When a woman reveals the dark secrets of her marriage to a famous but domineering husband, is it kiss 'n tell, or important biographical source, asks Philip Hoare
Next week sees the publication of two books by wives dishing the dirt by degrees on their famous husbands. Adele Mailer's The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer (Blake, pounds 16.99) is an acidic account of a man with whom she made love on their first meeting in a New York loft and who ended by trying to murder her. "I want my book to make Norman suffer," Mrs Mailer now proclaims. Meanwhile, Pamela Marvin's Lee: A Romance, (Faber pounds 15.99) dwells in equally unsquirmish detail - although ultimately more sympathetically - on her hell-raising husband. Both are classic "kiss- and-tells", perhaps; but the Marvin book is appearing under the serious imprint of Faber, a publisher not nominally given to sensationalism. With the current fashion for memoir and self-revelation, epitomised by Kathryn Harrison's shocking tale of paternal incest, The Kiss, published earlier this year by the equally prestigious Fourth Estate, it seems that kiss- and-tell is emerging from a sleazy past to become an accepted literary form.

The genre has an established genealogy, from the revelatory confessional of Sheilah Graham's Beloved Infidel, her 1958 account of life with the boozing Scott Fitzgerald, to the Duchess of Windsor's self-justifying The Heart Has Its Reason, also published in the Fifties. Now we have Mailer and Marvin: how long before Diana on Charles? The serious literary question is, however, do books by wives contribute anything of true biographical worth to our knowledge of great men?

For the biographer, candid revelations are always at a premium. When writing a biography of Noel Coward, I always found the best insights came from the dressers, the chauffeurs, the secretaries - those privy to the private lives. For instance, it was Bert Lister, Coward's valet, who told me that his master broke down in tears when in 1943 Lord Mountbatten rang up to say Coward hadn't got the knighthood he was expecting. And Coward's agent, Charles Russell, described in painful detail his last fully-fledged love affair with a young method actor in 1950s New York, who subsequently attempted suicide after the relationship faltered.

Such glimpses into the private world of a subject have to be handled with care. The objective biographer should have no axe to grind. But if you're a scorned wife, anything goes. Adele Mailer's book is a work of overt vengeance: "You know, he has never said sorry to me in a meaningful way," she says. "He's very sadistic like that, and I'm only human. I want him to say sorry. He has prospered while I've just wasted away." Mrs Mailer, half-Peruvian Indian, the Brooklyn-born daughter of a blue-collar worker, is now 77. The Last Party started life as a play, which she wrote in 1988 and took round to Norman for his approval. His reaction: "Everything's fine except I didn't say `fuck' to the maid."

While admitting to having been at least as drunken as her husband, Adele's case has a certain amount of strength, if only for that fateful evening in 1960 when, goaded by Adele over his ever-insecure masculinity - "Aja toro aja", I called, "come on you little faggot, where's your cojones, did your ugly whore of a mistress cut them off, you son of a bitch!" - Mailer stabbed his wife repeatedly with a dirty three-inch penknife. Discharged from hospital, she considered revenge, "murderous thoughts", in her kitchen. "I don't have a gun, but there's a big knife... I'll stick him in exactly the places he stuck it in me." Instead, she packed her suitcase, and waited 27 years before she wielded the literary knife.

Pamela Marvin's life with Lee is a more forgiving account. She seems entirely forgiving of Marvin, whom she met as a teenager, and who made her pregnant in 1945. Pamela suffered an appalling kitchen-table abortion in Harlem, and Lee promptly disappeared for 25 years, only marrying her in 1970, by which time he was famous drinker and subject of an unprecedented palimony suit brought against him by an ex-girlfriend. Pamela's book has been treated by Faber with due gravitas and detailed footnotes; an attempt, perhaps, to distance it from the sort of sensationalism that Adele Mailer's The Last Party represents. Walter Donohue, who edited the book, says: "The Mailer book has an agenda, but this is a work of love. That's why we subtitled it "a romance", and not a memoir. It fits more into our film list rather than biography."

Philip Roth, another contender alongside Mailer for the title of great dysfunctional American writer, fared little better in In Leaving A Doll's House, the memoirs published last year by Claire Bloom. He was her third husband, and she portrayed a depressive, vindictive man who separated her from her teenage daughter and demanded, after 15 years of living together, a nuptial settlement so punitive it would leave her penniless. He also attempted to bill Bloom pounds 10 an hour for the hundreds of hours he spent listening to her rehearsing her lines.

In both Bloom's and Mailer's case, it can be argued that the wives have performed a necessary duty in exposing their abusing exes; a female corollary to the myth of the machismo-bound American novelist. Turning the literary tables, the victims fight back with their abusers' own weapons. Sticks and stones are as nothing to the power of nationally serialised words, and exposing your marital difficulties is a perfect piece of externalisation, an extended form of therapy.

We've come a long way since Susan Crosland gave up interviewing currently serving politicians and took out "disclosures of historical interest" - matters of state, presumably - in her otherwise frank account of her sexually uninhibited and hard-drinking husband Tony.

Interviewed about her biography of Tony Crosland in 1982, Susan said: "During the Sixties when I was writing newspaper profiles, I gave up interviewing the wives of great men. Though they understood and accepted the human foibles in every relationship, they also enjoyed the public image. When interviewed they wanted to perpetuate the image: it totally distorted the subject. I have tried to avoid the same trap."

Betty Maxwell's memoir of Robert Maxwell, A Mind of My Own, is a good example of what Susan Crosland was talking about. It purrs on about the Maxwells' sybaritic life together; even when Betty is taking her husband's corpse to Israel for burial, she "welcomed the familiar, cool surrounds of the Gulf Stream jet", pleased to be in the hands "of my favourite pilot". Indeed, the one valuable service Mrs Maxwell's book did was to explain how anyone could have been attracted to Maxwell in the first place - he appears to have been, and to have remained, something of a sex god to her: her first meeting with him produced a description of a "powerful Adonis". The result was a mythic version of her swindling husband. "Bob loved his children dearly", she maintained, while Kevin, aged seven, was locked up for two days because he refused to eat French beans. The prose is toe-curlingly rhapsodic: sex with Bob was prefaced with a request to "drink from your cup of life in loving ecstasy".

The big problem with kiss-and-tell as a literary genre is the fact that the author is seldom a professional (Susan Crosland and Kathleen Tynan were exceptions). Adele Mailer's book races along, name-dropping breathlessly, from affairs with Kerouac ("What's your other name, Jack?") to New York loft parties so crammed with stars (Brando, Clift, Chaplin) it's a wonder there were any performances on Broadway that night.

But if The Last Party can sound like a literary Hello! high on martinis and dope, at least it comes up with the goods - page-turning celebrity gossip. In other memoirs, the quality of revelation is as variable as the prose. One can expect very little, and have one's expectations met, as in Angie Bowie's name-dropping, mediocre memoir of her husband David, which she justified as "matters of record in the history of the modern struggle for sexual liberation"; or overturned, as in Deborah Curtis's demythologising account of her husband, Ian Curtis of Joy Division.

Deborah Curtis, an apparently meek and unassuming rock widow from Manchester, revealed with a fine sense of detail and irony, the iconic indie suicide hero to have been a Tory voter who was something less than liberated, banning her from his gigs. "If Ian was going to play the tortured soul on stage," she wrote, "it would be easier without the watchful eye of the woman who washed his underpants." If current publishing trends are anything to go by, we're in for a lot more books by women who washed the underpants of the great.

Philip Hoare's latest book - Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and The First World War - is published by Duckworth (pounds 16.95)n