Her Last Words, Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly is an Australian author, who grew up in Sydney, found her first vocation as a book editor and her second as a writer of fiction. She doesn’t give us her age and I won’t bother guessing. Over the course of her writing career, she had a publisher, lost her publisher “as interest fell off”, and began self publishing. Now, in her latest (Sept 2021) newsletter she writes, “All of my independently published novels – eleven of them – have been removed from sale in Australia and New Zealand to make way for beautiful new Brio Books editions from Booktopia.”

This spurred me to check out BorrowBox and, as I write, I am up to the last chapter of Her Last Words (Kelly’s tenth, published 2020, but set a few years earlier). And to be clear, I am enjoying it very much.

What I want to discuss is how we define “middlebrow” or “general” fiction, and how we separate out Literary Fiction, which is the general concern of this corner of the blogosphere – though of course we all condescend to dip our toes from time to time in genre fiction which may or may not be Literary. And before Kim starts firing bullets at me across the continent, let me say that while I get the impression that she, maybe for financial reasons, aims at the “general” market, there is absolutely no difference in quality between Her Last Words and say, Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, let alone other authors mysteriously taken up by the literati – you knew I’d say Jane Harper, Evie Wyld, Peggy Frew and so on.

It is germane to this discussion that the great majority of reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge are for works/authors you and I don’t bother reading and which of course sell in quantities that make every literary author green with envy. So what is the distinction?

Some of it is clearly class and/or education. Let us say that General fiction is aimed at middle class women for their entertainment; and Literary fiction is aimed at upper (by education rather than wealth or birth) middle class, men and women, for their … improvement.

Literary fiction should be marked by innovation in writing and in subject matter. However, what passes for Literary fiction most of the time, as the Miles Franklin Award demonstrates year after year, is just entertainment for the slightly better educated.

Her Last Words is a Rom.Com/Police Procedural/Medical Drama. At its centre are two characters, Penny, a senior book editor, and John, an actor, friends, both thirtyish; and a Sydney suburb, Bondi, slightly shabby, famously beachside. Having Penny in the industry allows Kelly many opportunities to vent about publishing (in particular, the wankers in corner offices profiting from the labour of tireless senior book editors), and to write about writing.

There are plenty of other characters – Fizz, an aspiring writer, Penny’s best friend and John’s partner; Jane, Fizz’s flatmate and definitely The Villain; Rich, an Irishman who owns a not very successful Bondi bookshop; Viv, a (sixth generation) Chinese-Australian doctor with colourful hair and shoes; a police detective whose name I forget; a failed banker/druggie; a truck driver even, whose truck facilitates a suicide.

As in life, there are interlinking plots. John and Fizz have a falling out; John gets very ill; Penny deals with an unsatisfactory job; Jane passes off someone else’s manuscript as her own and is on the way to becoming the next big thing; there’s an unexpected death; romance blooms, but very slowly.

The characters are well drawn, we love them, or hiss the villian, appropriately. Bondi is a character in its own right. It’s a long time, 25 years maybe, since I’ve been there, and it’s probably been gentrified out of sight. But Kelly evokes it beautifully and lovingly. She doesn’t live there now but surely she must have in the past.

I had hoped to get hold of an ebook so as to write a proper review with quotes (and properly spelt names) and all, but I guess they have been temporarily lost in the transfer of rights to Brio. which is launching all Kim Kelly’s books next month.

You may remember that a couple of years ago Kim won the wadholloway award for blogpost of the year (2019) for a post about the inappropriateness of Holocaust Fiction. She was probably writing Her Last Words at the time. Penny, who puts in a great deal of unpaid and unappreciated overtime dealing with unsatisfactory manuscripts, has ongoing issues with one in particular which features a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany offering sex to a soldier in the SS, what she, appropriately, labels Holocaust Porn.

Between Penny’s job, Jane’s shot at the bigtime with a stolen ms, and the Irish bookseller, there is a lot of bookish, not to say, literary, talk. Which, for me, makes this a Literary work. And there is a meta element to it, an underlying discussion of its own Rom.Com.ness, culminating in the final chapter ‘Semi Traditional Rom.Com. Denoument’. If there is a weakness, it is its length, getting on for 400pp. In the General market big is better, I’m sure, and Her Last Words sags a little around the middle in a way an experienced editor, like Kim Kelly say, might have ruthlessly excised for a different market, ie. us.

