Nobody Wants to Hear About Your Dreams: The subjective address in non-fiction writing

by Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is currently writing her first (non-fiction) book. She responds to Rebecca Giggs' Overland essay on women’s non-fiction writing, subjectivity, bias and writing the personal.

In the Spring 2012 issue of Overland magazine, Rebecca Giggs writes that the critiques of institutional bias against women’s writing have so far insufficiently considered the non-fiction genre.

‘Hooray!’ I thought upon embarking on Giggs’ essay. You see, I’m a woman! And I’m currently deep in the morass of writing a non-fiction book.

We think of non-fiction – especially long-form investigative journalism – as a masculine form because it asserts its intellect and politics, questing outwards to engage with ideologies and shape public debates. And the style of non-fiction we tend to find most rigorous and convincing is conspicuously disembodied and conscientiously objective. The writer evades his or her physical presence in the story, preferring action and assertion to the more equivocal modes of reflection and rumination.

Meanwhile, we think of women’s writing as ‘keyed to an emotional, interior imaginary to the exclusion of an intellectual and transacting one’. And that, argues Giggs, ‘is literary discrimination’s taproot’. It’s this central notion that enables men’s writing to be viewed as a bellwether of broad political, ideological and cultural issues, while women’s writing is represented as some kind of hobby or therapy – a soothing little stroll through the self.

Interviewed about her essay, also at Overland, Giggs says that non-fiction’s claim to excavate an authoritative ‘truth’ about a topic is elusive: ‘Inner and outer worlds are not so easily divided!’ For Giggs, if we accept that fact and allow the corporeal, the uncertain and the experiential into non-fiction writing, we don’t just reveal how arbitrary the genre’s gendered divisions are; we also open non-fiction up to ‘other modes of authority’. As Giggs boldly concludes in her essay, women’s experiences might actually be crucial tools for ‘loosening the screws, and shaking the building’.

My book needs to embrace subjectivity and embodiment, because it’s about clothing size and fit. I want to celebrate the sensuous pleasures of a garment that hangs, clings and moves in all the right ways, making us feel powerful, relaxed or sexually alluring. I also want to explore the excoriating shame we endure when our clothing doesn’t fit. Those soul-crushing change-room experiences. The public disgust and ridicule that greets wardrobe malfunctions.

But from the beginning of my project, I’ve struggled with the perception that what I’m doing isn’t ‘proper’ journalism. My book is no hard-hitting exposé, no barbecue-stopper that will land me on Q&A. (Well, okay, perhaps my absolute loathing of Q&A might have ruled that one out.)

It’s, like, about fashion, LOL!

‘Fashion has often been relegated to being a woman’s domain, something historically not deemed worthy of critical thought,’ says Serah-Marie McMahon, founding editor of Worn Fashion Journal. Fashion historian Valerie Steele, director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, adds that most people think of ‘fashion’ as a remote, superficial fairyland of runway shows and red carpet gowns: ‘They don’t identify it with what they are wearing.’

A cover of *Worn* fashion journal. ‘Fashion has often been relegated to being a woman’s domain, something historically not deemed worthy of critical thought,’ says its editor.

A cover of Worn fashion journal. ‘Fashion has often been relegated to being a woman’s domain, something historically not deemed worthy of critical thought,’ says its editor.

To make matters worse, fashion writing usually appears in that degraded journalistic netherworld, the ‘lifestyle’ press. Lifestyle writing is degraded because it’s feminised. Endless ink has been spilled and pixels blazed over what constitutes ‘quality journalism’; many commentators concur that ‘lifestyle’ is killing it.

Look, I applaud the idea of embracing interiority and uncertainty as a deliberate inversion of the crappy stereotypes surrounding women’s writing. (Check me out right now, banging on in the first person! Subversive!) But I suspect that this explorative, equivocal voice works best when applied to Heavy Issues. It’s the preserve of your Helen Garners, your Chloe Hoopers and your Anna Kriens.

Whereas I’m just trying to outrun the perception that I’m writing a silly, fluffy book for chicks that will actually dismantle the honourable craft of journalism. Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by the gendered regimes of non-fiction writing, but I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when I foreground the intriguing things my research reveals, the intellectual connections I’m making, y’know, my object of enquiry … only to be told that’s not interesting enough. What my writing needs is me, and more of me!

There’s a reason we find it insufferably boring when people recount their dreams. They’re only meaningful to the dreamer. In her essay, Giggs is careful to stress that she doesn’t wish to champion ‘work obsessed with the personal to the point of being trite’. But in championing the subversive powers of subjective writing, are we mutating the first cells of a dreadful, solipsistic cancer invading our literary journals and non-fiction lists?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in seeking to trouble non-fiction’s artificial certainties, we produced a libraryful of near-identical ‘personal journeys’? While Giggs fondly raises the idea of female literary collegiality, I fear a stultifying literary consensus of the kind Emmett Stinson describes, in which women writers are praised for their ‘bravery’ and ‘honesty’ for just writing about themselves all the time.

I know I’ve got to get with the program. So I’ve been casting around for non-fiction authors who handle the subjective voice with elegance and nuance. Tragically, it’s yet more evidence of my gender indoctrination that the authors I’ve admired lately have turned out to be men.

It was a deeply melancholic experience to read David Rakoff’s 2005 essay collection Don’t Get Too Comfortable, since cancer recently claimed the Canadian-born New Yorker at age 47. Best known for his storytelling on public radio’s This American Life, Rakoff was often compared to his friend and colleague David Sedaris, to whom in turn we compare anyone who writes with humorous self-deprecation about quotidian absurdities.

Rakoff’s acerbic writing sometimes relied on wacky stunts and expeditions, but I admire the breadth of cultural knowledge that enabled him to evocatively, hilariously dovetail the highbrow and vulgar. A politely applauded burlesque erection is likened to an ingénue who’s received mildly positive early notices; a runway model covered in bells ‘sounds like a chain gang of Jacob Marleys coming to get us’. He’s physically present in his writing, but only to emphasise that culture isn’t just to be consumed, but also to be inhabited.

Meanwhile, HHhH by Laurent Binet incorporates the subjective address seamlessly into its structure. It isn’t history, novel or memoir, but a deft, knowing performance of all at once. Binet wants to write about a heroic World War II Czech resistance mission to assassinate the evil Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, but he’s not on a simplistic ‘journey’ that parallels the story he’s telling. Rather, he’s enthusiastically pursuing narrative tangents, worrying over the right amount of creative licence to introduce, feeling oppressed by the weight of history, and bitching about the work of other authors in his field.

By incorporating writerly insecurity into the non-fiction structure itself, not simply its tone, could we destabilise the genre’s gendered conventions in the way Giggs suggests? Binet may not be a woman, but nor is he a hardboiled investigative reporter or dick-swinging polemicist. Hell, I’d be a proud chick indeed if I could produce a book of similarly disarming complexity: simultaneously a draft and final copy, research dossier and fretful author’s journal.

Perhaps the mood of serendipity running through HHhH is purely Binet’s literary device. But I hope for a similar serendipity as I wade through reams of my own research, wondering what to cut and what to leave in, just about melting my brain trying to synthesise it all in a way that’s logical, insightful and (of course) encapsulates ‘my voice’.

Portrait of Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and critic who co-hosts the fortnightly literature and culture podcast The Rereaders. She is a columnist on writing at Overland magazine, and a university lecturer and writer-for-hire on film, TV and media. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she’s currently co-writing a second romantic comedy novel with Anthony Morris; their first was The Hot Guy (2017).