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.