Saturday, August 27, 2011

I haven't read the book, but in my opinion, it's not worth reading.

It’s within a week of a year since I broke my leg. At the time recovering from this break seemed interminable. Eight weeks of my life weighed down with a cast from ankle to knee and now I can scarcely even remember that it happened. I no longer even notice the twinges that beset me earlier this year when I was still recovering.

My broken leg has healed and now all I have is the memory and the cast which I could not bring myself to chuck out. For one thing it cost over $900.00 – would you believe? – and for another, it seems sacrilegious to chuck it out. But it’s of no use and when I dragged it out the other day to show my brother-in-law who lives interstate and missed out on the drama of my broken leg, I realised that it could not serve as the basis of any work of art – an earlier fantasy of mine.

The cast was custom made to fit my leg. It has no place in my life anymore, not unless I were to break my leg again in the same place, and that is unlikely. In the next clean up, which I plan to go through over the Christmas holidays I may bite the bullet and consign it to the tip.

I have a chapter in my thesis in which I discuss the furore that erupted over Ann Patchett’s book, Truth and Beauty. The book is her memorial, you might say, to her friend Lucy Grealy, author of the renowned Autobiography of a Face. Grealy died in her early forties of a suspected heroin overdose.

To me both books are beautifully written and well worth reading, but the reason I focus on them in my thesis has more to do with the audience response to these books, particularly as I see them played out within the blogosphere.

There is a post dedicated to discussions of a letter that Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s older sister, wrote to The Guardian about Patchett’s book.

Suellen believes that Ann Patchett has ‘hijacked’ her family’s grief by writing about her younger sister and to some extent about the Grealy family as she has. Mind you, there is not much about Lucy Grealy’s family in Patchett’s book as far as I can see. The book is more about Lucy herself and her relationship with Ann Patchett.

The thing that intrigues me is the degree to which this book has inspired a line of hate mail directed against Patchett for daring to violate the Grealy family’s right to its private grief, or at least for daring to present a different image of Lucy Grealy to the one she presented in her autobiography.

I’m interested in notions of grief, particularly in so far as they relate to issues of privacy and the public sphere. I understand Ann Patchett’s book to be in part her attempt to come to terms with the loss of her beloved friend and a commemoration of their friendship, but also as an expression of, or a space in which to explore, some of Patchett’s anger with her friend for perhaps not making a better fist of things.

Having said that, I don’t sense that Ann Patchett lacks in empathy for her friend, Lucy, whose life sounds as though it was horrendous. There’s something though in the way we live our lives, the uses to which we put our lives, especially when those lives are described in public as in the writing of these two books that then invite others to come along and judge those lives, for good or for ill.

To me there’s a confusion between the content of the writing, the writing itself and the real lives of the people, either those who write or those written about.

In one of the comments on this blog discussing Suellen’s letter of protest, Jack Grealy, a nephew, writes a comment in which he complains about what he considers to be one blog commenter’s attack on his aunt, Suellen. 'She’s my aunt,' he seems to say. 'You can’t talk about her like that.'

But in the public sphere, in the blog world, Suellen Grealy is not simply Jack Grealy’s aunt, she has become a commodity of sorts, a character in a novel.

She has written about her perceptions in her letter to The Guardian and has thereby thrown herself into the mix, her sister Lucy’s book about her own life, and Ann Patchett’s response to that life and in so doing, she has become a source of interest and curiosity for readers throughout the blogosphere. Therefore another commenter, tells Jack Grealy that he’s out of line.

Although Patchett’s book came out in 2004, and Grealy’s ten years earlier, comments still arrive at the blogsite that posted Suellen’s letter from The Guardian.

Lucy is dead, Ann Patchett has gone on to write several more successful novels, and heaven knows what Suellen is up to these days, but the saga continues.

I find extraordinary the extent to which people feel free to comment on this fracas, including those who admit to not having read either book.

They wade in on the fight as if a mob is gathering on the street and people are baying for someone’s blood – any one’s blood it seems, though not Lucy Grealy’s. She’s seen as the true victim, but her friend, Ann Patchett, is fair game for daring to write about Lucy as she has done, or likewise Lucy’s sister, Suellen, for daring to take Patchett to task.

I suppose literary skirmishes are not uncommon. They bring out the worst and the best in us. It is for this reason, too, I think there is some merit to the notion that even the best of writing can disturb and evoke a hostile reader response.

