Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In conversation

Now that Australian Book Review has extended its reach to Adelaide, where it has established a sort of home-away-from-home base at Flinders University, its regular literary events are becoming a feature here as well as in Melbourne and elsewhere. I'm just back from one such event, in the pretty Radford Auditorium at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where an audience that included J. M Coetzee heard Craig Sherborne 'in conversation' with fellow-poet-and-memoirist and ABR editor Peter Rose, talking mostly about Sherborne's 2005 memoir Hoi Polloi.

This was a relaxed and quite revealing conversation between friends who have known each other well for years. It's a scenario that can sometimes backfire quite badly, as in this situation it's very easy to make the audience feel excluded altogether, but both Sherborne and Rose kept the audience included in their eye-lines and in their questions and answers without letting the whole thing get too stilted.

Eavesdropping on punters as is my wont at this kind of gig, I overheard the people next to me -- clearly strangers to each other -- strike up a conversation, while we were waiting for the event to start, about how wonderful it was to be able to come to this kind of thing, how much they were looking forward to Writers' Week, how wonderful they thought the Adelaide Festival of Ideas always was and how astonishing it was that so far these events were still free.

Memo to self: find out exactly where the money comes from. I know it comes from a number of places (state government, publishers, Literature Board) but am terminally vague on details and percentages.

In the meantime, the most interesting thread to emerge from the discussion was the issue of authenticity and ethics. If you write nonfiction, what are your obligations to the people you write about and to the people who read what you write? Was Sherborne, in an account of his childhood that has been described as 'searing', motivated at least partly by anger and revenge? Did Peter Rose know for sure how his brother Robert saw his situation, or was he just speculating? What about James Frey's fraudulent A Million Little Pieces?

The key to these issues lay, I thought, in a phrase that Sherborne used during the discussion: 'in good faith'. I think this is a criterion you could apply to any of the 'fraud' literary scandals of recent times. James Frey was not writing in good faith, and neither was, say, Helen Demidenko/Darville. But if Sherborne's portrait of his parents was harsh or Rose's of his brother somehow distorted or incomplete, clearly neither was setting out with any intent to deceive, nor to settle scores.

Obviously whether a writer is writing 'in good faith' is something you can't measure or, in the end, say for sure. But it's as good a focal point as any for these kinds of discussions about authority, authenticity and truth, where there is inevitably more than one issue at stake.

And in the case of Frey, it seems to me that his single biggest crime in the eyes of those who have reviled him has been making a fool of Oprah. So here's a reading group discussion question: is that a bad thing?