Does where I live define who I am? Does it determine what I write?

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This tea cup has nothing to do with the point being made in this post. Source: adventures in biography

This tea cup has nothing to do with the point being made in this post.
Source: adventures in biography

Too often at the end of long form essays and articles, at the end of reviews and columns we see the phrase Author Name is a Brisbane writer and journalist. Or Author Name lives in regional Tasmania with her parrot. So what?

Where is the relevance?  Why not just note that Author Name prefers to drink from a tea cup and be done with it?

Is Author Name necessarily a different writer the day after she moves house from, say, the suburbs to an outback sheep station? And does it work in reverse? Will her lush lyricism change to gritty realism if she moves from Cooktown to Collingwood?

I’ve seen one too many book reviews that end with a bio like this: George Street is a reviewer who lives in Sydney (yes Australian Book Review, I’m looking at you.)  Given the cunning juxtaposition of review and bio, I think I can hazard a guess that Mr Street might indeed be a reviewer.  And the fact that he lives in Sydney adds what, exactly?  Who cares?  If the review covers a book about defence force culture, for example, I’d rather know that George Street is a former army general.  But living in Sydney?  Not so much.

Why do we want to know where Author Name lives?

Surely she can parody the pretensions of the ladies who lunch without living in Toorak. That’s allowed, isn’t it? But can she capture the plaintive longings of an immigrant family in the housing commission towers if she doesn’t live there too? Is she allowed to? Wouldn’t those plaintive longings be much more authentic if she did? Isn’t she appropriating – or misappropriating – their story otherwise?

Rubbish.

A story gains its power from being well-told.

Knowledge of place might help a writer to tell the story better but a quick visit may be more than enough. Or too much. Or simply not possible. What matters is not whether the story is authentic but whether the story feels authentic on the page. Fiction doesn’t need authenticity to be provided by the author’s life story – it is self-evidently fictional.

A fiction writer doesn’t need to be a murderer to write well about murder.  No-one needs to be an astronaut to write effectively about space travel. You don’t need to be a soldier to write grippingly about war. Yet the former police officer who writes crime fiction is accorded more credibility and their work is accorded more worth than the school teacher who writes in the same genre.

Why?  Why are we so enamoured of fiction that is ‘based on a true story’?

The whole public relations infrastructure supporting literary festivals, interviews with writers and author appearances focuses far more on establishing the credibility of the author than it does the credibility of the text.   It seems to be less about the quality of the work and more about the quality of our belief.

Whether a writer can write well is a matter of skill, not postcode or even of occupation.

I think knowing where Author Name lives is just another form of literary snobbery, another means of sloppy categorization like Chick Lit, or Thriller.  As readers we can only ever use that sort of biographical information to apply our misconceptions and stereotypes. Author Name from Byron Bay couldn’t possibly be a right-wing evangelical Christian. Author Name from Redfern must have street cred, even though it’s just as likely he’s a banker living in the gentrified part near Surry Hills.

Let’s start the revolution here.

Let’s start drafting author bios that tell us something sensible, something meaningful about ourselves. Let’s let go of our obsession with real estate and start focusing on what matters. I don’t care where Author Name lives, but I do care whether or not she can tell a story.

 

Michelle Scott Tucker lives in a house. She has a very low tolerance for bullshit and literary preciousness.

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5 responses »

  1. MST! A call to arms! But is it well directed? I raced to my (previously unopened) April ABR and started counting. The ratio of reviewer mini-bios to localities is roughly 16 to 3. So “Judith Armstrong’s most recent book War & Peace and Sonya, has just been published in London by the Unicorn Press” is the norm, and even the ‘locality’ bios contained a little extra info. My favourite is “Kathryn Koromilas is the Sydney-born author of Palimpsest: A Novel (2010)”. I think they must have run out of things to say.
    But to be serious, yes I do think we look for truth in our fiction, and (credibility in our reviewers) and that means we have to know something about the authors. Although whether that extends to the fawning that goes on at writers festivals is another matter altogether.

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  2. I really liked this (and think it’s a great companion piece to whispering gums’). Why are we so obsessed with truthy fiction? It’s fiction! It’s made up! These are not real people or even representatives of real people – they’re characters in a story. Each of them represents only themself.

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    • Yes! Even the narrators of memoirs do not necessarily represent the ‘real’ author. They can only ever be a representation. This seems a hard concept for many to grasp…

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  3. What can I say? I don’t believe Sybylla (either of them) is really Miles Franklin but I do believe Possum Gully is an accurate representation of farm life in the great drought of the 1890s. And if another author were to write of this period I would want to know where he/she lived, when he/she was born and which of he/she he/she was in order to evaluate what I was reading.

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