On keeping yourself pure

So now we know. One great writer is arrogant and a snob. Another great writer is a mean-spirited marital bully. A third great writer has dodgy attitudes towards food and sex. The new school of confessional memoir, literature’s answer to the tabloid kiss-and-tell story, has of late been taking us behind the revered printed page for a sneak, voyeuristic peep at the flawed personality who created it.

Big, uncompromising writers have always, and for obvious reasons, been suspect to the average working journalist, and recent memoirs from Philip Roth’s ex wife Claire Bloom, from JD Salinger’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Maynard and from VS Naipaul’s ex-disciple Paul Theroux have provided the vast army of press opinion-mongers with acres of sanctimonious copy.

But those who write for living will read these accounts in a different spirit. Taken together, they can be seen to represent a model of artistic will and purity – an unbending determination to put the work before the life. Perhaps, in an age when writers are expected as never before to be attractive, promotable, anecdotal and charming, to play the media game with all its many temptations and compromises, we can learn from the Roth/Naipaul/Salinger guide to the writing life.

The Naipaul Rule of Publicity
One of the most memorable scenes in Sir Vidia’s Shadow sees Paul Theroux, as a young writer, delivering a manuscript to Diana Athill of André Deutsch. When Naipaul discovers that Theroux has taken the opportunity to meet the editor for few minutes, he becomes incandescent with rage. It is one of the cardinal rules of literature that the man should never precede the work; it is the written page that matters. Now that publishers deem an author’s looks and personality to be of equal, or greater, importance to anything that is written, this approach may seem old-fashioned, but it is also dignified and correct.

The Roth Rule of Writing Routine
Philip Roth has already been the subject of an exposé in its way more revealing than his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir Leaving the Doll’s House. In The Furies, a novel written by the late Janet Hobhouse, who had an affair with Roth, he appears as Jack, a cold and ruthlessly dedicated writer. ‘I admired his fasting. I admired his stony separateness and self-sufficiency. I admired the smallness of his needs, the steadiness of his routines: his exercise weights, his evening runs, his early nights. All the symptoms of his current loneliness I read as choices, heroic and exemplary. I admired the way he organised his existence around the two pages a day he set himself to write, the way he kept out intruders and had an answering machine to protect him, to take his messages like a psychiatrist’s in August… I admired the sparseness of his living arrangements, the just so and no more of his furnishings, the blandness of what he had on his walls.’ What Hobhouse called ‘the purposeful deprivation that allows you to work, the cultivation of dullness so that writing can be an escape from it’ is also evident in every page of the exposés of Naipaul and Salinger.

The Salinger Rule of Productivity
While JD Salinger’s refusal to deliver any work to any publisher over a period of thirty years may be thought to be a trifle obsessive, his great and dignified silence serves as a useful reminder that the siren voices of agents, publishers and publicists have ground many an obedient, exhausted book-a-year author into the dust. Much derided, and admittedly somewhat extreme and purist, Salinger is in fact simply enacting Flaubert’s dictum that ‘a book is essentially organic, a part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up to the bourgeois… Once our work is printed – farewell! It belongs to everyone. The crowd tramples on us. It is the height of prostitution, and the vilest kind.’

The Naipaul Rule of Advances
How many young writers, seduced by the hysterical, short-lived enthusiasm of publishers and journalists would not have benefited from the sound advice VS Naipaul offered to the young Paul Theroux? ‘The most important thing is to avoid making an enormous amount of money before you’re forty.’ After forty, Naipaul decided very sensibly that he would like to make his million and set about doing it.

The Salinger Rule of Publishing
According to Joyce Maynard’s enjoyable memoir At Home in the World, Salinger regarded any dealings with the publishing industry – financial, editorial and, above all, promotional – as supping with the devil. Indeed, it was when Maynard was persuaded by her publisher than she might actually promote her own book in modest way, that the old boy (he was over 50, she was 18) dismissed her as a serious writer and summarily dumped her as a lover. Naipaul is less extreme, merely describing publishers as ‘common, lying, low class and foolish’ and eventually deserting his loyal champion André Deutsch. This may be slightly unkind – there are several publishers who are not entirely low class and lie only occasionally – but the sensible author keeps a decent distance from those who sell his work, remembering that, in the modern book trade, loyalty is a one-way street.

The Roth Rule of Artistic Integrity
An unintentionally hilarious Spectator article written by a friend of Claire Bloom’s solemnly deconstructed Philip Roth’s novel I Married a Communist, identifying various incidents and characters which allegedly had been adapted, lifted, distorted and re-arranged to make the fiction. It is, of course, precisely what a serious writer does, shaping and puzzling away at reality to make sense of life’s disorder. ‘Discretion plays no part in fiction,’ as Roth’s character Nathan Zuckerman said in one of his early novel. Or, as a famous actress put it, explaining how she deployed her owns sexual experiences in order to play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, ‘It is both shameful and courageous to take a record from life and use it as a means to an end,’ she wrote. The actress, of course, was Claire Bloom.

Spring 1999