Sharon Olds's silence is golden in an era of endless media exposure
By Catherine BennettSunday 20 January 2013 00.06 GMT
If only more writers were like the poet Sharon Olds and realised that discretion is better than endless revelation
he poems in Stag's Leap, the collection that has just won Sharon Olds theTS Eliot prize, were written years ago, but not published until much later. The delay, Olds has explained, was to protect her family. The poems document the end of her 32-year marriage, when her husband left for another woman, and Olds promised her children not to write about it for "at least 10 years". In the end, it was 15; the collection came out last autumn.
Although the children must be middle aged now and the husband has not, some readers may conclude, done very much to merit such delicacy about his feelings, Olds remains protective. Last week, for instance, she was reluctant to elaborate on her ex's reaction to eventual publication. "It seems to me bad enough to be in the family of an autobiographical poet," she told the Huffington Post. "It's bad enough without me actually talking about it." To another journalist she said: "No one would sign up to be in the family of an autobiographical poet."
Her discretion has, in fact, aroused almost as much interest as her confessions. When autobiographical prose narratives about domestic breakdowns, written while the bruises are fresh and the fellow injured still in sight, are routinely justified as necessary or inevitable, Olds's insistence on delays and limits is striking and, implicitly, a reproof to the fashion. Publishers, at least, must hope it will not catch on.
Supposing the authors had imposed, like Olds, a 15-year moratorium on writing that could upset their children, we might still be waiting for, among others, Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy, Julie Myerson's The Lost Child, Candia McWilliam's What to Look For in Winter and Rachel Cusk's Aftermath. More recently, Salman Rushdie would have had to choose, in Joseph Anton, an autobiography in which no living ex-wife escapes uncharitable reassessment, between the joys of still tepid revenge and his own story of malicious misrepresentation, when his enemies expected him to "keep my mouth shut for the rest of my days".
A conspicuous indifference towards the feelings of the Rushdie wives, who signed up for magical realism, not autobiography, suggests a reading public that is, unlike Olds, increasingly disposed to accept the argument that, to people who belong – or used to belong – to a writer's family, the appropriate response to complaints about literary misrepresentation is: tough. These relations have, after all, little enough to complain about in comparison with the nearest and dearest of confessional newspaper columnists, recording real-time grievances. Moreover – judgmental literalists should understand – creativity cannot be delayed or thwarted. "I am a writer and so that is what I do," Rachel Cusk said last year, after an outraged response to extracts from Aftermath, in which she depicted her daughters' pain and denigrated their father. To her great credit, she made no attempt to defend the revelations as being in the public interest.
In contrast, readers who feasted, in 2009, on the details of the Myerson family's troubles, involving skunk and a suddenly rebellious teenager, were assured how useful this experience might be, should their own lives take a similarly unfortunate turn. "People need to know this happens to families like ours," Julie Myerson told theBookseller about her decision to out her estranged son in The Lost Child. "When we were in our darkest, loneliest place, it would have been helpful to read a book like this." If this sounds familiar, it's probably because the same argument, or its threadbare variants, featured so often during the Leveson inquiry, as the excuse for invasions of privacy.
In the press's case, of course, reform is imminent. Soon, it will be more difficult than ever for a British journalist to lay bare people's private behaviour because: their situation is instructive for the public to talk about/they are not what they seem/they didn't mind selling pictures of their wedding to Hello! a while back. Last week, in a written judgment, a judge stopped the Sun from publishing embarrassing pictures of Ned Rocknroll, Kate Winslet's new husband, because they added nothing, as the newspaper had tried to claim, to public debate. But the key argument against publication of photographs, which had already featured on Facebook, was the possible impact on Rocknroll's stepfamily. "There is real reason to think that a grave risk would arise as to Miss Winslet's children being subject to teasing or ridicule at school," the judge said, concluding that "the consequences of publication, in terms of risk of harm and distress to Miss Winslet's children, are matters tending towards a conclusion that the claimant's privacy should prevail".
Increasingly, if you wish to embarrass children in public, it may be advisable to be their parent. What the Sun will not be allowed to do to the stepchildren of Rocknroll should still be possible for writers on, say, the Daily Mail's Femail pages, trading revelations about sexless or otherwise flawed relationships, and for the authors of autobiographical narratives, misery and otherwise.
For now, assuming the presence of shared DNA, there is no onus on the author of, say, "My 14-year-old looks like a slapper" to explain why her article 10 justification under the human rights convention (freedom of expression) should trump the child's rights under article 8 (to a private life). A while back, Amy Chua, self-styled "tiger mother", was invited to account for her parenting methods, as opposed to defending the decision to use her daughters like a pair of upscaleHoney Boo Boos, as a means to a professional end.
Equally, if more public figures emulateJodie Foster, whose public defence of reticence was mainly well received, the most likely assailants on their privacy may not be Facebook gossips or a newspaper, but miserable or resentful family members, justifying their conduct as pained altruism or an exercise in the examined life. Will anyone ever write about Padma Lakshmi more harshly than the man who fell in love with her in 1999, Salman Rushdie?
"Everything is copy" is the aphorism generally employed by professional writers attempting, less successfully than its principal advocate, the great Nora Ephron, to transform painful experiences into something with artistic merit. Her own revenge novel, Heartburn, converted marital betrayal into a brilliant joke at the expense of the cartoon-like transgressors, the man, "Mark", being "capable of having sex with a Venetian blind". That the phrase should bring to mind Rushdie's Joseph Anton, whose "needs were like commands", only demonstrates how brilliantly Ephron succeeds in transcending the particular.
Although Kate Winslet's regular duties to fame could not, the judge said, justify exposure of the obscure Rocknroll, marriage to a writer remains a less protected option that the more shy type of civilian might want to avoid. But children can only pray for restraint. The example of Sharon Olds, letting her poems cool for 15 years, shows that it can, even by a major writer, be done.