I hope Neil@Kallaroo whose tastes I largely share, reads this and gives us his opinion, I hope you all do. With different marketing Her Last Words could easily have been Australia’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, It deserves to be read.

.

Kim Kelly, Her Last Words, first pub. 2020. Due out 12 Oct. 2021 from Brio/Booktopia. Available now from Audible.

38 thoughts on “Her Last Words, Kim Kelly

  1. Oh good grief, good on you Bill for tackling this issue, but IMO these conversations always end up with LitFic readers feeling attacked and defensive, and readers of general/commercial/genre fiction feeling attacked and defensive.
    So I’ll just observe from the sidelines.

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  2. No one ever talks about cover art in these kinds of debates. The type of font chosen and the colour palette, for instance, are subtle suggestions about whether the book is general or lit. If you follow the AWW blog and see the monthly round-ups it always amazes me the number of romance books read and reviewed and all the covers look pretty much the same … they are the type of covers that would not entice me to pick them up… even the cover of the book you talk about here is, to my mind, horrible. I would not pick this book up because of it. That probably says a lot about me, but I’m not afraid to admit I judge books by their covers … and I rather suspect most other people do too.

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    • Kim, I totally agree with you. That is a Romance genre cover and in no way represents what the book is about. In fact I thought Kelly wrote romance genre fiction and only borrowed her book because I like her occasional blog posts and because I read nearly anything while I’m driving. I’d be interested to see what cover Kelly gave the book when she published it herself.

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    • I had the same response Kim, and that cover would be enough to stop me picking up the book too!

      Bill, where do I find the link to the Holocaust porn conversation please?

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  3. LOL. Thanks for the challenge, Bill. Your review had piqued my interest before I got to the end. I prefer to read ebooks (saves on storage), so might be a little while before I get to it.

    In terms of Lit vs General, I am a READER. I read what I like, and often I like what I read. For example, I finished off The Dressmaker last night, and was wondering what to tackle next, when Goodreads showed that the SIL was reading a book about Napoleon and his global influence. So that’s what I’m reading now. It’s a book, I read, end of story (well, not quite yet, I don’t read that quickly!)

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    • Was napoleon a ‘global influence’ is a ‘global’ just a euphemism for ‘European’? It’s never just a book for me. I have to locate it amongst similar books for it to make sense.
      My reading of Napoleon goes from Pride and Prejudice to county militia to mobilising for war in Europe to Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army to Waterloo to a book on Napoleon’s generals. I don’t see the point of reading non fiction for its own sake.
      i hope you get to Her Last Words. I can’t imagine Booktopia won’t bring out an ebook version alsmost immediately.

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  4. I think the distinction between literary and general fiction is rather blurry, as you suggest in your post. I tend to think of literary fiction as any novel where the author is being intentional about themes and language beyond the plot and characters – so any genre can be literary. I keep and periodically update a list of my favourite fifty novels. If I look at the top ten, I can see historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and detective stories in that list, but they all have something to say beyond the underlying plot, and that’s what I’ve connected with and loved about those books. (Except, perhaps, Swallows and Amazons, which is just a very good children’s book that imprinted on me at an early age). I would argue that all of them are literary for that reason, even though they probably weren’t marketed that way and almost all of them are genre novels.

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    • I like the idea of a constantly updated list of 50 favourite novels, I couldn’t name my #1 even without some thought, and I keep failing to distinguish between ‘favourite’ and ‘best’. If I could only take one to a desert island it would almost certainly be Ulysses. But favourite? – for the moment I’ll say Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (I know it’s barely more than a short story). My absolute no.1 book from my childhood is The Golden Age. I may never have read Swallows and Amazons.
      I agree totally about Literature and Genre – Ballard, Le Guin, Lessing, Dick all write Literature which is also SF, and the same is increasingly true of Crime.
      I forgot to say and I really should have, that Kelly herself discusses the distinction, She is very scornful about Bryce Courtney (advertising exec. turned popular novelist)and while quite affectionate about Judy Nunn, is clear that her Australiana is on the General side of the boundary.

