The urge to write about oneself is not confined to authors. All kinds of people do it. Politicians, celebrities, sportsmen, hairdressers, artists – anyone anyone’s heard of, in whatever capacity, mostly at the request of publishers.
These books sell well, and are as interesting or not interesting as the person whose life is under the microscope. They have a long history, Benvenuto Cellini the sculptor wrote a memorable one in 1565 and caused a scandal: it is still widely read today.
Frank Harris, a literary man about town, wrote his in 1922: My Life and Loves, which my mother forbade me to read, but made such an impression I called one of my own novel after it.
Your own Jørgen Leth, film director and critic wrote The Imperfect Man in 2007, and that is still causing ripples.
An autobiography can get its writer into trouble. The more scandalous it is the better it sells – whether the scandal is political, as in Tony Blair’s My Journal, or about the sporting life, as in Maradona’s Hand of God, or caused by sexual disclosures, in which everyone is interested.
The reader has a great appetite for truth; and sometimes the only way to get to it is through reading what other people’s lives are like. Which was why in my childhood I had to read My Life and Loves with a torch under the bedclothes. Scandal is a truth which can be upsetting for others – in this case for my mother.
But of course you then rely on the integrity of the writer. Frank Harris had very little ingetrity, by all accounts; my mother was probably right to censor. He made the best bits up. And truth is a slippery beast.
If you are taking time off from fiction to write your own life, as I once did, it can be easy to sacrifice truth for the sake of a good line, to embellish a story to make it attractive. Memory plays strange tricks. We tend to remember what we want to remember
I succumbed to the urge to turn my own life into a story with a beginning, a middle, but not yet an end, and wrote my own autobiography some ten years ago. I justify this urge to self-exculpation – to excusing oneself from blame – on the grounds that my publishers paid me to do it.
My primary purpose in life is to invent, to make things up, to make sense of the world by using possible existences, not existing ones, to prove my point.
Nevertheless I succumbed, and it was a great deal more difficult that I had anticipated. It was called Auto Da Fay – F-A-Y. Auto da Fe, (F-E) being the ritual of public repentance demanded by the Inquisition.
First they would wring a confession out of you, cleansing your soul by inflicting pain, then they’d kill you, thus easing your path to heaven. All for your own good. It seemed all too apt a title.
One didn’t even go to heaven when it was through. I looked it up on Amazon for the purpose of this talk and was gratified to find it had four and a half stars, the same as Tony Blair’s. That was something. I thought it was scrupulously truthful; others did not.
I wrote about an all-girls’ school in New Zealand some seventy years ago. I complained about the atmosphere, heavy with suppressed lesbianism.
To my total surprise a group of old girls had set up a website, and I received e-mails saying what a happy school it had been, how sorry they were that I had not enjoyed my time there. They may have been entirely right:
I didn’t write back to say ‘but Christchurch Girls’ High featured in the true film Heavenly Creatures, in which a schoolgirl murders her mother so as not to separated from her friend – three years, I might point out, after I had left. What was the point in replying? If they hadn’t noticed, lucky for them. But did I misremember, or did they?
And the other day – I teach writing as a university subject – I was talking to a student who was writing an autobiography: she is a medium – someone who communicates with the dead, and passes messages to the living (do you have them in Denmark? Angels and ministers of grace defend us, as Hamlet said.)
When her eyes glazed over and she said she had a message for me from the other side, from someone who said he forgave me and wished me well – and who from her description was none other than an ex-husband, rest his soul, and who featured perhaps rather negatively in my own autobiography.
She knew details which were simply not in that book. You can make of that you will. I have not embellished that anecdote at all, to the best of my knowledge, but we are all, all, unreliable witnesses.
And I was glad to be forgiven, if only from the Other Side.
The real world can be more difficult. I was once sued for libel once by an actress whose very nice name I used in a novel for a not very nice person.
She had acted in a television play of mine twenty years back. I had forgotten her; she had not forgotten me. I had nothing at all against her; but she saw it as an attack, and her friends attested to having wondered what she had done ‘to make me hate her’.
I was all apologies, and sincerely, but it cost me £10,000. The publisher of a libel is the one who gets sued, not the writer, but look at the small print – and few do – and you will see that you indemnify the publisher against any such mishap.
I was lucky; the publisher agreed to pay half. But then the publisher’s lawyer was Adrian Laing, who himself wrote a five-star biography of his father, the psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, and was sympathetic. Round and round it goes.
Is is hard for a novel not to be a roman à clef.
Why do we do it, you might ask? Why this impulse to tell all, to risk scandal and disgrace, this compulsion to hold ones head out a trench to get shot at – which is what a writer’s life can feel like, as one faces reviews and articles and dreadful photographs and these days the trolls of the Internet who buzz around looking for people to upset.
Is is hard for a novel not to be a roman à clef. A novelist, after all, writes out of his or her own experience.
But time should be allowed to intervene. ‘Emotion recollected in tranquillity’, as the poet Wordsworth said – give yourself time to reflect, to disguise, to let hard feelings evaporate; if you must do it, alter the gender. Put your characters back or forward in time. I have just completed a trilogy, set at the turn of the last century, which has a few recognisable famous figures in it.
So, what is to be gained by telling all?
The world is hard enough: easy to rage against it, more difficult to be kind, to be generous. But whoever said the world should be easy? My theory is that you can write anything about anybody – if they are a man – so long as you say they are good in bed. And if they are a woman, that they are beautiful.
