Fay’s next letter to Alice comes from Canberra in January. Fay admits that the additional stop in Australia makes her trip back to England much longer, but tells Alice that she needs the time before transitioning to being at home. Fay relates this process to the delays that she creates for herself before starting a new writing project, saying that an “uneasy mixture of terror, idleness and a paralysing reverence for the Muse” always keeps her from beginning right away.
Detailing the anxiety of her own writing process, Fay provides an especially potent example of the pressures and responsibility that, Fay argues, all writers of fiction face.
Fay goes on to describe the differences between North Queensland and Canberra, remarking in particular that Canberra has a robust reading community whom she met at a book presentation the previous evening. She tells Alice that she used to hate public speaking, but that now she understands the value of using her voice. Fay encourages Alice to speak up as much as possible, even though so many women feel they have to be quiet “when they would do better to be noisy.”
Describing the differences between different regions of Australia, Fay demonstrates how cultural context can interact with the work of the author, in the present day just as it did in Jane Austen’s time. With her fear of public speaking, Fay also gives Alice an example of one of the many ways that gender stereotypes still affect women in the present day.
Fay relates how valuable it is for audiences to connect with an author in order to discover new viewpoints and to gain the comforting knowledge that “we are not alone in the oddity of our beliefs.” She notes that this enthusiasm from readers also puts a burden on writers that Jane Austen and her contemporaries never experienced. While writers like Austen focused on writing rather than promotion and book sales, writers like Fay are duty-bound to make public appearances and answer directly to readers. Accordingly, Fay tells Alice that if her goal is to be a writer, she should give up, but that if her goal is to write, nothing will stand in her way.
Here, Fay provides a deeper look at the way that authorial responsibility affects present-day fiction writers. While the audience still plays a crucial role in creating meaning from fiction, the author’s work remains grueling and sometimes thankless. Still, Fay indicates that a true drive to create will overcome all of these challenges.
Thinking of the differences between her writing life and Jane Austen’s, Fay wonders what made Austen believe that people beyond her family would want to read her novels. She notes that Austen would have read aloud to her family and friends, and that the presence of a literal audience would have helped her learn the dramatic techniques that characterize her novels. Fay instructs Alice to pay similar attention to audience in her own writing, and to remember that the City of Invention should both change and comfort its visitors.
Again, Fay illustrates how the reader—or in Austen’s case, listener—of a work of literature affects the shape of the work as much as the author does.
Fay then details the modern tendency of academics and journalists to try to pick apart the mysteries of novels and their writers. She bemoans the misguided belief that understanding a writer can lead to understanding her work, relating stories of her own readers trying to get her to reveal the secrets of her work. Fay feels that such attempts to pull apart the meaning of literature lead to misguided conclusions. She points to an anecdote of Jane Austen writing in a room where she was often interrupted, which is often interpreted by other critics to have been an impediment to her writing. In contrast, Fay believes that such interruptions would have kept Austen connected to the life of her household and the emotions that powered her work. For Fay, writing is an activity rather than a profession, one that is closely connected to life rather than separate from it.
By framing the interruptions from Austen’s household as an asset to her writing rather than a burden, Fay again shows how literature exists in conversation with the outside world rather than in isolation from it. For Fay, the job of literature is to reflect reality while also expanding it, an interpretation that gives crucial roles to both readers and to social context more broadly. Additionally, imagining a traditionally feminine setting such as the household as a literary asset furthers Fay’s feminist interpretation of Austen’s life and work.
Fay turns to the subject of Alice’s novel, about which Alice has asked for advice. Fay advises her to offer her reader “moral guidance,” meaning a useful example that readers can use to better understand themselves. She says that readers “want and need to be told how to live,” noting that in the City of Invention, events are never due to chance but instead depend on the good and evil actions of the characters who live there. Fay admiringly describes the moral directives of the Russian novelist Nicolai Chernyshevsky and tells Alice that Jane Austen is, in her own quieter way, just as instructive to her readers.
Here more explicitly than anywhere else in the book, Fay calls on authors to act as moral instructors who have a responsibility to provide guidance to their readers. With this call, she further develops the theme of the respective roles of reader and writer and makes it clear that understanding these roles is crucial to writing good fiction.