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      • My list is entirely subjective “favourites” – I think I’ve read much better novels that don’t make the list, and there are some on there that I don’t think are actually very good but for which I have a great deal of affection. Lord of the Rings stays consistently in my top spot despite a whole variety of flaws, and I suspect it will stay at the top for the rest of my life. (Latest iteration is here if you’re curious: https://louloureads.wordpress.com/2019/06/03/fifty-favourites-june-2019/). I doubt I could ever identify the best novel I’ve read – too much competition!

        I genuinely believe that Swallows and Amazons approaches “literary” quality – it’s got Keats references and is a bit metafictional in places in the first book, and there are two or three later in the series that have long metafictional elements in them. It’s also only the children’s series I’ve read from that age of literature that has interesting, non-stereotyped working class characters – not in the first book, but in some of the subsequent ones.

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      • Love your list, Lou. Of course it’s subjective! By definition really. I hope you continue to update it bi-anually. I wouldn’t have Wodehouse in my own list in a fit; am indifferent to Ishiguro; might have All Quiet on the Western Front much higher; my favourite western is Shane; I would include of course some Australians – Such is Life, Clara Morrison, An Australian Girl, Benang for instance; and at least Le Guin’s The Dispossessed from SF, though probably also an early William Gibson.

        I have a granddaughter turning 10 in a week or so, so will look today for Ransome amongst the “classics”.

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  5. My brain has latched on to one of your last sentences, about Her Last Words possibly being an Australian Bridget Jones’s Diary. Interestingly, I read BJD in college in 300-level (usually junior, or 3rd, year) Modern British Lit course. I was surprised that such a book would be chosen by my Very Serious Professor. As I read, I kept thinking about how BJD covers all the normal romance novel stuff: liking guys, families asking when you’ll settle down and stop screwing up, a couple of best girlfriends + one gay friend, and dieting. If BJD says something bigger about life for British women in the 1990s, I’d argue most romance novels say something about the time they were written and the country in which the characters live. And of course Her Last Words immediately made me think of Love Literary Style.

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    • To be honest, I said Bridget Jone’s Diary off the top of my head, I don’t remember it very well (perhaps Lou should step in here, she has it in her 50 favourites) but Penny and BJ are similar in appearance. I don’t think Her Last Words says very much about the times – around 2015 – except a little about what it is like to live and work in Bondi (which might be any suburb on the edge of any CBD except that it is bordered on one side by endless sparkling Pacific Ocean coast). I agree too that Love Literary Style is a better comparison but despite our best efforts that is not so widely read as BJD.

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      • I think a lot of what I love about BJD is that it is much more about Bridget’s friendships than her love life. The scene that sticks with me (that didn’t make it into the film) is when her friend Tom disappears for a day because his boyfriend broke up with him in a particularly unkind way and he’s moping, and their little friendship group don’t know why he’s missing, only that he is. They’re so worried about him that within a few hours they’re combing the streets of London trying to find him, and it’s a very moving scene when eventually they do and he’s just embarrassed and sad, not in danger. It’s a book that’s trying to come to terms with changes in the way we think about family and relationships – gay men and childless single women in their thirties simultaneously having more freedom than they ever have before, but also trying to find their way through the loss of stability that comes with not having a nuclear family the way they perhaps assumed they would (and would likely have done in previous generations, even if just out of social pressure). Obviously it’s a take on Pride and Prejudice, but though Lizzie’s family are always pretty difficult in any adaptation, in the late 20th century Bridget is free to step away from her family a bit and form a new one without necessarily having to get married or have kids. She’s independent and she’s loved whether or not Mark or Daniel ever return her feelings, and I think it’s fascinating to have a romcom be so much about it being okay to be single.

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      • Thankyou for that analysis, Lou, that’s an interesting take on “the times”. I married early and basically never went through the dating stage at all, and I often wonder about the number of 30 year olds in fiction not yet settled down (looking and not finding). Penny doesn’t think she’ll marry, but part of that is a lack of confidence in herself.

