Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Mot du Jour: Naughtobiography

No, this is not a new word coined to celebrate the coming-out of celebrated courtesan-diarist Belle du Jour, though it sounds as though maybe it ought to be. I am not one of Dr Magnanti's followers myself, because I get enough of the old nine-to-five for most of the year as it is, and reading about how somebody has managed to turn sex into the same old grind would just be too depressing for words. Kudos, however, to her for beating the sin-sniffing truffle-hogs of the Daily Mail to the revelation. And likewise to her employers at Bristol University, for the rare good sense of their response, namely that the affair is none of their blooming business. In an age which seems increasingly determined to canonize Paul Pry, truly they are an unvandalized drinking-fountain of reason in a manky municipal park. Yay them!

As a writer, I note one point of special interest about the literary Belle and the real Dr Magnanti. Being essentially identical for the two autobiographical books, they then parted ways in the third - Belle living on as a fictional character in her accustomed niche, whilst her author went on to pastures new. This is an uncommonly clear highlighting of just how close to fictional characters our 'real' personae are, and how the difference can disappear entirely when engaged in 'giving an account of oneself'. Storytelling seems really to be close to the heart of what it is to be human - without that power, would we 'have a character' at all? Some entertaining thoughts in this vein can be found in Terry Pratchett et al's different cut of semi-fiction, The Science of Discworld II, which offers some memorable sidelights upon the storytelling chimps of our Roundworld. Highly recommended.

Leaving sex-bloggers and call-girl diaries behind at this point, I proceed to the promised definition of a really degraded form of literature:

Naughtobiography, n. An insignificant slice of the banal life of a person of ephemeral notoriety.

Usage: I walked past my local bookshop and it was promoting Busting Out All Over, the latest naughtobiography from failed starlet and soaraway reality TV sensation Kitty Obvious. Her ghostwriter tells a moving tale of a year spent launching fashion ranges, slagging off haters, and falling out of nightclubs while the world watched in awe! Now with cutting-edge Pop-Up™ technology! Feck, I need a drink!
This usage was used, approximately, by me, and yesterday, in the course of walking past Waterstone's.

And I reflected that the world is full of people who read these books, and wish that they, like the Kitty Obvious du jour, could sublimate the everyday characters that are their very own into personae more fictional and starrily sellable. You've got to search for the hero inside your market niche, apparently. That is what 'living the dream' cashes out as. That is modern celebrity.

But actually becoming that Thing, instead of just playing it on TV - that looks to me like little more than a fancy form of suicide. And if the whole shtick is that one's life is all on TV, oh ye would-be Kitty Obviouses and Tom Thumps out there, what then? What shall it profit a chick if she shall gain the whole world, and yet a cartoon bimbo shall have eaten her soul? Mmm?

Give me a Brooke Magnanti any day of the week, who knows better than to offer anything quite as intimate as that for public sale. She is apparently working on some new line of fiction now, and I should not be at all surprised to learn that she really is a high-class writer, if you like that kind of thing. For if there is one gift that a writer of fiction needs in more than common measure, it is a razor-edged ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy. You cannot do the maker's work of mixing and matching the two otherwise. You might as well be a painter who can't tell the difference between light and shadow.

The people who dream of being naughtobiography material are dreaming of living in the light all the time, and hoping to forget everything they ever knew about darkness and obscurity. But there is no making in that, neither of a story nor a painting nor a life: only a flash in the pan, and then the long blind dark.

It is a very naughty fig-tree indeed, and I hate to see so many honest-to-goodness human beings jumping and jostling and belly-crawling to get their one fatal chomp at it.

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