Today, I welcome to the Meet the Writer series Justine Ettler, an Australian writer whose 1995 novel The River Ophelia is said to have sold 40,000-50,000 copies. When Ettler’s PR person contacted me, she noted that even though The River Ophelia was very popular, the author pulled her book from the market with the use of a lawyer. After checking out Goodreads, I noticed the novel mostly has one-star reviews. Ms. Ettler’s PR person said that I was more than welcome to ask about these situations, and my questions are reflected in the following feature.
Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your novel The River Ophelia, which was originally published in 1995 but is being re-released next month?
Justine Ettler: It’s all in the new Author’s Note at the beginning of the twenty year anniversary edition I’ve just put out. In a nutshell, I’d like readers to know that the novel is experimental and feminist, that it began as a parody of Ellis’s American Psycho, that while on the surface it appears to be about a vulnerable, sex-craved woman, it’s really about domestic violence and the effects that has on women who are in love with abusers, what it does to their minds and how it distorts their reality. I’d also like readers to know I was influenced by Kathy Acker and that like her I named the protagonist after myself as a distancing technique — though my character is also named after a famous literary character. So that’s meant to be twice as distancing for the reader.
The distancing is important so readers can get through the difficult stuff depicted in the novel. Readers need to realise that Justine is an unreliable narrator, although as the novel goes on she does become more reliable, especially towards the end once she starts doing therapy and with her therapist’s help starts to move away from the abuser. I think it’s interesting that the novel predates Sex in the City, though Justine is kind of a cross between Carrie and Samantha.
Finally, readers might like to know that I abhor male oriented pornography and that I care deeply for women who are trapped in relationships with abusive men. I know women aren’t supposed to get trapped these days because of feminism, but the reality is they still do. I tried to get this across at the time but the book was marketed in a way that didn’t serve me as an author in the long term. What can I say? The corporatization of the publishing industry meant literary authors had to start selling books too so publishers could make a profit, so publishers looked for ways to create literary controversy and scandals. I think if readers had known where I was coming from the first time around I might have sold less books in the short term but probably just as many over the long term.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?
JE: There were a lot of firsts with this novel, though it was actually my second; Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure was my first. I learned that sometimes rewriting an entire manuscript back to front worked wonders, that less is more, that creating suspense in the opening section is really important. I learned how to parody a number of genres of fiction: pornography, obviously, but also the thriller (I had already parodied the romance novel in Marilyn). I had just written an MA that said parody was intrinsic to the artistic process — Nietzsche was a big fan of parody — so I was taking all this theory I’d learned and putting it into practice. It was an exciting time. I was young and optimistic and I truly thought writing could change the world.
GTL: Although I’m sure it’s an unpleasant reminder, you have a lot of one-star reviews for The River Ophelia on Goodreads. How do you perceive readers’ strong reactions to your work?
JE: Partly, we are a nation of believers in the tall poppies syndrome and we like to build people up so we can cut them down. But there are other factors at play, too. I think some of these readers are just not my audience. This mismatch between the book and readers was partly caused by the way the novel was marketed where the book was presented as Grunge and Dirty Realism and readers were expecting a non-experimental text, something realist like Anne Beattie or Andrew MacGahan. Realism means that characters need to have depth to be believable, but that doesn’t really apply to The River Ophelia because it’s a postmodern novel and postmodernist characters tend to be cardboard cutouts. So whenever I read a review where someone doesn’t realise that the novel has an unreliable narrator, or where someone doesn’t realise it’s postmodern, people who complain that the characters are flat, or the story isn’t exciting, I realise they don’t understand what I was trying to do because they are probably misreading the novel as realism. A lot of Goodreads readers are complaining about these sorts of things.
I also think some of the low ratings might be from the sort of people who read American Psycho and didn’t see it as misogynistic and flawed, if a great novel in many other ways.
A lot of readers did like The River Ophelia, though. I had stalkers and tonnes of fanmail at the time, people painting my portrait, everyone wanted to buy the film rights; Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori and Geoffrey Wright all wanted to direct it. I had so much exposure in 1995/6 and had sold so many books that in 1996/7 Vogue magazine wrote that what was out the following year was anything to do with Justine Ettler. So I even had my very own backlash!
Bad reviews, though, aren’t something I listen to that much. What writer can? Let’s face it, there’s a lot of stuff I hate out there but I guess the difference between me and a lot of people is that I wouldn’t post about a book I hated. What’s the point?
GTL: The River Ophelia won the Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction – Horror Division – Best Novel. I’m always curious as to why some readers don’t connect with an award winning novel. What is your take on the discordance?
JE: I think the novel is confronting for some people, the angry feminist aspects particularly, and that some people hate being confronted by the underbelly of our man’s world, and you can’t find anything much more underbelly than domestic violence. There could be an element of shoot the messenger about it? I certainly felt shamed by some people for writing the book and for speaking out on the unspeakable, for writing an angry book from the POV of the victim of domestic violence where the victim is not tough or heroic, just very angry and vengeful.
Again, I think a lot of the polarisation is to do with the way the novel was marketed, it’s not a grunge novel, but it’s also not an erotic novel. Fans of The Bride Stripped Bare and 50 Shades of Grey will be disappointed if they’re looking for something that explores women’s sexuality.
Also, because people started to read the novel autobiographically, they equated me with my dysfunctional character and then assumed because she can’t get it together, that I can’t get it together and that my writing is incompetent as well. This happens a lot in women’s writing, I think. I was reading something, I think it was Paula Hawkins, about writing female drunks and the assumptions people make and how you get discriminated against as an author. When a man writes a fuck up his character has a problem, and no-one suspects his writing, but where the drunk is written by a woman . . . People think she’s fucked up, so her writing’s fucked up.
Finally, some people will find Ophelia too confronting no matter what. Even with our awareness today about sex addiction, and what that addiction does to a partner, and about Stockholm syndrome and the way it illogically creates strong bonds of loyalty through abuse, some people will still go, “Yuck.” Perhaps these are people who haven’t made peace with their own demons? I don’t know. There is a lot of abandonment in the novel and that can be an uncomfortable thing to connect with. I don’t understand these women. I don’t understand women who voted for Trump, either. I don’t understand women who are misogynists but I know they exist.
By the way, I didn’t know about the award. I knew it won an award for its cover back in 1995/6, but I didn’t know about this award. So that’s great. It’s interesting that it’s an award for genre fiction, for horror, not literary fiction, though. Because I think interesting stuff is happening in genre fiction and that this experimentation at the margins tends to happen most when literary fiction becomes too cliquey and conservative, new distinctive voices can only get recognition elsewhere.
There is a horror element to the novel and it’s great that that has been recognized. There’s also a thriller element too, The River Ophelia is a real mixed bag that way: pornography, horror, thriller, romance, it’s all in there. One thing it’s not is a grunge novel, despite the realist aspects of the text.
GTL: I’ve heard that you took The River Ophelia out of print – using a lawyer to do so. Can you tell me more about that?
JE: Look, it’s something I’m a bit uncomfortable talking about for obvious reasons, but I will say this: pulling the books was one of the hardest decisions I ever made.
GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?
JE: I really don’t want to talk about my personal life in interviews. Let’s just say I come from one of those, why don’t you become a lawyer or a doctor? families but that over time my family come to accept it’s what I do because I love it. A lot of my friends are creative people too because they tend to be the best at understanding what a writer’s life is really like. My dog is currently my best friend and he loves it when I get busy with my writing.