        I was at my daughter’s place yesterday. The kids said they had seen the Swallows & Amazons movie (and told me what it was about). You’ll be pleased to know their mother had the book on her shelves and Ms 10 made a start on it on the spot. I gave Ms 18 The Scarlet Letter and a story collection compiled by Angela Carter.

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  6. This sounds an intriguing book but then I am a serious and intentional reader who doesn’t particularly like literary fiction (certainly modern literary fiction, Rachel Cusk and Ian McEwan and all those types). Make of that what you will!

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    • I am forming a good idea (I think) of your tastes. I don’t much like McEwan either, does anybody?, but I’m going to have to look up Rachel Cusk. Two recent releases I have liked – Lost in Translation and An I-Novel – might give you some idea of the experimentation I enjoy in modern Lit.Fic.

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      • Yes, An I-Novel did look interesting although I’m not often madly keen on experimental novels, either. I’m probably an outlier because my interest tends towards books where I learn something (so a lot of novels of immigration or other lives than those similar to mine and non-fiction) or then just total light escapism.

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      • I probably veer away from learning stuff. I’m not sure if you follow Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, but she (Kate W) has just posted a review of Cusk’s Second Place.

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  7. This post has stirred up some interesting discussion. i don’t pretend to know what people mean when they say “literary fiction” – maybe it’s different for everyone. But I do know what I like to read – well, I like to read lots of different things – but I especially like books that push the boundaries and make me think. Experimental, too, including in structure. I don’t get a lot of satisfaction out of formulaic books – I like books to be unpredictable.

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    • We’ll definitely put you down on the Lit.Fic side of the divide. Though I’m now thinking of another divide – between well written entertainment and less well-written entertainment. I think a lot of well-written entertainment gets passed off as Lit.Fic.

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  8. Personally I think there is too much naval gazing and snobbery around reading. I have encountered comments about particular authors who have sold thousands of books but aren’t recognised as literary. I read everything from Booker winners, to translation to James Patterson and Lee Childs. If I am enjoying what I read I could give a stuff what others think. I remember when Bryce Courtenay died I overheard a member of my book club say “it was no great loss, he didn’t write that well anyway”. I met him once and he was the gentlest, friendliest author who sold millions of books who might otherwise never discover the joy they got from reading his books and I told her so. I have no time for people with those attitudes. Just read, enjoy your niche and ignore the judgemental fools of the world. It’s like photography. Same issues there. 🤠🐧🐦

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    • Wow, that’s an unkind thing to say about a human being, regardless of what sort of writer he was. I would hate to think anyone in my reading group said something like that about a decent person just living their lives. What sort of person is this reader?

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    • A robust reply, Pam! We’ll have to disagree, at least to the extent that I think defining Literary Fiction is important. But I still enjoy ‘entertainment’. Lee Childs is a favourite though I’ve given up on Patterson (or whoever writes under his name these days).

      I often feel when I’m having a go at an author that I run the risk of being regarded as disliking the person when I’m just a critic of their work. Your friend mis-spoke, but I’m sure they didn’t mean to say they were glad a person was dead (I hope not anyway!).

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    • Pam, I should have said that what motivates me is an enjoyment of the theory of literature. Seeing how writing/story-telling works, what has changed over time, what templates an author has used and of course comparing and categorizing authors and texts, which can be subjective!

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  9. Good on you Bill for tackling this, as you know that it’s something I have to tackle every month when I do the AWW round-up for “literary fiction”. I don’t really have a problem with defining something as “literary fiction” because like most readers I need some sort of stand to hang my reading preferences hat on, something that helps me find the sorts of books I might like to read.

    Overall I agree with you that “literary fiction should be marked by innovation in writing and in subject matter” and I would add Lou’s excellent qualification that it tends to be writing “where the author is being intentional about themes and language beyond the plot and characters – so any genre can be literary”. I might quote you on that Lou because it encapsulates how I “feel” about the distinction. Lou’s qualification helps explain why some books still “feel” literary long after their innovation has become the norm.

    I take your point about general fiction often being more about “entertainment” but rather than using “improvement” for the alternative, I think in terms of being “challenged”. I like writing that asks me to slow down and think. So, for example, with Charlotte Wood’s The weekend, what was Finn about? Why did she put him there?

