Tuesday 10 March 2009

AND HERE'S TO YOU MRS. MYERSON: Julie Battles Light Literary Incontinence

There is a danger of over-indulging in schadenfreude while watching an exercise in literary self-promotion explode, especially when damage control starts to become so hilarious that the overall result may well be to put readers off the book entirely. I reached for the metaphoric alka-selzer after reading that Julie Myerson's publisher was promoting her 'controversial' book, in which she uses the story of banishing her drug-using son, to 'fans of Joan Didion'. Didion, you'll recall, wrote an extremely moving memoir, The Year Of Magical Thinking, after losing her husband and daughter in the same year. So if you're a fan of death-memoirs, you'll love Julie! Except, it wasn't Julie's son who died, no, he was merely being used to counter-point the tale of a Victorian girl who did. Though not from drugs. Well, here's the difference: Joan Didion wrote about herself, her husband, and her daughter. She didn't need (or presumably want) a two-centuries old ghost to use as a literary device, and she wouldn't stoop to using her child (or husband) as a literary device.

Even without the crass attempt to get a rub from someone else's heartfelt tragedy and their remarkably straightforward accounting of her own feelings, one might have been merely amused at some less visceral level while watching the whole 'controversy' play out in such predictable ways, and follow such well-established protocols within the tightly-knit world of Britain's literary establishment. I particularly liked the restriction of advance copies--to ensure the debate isn't sullied by anyone having actually read the book itself, and thereby judging her actions by the written result. The furore about Julie's 'revelation' and her 'torment' thus becomes the issue, rather than the issue being about using her son as a literary device. Which is fairly hypocritical considering that it's nothing more than an extension of a long and tedious tradition of newspapers acting like puppies rediscovering the trials and tribulations of everyday life each time one of their staff journalists or certain selected freelancers encounters it for themselves. The Guardian, for example, has an entire section, Family, devoted to such revelations, and its G2 section seems to pick a new writer every year or two (like Maggie O'Farrell or Lionel Shriver) whose every shopping trip becomes fodder for another column. ((Note: this turned out to be especially prescient: see the update below)). There is no requirement such pieces be factual: Zoe Heller wrote hundreds of them about every aspect of getting around in the high life in New York for multiple papers and magazines while simultaneously describing, without any apparent 'irony' (see below) how she suffered from depression so strong she couldn't leave her bed or even write a word for weeks at a time. But exploiting one's children still requires some tact, and once it became clear some editors felt Julie lacked a certain sensitivity, damage-control began pounding its computer keys.

The self-help card was the one played post-facto to justify Julie's weaving of her own story of throwing her drug-using son out of the family office, or home, into her latest book. In a huge Guardian piece Saturday, even Ian Jack, who shares an agent with Julie, found it hard to accept this at face value. According to their mutual agent, he reported, Julie 'would have preferred the book to slip quietly into the shops' but with her keen sense of media cause and effect, knew this was 'unlikely' so she launched a pro-active strike by giving a quiet interview to the Bookseller, and having it get picked up by the friendly-fire of the Observer. 'People need to know this happens to families like ours,' she said. 'When we were in our darkest, loneliest place, it would have been helpful to read a book like this.'

Really? The book is, apparently, about a Victorian girl who left a nice album of watercolours behind when she died aged 21. You can see the film poster: 'What do you say about a Victorian girl who died at 21?' How this was supposed to help parents whose kids were on drugs, including those harder than skunk, was not explained. Perhaps Julie's advice is to get an agent and write the story up to tack on to whatever dim idea of a book they've been unable to spice up otherwise. Call it therapy.

By coincidence, yesterday I heard Ulrike Jonsson on Woman's Hour, offering support for women afflicted with Light Urinary Incontinence. This is common among women who've had children (or spent twenty years pounding back pints with the lads). It occurred to me that Ulrike was kind of a working-class version of Julie, only more comfortable talking on TV. Ulrike was basically saying 'people need to know this happens in families like ours'. Only she didn't have a book to promote, nor the story of a 200-year dead woman to append to her tale. There is help and there is self-help, after all.

Julie's real aim is to help those afflicted with Light Literary Incontinence. The story is not really her son's, nor her family's, but hers: the writer coping with real life. Parallel-life stories were hot, you can see Julie telling her agent, like Nicole Kidman with her enhanced proboscis in The Hours. But since every minute detail of Julie's family life has been inflicted on readers of various newspapers, mostly the Guardian, for years, how to spice that bit up? Luckily, there is a strong new tradition of 'hidden family' stories among the British literati. Lately it seems virtually every Oxbridge-educated writer who's between good book ideas discovers that his or her father, apparently a perfectly average bottom-whipping Englishman, was actually a Romanian woman spy who'd had a sex-change operation, moved to England, robbed banks, and maintained two additional families, one in Romania and the other in the furthest reaches of working class Yorkshire. In a sense, these are stiff-upper-lip versions of Oprah-style 'survivor' tales. But as we've seen in the US, most of those stories wind up being hotly disputed by the families the writer has 'survived', if not shown to be out and out frauds.

