Monday, April 28, 2008

The Life and the Work

Bless Lionel Shriver's little old-fashioned socks. 'I find contemporary absorption in authorial tittle-tattle perplexing', she says, commenting in the Observer on Harvard University's purchase of the papers of Norman Mailer's lover. (Can't find a link, I'm afraid.) She goes on:
As a reader, I do not care what sort of rogue or philanderer wrote the books I love ...In fact, I do not especially care to know anything about the novelists whose work I admire for I've found that meeting most writers distracts, if not detracts, from their work ...the whole concept of publishing - I thought- was to draw a hard line between the public and the private.
She's dead right, in my view, but I do wonder if she's being a little disingenuous: in the real world of publishing to which as a HarperCollins author she most definitely belongs, it's de rigeur now for authors to present themselves as part of the publishing package. She does confess this:
When I mentioned idly to my publicist recently that I'd kept a journal from age 12, she asked if I'd like that archive accessed posthumously, and I blenched. Had I known what was good for me I'd have scurried home and burnt every last notebook in the back garden.
but the implication that she has not done it undercuts her somewhat heartfelt plea: 'Can we return to the days when writers had mystiques?'

Not that it isn't already blatantly undercut by her editors who apparently know better and illustrate her piece with headshots of Mailer himself and the glamorous mistress Shriver would rather not know about (not to mention the obligatory headshot of Ms Shriver herself). It was the same for Melissa Benn whose recent Guardian article complaining about autobiographical readings of her novels was illustrated by pics of the family she was trying to convince us weren't the one in her fiction.

I'm with these authorial complaints, though, and just because the system's got you in its grip doesn't mean you can't shout out. Here's Mark Ravenhill today reacting to an audience member's assumption that 'he must be so unhappy to write about such a horrible world' and to university teaching course moves to counsel students in whose writing violence emerges. I was more annoyed than Ravenhill admits to being when a reviewer said that the execution of one of my novels suffered 'because of my own pain'. Okay, I thought, my teeth grinding: if the novel doesn't work it doesn't work, but you have to be able to prove it by reference to the novel itself, not to my life (especially if, as in my case, you know nothing about it), and don't go criticizing a closeness between the work and the life which you manufactured in the first place!

Meanwhile, none of these worries affect Michel Houellebecq who, like Mailer, knows a good route to publicity when he sees one and has happily publicized the links between his life and fiction. Thing is, though, as ever, the 'facts' can be disputed, in life as well as in art, and today he and his mother make the front page in a spat which sadly bypasses the real matter of fiction: the language, the structure, and the emotional truth they convey.
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