming in on a story that is — as Briseis herself observes — the story of Achilles. What irks me about the double-header is its dogged mapping of identity — a material gendering of the text itself. Why couldn’t Kristen Atherton voice the Achilles sections of the novel? What prohibits her, given she must already perform Achilles in her own Briseis section? Achilles speaks, he comes into rooms and he leaves them; he takes to his bed to rut, to sleep, and to wake from his nightmares. He speaks. And, as Ursula K Le Guin reminds us, no matter what the technical point of view of a novel, when a character speaks the pivot is to their point of view. In other words, Atherton necessarily performs Achilles. And, you might say, vice versa: Fox performs Briseis. Yes … and no. Not for nothing is this The Silence of the Girls. Slaves, and women (and the only women about are slaves) fall below Achilles’ notice.

The convention of gender-matching voice performer to audio text is longstanding — double-header performances are just a particularly telling demonstration of tradition.  The convention is to match the gender of the voice talent to the gender of: a) first person POV character, b) main protagonist, c) author. That order of priority has exceptions. The author exerts a more powerful aura in the audio performance of classics. Thus, while a listener has their pick of many a female-voiced English language edition of Anna Karenina, they will search in vain for a War and Peace. (A quarter of it can be found on Audible.com: Ella Porter’s reading — part 1, sans the following 2, 3 and 4. Apparently, women cannot pronounce French or Russian names. Or find their way around a battlefield.)

The aura of the author’s presence is weighty, too, when they’re the one doing the audio performance. When Rachel Kushner reads her multi-narrator novel The Mars Room, she is a one-woman band: whether she’s doing the protagonist-narrator serving her life sentence in a women’s correctional facility; the male college grad taking the prison English class; the crooked male cop, or the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

It might be argued that the author acting as voice talent better allows the novel to do its imaginative work, inviting the reader to step up and meet that work with their own active interpretive agency. Less performance, more reading. Perhaps. But something else is happening here. That the author reading their work trumps other conventions demonstrates the strong investment of current reading cultures in the aura of identity: authorial identity, in this case. The reassurance as read by the author grants the reader the confidence to suspend disbelief and take the reading as authorised. It serves the same discursive function as the author photo: making the text accountable to the person of the author.

I lead with this foray into homophily in the production economy of the audiobook so as to tackle more slippery propositions about our cultural moment.  Sebastian Smee has lately lamented the demise of the inner self in a contemporary digital culture that favours ‘performance and superficiality over introspection and honest feeling’. For more than two hundred years the object of careful husbandry, the inner self now ‘feels harshly illuminated and remorselessly externalized, and at the same time flattened, constricted and quantified’. One manifestation of this is the binding of the identity of author to the work. Another is the noise that operates around it, in terms of readers performing as readers.

I am stricken by a culture of reading and book production that diminishes the capacity of the work to do its own imaginative thing. I am stricken by the way that novels are held accountable in a range of ways to a range of things (not least of all to how the imaginative canvas fits with the demographic and biographical particulars of the author—think the hullabaloo about the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels). I am stricken, too, by the increasing accountability of authors to their readers (a trend delightfully satirized by Heather Havrilesky on the accountability of authors  to their social media following).

Over the last 250 years or so, reading has been a forge of identity; reader-ly interiorization a zone of privacy and retreat and resistance; a place of liberty and license—particularly for subaltern readers. (I like to think of the scullery maid decanting a cut of meat so she can read the bloody page of newspaper it came wrapped in.) While the opportunities for readers to immerse themselves in a story-world of print fiction are in no way reduced quantitatively (given the number and availability of texts, as well as the diversity of formats and means of access), there have been qualitative shifts, some of them seismic, in reading cultures and the culture industries surrounding book production. The ways in which consumers perform the identity of reader have changed, and new obligations have been placed on authors around the performance of their identity-as-writer. All at the expense, arguably, of the reading experience. What should be the thing itself, the heart of the whole contract, has dimmed: is no longer expected to do its transporting work without a whole cacophonous chorus of spruiking to support it, from reviewer grabs on the dust jacket, to author readings at bookstores, to literary festival appearances (where the author is the object of interest and the novels themselves merely occasion), to screen after screen of Goodreads reviews. The busywork of identity performance — in Foucauldian terms, the productive co-construction of reader and author.

