Memoirs, a load of tender male buttons

'Memoirs are rarely about the person remembered; almost always about the writer's sainted sensibility'
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Today is something of a personal red-letter day. An idea that became a story that became a novel, occupying a central part in my emotional and professional life for three years or so, finally and formally slips away from me and into the market, and the private becomes public. It is always a mistake to dwell too much on how tough a book was to write - it is like giving a present with the price-tag attached - but publication day, which for the author is both winning-post and starting-line, can be a peculiarly anxious moment.

Today is something of a personal red-letter day. An idea that became a story that became a novel, occupying a central part in my emotional and professional life for three years or so, finally and formally slips away from me and into the market, and the private becomes public. It is always a mistake to dwell too much on how tough a book was to write - it is like giving a present with the price-tag attached - but publication day, which for the author is both winning-post and starting-line, can be a peculiarly anxious moment.

In this unusually raw state, one views with particular interest the antics of fellow writers as they market the products of their experience and imagination; and, as it happens, the past week has offered up two fine examples of authorial ego.

The eminent poet and academic Craig Raine has, you may have read, published a book-length poem entitled, a touch recklessly, A la recherche du temps perdu. Written in the modish form of an intimate personal memoir, the poem tells the story of the poet's affair with a woman called Kitty Mrosovsky - an affair that started when they were in their twenties and continued after Raine had married his present wife. Mrosovsky died of Aids in 1995, and for four years her former lover tried to work out how best to memorialise their love in verse. Then, "One day it opens up like a file on a laptop. Suddenly I know how to do it."

How it was done was with proud, under-the-sheets intimacy. Mrosovsky's vagina was "The most beautiful I've ever seen. The most beautiful that's ever been." Her nipples were "long glowing... shabby with hairs". After they split up, she was in the habit of picking up men on the Tube, "The odd white prole,/ but black boys on the whole."

I learnt all that not from the book - between you and me, I'm not tempted - but from an article in the London Evening Standard. Oddly, given the nature of the book, Raine agreed to submit to a single interview, conducted by an admiring former pupil, Andrew Billen. It emerged that Mrosovsky's friends had disputed the version of her presented in the poem, and her family hated it. Asked why he published, the poet replied, "Gosh, if you're a writer, I suppose you feel a sort of responsibility, actually, that this person should be commemorated, should be remembered."

It is a familiar, noble-sounding sentiment, last used by Martin Amis, in the context of his murdered cousin Lucy Partington, and it is, of course, complete and utter bollocks. Such memoirs are rarely, if ever, about the person remembered; they are almost always about the writer - his feelings, his grief, the effect on his sainted writerly sensibility. Now that the subject is no longer here to speak for herself, he can step forward and present her life, her personality, even her private parts, from his own filtering, editing, self-serving perspective.

Coincidentally, the unedifying connection between marketing and ego also emerged this week in an article in The Spectator by a very different author, Tony Parsons, who was explaining why his novel Man and Boy was so popular with women. In a piece of such transparent boastfulness that one can only shudder with embarrassment on his behalf - "It is genuinely humbling. Every day I open my mail and think: you like me, you really like me" - Parsons reveals that his central female character is based on a real woman. It is not Julie Burchill, to whom he was once married, but "a very sympathetic woman".

In fact, once he had completed an early draft, he worked with his agent and editor, an all-male team, to ensure that the "the novel keeps women on its side" by making its female characters suitably sensitive and appealing. The Parsons view is that, as a novelist, you can have a "respectable little literary career", but to be popular it is essential that your book "pushes those tender female buttons".

Suddenly I'm worried. My book was not a team event. I'm not sure I either pushed those tender female buttons, like Tony, or exposed them, like Craig. It is a rough, tough place out there in the big boys' playground. Wish me luck.

The writer's novel 'Kill Your Darlings' is published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Miles Kington is on holiday

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