Exposure, Olivia Sudjic, Pensinsula Press, 2018, pp. 127, £6
Exposure, the new book by Olivia Sudjic, elegantly dissects the multi-layered web of anxieties particular to the age in which we currently live.
Exposure is the third of four impressive pocket essay books by the Peninsula Press, who launched earlier this with the publication David Wojnarowicz’s short fiction collection The Waterfront Journals. My first introduction to the books of the Peninsula Press was Will Harris’ Mixed-Race Superman, which I really loved, and thought was a great addition to the revival of the long-form-essay-as-book form spearheaded among others by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.
But back to the book at hand. Exposure begins by looking at the concept of Saturn’s Return, which, coinciding with your birth, is the astrological period that the planet Saturn takes to orbit the Sun — 29.5 years. Saturn’s Return, writes Sudjic, is a time of immense self-scrutiny and anxiety, and coincides with the cultural anxiety of turning 30.
Sudjic’s own Saturn’s Return occurs in the aftermath of the release of her first novel, the much-acclaimed Sympathy. During this time, Sudjic was staying in an artist’s residency where she became unable to write due to anxiety.
Sudjic goes on to explore the different facets of the anxiety that she was experiencing with zeitgeist-capturing eloquence. She writes about the anxieties of ‘imposter syndrome’, the anxieties caused by the social media age, and about the judgement of female writers from the critical press.
All of these aspects are written about with a fascinting and insightful honesty that anyone who has suffered from anxiety will surely be able to relate to, but it is Sudjic’s writing about this last aspect—the judgement of female writers—that added a different dimension to Exposure which made it feel vital to the moment (if it didn’t already).
Sudjic explores how when men write in the first person, they are considered to be writing fiction of universal truths, whereas when women write in the first person they are accused of self-indulgence. During the time that she describes, Sudjic carries around the work of writers such as Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson and Roxanne Gay as ‘talismans’ which she describes almost as a source of personal protection. She writes of how Roxanne Gay is dismissed as a diarist while the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is not, and of the deeply personal attacks suffered by the writer Rachel Cusk after the publication of her 2012 book Aftermath, which was heavy on emotional revelations. She also writes about the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose decision to keep her identity secret has led to accusations that she is, in fact, a man.
This is a view that I once heard from a male customer while working as a bookseller. When I asked him why he thought that, he said that despite being largely about female characters, the writing of the much acclaimed Neapolitan Novels ‘spoke too closely to a universal human condition’ to have been written by a woman. Beyond the intellectual vacuity at the heart of the statement, it was the casual nature with which it was said that left me bewildered.
When (white, cis-gendered) men write, even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, like the erroneous beige of flesh-coloured tights, their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women, about women, are not. That’s Women’s Fiction.
— Olivia Sudjic, Exposure, p. 103
Sudjic then runs with this idea of women being dismissed or not believed by society—or at least, not as readily as men—and goes on to link it back in to a naunced analysis of the post-truth age. The skill with which Sudjic is able to bring together in a coherent and infinitely readable form such a complex series of arguments, critical analysis and personal anecdotes is truly impressive.
Exposure therefore is not just a book about anxiety. Exposure is a book about anxiety, yes, but it is also about contemporary society, about the way in which we define ourselves through the media which we create, and about the way in which women—not just women writers or artists—are pushed to the peripheries by the micro-aggressions of a patriarchy that still lingers insidiously in many aspects of society, often while pretending not to be there at all. For those interested in such things, Exposure is essential reading.