Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Too close to home?

The author Julie Myerson's controversial book on her troubled relationship with her son prompts questions on the ethics of writing about families.

If Lucrezia Borgia were reincarnated and presented herself for interview on the BBC programme Newsnight, it's hard to imagine her getting a harder time from Jeremy Paxman than the novelist Julie Myerson did last week. Myerson, a writer of some literary reputation, is publishing a book called The Lost Child in which she talks about her relationship with her grown-up son Jake. In the book, she talks about the damage his dependence on skunk cannabis did to their relationship and how she and her husband finally came to throw him out of the family home.

Very few people have yet had the chance to read her book - I haven't either, which is why I don't propose to speculate on its contents. Yet the response in the media has been wall-to-wall and extreme. What sort of mother throws her own son out? Weren't his problems just the result of her self-indulgent, self-absorbed liberal parenting? Look at her now profiting from his misery. How dare she. Myerson has said that she felt her book "had to be written". The row crystallises some of the strongest anxieties about the morality of artistic production. What duties does a writer owe the truth? What duties does she owe the public? What duties does she owe her art? And what duties does she owe the people in whose lives she lives?

To complain that a writer seems self-obsessed can be to miss the point. Everything that is material to a writer's consciousness is material to the work. That's the essence of it. Solipsism offers no entry point for the reader - but if you're going to write about what human beings have in common, you're most likely to succeed by starting at home. When Myerson says that she believes her story will strike a chord with others who have had similar experiences, we can be sure she's speaking in good faith.

Much discussion has centred on whether Myerson published the book with or without her son's consent. She said that he consented. Then he publicly said he hadn't consented. Then it became clear he had accepted payment for the use of some of his poems in the book. The truth is we don't know who said what to whom and when. Furthermore, if her son is in the grip of an addictive disease (as his mother argues), then the question of whether he could be regarded as competent to consent in the first place is moot, with all that implies for the ethics of the situation.

Are we to regard the payment for the poems as a bribe? Is it irresponsible temptation to put in the path of an addict, or as no more than the unpatronising due one writer owes to another for the use of his or her work? These questions quickly become almost impossibly involuted - and, for anyone not closely acquainted with both mother and son, utterly fatuous to speculate on, still less to judge. More to the point, these are questions about parenting, not writing. They are none of our business.

The problem, in part - and why this has caused such a row - is that art does not come with built-in ethics. The opposite of good writing is bad writing, not evil writing. And that is why the relatives of writers, generally, are best off watching out. An intimate portrait of a collapsing marriage may form the centre of a great novel, but it can at the same time wound and humiliate the people who provide its raw material.

Sometimes, indeed, that's the point. Penelope Mortimer exorcised the cruelties and infidelities of her marriage to John Mortimer in her novel The Pumpkin Eater. The Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein's wife, Nora Ephron, used her 1983 novel Heartburn to punish her husband for his affair with Margaret (now Baroness) Jay, of whose "big feet" she made merciless fun. Again and again, you see writers using their experiences in ways that cannot but affect those near them in the real world.

Every writer who writes about a member of their own family creates emotional shock waves. But in writing about her own child - even an adult child - Julie Myerson seems to have touched a yet more profound taboo. The look of her on Newsnight was bewildered, defensive, at bay. I think she was a little startled by what she'd stirred up. It's probably only some way down the line that she will come to her own answer (and she'll come to it privately, with her husband and her son, rather than subcontracting her conscience to newspaper columnists) as to whether art is worth that much.

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 This comparison image shown on Reddit annotated the objects with vehicles from the movies.

What Star Wars fans say is going on in Abu Dhabi’s desert

We may still not know exactly what The National caught pictures of in the Abu Dhabi desert last week, but the online community has had plenty to say. Here are some of the best bits.

 Jennifer Grout will compete against seven other celebrities in Your Face Sounds Familiar. Joseph Eid / AFP

Jennifer Grout on competing in the new show Your Face Sounds Familiar and her rise to fame

Jennifer Grout is set to wow Arab audiences once again in the new MBC talent show Your Face Sounds Familiar. Saeed Saeed speaks to the American about her success story

 From left to right: Greg Churchouse, Roy Stride and Peter Ellard of Scouting For Girls. Ian Gavan / Getty Images

Sandance returns in May

Sandance is heading back to Dubai in May with a line-up that includes Arrested Development, Scouting for Girls, the Pet Shop Boys and Fatboy Slim, plus the Saudi DJ Omar Basaad and local acts.

 Jedi Master Yoda in 'Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith'. Lucasfilm / Twentieth Century Fox / AP

Star Wars shooting in Abu Dhabi rumours gain traction

What started out on Sunday as an optimistic rumour that Star Wars Episode 7 is set to shoot in Abu Dhabi is seemingly gathering traction as the week progresses.

 A boy waters plants in the yard of a restaurant in the Colombian village of Aracataca. Yellow butterflies make an apperance in the book. Eitan Abramovich / AFP photo

Mourning and memories in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s languid hometown

Mourning and memories in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s hometown of Aracataca, Columbia.

 Shah Rukh Khan plays a shot during a friendly match between the members of the support and administrative staff of Royal Challengers Bangalore and his Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

When the worlds of Bollywood and cricket collide

With the first game of the Indian Premier League beginning today in the UAE, we explore the league’s Bollywood connections, which are as glitzy as they are controversial.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National