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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.

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