When Mr Myerson spoke to papers on Saturday, he said Julie was 'devastated at what she'd done to people we love,' and that she didn't think she was 'famous enough' (yet) to 'have the Daily Mail parked outside'. She wasn't speaking to the press, though not because of her intense devastation, but because she'd sold her agony exclusively to the Sunday Times. Even Ian Jack recoiled at that one, saying 'oh irony'. What the English call irony, the French call 'Albion perfide'. Mr. Myerson's reference to the Mail was a nice way of setting the class boundaries out firmly. For the Myersons' campaign, the battle lines were familiar: against Julie: the tabloids, including the Telegraph; for Julie: the Guardian and BBC, with the Sunday Times walking a narrow tightrope of disapproval balanced by the long pole of having paid for its exclusive. Having been quoted at length over the weekend, Mr. Myerson finally weighed in with a long piece in today's Guardian (linked via a photo of her, not him nor her son) that showed the game at its most cynical.

On BBC Radio Monday, Julie sounded aggrieved that her son had sold his story to (wait for it) the Daily Mail! One assumes he didn't use her agent. 'How could he?' falls a bit flat coming from someone who has already sold both his story, and then her story about his story, multiple times. Today, Mr Myerson explained how Julie had met with her son over 'lunches in our local Italian', where he had corrected the proofs and given his OK (something the son disputes totally). Julie used poems the son had written, which they found when searching his room for more material, but that was fine because she paid him £1,000 to use them in the book. Consider that one for a moment. You have a son whose drug addiction frightens the hell out of you, you kick him out of the house, and what do you do next: meet for lunch and discuss the book you're doing, and bung him a grand which of course he will spend responsibly. I await her appearance on Newsnight Review, where she can review her own book, and attempt to break Andrew Neil's all-comers record for getting caught looking for your camera. You want some BBC producer to say 'I know Joan Bakewell, and you're no Joan Bakewell!'

The Guardian gave Mr. Myerson one last chance to reclaim the moral high-ground, but his article today read like 'a doctor writes'. When he quoted a Professor who 'estimates that as many as 10% of schizophrenics in the UK would not have developed the disease had they not smoked cannabis', you not only wonder how Julie's book is going to stop them, but of what use an estimate that may be as high as some figure actually is, and of course whether we should not try to separate correlation with causation. He played the sympathy card, describing how after throwing their son out, he and Julie 'gaze from the front window...watching the empty street, wondering what to do next'. Thinking of which papers they haven't yet sold a piece about their window-gazing to. Then, we assume, they decided to include their son in Julie's next book. Finally, he played the self-help card one last time. 'Your problem starts when your child smokes his first skunk. And maybe then you'll pick up her book and want to understand'. Even at his most impassioned, he never lost sight of getting in the plug for the book.

I do not mean any of this to downplay the seriousness of any child out of control, much less one who's discovered drugs. But that's not the point. The point is the line you draw between working out serious problems, helping others with their problems, and using a situation in a cynical attempt to liven up a boring story and generate massive publicity for yourself. Of course, once the media have quieted down, it will be up to the book-buying public to decide which on side of the line to place the Myersons.

Update (11/3): While being savaged by Jeremy Paxman can make anyone sympathetic, the confession in today's Guardian that Julie wrote, anonymously, the 'Living With Teenagers' column in the Saturday Family section would seem to reinforce what I said--as Julie admits that 'some incidents were partly fictionalised', to make the stories better. The Guardian editors say they felt uncomfortable on behalf of her children, should anyone find out the author's identity, but not uncomfortable enought to deny Julie her market. And although they received complaints from people worried about the same thing, they say that was balanced by the praise they received from people who now realised 'they weren't alone'. Even though they were sharing their suffering with someone who was making it up whenever it suited her. The editors also didn't know about the Myerson's crisis: perhaps she was saving that one for the book.

The issue to me remains not whether or not Julie should have written about her son, nor whether or not drug use is a serious problem. The issue to me remains the way her son and her problems became part of a literary construct, promoted through predictable controversy in predictable places. At least by Tuesday she'd figured out a way to talk around giving her drug addict son the £1,000 (now, it seems, she discovered she'd 'channelled' the money to him, and a supernatural novel is probably waiting already in the wings).

But if there is one lesson to be learned, it's what kind of an idiot would turn to an anonymous novelist's half-fictions in the Guardian in order to learn how to raise or cope with their children?

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