A slim volume – 120 pages, that are not full size pages, it is about one-third smaller than your average book. Sudjic is a novelist / essay-writer that I haven’t come across before, but this essay was referenced in an article about anxiety and female writers struggling to find a space for their voices. It was written after the publication of her first novel Sympathy, and as she tells it, as a reaction to the publication of that novel: both her own reaction to it and also as a reaction to the reception of that novel by others.
The framing of this essay is around her securing a residency in Brussels – Sudjic is British, London-based – which she hoped to use to work on her follow up novel. She describes taking 6 novels with her on this residency, all by female writers – Cusk, Nelson, Ferrante, Kraus, Lipsector and Offill. A quote from each of these opens each chapter which are entitled; stranger, danger, seen, bubble, skin and eye. There are also hints that there is the break-up of a relationship lurking in the background.
Brussels does not provide the seclusion she needs, or rather, the seclusion she can usefully employ as she had intended, instead she feels herself slipping out of society, blurring, becoming increasingly insubstantial…both as a consequence of, but also as an accelerant to her feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. Mentally she seems to be erasing herself and her abilities as a writer. Until in the end she feels like an imposter.
While Sympathy explored surveillance and identity in the internet age, in Exposure Sudjic uses her own experiences to look into a wider problem: the tendency for writing by women, whether fiction or personal testimony, to be invalidated on the grounds of sex, examining the assumptions that attend and often damage female artists, as well as the strategies by which they might escape them.
“It seems natural that this mutating, chaotic force should be an engine for writing, which ultimately creates order from chaos. And yet, when a woman’s subject is female subjectivity, or skinlessness, or the self, it is not only men who feel sceptical, but readers in general who assume there is no craft, no rigour, no strategy which underpins it…Perhaps it is because women are still associated with passivity and interiority…”
She goes on to note, “When (white, cis-gendered) men write, even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition…their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women about women, are not. That’s Women’s Fiction, for which category there is no male equivalent.”
It is a thought-provoking and brave, and anything but a ‘small’ book.