This week, I welcome Dan Kaufman to the attic. I’m sure readers will appreciate this piece, not just for its humour but also its honesty: not many people have the courage to parody their behaviour or that of their gender. I take my hat off to you, Dan, in gratitude.
Dan spent most of his career at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he edited almost every section at one time or another, from Travel to MyCareer. He also wrote for almost every section, including essays and literary articles for Spectrum, and had the unofficial title of being the humiliation correspondent by writing about such topics as spending 24 hours in the Star City casino and going to a bondage club. (Louise: I want to read these pieces!)
Since leaving the SMH he has continued to write the occasional opinion column for it as well as a book, Drowning in the Shallows (Melbourne Books, 2020).
The joys and perils of writing autofiction
Some authors create fictional characters in fictional worlds. Others write about themselves.
And then there are those bizarre creatures who create fake characters that resemble themselves, even though the fictional versions might be nastier, ruder, crazier or more incompetent.
That, for some inexplicable reason, is what I did.
These days a lot of people call this genre autofiction – but although the term was only coined in the late 70s, and although there’s been a lot of media hype about the new wave of autofiction (including books such as Outline by Rachel Cusk and Crudo by Olivia Laing), there’s nothing new about authors creating fictionalised versions of themselves.
Think of Hunger by Knut Hamsun, The Sun Always Rises by Hemingway, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny, almost anything by Philip Roth … the list goes on.
Sometimes the lead characters in autofiction are more heroic than the author – which is something Charles Bukowski always did, and which always put me off his work (well, that and the misogyny).
In my case, I wanted to do something different – I wanted to completely annihilate my own character.
Drowning in the Shallows is a comedy about a man child who has delusions of grandeur while also having low self esteem, who is in a position of being a mentor (he teaches at university) even though his students are more mature than him, and who has to write about Sydney’s social scene for a newspaper even though he’s a social misfit.
The problem is, I used to teach journalism at university, I used to write about Sydney’s social scene for The Sydney Morning Herald and, just like my fearful narrator, I was even terrorised by a cat who I loved dearly, even though the cat was clearly hellbent on my destruction.
So why would I create an alternate, horrible (or perhaps I should say even more horrible) version of myself when I knew people would just think this was autobiographical?
The short answer is I got a bizarre, sick thrill out of turning my life into a comedy – and I also never thought it would get published. Quite frankly, I never even expected to write this novel until, suddenly, I just did.
What happened is that one night I had to review a private club that was so bizarre and crazy, even by Sydney standards, that the next morning I just had to write it up – but rather than doing it as a review, I found myself writing about it as if it were fiction, and I were the narrator. But then as I kept writing, I realised I could make it funnier – and more truthful – by making the narrator an antihero, and soon it spanned out into a satire about men, and the social scene, and the way so many of us search for meaning in the most superficial settings possible. Or at least, I did.
Sometimes writing is difficult – there have been countless times when I’ve laboured over my fiction. With this novel, however, I largely kept writing simply because it was so much fun (and therapeutic) to write.
It was a joy to rip apart the worlds I loved so much – the bars and social parties where everyone pretended to like one another, even though no conversation would last for more than a minute; the newspaper world that meant everything to me, largely because it was so absurd and outlandish – but more than anything, it gave me a chance to parody male behaviour.
Now that I’m in a long-term committed relationship with a feminist (going on six years now), I look back in some horror at how I used to act myself – and how other men I knew behaved, even the ones that everyone thought were angels. The easiest and most enjoyable way of tearing down that kind of male behaviour is to make fun of it, and myself while I was at it. After all, no young man who reads my book would ever, in a million years, want to be like my narrator – and I think that’s a good thing. That’s why parody can be effective. It’s one thing to criticise behaviour – but if you really want to change it, you need to make it look ridiculous.
So that’s the fun, positive side to autofiction. The downside is the collateral damage. No matter how many times you swear it’s a fictional satire, people will just assume your autofiction is truthful.
One colleague who I used to respect and adore disowned me after reading the book – and she’s someone who I thought knew me well.
Did she think the book revealed my innermost thoughts and who I truly am deep down? I don’t know, because I’m too scared to ask.
There’s also the egotistical part of me who gets offended that I spent so much time weaving this fictional world together, complete with characters and jokes and a crazed plot, only for people to dismiss it as a cloaked version of my life.
And yet … I’m still glad I did it.
Every time someone tells me it made them laugh (which was the ultimate point of the book), every time someone gets the book – it makes everything worthwhile.
Although it would be nice if my mother started talking to me again.
Dan has donated a copy of his book, Drowning in the Shallows, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on the blog or any of my social media posts about Dan’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 17th September,and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.