    However, I don’t like snobbery about what we read, see, listen to etc, because as your commenters have made very clear, we all do these things for different reasons, and sometimes our reasons are different at different times so we’ll cover the gamut.

    Oh, and Kim’s point about covers is very good. There are authors who want to be “taken seriously” and who hate covers which suggest they don’t need to be. On the other hand, those covers often get them the sales!

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    • Covers are often shorthand for what the book is meant to contain. And I’m sure that’s what we’re referring to when we say such and such a cover was ‘wrong’. I can’t imagine why Brio chose such a romancy cover when some of the others (for Kim’s 11 re-releases) are quite smart.

      I am a snob when it comes to reading. I am prejudiced for/against particular kinds of work.

      Challenged is excellent.

      Lou’s is a good definition. I am very strong on dating a work so that I can compare it with what I know of the social and literary forces of that time.

      I find that a very big elephant in our room – just how few works we discuss, in the AWWC, compared with the relatively huge numbers each month for ‘general/romance/historical’ fiction.

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      • For a snob you read a wide variety Bill!

        Glad you agree with challenged, and yes I like to know dates of works too, for the same reason. I’m sue that won’t surprise you.

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      • And, re AWWC, you may have noticed that the “most reviewed” litfic books in my roundup stats section tend to be books we don’t see around the litblogger traps. I have often never heard of the book or author. I do sometimes edit the database to remove the “literary” tag from the record, but if a few people have so marked a book I bow to the numbers. I used to hate what the stats would show, but I’ve got used to it now.

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      • Sue. That’s really interesting. I had always assumed that you gave a roundup of ‘most reviewed’ before starting on lit.fic (and more importantly, classics). But it’s actually other readers subverting our sense of what is literary. Well good for them (though I’m still p*ssed I don’t appear in their ‘general’ roundups).

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  10. Behind that cover, Sue, is the short answer. Penny coins the phrase while venting about one of her authors.

    Kim’s old blog posts are missing from her website (as is a contact email address), no doubt something to do with the new publishing contract. The one on inappropriate Holocaust fiction was blistering and if Kim contacts me I’ll see if she’ll give me permission to repost it.

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  11. I’d be genuinely interested Bill, as I have Jewish friends whose opinion I’d be interested to hear (they lost family in the holocaust). I can guess their response but still!

    I haven’t forgotten the Cynthia Nolan review Bill (A Bride for St Thomas). (I know, it’s taking forever, sorry!) Two of her previous books feed into it, and both are incredibly hard to find, and happen to be held in the library of Orange in the central west here, but are not for loan – and due to lock downs I haven’t been able to get there. I did get to read them years ago, and found her experiences in the USA (and earlier childhood experiences in Australia) fed into her novel about her time nursing in the UK. I didn’t want to do a review without mentioning these – Lucky Alphonse and Daddy Sowed a Wind. They’re worth a mention as they are part of the Sydney Nolan story which is such an interesting part of Australian art history.

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  12. Hunh. Those roses would have put me off straightaway. I must have read something with roses on the cover that I didn’t take to. *chuckles* As we have recently discussed, under separate cover, I grew up reading a lot of commercial fiction, the kind sold in department stores and drugstores, on spinning racks in convenience stores and in the back shelves of small-town stores that did not sell books (hardware, stationery, you name it). The past couple of years, between climate crisis reading and various related reading projects, I haven’t strayed far from serious fiction/non-fiction, but in most years I still read a good bit of “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, alongside. Dan Brown, yup, I think I’m uptodate. *grins* I’ve only read one of Lee Child’s, but I get the appeal–he writes amazing fight scenes!

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    • The cover is just plain wrong.
      The question I was attempting to pose was, What do we do if we come across Literature unexpectedly? We have the problem that good works and bad will increasingly be self-published. And that good works will be made bad by poor or no editing.
      Maybe a generation less foot in the grave than my own will create registers of works fitting various criteria. No doubt bloggers willing to sift through the dross will develop squadrons of followers.

      i read Lee Child for the character development (Reacher unfortunately doesn’t do romance).

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