Saturday, April 7, 2012

Germaine Greer on Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Germaine Greer has received a lot of condemnation recently for her comments on Q and A about Julia Gillard's lack of dress sense and big bottom. As many have argued, coming from an iconic feminist like her such sexist comments are not only bizarre but also highly destructive.

Greer took another surprising swipe at women at the start of her spiel about Jeanette Winterson's latest book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club.

Go to that link and select the specific segment on the right panel, then fast forward to about 3.20 when host Jennifer Byrne asks the famous feminist for her opinion. It's actually pretty funny because you can see The Germainiac start to arc up and the other panellists vocally express their dread about what she is about to say. She doesn't disappoint, saying that the book "belongs to a strangely female genre which I call the lying autobiography".

Well, I don't know if it is uniquely female at all. There have been many autobiographies -- penned by both women and men -- in which the writer has been highly selective, unfair, malicious, and sometimes flat out dishonest.

In any case I think that Greer makes some excellent points in her ensuing rant. She suspects a lot of what Jeannette Winterson writes about her adoptive mother Constance Winterson isn't actually true, and that it's not fair on this woman because she can't defend herself. She also says that writers should be very careful when writing about real people. I couldn't agree more.

A couple of the other panellists seem to think that her criticisms are a bit harsh. One of them concedes that Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is selective; that it's one "version" of the truth. But he seems to be okay with that.

I think this nonchalance about the possible wild inaccuracy of a portrayal of a real figure is pretty widespread. I'm not sure exactly when and where it all started. (Maybe postmodernism is to blame, with its insistence that everything's contextual; that there's no one objective truth, just different takes on reality.)

Well, whatever the cause, it's pretty corrosive. One vivid example of it is related to the movie JFK. Many experts derided the script for its numerous factual howlers. But the writer-director Oliver Stone wasn't fussed about its inaccuracies. He described his film as a "counter-myth" to the Warren Commission's "fictional myth".

That's all very well, but a lot of people who saw it believed that  it was the definitive, truthful account. His film didn't start the conspiracy theories about JFK's assassination, but it certainly gave them a helluva lot of oxygen.

Basically, if you see everything as a "myth" then you'll end up believing nothing, or anything at all. Either state would be a kind of hell, wouldn't it? Writers in particular should remember that there's truth and BS; non-fiction and fiction. They are separate genres.

As Germaine Greer says about about Winterson's memoir, if it's a "novel" then why is Constance Winterson called "Constance Winterson"? You can't really argue with that, now can you?

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