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Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?

Read Thursday, 26 Apr 2018

Smug, saucy storytelling is turning Anthony Morris off.

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Telling people a story about yourself is a tricky business. How much embarrassing material do you leave in? How much do you change to protect the innocent? And, perhaps most importantly for some Australian writers, how often do you tell your readers how sexy you are?

This might seem irrelevant to the casual reader, who could presumably figure out if they wanted to sleep with an author without ploughing through an entire book on the subject. But there’s a proud tradition of Australian authors – whether out-and-proud memoirists or those writing thinly veiled autobiography – making sure their readers know they’re worth a shag.

My favourite example is Laid Bare: One Man’s Story of Sex, Love and other Disorders (2012),sportswriter Jesse Fink’s memoir about his struggle with sex addiction in the wake of his marriage breakdown. The book opens with him letting us know about his ‘erect cock resting on the chin of one of the most famous women in Australia’. After his marriage ended, Fink turned to internet dating. Fortunately for Fink’s prospects, he tells us: ‘I was 37, at my physical peak and reasonably attractive to most women I met in the course of my working day.’

This kind of book wants to be a searing exposé of the darkness within us all, while still letting you know the author is actually extremely rootable.

Settling into a Sydney bayside suburb, he gets back in shape then gets down to work: ‘My relative popularity online, courtesy of my ability to write coherent sentences, decent looks, and a rapidly thinning face, meant I could take my pick of virtually anyone I liked, vetting candidates on the most superficial of attributes.’  

Eventually he reconnects with his young daughter, who he admits has been growing up without him. ‘I hoped she would think I was a good father. And even if I wasn’t, I’d tried to be,’ he writes. Five pages later he’s flying to L.A. to have sex with ‘a classic blonde … with a gymnast’s body’, whose major appeal seems to be that she is Bradley Cooper’s ex. It doesn’t work out. We end with him flying back to Sydney where he ‘had returned to the love of my daughter and the love of myself’.

Fink puts his own name to his exploits. Fellow Sydney bayside resident Sam De Brito’s novels The Lost Boys (2008) and Hello Darkness (2011) detail the exploits of one Ned Jelli, who superficially seems to have a lot in common with De Brito himself. Maybe not so superficially, actually; the acknowledgements in Hello Darkness thank his editors for getting the book through a difficult period, which he later revealed was throwing out the final chapters because his then partner felt they cut too close to home: ‘I have been guilty of supplanting my highest purpose with a woman,’ he wrote in his Fairfax column, ‘and I believe she lost respect for me because of it. In my case, I changed my latest novel Hello Darkness, to please my partner, and whattaya know? She still walked out.’

The Lost Boys has a premise and a narrative – young Ned Jelli has the world at his feet; old Ned Jelli is a lonely but studly drug-addled Bondi writer; what went wrong? (the book never actually says) – but Hello Darkness is 300-odd pages of observation in search of a story, as Jelli gradually develops a newspaper career identical to De Brito’s. He’s still a tormented guy, though – cue numerous references to cigarettes as ‘the bad nipple’ – who can’t stop lusting after ‘unobtainable’ women. Then, of course, he gets one. Then he gives her herpes. Then he stops contacting her. Then she arrives out of the blue at the end of the book and forgives him because deep down he’s a great guy.

 Once you notice this kind of self-promotion, it leaps out at you. Take Australian actor and playwright Brendan Cowell’s semi-autobiographical debut film Ruben Guthrie. It ticks the usual boxes: flashy Sydney harbourside setting, successful male lead with issues that don’t actually seem to be causing him much trouble and a 21-year-old supermodel girlfriend. He’s in his mid-thirties and we’re told they’ve been going out for five years. This is not depicted as a problem. 

It’d be tempting to write this all off as macho posturing, but it’s not exclusively male. Marieke Hardy’s collection of short personal tales You’ll Be Sorry when I’m Dead (2011) is a prime example of the genre’s mix of sex, drugs and mournful backward glances at what once was. ‘I could weep with such fondness for us all,’ writes Hardy, talking about her group of friends in her mid-twenties. De Brito has Ned Jelli actually moved to tears – ‘I start to cry, for them, for me, because we’re all so fucking clueless … –  as Jelli looks back over his wasted life.

These stories aren’t exactly plot-driven. So what’s driving them? Presumably it’s the idea that the authors, by ‘telling it like it is’ are providing insight into a part of humanity usually kept hidden. They’re not simply babbling on about themselves because that’s their main area of interest. No, by digging deep down into themselves, they’re revealing something about our shared humanity. Which would be great, except that these books are full of self-mythologising, over-wrought prose straining for effect, and references to their author’s attractiveness. 

‘Do I give a fuck what you think of me?’ writes the present-day ‘Ned Jelli’ in The Lost Boys. ‘Now here’s the giggle, the real pain in the arse. Yes, I do. I want you think I’m a good person and, more than that, a worthwhile person. So this is what I’d tell you if you asked me what my ambition was. – I want to teach people with my writing that it’s okay to be themselves.’

But what if who you are is someone who’s written an entire book about themselves doing little more than taking drugs, having sex, talking about themselves and – worst of all – refusing to have any fun doing all of the above because it’s all just masking a deeper pain they can’t articulate but, rest assured, it’s totally there?

This kind of book wants to be a searing exposé of the darkness within us all, while still letting you know the author is actually extremely rootable. At their best, these books are the literary equivalent of a selfie; at their worst they’re more like being ambushed with dick pics.


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