By Mara Coson
When people pass on lessons on writing, they often choose between two overplayed yet sensible pieces of advice. The first is ‘show, don’t tell,’ and the second, which I plan to discuss here, is ‘write what you know’.
I woke up this morning wanting to write about feminist literature for the Ilura Gazette—but without a literature degree or a published novel, I asked myself if I could write a highly informative post on feminist literature in the span of a day. Probably not.
I decided to write about this need for authority instead. Can we publicly write about issues that we’re not experts on in blogs, or even in works of fiction? The rising trend of citizen journalism and personal blogs means more people feel they have the authority to write about their chosen topics. But does is this newfound sense of authority justified? Where does a writer’s authority come from?
Some fiction authors are able to write about large, research-heavy political issues and describe believably, if not correctly, details such as the pattern of the President’s bedroom carpet. They can write lengthy novels even if all they have is a daily subscription to the newspaper and a keen sense of observation. Before political-thriller author Tom Clancy published his first book, he had completed a literature degree and had run an insurance agency. His firsthand experience with the military was limited to being rejected from service after failing an eye exam.
Is authority just about undergoing enough research or having the right qualifications then? Let’s have a look at health articles. We’ve all seen them: lose weight in x days, or colourful ‘superfoods’, as though they were breakthroughs they hadn’t just been printed two issues ago. These are often written not by nutritionists, but by freelance writers whose only authority may rest in their having previously written five similar articles on weight loss. After a while, these writers become self-appointed authorities, the way Oprah or Tyra Banks know everything about people-problems without having studied psychiatry or without having personally gone through each episode’s life dramas. It has gotten to the point where it’s hard to discern between seasoned diet-experts (no pun intended) and amateurs beating doctors into recommending diet plans.
If we consider these articles, then authority isn’t completely dependent on research. While freelance writers probably don’t have the authority to tell me how much weight I should lose, I seem to have made the mistake of thinking that academic qualifications were the only source of authority. I thought that with only a marketing and creative writing degree, I couldn’t seriously discuss feminist literature—that anyway, these topics are already saturated with voices of authority, and I would be last in line as a valid voice. But then I began to take my own background into consideration: firstly, I am a woman; second, I have learnt through reading feminist texts the basic language in which to discuss feminism, and third, I understand the need for female empowerment and how it affects society. I know that like me, many women who have felt marginalised and oppressed by a patriarchal society, but who did not have a PhD, have published influential feminist zines. These women were completely justified in doing so because they had experience—and experience is as crucial as research.
Does authority, then, come from some combination of formal qualifications and experience, or is it still harder to define? Salman Rushdie, writing Midnight’s Children based on fragmented memories of his homeland while he was in London, asked himself whether he had the authority to write the book. He felt like he was an outsider looking in. ‘Literature is self-validating,’ Rushdie answers in his essay, ‘Imaginary Homelands’. ‘That is to say, a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality that has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes in which the author has been obliged to approach from the outside.’ I suppose not all autobiographical fiction would really make us read through to the end, and neither would all political commentaries on blogs. Sometimes it takes a story like Roald Dahl’s ‘The Sound Machine’ where plants are said to scream, or a well-written piece like Jenny Kleeman’s social commentary about the Philippines—such might not be based on firsthand experience, but the quality in which they had been written seems to really make up for it.
But if research, background, and quality still aren’t enough, let’s not forget that we currently live in ‘the age of engagement’. At the publishing conference, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) 2010, Arianna Huffington said, ‘for the first time, news consumers and book readers don’t just want to read, they want to engage with what they’re reading. They want to talk back.’ Literary authority no longer seems so daunting to writers with the knowledge that writing is not about preaching but rather engaging with people. There is no doubt I’ve failed to cover issues here in this post, but there are people who will make them known. If blog posts overlook details or fail to properly address an issue, there is a community out there that is ready to engage in discussion. Even for fiction, the engagement of readers is vital. Readers fill in the strokes that complete what is essentially an unfinished circle, as a text is nothing without readers there to interpret it. Besides, in fiction, there is space for the imagination to prop up the otherwise unknown. Nabokov once said, ‘great novels are above all great fairy tales … literature does not tell the truth but makes it up.’
I’ve reached the end of an article that I felt that I had no authority to write, and it’s likely that I still don’t have the authority. Perhaps I’m my own bad example, having failed to possess the proper research, experience, and writing quality to have been a proper authority to write about ‘authority’. However, there is room on this blog for engagement through comments, and where I fall short in my knowledge or understanding, someone like you might be able to fill-in the gaps.
By Lana Rosenbaum
My favourite thing about Melbourne is that wherever you go, you’ll always find a bookstore. I’m not referring to franchised stores like Borders, Dymocks or Angus and Robertson that somehow find themselves clumped together within one hundred meters. Independent bookshops, secondhand bookshops and even remainder bookshops are hidden everywhere, down laneways in the city, connected to coffee shops in Richmond, St Kilda and Carlton, or even behind markets. Having worked in an independent bookshop for two years, I’d always preferred them to franchise stores, appreciating the loyalty of customers, the dedication of staff and the special selection of texts.
Having recently been in London, I felt the same sense of literary culture creeping around every corner. There was an entire laneway in Soho of secondhand bookstores. Some had books that cost thousands of pounds, and others were more affordable. In the Portobello markets, almost every second stall was selling hardback classics. The main franchise bookstore there is Waterstones. It’s not as predominant as Borders and Dymocks in Australia, and had the same feel as Readings Bookstore.
New York, however, shocked me. In the city, I saw only two Borders and a Barnes and Nobles, which was closed at the time for renovations. The streets I ventured didn’t have second hand or independent bookshops, although I’m sure in other areas there would be. I expected New York to have the same literary vibe as other main cities. Then I got to thinking about my dream to open a bookshop. Would an independent bookshop be more successful in a city like Melbourne that is filled with them already, or in a city like New York where the main stores are large franchises?