The first thing that you see when you turn past the title page of Riding Man is a hand-rendered drawing of a section of the Isle of Man TT course on which Mark Gardiner has scrawled his notes, including the line “Stopped to make this dwg—so bad felt sick. Cold sweat.” The idiosyncratic and hand-made quality of this image is a fitting opening to the book for several reasons. First, it is a self-published effort, a category of publication about which I will say more below. Second, the composition of the book as a sort of visual and textual collage can be disconcerting and even a tad confusing to navigate, but this has the effect of making the read at least a little bit like the ride on the TT track. And finally, it makes me like Mark Gardiner, which is one of the reasons that I liked this book.
Riding Man is a memoir that records Mark Gardiner’s abrupt shift from advertising agency copywriter and creative director to motorcycle racer, and though the story is familiar (middle-aged man, mid-life crisis, fast vehicle…) it nevertheless locates originality somewhere between Gardiner’s engaging voice and the undeniable extremity of this particular version of a man who is aging and driving at increasingly high speeds.
To return to the production of the book, though: the fact that this is a self-published effort is both a strength and a weakness. There are various reasons why self-publication makes sense in the context of Gardiner’s story. First, because he abandons convention, commerce and a fixed address to race motorcycles on the Isle of Man, there is a logical consistency to removing his story, the most personal of belongings, from any traditional publishing house in the same way that he removes his worldly possessions to a rental house on the Isle of Man. And after all, who would be better qualified to do this than a reformed advertising director? Indeed, a quick visit to Gardiner’s own man’s island on the world-wide web (www.ridingman.com) confirms his advertising background: it is an attractive and professional site with both his book and Peter Riddihough’s documentary of Gardiner’s story, One Man’s Island, on offer. (One small complaint: this middle-aged reviewer could not for the life of her read the black type on the navy-blue background and hopes sincerely that the secrets to tight cornering and/ or graceful aging are not therein somewhere embedded.)
However, despite the seeming directness and simplicity of self-publication, and thus its appeal, it is not without problems, and the problems also parallel Gardiner’s unconventional life. In the chapter called “Packing Up,” Gardiner wonders, “Am I paring down to the essentials? Or am I just blowing apart my life and starting again from scratch, gradually succumbing to randomness?” (245). The answer is, probably a bit of both, and this answer applies to the book as well: sometimes it seems pleasingly spare, pared down and unpretentious, and sometimes it succumbs to randomness, and this may partly be the result of the division of the author’s attention between the writing and publishing of the book. As Edward Picot has noted, “the downside to any form of self- publication, of course, is that it takes lots of time and effort, which makes it a distraction from the actual business of writing” (56), and perhaps Gardiner could have spent more time refining his memoir and drawing out the connections between writing and riding, and more particularly between art and commerce. Gardiner’s memoir raises difficult questions, like: Do we write to sell books or to make art? And, by analogy, do riders race to sell motorcycles or to make art? These questions are never fully explored in Gardiner’s book, but they really ought to be: elite motor sports and advertising are inextricably connected; it could be argued that racing is advertising, that every racer is in advertising. A canny editor might well have requested these sorts of narrative developments of Gardiner. Instead, Gardiner advises us in an odd little apologia that as far as the details of his advertising life go, “I’ve left most of [this] material in because, frankly, you don’t have to read it” (vii), not exactly the most engaging opening to an autobiography. Ideally, the writer makes the tough editorial choices, not the reader.
Copy-editing problems aside, there are many reasons that Gardiner’s choice of self-publication seems apposite. As noted above, Gardiner consciously rejects the values of mass marketing when he quits his advertising job, and it would seem almost unethical for him to place the record of this choice into the hands of a large publishing company. Even as he pushes his reality to the absolute ragged edge of acceptability and safety, Gardiner is forced to seek sponsorships wherever he can; the irony of this is fascinating, and the details of his necessary pursuit of filthy lucre were among my favorite parts of the book. Clearly, sponsorship gives a racer credibility, just as the stamp of a publishing company give a book credibility, but both slide dangerously into conformity, as Niko Pfund points out: “the [publication] review system prizes conformity over creativity, making it difficult for truly innovative work to find publication” (7). Gardiner chooses creativity over conformity in his life (for surely “creative director of advertising” is something of an oxymoron?), and so it is absolutely fitting that he makes the same choice in the production of his book.