What is it that happens to us when we read? Is there some sense that when we take in the words off the page they become our own and therefore we have the right to judge, not only the standard of the writing, but also the content. It is as if we become both judge and jury, not only of the writer but also of those who are written about.

It is a powerful phenomenon and it’s one reason why I remind myself constantly that writing is a dangerous business. There is a world of potential critics out there ready to berate you for writing things they may not have read, or they may not want to read, or see, or hear, or remember, or for writing in such a way as to stir up emotions in readers for which they have no other outlet than rage directed at the writer, who is only the messenger after all.

Somehow unlike the cast from my broken leg, certain published writings can never be consigned to the tip. They go on being worn, even after the leg has healed.

38 comments:

just jane said...

Truth and Beauty is one of the most moving books I ever read. It still sits on my shelf, because I cannot part with it.

Critics are everywhere. Rage is focused on those who are sensitive and artistic, in some cases. Sometimes we are our own critics. Sometimes we edit ourselves, worrying about what others will think. I do that, all the time!

Art is its own being. It deserves a place, to live.

Create!

Anthony Duce said...

It’s sort of the way of the world. it’s always been easier hate. Understanding takes an effort, and maybe compromise.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

It's always easy to have an opinion. I almost said "a worthless opinion" because they usually are. I have lots of dumb instant opinions that I learned - in my journey in the general direction of wisdom - weren't to be shared, really. Those sorts of opinions are the ones I'm most likely to see change in the face of actual information, background, facts. There are many who haven't learned, 'tis a pity, that the noise their opinion makes hitting the ear is not always an agreeable one.

I remember you saying you were thinking of turning the cast into art. Maybe you could offer it up free on Craigslist; some other artist (or oddball) might jump at the chance to have a leg mold.

Windsmoke. said...

Opinions are like bottom holes everybody has one and should be ignored where ever possible for the sake of your sanity. I have a bonza idea what to do with your leg cast have it mounted on a wall as a souvenir, what do ya reckon? :-).

River said...

I haven't read that book either; haven't even heard of it.
I would have consigned that cast to the garbage the day it came off my leg. I wouldn't even bring it home, I'd let the hospital take care of the disposal.

The Weaver of Grass said...

My friend has a saying - three things never return - the spent arrow, the lost opportunity and the spoken word. I must say that I would never write anything in blogland which I considered to be hurtful. We must remember that people only show the readers what they wish them to know. We have to know a person really well before we can criticise what they say.
I like the way you compare the whole saga with your leg cast - yes Elizabeth, some things are better thrown away.

Jim Murdoch said...

People judge whether they have a right to or not. Or whether they are capable of rendering a correct judgement. I’m tired this morning. I concede therefore that I may not have given your words the attention they required or deserved although, to be fair, we’ve never discussed what you require of me – assuming you expect anything other than to be read – or indeed whether your expectations of me personally differ to your expectations of your other readers; perhaps this time I’ll disappoint you. As for what you deserve that’s another one of those words we use all the time without thinking about it. You put forth effort into what you wrote but is what you deserve based purely on that effort or is it related to who you are and not simply what you’ve done?

I wrote a review recently of AS Byatt’s latest book – I suppose it’s a novel but it doesn’t really feel like one. It’s a retelling of Ragnarök in which she includes herself as a young girl in wartime Britain reading the book and using it as to measure such diverse things as Christianity, the nature of war and what sort of family she found herself in. As a ruler the lives of the gods is a poor instrument, its truths have eroded over the years, but it is an interesting one.

Byatt has a sister – two actually, and a brother – but the sister I’m referring to is Margaret Drabble. The two have been at loggerheads since childhood like many siblings. As adults, however, their squabbles have found the way into the newspapers who are far more interested in that kind of thing than the quality of their writing. Only a couple of months ago Drabble confirmed that the feud was still alive and she never expected to be reconciled with her sister. I mention their differences in my article to explain two things: firstly, why I was using quotes by Drabble to expand on biographical elements in the book (the other siblings were born after the war) and also to highlight her absence from the text; no sister is mentioned even in passing.

In researching the book I read more than I could possibly include in the article but what became clear very quickly was that no matter how much I read I was never going to get to that ‘Rosebud’ moment assuming there was a moment and not a gradual drift. My brother and I were the same to some extent. He spent his entire life in my shadow. Every class he entered he was told: “So, you’re Jimmy’s little brother. Well, we expect good things from you.” The thing is, unlike the Drabble sisters, my brother and I are very different although he did make top of his class, as did my sister, so none of us are dafties but our skill sets couldn’t be more diverse.

