After the release of her debut novel Sympathy in 2017, Olivia Sudjic found herself spiralling deeper and deeper into anxiety. She began contemplating the risks associated with writing, namely that of exposure.
The first essay in the result, an essay collection titled Exposure, is a meditation on this anxiety called ‘Stranger’. Perhaps meditation is the wrong word. Sudjic describes the feeling of sinking deep into a panic attack so acutely that I found my chest constricting and my heart beating faster in recognition. Before embarking on a writing residency in Brussels, Sudjic describes collecting up the books that she holds close, the works of Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, Clarice Lispector, and Elena Ferrante. “To my unfocused eyes”, writes Sudjic, “they weren’t texts so much as talismans to be held against annihilation.”
After the publication of Sympathy, Sudjic’s perception of writing changed. “I realised I was still that book’s prisoner—its physical embodiment—though in writing it, I’d imagined freeing myself.” Although I have never written a book or reached anywhere near the kind of audience that Sudjic has, it’s a familiar feeling, one of writing in order to free yourself from the crowding thoughts and emotions that are put into its creation. And yet, once it has been released, it is still there, still impressing on people. You have no control over how people will react to your work or to you as an author. “I’ve stopped counting the times a friend, family member or random member of the public talks to me about my book as though we both know it’s non-fiction”, says Sudjic. “Whether diary or manifesto, the female ‘I’ at its centre is often treated not as characterisation but an extension of myself.” It is an assumption, Sudjic explains, that only white men are able to express accurately the universal human condition. Everyone else is just writing their own story.
Sudjic describes how she could not shake the feeling that she was, or still is, an impostor. Despite her novel’s success, she felt like a fraud. “In the bathroom it was a surprise to see myself reflected in the mirror and for a moment I saw a stranger. I’d almost forgotten that the nihilism and rising panic were attached to a body with a face.”
In ‘Danger’, Sudjic describes feeling:
locked inside my head, sometimes locked out, like the tyranny of a bad trip. All chronology short circuits and I wish to be put into an induced coma. The ‘real’ me seems totally unreal. An illusion I’ll never be able to believe in again, like a badly constructed fictional character.
She examines the role of social media in establishing and defining yourself as an author; how the exposure associated with social media can trigger self-surveillance and spiralling anxiety. “The idea of multiple identities”, writes Sudjic in ‘Bubble’, “is one we have learnt to recoil from, savouring as it does of insanity, but it is where a writer’s mind meets readers, through the screen of the page.”
Like Sudjic, I have deleted and reactivated my social media accounts more times than I can count. There is always some part of me that wants to escape the vision I have created of myself that I no longer feel connected to. In a publishing class at university, we were asked to examine the online presence of an author, discuss their branding, and evaluate whether it works. I wondered if this was fair, that an author should be distilled down to their online presence. But at the same time, I judge others online, including authors, just like everyone else.
“For those who want to escape their own subjectivity the internet should be a utopian playground”, writes Sudjic. “The ‘real’ world narrows to fit the picture of us the internet has, based on fragments of ourselves we’ve shed (often unknowingly) online like trails of dust, dead skill and hair.” I think about my own online presence and wonder what others think this says about me. What kind of people am I attracting? Who am I repulsing? I am not famous or important, so should I care? Clearly I do, because I keep deleting and refreshing myself online in an attempt to start again, to be better, to get it right this time around.
“So why do it?” asks Sudjic in ‘Seen’. “Why continue to write for a living if writing is so solitary and publication is so masochistic, like throwing the contents of your own life out onto the street for passers-by to salvage?”
I cannot deny that publishing a book is my ultimate goal. I am desperate to one day see my name on a book cover and am slowly inching my way to a full manuscript that will no doubt be rejected. But even if I do manage to get something published, that is no indication that I have ‘made it’ as a writer. It wouldn’t mean that I am any better than any other writer and it wouldn’t secure my future in any way.
As a bookseller, I am all too aware of the highs and lows of book publishing. There are always those few top tier authors who bring out a Christmas bestseller, win awards, and can write books for a living. But there are so many others that fall below and have no choice but to work several jobs in order to keep their heads above water. I see so many books that come into the shop and sit on the shelves, untouched, collecting dust, until one day, months later, the sticker is peeled off and the book returned to the publisher. I see authors slip into obscurity, their books going out of print. I see their events being cancelled due to lack of interest.
There is a part of me that feels convinced that if I am able to get a book published, that won’t happen to me. But that’s not a realistic outlook. A realistic outlook would be to accept that I would toil away for years at manuscripts that never get a look in. A realistic outlook would to be that if I did get something published, it would not be something that would interest a large customer base. A realistic outlook would be that the obscurity I sit in now will continue to be the obscurity of my future. “The world doesn’t need another book,” my colleague said to me, gesturing at the piles of books to be shelved, after I told him about the manuscript I am working on. “Maybe you could get away with writing something like that if you’d won the Man Booker, but…” he shrugged. The rest didn’t need to be said.
Writing is something that writers ultimately have little control over, in terms of reception. “Wanting people to like you,” says Sudjic in ‘Eye’, “corrupts your writing but being hated or humiliated can ruin your life. It is hard to create from a place of total evisceration.” I started writing with intent after the death of my brother. At first, it was unconscious. I just needed a way to let the poison out. But over time, it became more deliberate. “Responding to traumatic events, finding ways to live with fear and communicate it,” says Sudjic in ‘Skin’, “is often what forms a writer’s voice.” I have never had any success publishing anything other than non-fiction; most of it, in some way or another, relating to my thoughts on death. Sudjic writes that she could no longer take fiction seriously, “my own worries—inner voices that would contradict each other—were too loud to ignore.” This resonates with me. I can’t write fiction anymore, and not just because of the constant rejection. I write non-fiction because it’s the only way I can make sense of the world I’m in. I cannot conceive of fictional worlds because I still cannot come to terms with the world I currently inhabit. I write about death not only because I need to, but also because it is a fascinating subject. But I’m sure many readers would disagree with me.
Recently, after an article of mine on immortality was published, I found out that I had deeply offended the wife of my dead brother. She no longer talks to my family, but the fact that I wrote about how she doesn’t talk to my family enraged her. “Lies!” she wrote in a Facebook post, “it’s all lies!” Reconciling truths is one of the dangers of writing non-fiction. What does it mean when my truth is different from someone else’s truth? I stopped working on my manuscript for a few weeks, terrified that if it did one day find itself in the hands of a publisher I might be sued. But then I realised that I can’t live that way, restricted by the potential reception of others. “Eliminating anxiety”, writes Sudjic, “would to me be dystopian. A limit to the emotional range of what it means to be amongst the living.”
Like Sudjic, I too have my talismans: Joan Didion, Deborah Levy, Han Kang, Patti Smith, Olivia Laing, and Virginia Woolf sit in a row along my desk, now making space for Sudjic’s Exposure. “The more I read by the women I admire,”, writes Sudjic, “—and retreat into those talisman texts to reorient myself every time I need to—the more I think of anxiety as a dual force that seems essential not just for living but for creativity.”
Despite the anxiety, the exposure, and the problem of the truth, I will continue to write. It is the only way to know myself. It is the only way for me to truly live.
Chloë Cooper is a writer and a bookseller from Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, and others. Find out more at www.chloecooper.net