That co-construction pivots on accountable identities. Consider the progressive loss of the liberties of pseudonymity and anonymity so valuable, historically, to women writing literary fiction or attempting to establish themselves in a (formally) male-dominated genre — like science fiction. James P Tiptree’s decade long career writing science fiction (‘ineluctably masculine’ writing, noted an effusive Robert Silverberg) would be a structural impossibility now, as would Alice B. Sheldon’s complicated epistolary relationship with the aspiring young women writing to ‘Tip’ for an encouraging editorial word. A thing as small as a full email header would put paid to the pseudonymous James Tiptree now. (Oh for the rural post office!) The question of whether a pseudonym is a viable choice for a writer setting out on a career has a very different answer now to what it might have had in Tiptree’s heyday. Being a verifiable someone is requisite to having a social media following, and for that reason (if not that reason alone) literary agents want verifiable someones as their prospective clients.  The demise of the structural conditions for the authorial pseudonym, and authorial anonymity, may or may not be a bad thing for putative writers; it may or may not be a bad thing for readers, but it does mark the loss of wiggle room that’s been strategically useful to women writers in the past (and to readers, but that’s another story).

Now, we’re expected to stand on our rights to be, to do, to want—not to dodge the count; not to make do with the stealthy shortcut or ad hoc fix. Those rights are well served now in principle and discourse. But has it got any easier to attain them? Controversies around the Stella prize and the annual VIDA count would suggest not, as would the use — without comment — of the ‘genre category’ women’s writing in a  2017 study of Australian book readers. Gender and genre ‘matter’, as Anne Jamison puts it,  when it comes to the ‘ongoing exclusion of Australian women’s writing.’ And not only Australian women’s writing. The ‘genre’ of women’s writing, no matter how categorically wrong it might be—and how important it is to scrutinize its crazy logic— is useful. It exists as a ground to stand on, and it encourages ‘an active culture of reading and discussing women’s writing’ (Jamison). In this context, that such a category (‘women’s fiction’) exists on the massively (76 per cent) female-dominated Goodreads makes a kind of sense.

But then again, is the female domination of reading and reading cultures good tidings? Not if we consider the analogy of female-dominated professions, or women’s sport, or any other bloody place we rule the roost. Go ask the workers in aged care, or early childhood.  There won’t be a happy answer.

Then, the female domination of fiction reading and online reading cultures isn’t the only barometer of change. There’s also the progressive shift from reader as consumer, to reader as prosumer. Take the rise of fan fiction. Once a print phenomenon (one that saw exponential growth in the 1960-1970s, thanks to slash fiction), fan fiction now blooms vigorously in online sharing sites. And like Goodreads, it is female dominated. More than three quarters of the posters to fan fiction sites are women (if the sketchy demographic data can be trusted). Fan fictions, defined as material that transforms the original (by wresting the story from its authorized form), are an active reproach to culture industries that are still male-dominated (and straight, and white—and cis-gendered). Shooting for the moon,  one successful Australian fan fiction writer recently suggested that fanfic should be seen ‘not as a diluting of literature, but as a way to redistribute power’. Yet no matter how big fanfic gets, it seems condemned to the thin air of an ephemeral extreme; its users satirized and derided: fair game for all but their own.  Even eight weeks into my tightly knit SciFi and Fantasy creative writing class, it takes me half an hour to coax the writers of fanfic in the class to put up their hands. There’s five of them: all women.

Those timorously raised hands reminded me something that happened earlier in the year, something that I haven’t been able to shake. It was a postgrad orientation session. The room was full and the presenter was doing his charismatic, pastoral best, to reassure the students that their lonely struggles would come good. If only they could shrug off that carping internal voice— the one that whispers: you’ve got no business being here. That, he says, is just the work of the impostor syndrome. And how many of you, he asks, have felt like a fraud? There is a flowering of hands. I think it’s everyone in the room, until I see it isn’t. All the women have their hands up: the majority—winning the day. Except the real winners are the three men sitting there with their arms crossed.