We never know all the facts and we never will know all the facts but does that mean we can’t make a judgement based on what we do know? It’s not a matter of can’t: we can’t help ourselves.

I watch the BBC news channel quite a lot these days and there’s one thing I’ve noticed, because it’s a twenty-four hour channel a lot of the time on air is spent not actually reporting the news but offering opinions on it, which is fair enough, but frequently people are being asked to comment on things that have yet to happen. That’s not news. It can be interesting and it certainly uses up time but who cares really what people’s opinions are? I could give you my opinion/judgement on the Drabble debacle but I wasn’t there and most of the things I read were written by people who weren’t there and, frankly, I’m wary about trusting even what the sisters have said to the press because even assuming is has been reported accurately and in context I know I would be wary about what I told the media and I expect they have been too even if what they have said has the patina of truth.

As for your caste, I thought (and, I see that Glenn thought the same) that you were going to turn it into art. Even if you don’t you should see if anyone out there could make use of it. It’s the green thing to do.

cheshire wife said...

How do I follow Jim Murdoch's comment?

I broke my arm when I was eleven. I was not offered the cast when it was removed and if I had been I am sure that my parents would have said 'no'. I can not imagine what I could have done with it.

KleinsteMotte said...

Since you mentioned it I hope you do get the nerve to toss that cast out soon. One must let go of stuff to make room for fresh things, newer ones. Move on . you can do it. Your leg is all better.

Marja said...

I don't know the book I am a very very slow reader so I don't read a lot of books but that aside. I will have a go at guessing what is happening: It must have been a good book because people identify with it. WHen they identify with it they must relate it to something in their life. Usually what affects you most is something what you don't like about yourself. It might even be hidden in your unconcious. So the writer is not to blame.
lol There you go :) Still makes it dangerous to write eh but there is a risk in so many things

vazambam said...

Elisabeth,

I don't see your writing fitting any cast so I think it would be befitting of me to say "Don't you dare cast it away!" :>)

Great post, by the way.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I follow book reviews even less than I do film reviews. Largely I have found that films the critics rave about I find droll and simplistic yet some of the films that the critics have panned I have thought were inspiring or well done in another context.

Like the comments some make about art, I don't know what it is but I know what I like.

Elisabeth said...

There are so many wonderful books available to read, Jane. I'm glad one of your choices is Truth and Beauty. I to found it a terrific read, despite her critics. Patchett is a splendid writer, not only in non-fiction.

She has made her craft her life's work and well deserves the positive recognition she receives, but I suppose she can't avoid the dark with the light.

Thanks, Jane.

Thanks, Jane

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Anthony, understanding takes effort and it is sometimes far some easier to hate, but for others it's equally difficult to acknowledge hateful feelings. They slip out in sometimes worse ways.

I reckon we need to be able to acknowledge both feelings, but not necessarily to act on them and certainly not on the hate.

Thanks, Anthony.

Elisabeth said...

Instant opinions are dangerous, Glenn, though how easy they are to call up. I'm like you . I find it easy to offer one, only to find it changes with further information. It's one of the reasons why I try to qualify the things I say with a few well chosen maybes, or perhaps, or I wonder...

As for the cast, I'm still wondering.

Thanks, Glenn

Elisabeth said...

I'm not sure about the cast as a wall souvenir, Windsmoke.

I imagine you're holding you're tongue in your cheek. It'd be a pretty ugly mounting in my view. It needs more to appeal to my aesthetic.

Thanks , Windsmoke.

Elisabeth said...

I took the cast off for the last time at home, River. The hospital had nothing to do with it. Still I can see your point.

It reminds me of how my husband likes to leave the shoe boxes behind at the shoe shop rather than take them home for the rubbish whenever he buys a new pair of shoes. There is enough unnecessary rubbish in our lives already.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Pat, it's important to weigh up carefully our words, even in blogland, where it's so easy to sound off to complete, or almost complete strangers.

After all the Internet never dies, or at least its store of words and images never dies, even if the sentiments behind certain statements do.

Thanks, Weaver Pat.

Elisabeth said...

I'll start at the end in response to your comment, Jim, about my cast and being green. Some things can be made into art, others can't, though one of my daughters once write a marvelous essay, to me a thing of art on the nature of dust.

