Thursday, August 28, 2008

Janet Frame and Prizes

Janet gets a gong

Janet Frame is sometimes attributed with having said: "Life is hell, but at least there are prizes".

It's a good little quote. She did in fact say it, but it was in a short story, so it wasn't strictly Janet Frame who made the claim; it was her first-person narrator who said it. And the character in the story ("Prizes" from the collection The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches) went on to say: "Or so one thought."

"Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought."

Context is all!

By the end of the short story, the narrator is dead. Coincidentally, as I write this, the author is also now dead. But it is her birthday, and I know that many people celebrate this day, wish her a happy birthday in their thoughts, and think of her with much affection and admiration.

For some people though, the death of an author just becomes their moment to plot to exploit and reinvent the life and work. I wish it weren't true. But the author of "Prizes" foresaw the human potential for inhuman greed. The story finishes with the lines:

"And now I lie in the pit, finally arranged, faded, robbed of all prizes, while under every human sky the crows wheel and swoop, dividing, dividing the spoils of the dead."

I don't think that Janet Frame is talking here, about literary prizes. She received many prizes all throughout her school career - she excelled in academic work as well as debating and writing. And of course as an author she continued to win various prizes and honours, grants and scholarships.

Such accolades were often well timed, and as well as giving material support, they provided affirmation for a path rarely taken. She appreciated them, and she approved of them, and she wanted there to be more of them, so she decided to set up her own awards.

As soon as she realised that her ongoing royalties would be able to benefit other writers, she founded an endowment fund and instructed her Estate to use the money to give timely assistance to worthy authors. It's a great pleasure now for her executors to be able to give awards in Janet Frame's name.

No, I'm quite sure that the giving and receiving of prizes is not what the narrator of "Prizes" meant, by "dividing the spoils of the dead."

For me it's those who tear away at the person of the newly dead author with their teeth and their fingernails, who are the vultures. I shudder when I hear about yet another 'researcher' sniffing around the corpse.

Some 'researchers' seem to realise their desires are morally repugnant so they hide from the light, and try to sneak in to some poorly guarded archive and have access to private material, less than five years after the old lady died.

They claim that their 'research' will benefit humanity. Yeah right. They're hitching their wagon to instant fame and they are using someone who made it clear she didn't want to be exploited.

But even worse than the archive sneaks are the 'researchers' who don't want to bother with facts or artefacts at all, but have brewed up their brilliant idea based on hearsay and myth. Especially the ones who haven't even read Janet Frame's work.

Which disease today, do they think they have diagnosed in Frame from watching Kerry Fox's movie impersonation? The primary insult is not in whichever disease or disorder they choose to decide to remake the corpse in the image of - the insult is that they do not allow Janet Frame her agency. They do not listen to her when she tells her story.

They don't even read her work!

I challenge anyone who thinks Janet Frame had asperger syndrome, or high-functioning autism, to read INTENSIVE CARE, the novel which has a character "Milly", who is autistic. Yes, that's right, Janet Frame had several autistic characters in her novels, and several gay characters. She had male characters too.

Janet Frame had close friendships with some gay people, with some men, and with some people who were on the autistic spectrum. She herself was not autistic, not gay, and not male - not, as Jerry Seinfeld said, that there is anything wrong with that!

Frame wrote novels and she invented characters. There is a murderer in INTENSIVE CARE too, but to my knowledge Janet Frame never committed murder. Although I bet she got close to wanting to, when people misrepresented her, because it was her inner truth they were violating.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pamela:
There are many autistic-trait characters in Janet Frames work: eg. all the main characters in The Edge of The Alphabet (she uses "The Edge of the Alphabet" as a way to describe severe difficulty in social communication. The theme of severe social impairment seems to predominate in her work. Why did she write so much about this, rather than about "normal" people, if she was not at all this way?

Pamela Gordon said...

According to your logic, only vampires can write about vampires; only murderers are qualified to write crime fiction.

Janet Frame herself said that she wanted to give a voice to the people who could not speak for themselves. And so she has.

I hope you have read "INTENSIVE CARE" which also has a character who is autistic. That novel contains a chilling vision of a terrible futuristic society that labels and judges people and disposes of those who are not thought worthy to live. Because of her misdiagnosis, Janet Frame was briefly put into what she called a very privileged position of observing what a society is capable of doing to those it considers inferior in some way. She tried in several of her early novels to fictionalise the message and warning.

I also hope you will read LIVING IN THE MANIOTOTO and some of the other works by Janet Frame - including her autobiography, which do not have a theme of "severe social impairment".

INTENSIVE CARE also has a character who is a murderer, another is a soldier, another who is a mother, another a wife; Janet Frame was none of these either, yet she has been able to describe them too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pamela:
Her type of writing is different from crime fiction and vampire stories dont you think, being partly about her own life and people she knew? An not every work needs to have this theme for this idea still to be valid. I have read the autobiography and biography, and she has social impairment in these, and in Towards Another Summer, which also seems to be about her own life.Oh and I don't think Milly in Intensive Care is autistic, she has a mild intellectual handicap, but I can't see what difference that makes to anything. I also dont think anyone is trying to say JF is inferior if they say she has problems.