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Memoir and fiction – confessions and privacy

One of the books that made the greatest impression on me last year was Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? It’s a companion piece or the ‘silent twin’ (her words) to her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.  Why be Happy revisits some of that same ground – it is like seeing a story you already know from a different angle but it also goes on to document the search for, and eventual reunion with, her biological mother.

It’s not an autobiography (she omits lots and jumps 25 years) and it’s not really a memoir either, but every book needs a category so you can find it on shop bookshelves and drop down menus. (I spent ages scanning the fiction shelves in Waterstones looking for Janice Galloway’s All Made Up to be told I was on the wrong floor and it was in autobiography.)

One of the things that fascinates me is that blur between truth and fiction. As Winterson recounts, when Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit Came Out and her mother read it, she said ‘But it’s not true!’ But wasn’t it true for the author? Wasn’t it her way of  ‘rewriting the hurt’ as she puts it? In this Granta podcast she talks about how memories are pliable, malleable, how ‘we can go back in and fix something’, reabsorb it – and ultimately redeem it. That is very appealing to me. I pick at the same subjects again and again in my writing.

Moving away from Winterson, I start tying myself up in knots when I think about whether writers should use their own lives as subjects – whether they should be able to defend the charge of invasion of privacy and no right of reply by saying, ‘Yes, but I’m a writer!’ I’m thinking particularly of Julie Myerson after she wrote The Lost Child which alternated a fictional tale with what was going on in real life with her son’s drug use and subsequent expulsion from the house and Rachel Cusk’s so called ‘divorce memoir’ Aftermath.  The amount of vitriol unleashed at Cusk was unbelievable. Were they both expected to weave it somehow into their fiction?

I’ve read Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath and yes, her prose style is overblown, at times histrionic – the part about going to the dentist is the most painfully drawn out metaphor ever) but it’s not a ‘he did, he said’ tell-all memoir. Her children are barely mentioned. It takes a personal experience and draws out the universal. And yes it will be there for her children to read but I read far more damaging things (in terms of what children could, in the future, read about themselves) on blogs all the time. I think I despise more the confessional journalists who take their thirty pieces of silver and go in The Daily Mail complete with pictures of their children (not even posed by models) and drip feed their lives as linkbait? And yes, some of them are manipulated and edited and their words skewed horribly, but some still go back for more.

I’ll finish with a bit from Nora Ephron’s Heartburn – a barely concealed fictional account of her husband’s affair. After the book has been a huge success, she says in the preface,

“Everyone always asks – was he mad at you for writing the book and I have to say yes, yes he was. It’s not as if I hadn’t often written about myself. I’d even written about him. What did he think was going to happen? That I would take a vow of silence for the first time in my life?”

If a writer chooses to write about identifiable people and events, is it up to the writer to deal with the fall out? Help me make my mind up.

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