The trouble with collecting all manner of things that might one day come to good use is that we can become the proverbial magpie cluttered to the eyeballs.


Many years ago in my social working days I used to visit a man who lived alone on his own home which was filled with old newspapers, empty tim cans and jars, broken machinery , old TVS, toasters, and you name it. This was a man who had a serious problem dealing with the detritus of his life, as a consequence if which he had no time or space for relationships or even for the basic pleasantries of life with people.

As for siblings, including Byatt and Drabble, strange to say I've devoted a paragraph or two to them in my thesis. Have I told you this already?

As you know I'm into the notion of the desire for revenge and the way it can inspire writing. To quote myself :

There have been other public sisterly squabbles in the writing world, the most notably in England in the conflict between AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble, and in Australia, between Helen Garner and Catherine Ford.

When Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, a novel based on her mother's life was published, Byatt said: ‘I would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother.’

She throws down the gauntlet here, as if to say, only my perspective of my mother should be on public display, if at all, not my sister’s.

Of her younger sister, Margaret, Antonia says: ‘My mother liked Maggie much better. They could fight and scream, and slam doors at each other and then feel better. I just froze.’

In the same interview when Mira Stout asks Antonia whether her sister, Margaret, is the more gifted, Antonia replies:
She certainly thought she was cleverer than I was, but I don’t think I ever did. I thought she was likely to be more successful because she was more outgoing. And because she wanted to outdo not only my mother, but me. I set a very high standard, and she did. We were close, and still are, in a basic way, but I always felt very threatened by her. She always made me feel very temporary somehow.'

Antonia’s reflections allude to the type of rivalry that exists between two siblings when one pushes the other out, as it were. For Antonia, not only from an implied position as her mother’s ‘favourite’ as first born daughter, but also later from the literary and academic world, the world of success, though it must be said Byatt has also received her share of literary acclaim.

In this same conversation with Stout about her memories of her younger sister, Byatt observes: ‘That’s quite a lot in the past. The only thing that bothers me now is the endless press comparisons. I’m more interested in books than people, and I always expect everybody else to be, but they’re not.’

Hers is the writer’s lament, namely that readers might seek to know more of the salacious details of a writer’s so-called real life, including signs of human frailty as expressed in the rivalry between two sisters who both hold high positions within the literary world.

The very writing about these matters evokes a sense of vengefulness in all directions, between the two sisters as writers, but also within their readership. As readers we often want to know more about the personal life of the writer, however much Byatt wishes we would focus only on the writing.

End of my quote here, Iim, and my energy.

I must get onto your Byatt, Drabble review. You always offer so much that I had not thought of before.

As for siblings, I've written so much already about mine. I agree we are all individuals and our perspectives often clash, especially when we come from within the same family.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

It's always hard to follow Jim's comments, Cheshire Wife, but I'm grateful that you at least try.

You mention your childhood cast that your parents would not let you keep. One of my daughters once broke her arm as a primary school student. She kept her cast. It's squirreled away in a box of her memorabilia.

I, too, have a trunk full of such trivia.

Like mother like daughter, you might say, and as I said to Jim in relation to another, there are some of us who have trouble dealing with the detritus of our lives, myself included.

Thanks, Cheshire Wife.

Elisabeth said...

So Kleinstemotte , you're on the side of those who say 'get rid of the cast', versus all those on the opposition who say, 'make use of it in one way or another'.

I'm sure I will resolve this issue one day soon.

Thanks, Kleinstemotte.

Elisabeth said...

You're right, Marja, life is risky, especially the writing life, and even in Blogland.

If you write/say controversial stuff and sometimes even if it's benign, some one will interpret it otherwise.

Every time we send our writing out, we stick out our chins and invite a response that is not always to our liking.

Thanks, Marja.

Elisabeth said...

I'm not about to cast away, Vassilis, but I have been slowing down at the blog oars of late. I'll finish my thesis and get back on board soon.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

There's just so much subjectivity in literary and film, criticism, Robert, it's important not to take too much of it too seriously. Even so we enjoy discussions about the merits or otherwise of art or film or books.

It must be part of the human dilemma. We like to judge but dislike being judged.

Thanks. Robert.

R.H. said...

The internet never dies. That's right. I've put enough on it to hang me, or be burnt at the stake by feminists, or tarred and feathered by the latte set. That's true.

Jim has seven paragraphs. I counted them.

Elizabeth said...

