It’s interesting, after days of listening to various writers talk, to watch certain themes emerge – particularly the ones you’d least expect. One surprising thread of conversation across the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ Festivals was the mixed blessing of finding a niche as a writer.
Kathy Charles, author of Hollywood Ending (and former entertainment publicist) wrote a ten-point manifesto on branding yourself as an author in the lead-up to the publication of her novel. One of the things she advocated was to find your niche by becoming ‘that writer who …’ (She positioned herself as ‘that writer who writes about dead celebrities’.) During our MWF session, ‘The Author as Brand’, she reflected that, with experience, this hasn’t always been a helpful strategy. Yes, she’s had lots of publicity, helped by a ‘sexy’ hook. (Note: in media language, ‘sexy’ has nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with pulling power.) But she’s also found herself in the experience, more than once, of wanting to talk about her novel, but instead being called to talk about celebrities – reflecting on dead icons or burnt-out starlets. And while Kathy has the publicity know-how to gently steer the topic around to her book (or at the very least name-drop it), it’s frustrating. She also half-rued the fact that she’s become ‘the author who writes about branding’, meaning her MWF session was on marketing rather than the book.
James P. Othmer, also on the panel, agreed wholeheartedly. He spent twenty years working in advertising, working his way up to creative director at New York’s Young & Rubicam – all the while dreaming of writing novels. After a lot of hard work and several stumbles along the way (including when his agent told him she was quitting to go to clown school), he finally got a publishing contract for his first novel, The Futurist, and quit the day job he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with. Perth’s UWA Press bought the rights to James’s second novel, Holy Water, because they loved it. The rights to Adland, his memoir of his time in advertising (and a look at where it’s going) were, he indicated, an afterthought. Yet, in all his interviews and at most of his festival sessions – both Melbourne and Brisbane – he was asked to talk about advertising. His publisher, he said, was a little frustrated, as they really love and want to push Holy Water.
In Brisbane, during a panel on America and how it influenced the writing of the panellists, James (who was joined by Joe Bageant and John Birmingham) said, with a sigh, ‘this is the first time here I’ve had a chance to talk about something other than Don Draper and The Gruen Transfer’ – a comment he repeated a few times during his session. (Making me cringe, as I’d excitedly talked to him on the way to our session about having just read the 1960s adman memoir that Mad Men was based on, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbour, and how much I’d enjoyed reading it in conjunction with his book. James was a perfect gentleman about it, but it was clear that he was weary of the whole subject.)
In a MWF session on young people and the media, Emily Maguire talked about the fact that she is known as a writer on young women and sex, thanks to her phenomenally successful non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars and its young adult version, Your Skirt’s Too Short. This is, of course, fantastic, she said – she’s really interested in this subject and loves writing about it. And she gets lots of commissions as a result. But the flipside is that she’s interested in all kinds of topics, but the only subjects editors want her to write about fall under this umbrella subject. She’s pitched other stories to editors, but they never seem to be picked up. She acknowledged it’s not the worst problem to have – but it’s frustrating for a writer trying to move into other areas. Kathy Charles made the same point during ‘The Author as Brand’, saying she hadn’t thought about the fact that it might be hard to follow her own interests as a writer as a result of deliberately branding herself as a certain kind of writer.
I had a conversation with an editor during the festival season in which I brought up this topic. ‘But that’s a good thing,’ the editor said. ‘Of course I’d commission a writer to write about the thing they’re known for, a subject they really know. Why would I commission them to write about something completely different?’ I could see what the editor was saying, and as an editor myself, I understand the logic. Of course it’s wonderful to have, for instance, commissioned a renowned feminist like Monica Dux to write about The Female Eunuch, as we did for Kill Your Darlings Issue Two, with results that delighted us. And there’s a sense of satisfied certainty when you commission a so-right pairing like that, which has such a good chance of yielding good results. But there’s also something exciting, I think, about allowing a writer to show a new side of themselves by tackling a different subject from their norm, particularly if it’s letting them indulge a secret passion. It’s a judgement call, but it can be a very rewarding one.
John Birmingham is one writer who it’s impossible to pigeonhole, or even categorise. He writes serious urban history (Leviathan); anecdotal humour (beginning with the iconic Felafel); fat futuristic thrillers; stunning, deeply human reportage-style essays that take the pulse of Australian culture. Yet, as he explained during his BWF session with James Othmer, his diversity has been hard-earned. ‘I wrote Leviathan to escape the gravitational pull of Felafel,’ he told the audience. He was initially reluctant to write and publish the ‘big dumb’ thriller he’d been plotting for fun in his downtime, because ‘having escaped one dumb genre, I didn’t want to get stuck in another dumb genre’. The interests he cited during the session ranged from loving Stephen King’s The Stand (the first book he ever bought) to being besotted with little-known American feature writers from magazines like Esquire and Vanity Fair, who wrote long features of 10-20,000 words. These various interests are represented in his body of work – and being good at one genre hasn’t stopped him from excelling at other, very different ones. I for one think our culture would be poorer without some of Birmingham’s excellent reportage essays – particularly a brilliant piece on the milieu of Pauline Hanson (collected in Birmingham’s Off One’s Tits and anthologised in Best Australian Profiles) and a deeply moving and insightful essay on the Australian recession in The Monthly last June.
During an IQ2 debate on racism in June, formidably brainy Pakistani-Muslim writer Hanifa Deen vented her frustration about being pigeonholed, in response to an audience member who asked why there are so few Australian Muslims in the media, talking about subjects other than being Muslim – subjects that form part of the fabric of our daily lives. Hanifa agreed heartily that this was a problem, using her own experience as evidence. Yes, she’s an Australian Muslim woman and she’s happy to be a voice for her community. But she’s also interested in many other things, and hates the facts she’s only ever asked to talk about her Muslim identity. ‘I wish someone would ask me to talk or write about literature, for instance,’ she said. ‘For instance, I love Mark Twain.’ (During the MWF, Hanifa was part of a session commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain’s death. One small step, perhaps.) This is a really good example of how pigeonholing can work to our disadvantage, confining certain writers and thinkers to the margins, or missing opportunities for stimulating and engaging new work.
Because it’s always exciting, I think, to have an opportunity to read or hear a really good writer on the topic of something they’re passionate about, something that fires them up.
Jo Case is Associate Editor of Kill Your Darlings.