If I’m Late, Don’t Wait

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

– Oscar Wilde

Over at the Spectator books blog, David Blackburn raises an interesting query: should publishers be called to Leveson on privacy issues? He writes in the wake of a confessional book by Rachel Cusk, heavily excerpted in the broadsheets.

Aftermath is Cusk’s account of the end of her 10-year marriage. It is extremely frank, sparing little of her erstwhile husband’s privacy or that of her children, over whom the  warring parents have been fighting. Extracts from the book have been run in the Guardian and the Telegraph, and numerous online commenters were furious that the newspapers had allowed Cusk to air her personal grievances at the expense of her children’s privacy.

Blackburn then quotes from below the line:

Children can read.

Children grow into adults that can read.

Children are not possessions.

Children have a right to relationships with all their family members.

Ideally, these relationships should be allowed to flourish untainted by the bitter self absorption [sic] of other family members.

Aftermath is the latest in a series of confessional autobiographies from people of a certain age and class. The Cusk extracts recall Kathryn Flett and Julie Myerson’s similar books on their troubled family relationships, and are written in that tortuous overwrought style that all women writers must apparently imitate if they are to get anywhere in media-literary London. Julie Myerson was criticised because her book centred on her teenage son, who she threw out of the family home after he became a dope addict. You can justify this. Many baby boomers have found out the hard way that the gentle drug they enjoyed as students has developed into a turbocharged incapacitator grown by Vietnamese slave kids in hydroponic farms.

I never thought I would write anything personal. But then, like Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy, I found something personal to say. I enjoyed writing about my various chaotic episodes of mental instability, and in my arrogance I thought they might inspire and comfort people, just as I was comforted and inspired by the Elizabeth Wurtzel books I always read when I’m down. But a thin line separates a true confession from narcissistic victimhood. It is very easy to write a story in which you are the martyr and hero.

We are supposed to live in a misery-memoir culture. There is a huge market for tales of gradual triumph over horrendous absurdity. There’s a huge market for hate and pain in general. Former convict Erwin James said that Martina Cole’s Broken, a crime novel about a paedo ring, ‘had been banned from one prison I was in to avoid upsetting inmates who had been abused as children, and to deny stimulation to those who were child abusers.’ Does it occur to promoters of this kind of confessional that readers may drink down the horror and skip the redemptive finale?

And maybe there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to write confessions at all. The self indulgence of Cusk and Myerson can’t approach the florid psychodrama of Liz Jones. A chronicler of messy interpersonal relationships and ill-advised reinventions of the self, Jones is regularly ridiculed on the social networks for various failures of humility and self-awareness. In 2009 she received cash from thousands of impoverished Daily Shriek readers through the paper, after getting into six-figure debt on Vera Wang dresses and a £3,000 Falcon stainless steel fridge. Last year she claimed to have stolen sperm from a sleeping boyfriend in order to get pregnant. ‘The ‘theft’ itself was alarmingly easy to carry out. One night, after sex, I took the used condom and, in the privacy of the bathroom, I did what I had to do. Bingo.’ Although this attempt at clandestine conception ultimately failed, ‘my dreams of motherhood persisted, and I resorted to similarly secretive methods to conceive in my next relationship.’ Twitter had a field day with this (‘A guy on the bus is asleep. Should I go for it?’) but I tend to agree with Steven Baxter that Jones needs help and support, not ridicule.

Liz Jones mainly writes about herself. You have a right to go on about yourself endlessly. What you don’t have a right to do is to put other people’s business on the street. Blackburn asks: ‘When does the right to privacy start? Should a child’s privacy be protected by the law independent of its parents?’ Take away the upper middle class language and locale, and the Cusks are just another bitter ex-couple brawling in family court.

Julie Myerson’s rebellious and drug-addled son apparently told her that ‘I’m sick of this story of yours, this idea that it’s about drugs. If you want that to be the story then go away and write one of your fucking novels about it, OK?’ In her review of Myerson’s book, Claudia FitzHerbert said that ‘It is hard not to think that the boy has a point.’ Why not save the roman a clefs and character assassinations for the novels? What else is fiction for?

Image: Guardian

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