What a brilliant small essay this is -- there is so much to think about and ponder. I immediately thought of Bob Dylan -- his aloofness and caprice when questioned -- the way the public seems to "own" or even know intimately a person because of his or her public writing. I was unaware of this Patchett/Grealy controversy even though I've read both books.

Elisabeth said...

It's good to see you again, RH. Now what strange pleasure do you get out of being vilified by the folks who resent your comments in the blogosphere? Or is it that you enjoy challenging the so-called status quo?

I don't know. Your words can sometimes be puzzling, but as long as they're not gratuitously 'cruel', particularly towards other people, or what seems to me to be so, I'm very happy to receive them.

Thanks, Robert.

Elisabeth said...

I'm sure there's many a celebrity who resents the public's claim to ownership of their most private lives. It must be one of the biggest downsides to celebrity. Remember when you were pregnant, the way complete strangers might feel free to touch your swollen belly. It happened so for me from time to time. I reckon that's how celebrities might feel - intruded upon, though for different reasons.

Thanks, Elizabeth.

R.H. said...

I'm sorry for the mean comment I made to you a while ago and I'm glad you didn't allow it. Gratuitous cruelty is when two sub-human types torture and kill possums who never did a thing wrong to them, and don't even get sentenced to jail for it. The trouble is society puts their miserable lives above the lives of poor dumb animals. I do not.
My cruelty is rarely gratuitous; it'd waste my life.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Elisabeth .. thanks for visiting - it's good to meet you. Glad the leg has healed .. and I'd think in a few years the cast would be a mound of dust .. so probably good to take it to the tip?!

You've introduced me to Grealy .. and now I want to read her work - interesting .. her life must have been difficult dealing with the cancer and its effects .. but feuding just fuels the fire.

Good luck with the thesis .. Hilary

Judy Croome said...

Elisabeth, another excellent thought provoking post.

Perhaps it is that we as a species are not yet evolved enough to maturely handle the power of the freedom of expression brought to us by today's technology.

The internet gives everyone a voice and anyone can feel they're qualified to comment...and the distance created by interacting with what is essentially a cold screen rather than a warm person may make us forget that whatever we write will really touch people's souls.

I can only hope that, over time and generations, we learn to use the freedom of the internet and social media more responsibly. One can still be express honest opinions but, with a little bit of effort, one can do it with kindness.

Judy, South Africa

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the apology RH. Maybe 'gratuitous' is the wrong word, so now you have my apology as well. Cheers.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the good thesis wishes, Hilary. I hope you manage to read Grealy. It's a book that's worth the read, as is Patchett's book. The feud of course is something else again, and far less desirable.

Elisabeth said...

I'm all for kindness in our expressions on the Net, Judy but it's tough because there are times when our words however well meaning can come across harshly.

It's the absence of body language and tone of voice I suspect that makes it just that much harder.

Thanks, Judy.

aguja said...

This is a brilliant post with much to think on within it. I don't know the book, nor the author, but it is your words that intrigue. Beautifully and succinctly written.
Thank you for your thought spiral.

jesse said...

As the daughter of a poet I experienced this. When my mother died I found people writing memorial to her, which made me very happy because it showed me that there were others who knew her as a writer and to whom she mattered. But they apologised to me for representing her in that way, as if my presence made their feelings inappropriate. I found this baffling, because that part of her was never mine. I had her as a mother, but there were always pieces that were a mystery to me which these others seemed to understand. It sounds as if they were concerned about the same thing that is happening here, about a war over how it is appropriate to grieve. I will write about this with reference to your writing here.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the thought spiral, Aguja.

Isn't that what reading's all about? Words and ideas that make us venture into new territories in our minds, and visit landscapes and people we might otherwise never visit or meet.

Thanks, Aguja.

Elisabeth said...

I look forward to reading your thoughts on this issue, Jesse.

You'll be able to offer us a different perspective on what it's like to be on the receiving end of the sorts of comments the two Grealys, Suellen and Jack, sister and nephew of Lucy, found so unbearable when an outsider, someone outside of the family in the form of Ann Patchett, dared to write in ways they found shaming.

It sounds as though you have a balanced relationship with your mum, Jesse, to recognise both your connection to her as a daughter, but also to recognise her public persona as a poet and her life beyond ours. It's a position many cannot achieve and I applaud you for getting there.

When we're little we 'own' our mothers, and when we grow up we learn to share them.

Thanks, Jesse.