On authors and housework

Have you done the washing up? Or did you leave it on the sideboard in the comfy expectation that, by the time your return from your work (yes, reading The Author is work, actually), some civilian, some non-writer, will have dealt with it? Maybe you have an absolute treasure who relieves you of the problem altogether, allowing you that all-important thinking time that is so important for those of us in the creative industries.

These are not entirely facetious questions. Already this year, the role of washing up in the writer’s life has become a leading issue of literary debate. Several reviewers of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, for example, have been worried by the fact that, throughout his marriage, the great man was never known to have taken his plate at the end of a meal from the table to the sink, nor to have washed up a single saucer, nor even, in the time-honoured way of the hopelessly undomesticated male, to hang around aimlessly with a tea-cloth in his hand. The many people with whom Chatwin liked to stay confirmed that he preferred to hold forth at the table while others busied themselves around his glittering presence.

Not only did they indulge him, but his long-suffering hosts seem to have liked this aspect of his character. While, to a non-writer, a career marked by social and intellectual snobbery, and self-mythologising on a heroic scale, might suggest a certain pretentiousness, to Chatwin’s famous friends (he didn’t go in for friends who were not famous), it all added to his mystique. When, with a group of journalist chums he arrived at restaurant, found there was one two few seats at their table and briskly sent his wife home, Bruce’s pals presumably accepted as part of his genius.

Perhaps it was. Maybe his allergy to anything as mundane as domestic work was inextricably bound up with his talent as writer. Who knows? Possibly it was true that the merest contact with rubber gloves, the slightest whiff of Spring-Fresh Fairy Liquid would have fatally contaminated his sense of self, his confidence and, as a result, his writing. And, if that is the case, have the rest of us been making a terrible mistake all these years? Would we be have achieved purer, less compromised work had we simply refused, with a quiet, firm dignity, any request to wash up, dry up, make the bed or even put our dirty socks in the washing basket, had we said plainly and simply, ‘No, sorry, can’t do that – you see, (ITALS) I’m a writer (END ITALS).’

There will be those who will argue that it is words on the page, not dutiful behaviour and good citizenship, that are important and, under normal circumstances, I would agree with them. Why should the fact that Philip Larkin was a plonking middle-England racist influence our reading of his poetry any more than the suspicion that, by the heartfelt accounts of former wives and partners, Philip Roth is a touch ungenerous in his relations with women put us off his novels?

But there is something peculiarly self-indulgent about Chatwin and his easy assumption that, just as real men don’t eat quiche, real authors don’t do the washing up. In a similar way, my admiration for Martin Amis’s novels was badly shaken some years ago by his confession – boast, really – that he simply could not deal with money matters, that anything in the form of a brown envelope or a bank statement or a letter from an accountant he would queasily hand over to his wife. It occurred to me that, if the man was unable to deal with a letter about his finances (and, boy, what a problem they must be), why should the rest of us take seriously his views on Chaos Theory, women, black holes, the family or the end of the world?

A complication to the great washing-up debate has been added by Mslexia, the new magazine for women writers (details available from PO Box 656, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 2RP). Apparently a gender issue is involved. Addressing the reason why twice as many women read English at university and attend creative writing courses but often fail to get published, Mslexia’s editor Debbie Taylor put the blame squarely on housework and childcare. ‘It is no coincidence that many prominent women authors are either childless or lesbian or both.’

It’s a tragic enough picture – potentially brilliant female authors either trapped in the kitchen and the nursery or forced into lesbianism in order to fulfil their writerly destiny – but behind it is the Bruce Chatwin argument. The true author should attend to her or his Muse and allow others to clear up the dishes.

This way madness lies. In the same month that Mslexia and the Chatwin biography were launched, a Michael Leach, whose wife Karoline is a playwright, was alleged to have hatched a plot to murder his ancient mother to ease the financial worries of the family. In Mr Leach’s words, he ‘bottled it’ and let the old girl live, but how much police time, not to mention the risk of a certain atmosphere attending future family gatherings, would have been spared if his wife had not been locked away in the study and had been more involved in domestic tasks.

Surely it is time to accept that the best and most serious modern writers are those who accept their share of the housework. Would John Updike have gained his insights into family life had he not spent time with the hoover and the Shake ‘n’ Vac? Would Doris Lessing have achieved her understanding of human nature if she had been a complete stranger to Pledge? Surely one can even imagine the saturnine Philip Roth clattering the plates at sink, even as he broods grumpily on his next scene of intimate conflict and erotic excess.

There are others – Julian Barnes, Cormac McCarthy, Jeanette Winterson, Gore Vidal – who, one fears, may belong to the Chatwin/Mslexia school and refuse point-blank to do the housework. They should reach for the Fairy Liquid before their work begins to suffer.

Summer 1999