The choice to self-publish is also connected to two other aspects of Riding Man: first, the use of text and graphic collage, or “cut ‘n paste,” as Anna Poletti calls it in her article “Self-Publishing in the Global and Local: Situating Life Writing in Zines,” and, second, the use of direct address to the reader in the text. The first of these two works better than the second. The “cut’n’paste” quality of Gardiner’s book is very effective: the text begins with Gardiner’s hand-drawn map, followed by an image of an antique map of the Isle of Man; the body of the text is sprinkled with Celtic iconography; and it concludes with a section of Gardiner’s diary. The effect is to remind the reader that any autobiography is really an assemblage of nearly random and often unpredictable events (even more true of the story of a race on the rainy, windy, winding Isle of Man course) transcribed by an idiosyncratic collection of cells and memories in the form of the writer. Not only does this textual collage make sense at the theoretical level, it also undermines the myth of the author as all-powerful, and indeed, Gardiner is very self-deprecating, even describing himself as “an amateur (and often, I admit, amateurish) motorcycle racer” (4), and this makes him all the more likeable—and theory aside, the success of autobiography largely comes down to the likeability of the author, often a real challenge in a fundamentally narcissistic narrative mode.
Gardiner also refuses to patronize by excessive kindness the people we meet in his book, which may have made this book rather uncomfortable for them to read but makes it feel honest to the reader. And, with an admirable narrative fairness, there are also times when he reveals his own flaws: for instance, he is overly critical of his girlfriend for not stroking his ego (230)--though one suspects she is practically a saint for supporting his eccentric career path and likely also the person he acknowledges who “paid the rent” and “designed [the book] and set the type” (“Acknowledgments”); yet he is transparently and amusingly uncritical of the woman who compares his riding style to that of a World Superbike rider (197) and later calls him “a real racer” (230). There is even an icky reference to his sexual admiration for a teenage girl (181), but in admitting to these and other small vanities and insecurities, Gardiner succeeds in being more likeable because he’s not always entirely likeable: in other words, he is no more flattering to himself than to others In the book, and he avoids being hypocritical or superior in his self-assessment. I can’t help but laugh with him when he describes a video of his ride as “proof of just how hard I’m riding not to finish right fucking last” (232).
Another typical stylistic element of the self-published text, again, both a strength and a weakness here, is the use of direct address to the reader. Poletti has argued that the use of direct address in self-publication, particularly when the author apologizes for the quality of the text, is both an appeal and an affront to the reader:
Because the self-published author, especially one who distributes work through the internet, has a direct sales relationship with the reader, the temptation is to have a direct speaking relationship, through the text, with the reader as well—a temptation exacerbated in an autobiographical work. Unfortunately, Gardiner employs this voice too often and to his detriment, chattily advising us on “How to read the book” (vii)--complete with directions about what to skip--how to handle our readerly boredom (“don’t just put the book down and never pick it up again!”) and how to edit (or not), including details about how he “agonized” (vii) over editorial decisions, how the book was composed, how long it took to write (228)…none of which adds any insight or interest for the reader. There is the occasional postmodern autobiography in which this works (David Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes to mind), but Gardiner isn’t really aiming to deconstruct the autobiographical subject so much as he is trying to tell a good story, so the “Reading Riding Man for Dummies” intrusions would best be left out.
Having pointed these things out, I have to come back to the fact that Riding Man is a good read. In fact, I tore through it in two days, feeling almost like I was on the bike myself through the descriptions of the races, and each time Gardiner pointed to a weakness in his riding skills or reminded himself that because of his age he would never really get much better, I felt like calling him up with some good news: it’s true, your riding is probably going to get worse with age, but the good news is, your writing probably won’t. It is likely, in fact, to get better. So your fast and twisting trip into old age should be a beautiful thing, and it should be a lot less frightening than riding the TT. And, to be completely honest, I’ll probably never get a chance to come out and see your racing, but I would go out of my way to see more of your writing.
Pfund, Niko. “University Presses Aren’t Endangered…But Presses Must Stress Ideas, Not Markets.” Chronicle of Higher Education 48.42 (June 2002) : B7-B8.
Picot, Edward. “Self-Publication Without Tears? Writers With their Own Websites.” PN Review 28.5  (May 2002): 54-56.
Poletti, Anna. “Self-Publishing in the Global and Local: Situating Life Writing in the Zines.” Biography 28.1 (Winter 2005): 183-192.
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