The corrosion of truth in these strange times is terrifying.
–Richard Flanagan, The Guardian, March 20, 2017
Richard Flanagan sets a very high moral bar for us all, so when I read he was writing a book about the time we worked together on the autobiography of a now forgotten fraud, I was interested to see how this would relate to the high-minded arguments he made in that Guardian article. Like …
“What if truth is the precarious hinge that holds freedom and progress together?”
“Lies have become alternative facts and truth irrelevant in the face of power, while we all give up our privacy.”
With that powerful promise, I looked forward to reading the book and was caught a bit off guard when I found myself fictionalised in Flanagan’s new book, First Person. Coming from behind the author and onto the page isn’t a very comfortable position for a publisher.
Trouble became clear fairly quickly. The author says it’s fiction, but he was relentlessly out promoting the book as drawing on his very real life experience. When does the reader know he is being a novelist or retelling the actual facts? It wasn’t reassuring when I read a review that suggested it is all basically factual “with only the names changed to protect the guilty”. Should I worry when he says “fiction is not a lie but a necessary truth”?
The vapid, venal figure he depicts as his publisher in 1991 may be the result of his interest in satirising publishing in general, or it may be because that is what he thinks of me. Either way another review suggested the book was “a devastating satire on the world of publishing”.
Should I be devastated? I was when he described Gene Paley (the publisher in the novel) as having flabby upper arms. Because that gratuitous description followed a series of conversations, meetings and agreements that I remember well.
Paley is scared of literature, all about the money, loves mediocrity and is in the thrall of a very Bryce Courtenay like character (I was Bryce’s publisher at the time).
With Flanagan controlling the fictional dialogue, he was able to enhance his own role by adding touches that don’t accord with my memory, or that of Louise Adler, my colleague and his publisher on the book inspired the events in First Person — but they sure are helpful creating that devastating satire of a hapless, greedy publishing house.
All necessary truths?
I remember reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North and feeling sorry for Weary Dunlop, the apparent basis of the central figure, who was revered for his work in the war, but depicted by Flanagan as an overrated lothario. At least Flanagan didn’t fictionalise Paley’s sex life.
And the more I sat feeling “devastated” by my depiction, the more it occurred to me that whilst I had become a cartoon character, Richard’s own persona in the novel had grown into an authentic working-class hero, not the recently minted Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University I interviewed and then contracted in 1991.
Truth and satire, facts, lies and even omissions — it’s hard being a fictionalised character.
I now have more empathy with all those people who tell me they have been depicted as a character in a Helen Garner novel.
*Sandy Grant is a book publisher and co-founder of Hardie Grant.