Then they will overlook offence. I have written more than thirty novels and of course, somewhere along the way, you will be able to find some true episode, repeated undigested, remembered or misremembered, bowdlerised or exaggerated by me.
I do try not to let it happen. But people do say things that are wonderfully memorable and it seems an affront to the truth of the world not to mention them.
When I first turned from an advertising person into a novelist, friends would look for themselves in novels and often enough find them, but then they’d get the wrong person. Very few people, I concluded, knew how they appeared to other people, and I could only suppose that applied to me as well.
I ended my own autobiography when I was thirty-five and became a writer. I had written as many words as my publisher required and it had been quite a painful process, opening up old scars which the passage of time had healed well enough.
Forgetfulness is nature’s remedy for the wounds of the past. Besides, when an autobiography becomes just an account of how many books were published, and when and why, it can only be boring.
I remember hearing Michael Holroyd, George Bernard Shaw’s biographer, wishing the great writer had died at 70, not 95, thus saving the biographer twenty-five years tedious work. The beginning of people’s lives is more interesting than the end.
I’ve fed the rest of my life to date into various novels written since, because I have a instinct that one way or another stories must be concluded.
But whether one’s writing fiction or autobiography, self-examination is needed. Words are powerful things: they must be used responsibly. Words lead to divorces and weddings, they lead to war and peace.
Truth may be is stranger than fiction, but fiction can be truer than reality. Real life is random and accidental: fiction is satisfactory because it is real life concentrated, focused, given a beginning, a middle, an end, a morality and a point. The point of many an autobiography is that this particular life, which started in misery, ended in triumph, and that is good to know.
The roman à clef, when it discloses the hypocrisy of people and institutions, may well be justified. Random personal revenge is usually not. Writers must look to their motives. Financial reward is not good enough.
We’re here this evening to discuss the moral dilemmas that face the writer – I won’t call them ethical dilemmas – that’s a word used by pharmaceutical companies and universities to discuss what they can get away with. ‘Moral’ will do.
The writer’s function is to be a heretic
To what extent is the writer justified in writing about their friends, his family and acquaintances? If one is writing out of love and admiration few problems will arise.
But it’s not in the writer’s nature to love and admire without qualification: they like to sniff out hypocrisy, they do tend to harbour grudges and give voice to them. Graham Greene wrote that the writer’s duty is disloyalty, whereas the soldier’s duty is loyalty: Gorkij said the writer’s function is to be a heretic whatever the current definition, or words to that effect.
The writer is not necessarily an easy person to live with: he may cry at his own wife’s funeral but notice how he’ll making notes.
He’s using his own reactions, emotions, as subject matter. Of course we end up writing romans à clef. It’s just too tempting. I absolve myself from these generalities, of course. I am a woman, and perfectly easy to live with: it is the others who aren’t.
And where in any case does morality lie?
I will strip the word of its religious connotations, and define is as something that is aesthetically pleasing to the human conscience. Truth is beautiful, malice is ugly. To write an account of one’s own life as one sees it is to speak a beautiful truth. To others who read one’s words it can seem to be a malicious and hurtful lie.
Edward Snowden speaks the truth, and is seen by some as a hero, by others as a traitor who deserves to die. All writers, novelists, playrights, critics, commentators, are conflicted in one way or another.
The drive to please the hand that that feeds us – publisher, theatre, newspaper, whoever – is hard to resist: we also feel a duty to the truth, as we see it. We want to keep our jobs, we want to keep our friends, but we also want to keep our positive view of ourselves intact.
And then there is always tension between wanting to be a good writer, or a financially successful one. There is no doubt that the greater the scandal, alarm or dismay you can produce, the greater the profit.
I come from a long line of artists, musicians, painters, and writers. Their common belief was that the more popular you were, the less seriously you were to be taken. To set out to please the public was to make bad art.
You had to choose between a good income and good reviews. In the Sixties I earned my living in advertising, and was much despised by my circle of friends for doing so, for selling out, but at least I could pay my rent – and very often their rent as well.
When I started writing I lived in a small house next to a big house in which Lukas Heller lived, a screen writer who wrote, amongst other successful films, The Dirty Dozen, and he would say when we met in the street, ‘I wish I had your reviews,’ and I would say, ‘I wish I had your income.’
When I could afford to stop writing advertising copy, when I found a way to sell ideas rather the consumer products, I did so, but not before.
For the journalist the temptation to sell out is great; newspapers with the biggest circulations are the ones which sell scandal, and sell prejudice and conformity: the opposite of free speech.
Most newspapers and broadcasting organisations discourage any complex distinction between what is religious, what is feminist, what is cultural.
The mass of the population prefer short words to long, is anxious for information but eschews ideas, would rather hear what a celebrity thinks than a listen to a politician who may have some knowledge if what is going on. Princess Diana was better at stopping the land mine trade than Tony Blair.
In today’s Britain such is the fear of what is now called ‘élitism’, it is hard for any one voice to be given precedence over any other. In the new world of social media this is even more true. The blogger you seek out is the one you agree with.
‘I feel’ becomes more important than ‘I think’. At school, the child is asked not to learn the date of the battle of Waterloo but to write a poem about what it felt like to be a horse wounded in the battle.
The voice of the people is certainly heard in the land, but it is not necessarily a very wise or knowledgeable voice. The Daily Mail, a large circulation British tabloid newspaper (which pays writers very well) is currently asking me to write an article entitled ‘Accidental pregnancies? They do happen. I should know.
I’ve had had four of them!’ I have said I will not. This is not journalism, but autobiography. My poor children.
I am not justified.