Spilling the beans, and human rites

A week is a long time in literature. At the beginning we had the Starr Report, a classic drama of adultery in high places, if ever there was one. Then, in London, came the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist, an annual ritual that inspires a routine burst of light-hearted acrimony about the relative loftiness or small-mindedness (take your pick) of the so-called judges appointed to decide such matters.

Then came news of the lifting of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a tangible enough victory for free expression for anyone to be going on with, even if it did inspire many of the same nervous feelings we have when a hostage is released (great news ... but now what?) And finally we began to hear rumbles from America of a fresh outbreak of memoiritis, a modern affliction in which an autobiographer is simultaneously vaunted and castigated for revealing more than some might have wished or deemed proper.

There are several topsy-turvy aspects to this rash of literary news. It used to be be that the novel was the forum for discussion of love - love won, love lost, love thwarted or thrown out of whack. There aren't many great novels in the world that do not have at least some roots in the simplest story of all: boy meets girl. One of the telling things about the Booker shortlist is that the chosen novels are not, or not really, love stories. For those, we need increasingly to turn to newspapers, or to non-fiction.

In the latest case the author is Joyce Maynard, and the subject is her own nine-month unhappy love affair with the celebrated recluse J D Salinger. Like the Starr Report, this story proceeded along classic lines. A young woman claimed to have been well and truly caught in the rye. Following her own precocious arrival on the literary scene with a smart essay waggishly titled An 18-year-old Looks Back on her Life, she caught the eye of the famous author and, well, one thing led to another. Her book was greeted with dismay by Salinger's many admirers. The Washington Post reviewer called it the worst book he had ever read. He said it was "shameless ... whiny ... self- absorbed ... neurotic ... and money-grubbing". Publishers like jaunty adjectives to put on the back of the paperback, but there wasn't much of that they could do with these.

Why the strong feelings? Maynard, it turned out, had provoked them before. One review of her previous book, a novel, began by saying that "when we found out that Joyce and and her husband were getting divorced, we all went out to celebrate". In a web-site magazine one of her former school "friends" suggested that Maynard resembled a character out of Oliver Sacks's The Woman Who Mistook Her Life For Something Interesting.

It has been obvious for some time now that private experience is surfing on a more energetic wave of popular interest than public or purely imaginative endeavours. We are much more transfixed by the romantic goings-on in the Oval office than we are by the tedious stuff - foreign policy decisions, or deadlocked conversations about welfare reform. How could it be otherwise, when revelation is so much more lucrative than discretion?

One thing is certain: modern memoirs are proud of their taboo-busting candour, not seeming to recognise that candour is itself a sort of pose, that even those who brag about their most embarrassing secrets are simultaneously boasting about them, or at least boasting about their frankness and lack of inhibition. There was a time when it would have been bold to write about, say, masturbation. Today, there would be a significant cheque available to anyone who could sincerely claim not to have given it a try.

But while some limits on free- expression are lifted, others barely budge. People are more secretive about their bank accounts than they are about their bedrooms. And who would have thought that a novelist, in this day and age, would have had to slide between safe houses pursued by a death threat simply because he thumbed his nose at religion? The question is: where does privacy begin and end? Sexual confidentiality, these days, barely exists. Everyone knows that sex is, in the most obvious sense, character in action, and that it can also be highly charged with sociological if not political assumptions.

But one of the reasons it is so exciting is that it is so exposing. Which means that the irony, and it is an irony of the sort a novelist might be expected to weave into a magnum opus, is that in the cases of Clinton, Salinger and indeed Rushdie it was the very moment of trustingness, the momentary but ecstatic flourish of surrender to the good nature of others, that brought the fates tumbling about their heads. We live in cruel times.

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