DOES a writer’s responsibility to his art permit him to compromise the privacy of others? In a lecture at the University of Western Australia last year, writer Frank Moorhouse expressed concern, as well he might, that the Howard Government’s anti- terror legislation might prove incompatible with civil liberties and freedom of expression.
Of course, he couldn’t have known at the time that, a little more than a year down the road, the way he used his right to freedom of expression would be called into question from a less powerful though still formidable quarter about material in Martini , Moorhouse’s 2005 memoir dealing with his life and loves, and his love for the eponymous cocktail in particular.
At the end of March the author’s ex- wife, Wendy James, criticised him in an article in The Weekend Australian for quoting from her letters and for suggesting that she might have had an affair with her high school teacher, ‘‘ Mr W’’.
Clearly, this case has less to do with liberties taken from the author than with those allegedly taken by him, and even a glance at recent literary history will show that such controversies are far from rare.
The relevant chapter in Moorhouse’s memoir also appeared in an anthology, School Days , edited by poet John Kinsella. Last year, Kinsella himself fell foul of a perfect storm of literary controversy when poets Anthony Lawrence and Robert Adamson denied Kinsella’s portrayal of them ( drugs, pornography, carousing and so on) in his tell- all memoir, Fast, Loose Beginnings . ( Kinsella, alarmed by cryptic emails from Lawrence and Adamson, sought and was granted restraining orders.)
Also last year, Peter Carey’s ex- wife objected to the writer’s novel Theft on the grounds that it was a thinly disguised and self- serving account of their recent divorce.
More recently, Les Murray has accused his biographer Peter Alexander of moving to publish a volume of his letters ( Les Murray: Man of Letters is the intended title) without first showing the manuscript to Murray.
The justice of these allegations aside, taken together they raise a question: To what extent, or in what ways, can a writer use the private but identifiable lives of real people as material?
It is, perhaps, the confessional poets of the 1950s and ’ 60s who effected a fundamental change in the relationship between art and life and put this issue on the agenda. Poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell included information in their poems that would ordinarily be regarded as private, this on the assumption that the personal detail would attain a kind of impersonal resonance if set within an artistic context. The result was that poetic licence assumed a very different meaning: not the right to alter the facts but the right to set them down in the raw.
Lowell, who pops up in Moorhouse’s memoir as a consumer of ‘‘ vesuvios’’ ( vodka and gin), was the poet for whom the confessional tag was coined in 1959 in a review of his landmark collection, Life Studies . This book, however, was a model of discretion compared with Lowell’s later collections, and one collection in particular, The Dolphin ( 1973). In this book, which charts the breakdown of his marriage, Lowell included fragments of letters, telegrams and telephone conversations, some of them modified to suit his purposes. Even his closest friends were shocked. American poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote to him in the strongest terms: ‘‘ One can use one’s life as material — one does, anyway — but these letters — aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission — IF you hadn’t changed them etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.’’ ( Emphases in the original.)
I do not know if copyright exists in private letters but perhaps it would be a good idea if writers behaved as if it did. Of course, a letter can inspire a writer. But to print a letter ( whose author is still alive) without permission, this is an entirely different matter. Novels, poems, autobiographies: none of these things have ‘‘ only begetters’’. But letters do have only begetters; they are not intended for public consumption.
Of course, the writer who writes from life is always open to accusations that they have misrepresented or otherwise wronged some significant other. Add in the fact that marital breakdown is an inescapable modern theme and conflict becomes inevitable.
Indeed, the contentious post- divorce novel is becoming something of a literary sub- genre. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Hanif Kureishi have all been accused of using their novels to get back at their former wives.
Whether these allegations are justified only the parties involved will know. But one thing writers can avoid is the deliberate blending of fact and fiction, such that the reader is encouraged to wonder which bits are true and which are not. Of course, all literature draws on real life. But it is when a writer implies some confusion or even makes a show of it that the ethical problems start.
Moorhouse responded to his ex- wife’s article by saying that fiction ‘‘ is woven out of the life that the fiction writer has led’’.
But Martini: A Memoir is not a work of fiction. It is, as its subtitle suggests, a memoir, or so the reader is led to believe when they first open the book. Yet the contentious chapter, Memoir of a Story: Story of a Memoir, is clearly a piece of generic cross- dressing. Moorhouse evidently thinks this ambiguity is its saving grace. The back- cover blurb to Martini reads: ‘‘ How to live a martini and mix a life’’. In what proportions the life is mixed ( five parts fact to one part fiction or five parts fiction to one part fact) is left to the imagination. Meanwhile, James ( or Margaret, as she is named in the book) has to endure the speculative glances of people who thought they knew her well.
The family into which a writer is born is doomed, poet Czeslaw Milosz said. True or not, it is certainly the case that to treat people as material for art without taking due account of their feelings is revealing of a debased aesthetic. Writers should be a little more careful with the lives of those who don’t share their ambition.