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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine