2014 columns, Books

Learning from semi-charmed lives

by Carody Culver , July 30, 20141 Comment

The Fictional Woman

I’ve never been one for celebrity memoirs, but perhaps the term is misleading: it can conjure thoughts of star footballers or pop princesses with rags-to-riches narratives, efficient ghostwriters and mammoth marketing budgets. But this isn’t always the case – stars who choose to pen their story often do so to share past experiences of addiction or disorders, exposing themselves as imperfect despite their outwardly charmed lives.

In the wrong hands, this can come across as whiny – ‘I’m so famous and rich, but look at my hard life!’ – but in the right hands, it can be fascinating and poignant. And when famous public figures take a step further and use their personal experience as a literary vehicle for exploring wider social issues, I can happily check my celebrity memoir prejudice at the bookshop door.

Two new releases that fall into this memoir-slash-social-commentary category offer insightful perspectives on two timely subjects that share cultural and personal ramifications: novelist Tara Moss’s The Fictional Woman questions ‘common fictions about women’, and writer and broadcaster Sian Prior’s Shy investigates the curious but common condition of social anxiety.

Tara Moss has been a successful crime writer for over 15 years, but her roll call of career achievements goes far beyond her nine bestselling novels: she’s also a journalist, blogger, UNICEF ambassador and TV presenter. Strangely, however, a label you often hear used to describe Moss is ‘model-turned-author’, even though she’s been a published writer for longer than she ever strode the catwalk. The Fictional Woman is Moss’s attempt to explore ‘the stark disconnect I once experienced between the real and the fictional me’ and ‘the disconnect between the representations of other women and the reality of who they are’.

Moss’s life proves an ideal springboard for a broader discussion about sexism. Her chapters tackle different ‘fictions’ about women (‘The Femme Fatale’, ‘The “Real” Woman’, ‘The Invisible Woman’), which she examines through the prism of her own experiences. She raises many pertinent points, although her (rightful) umbrage at not being taken seriously as a writer due to her ‘former model’ tag is a recurring theme. Leaving aside her compelling personal anecdotes (Moss has had a pretty extraordinary career – not many writers have willingly set themselves on fire in the name of research), there aren’t any new feminist concepts here, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the book’s message.

Shy A MemoirSian Prior’s name might not have the same star power as Moss’s, but she’s also had a successful career in the public eye for more than 20 years – despite being dogged by shyness since childhood. Prior’s quirky memoir is both an exploration of her own recurring social anxiety and how it’s affected her relationships (particularly the 10 years she spent with a famous Australian musician) and working life, and a broader examination of what it means to be shy.

Prior wondered whether anyone ‘would actually believe that [she] was shy’ if she wrote a book about it, but her combination of frank personal revelations and observations drawn from her research into the science of social anxiety make for fascinating reading. What’s so interesting about Prior’s story is the apparent incongruity between her inner self-doubt and her outward confidence and poise – but Prior has deliberately put herself ‘into situations that forced [her] to deal with those feelings all [her] life’. This is sure to resonate with anyone for whom turning down social invitations out of fear or panicking at the idea of striking up a conversation with a stranger are tiresomely familiar experiences – if you’re shy, simple social acts that others don’t think twice about can take up an exhausting amount of mental energy.

So the personal is political in the world of letters, too, particularly in the cases of Moss and Prior. By using their life stories to explore cultural issues, they’ve potentially won new readers (those who perhaps weren’t existing fans) and revealed previously hidden aspects of themselves in the process of their thought-provoking social commentary.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

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