TO THE many difficulties attending the creative life may now be added a new peril. Outside the study, downstairs preparing lunch, or breezing his way towards you for a weekend stay, may be a spouse or a lover or a friend, taking notes. When, at some distant point in the future, something goes wrong - a relationship goes belly-up, a friendship turns sour, a terrible change occurs in your life - the notes could become a book and your loathsome, undignified, domestic self will be revealed to the world. One false move, and the stalker in your intimate life will be off to the nearest literary agent.
Betrayal is in the air and, in a sense, there's nothing new about that. For years, part of the deal of being a celebrity was that where there was an ex, there would soon be an expose. In this age of public intimacy, no one is particularly surprised when the abandoned wife of an eminent politician or the sister of a famous cellist decides to share their pain with a bracing course of hardback therapy.
Nowhere has the contagion of memoirs caused more anxiety, confusion and hypocrisy than in the literary world. In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, John Updike has written an edgy, heartfelt critique of what he calls "the Judas biography", listing recently published books from the new enrages: Philip Roth's ex-wife, Claire Bloom; JD Salinger's ex-lover, Joyce Maynard; and VS Naipaul's ex-friend, Paul Theroux. Over in The Spectator, Rafael Garcia-Navarro, a friend of Bloom's, deconstructed Roth's latest novel I Married a Communist, earnestly identifying real events and people deployed in the fiction, complaining that Roth had vampirically usurped the stories of those once close to him. Another confessional memoir, representing a gentler form of vampirism, has, meantime, been garlanded with praise. The rise of the Judas biography was somehow inevitable. Each of these writers was reacting to two powerful cultural impulses of the moment: the interest in writers' lives, as evidenced in the boom in literary biographies, and the vogue for the confessional memoir. There's a public hunger for tales of hurt and damage, and if the villain of the piece happens to be a previously revered and haughty public figure, so much the better. Roth, Naipaul and Salinger are prime candidates for debunking. We want our novelists to play the part, to appear on chat shows and tell anecdotes about deals and Hollywood and famous pals - to be people's writers. Each of these three has behaved with a Flaubertian hauteur towards the publicity game, putting the demands of their work before matters of politeness, decency, etiquette and kindness. It is the reaction of the co-conspirators in the Judas game, literary commentators and book-buyers, which has been odd and interesting. So eager have the critics been to place on record their moral outrage that, almost without exception, they have misread these books. …