Madness and obsession: do these characterise the real life of a writer? Booker Prizewinner John Banville appears to think so. The Irish novelist has upset his fellow authors when discussing the arduous nature of writing. He claimed that writers make terrible parents and that most would “sell their children for a good turn of phrase”.
He told the Irish Times: “It was very hard on them, on my children. I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer is. You take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen. I’ve been very lucky that my loved ones put up with me. I am very fortunate.”
The Times quoted reactions from several of Banville’s fellow writers. One even became very earnest about the fact that an established author making comments like that was giving permission to younger writers to behave badly and never grow up. Most comments were unprintable on the hallowed page of Voice of the North, at least without employing a lot of asterisks. So I won’t quote them.
I’m surprised by the vehemence of these reactions. Did Banville touch a nerve? I suspect a little guilt is emerging here: methinks, to misquote Shakespeare, “they protest too much”. Perhaps they all know, the male ones at any rate, that there are indeed times when, totally absorbed in their act of creation, they pay less attention to their families than they might. Isn’t that true in any case of lots of people with demanding if successful careers?
Roald Dahl, I seem to recall, admitted to being a grouchy writer. There’s a passage in his first autobiography, Boy, when he writes confidingly about the reason why writers are grumpy and “sometimes drink a little too much whisky”.
If you believe playwright Peter Schaffer’s portrayal of Mozart’s last days (in his play Amadeus, currently revived at the National Theatre), the great composer neglected his wife and children while writing his final works, particularly his Requiem, scribbling feverishly and fuelling himself with cheap wine until he collapsed with exhaustion and illness.
That’s a fictionalised account: but there are reliable descriptions of Rossini, a legend of last-minute completion, composing through the night, throwing the next page of the score down the stairs to his copyist: the ink was still wet on the parts of several of his opera overtures when the curtain went up for the première.
What of 21st-century writers then? Is it different for those who now tap away at a laptop instead of scratching with a pen? How do my fellow columnists on Voice of the North fare in terms of pounding out words to the exclusion of everyone around them at home?
That’s the point, perhaps. There’s an added peril for writers, because they tend to do their work in the family home. Families might complain about neglect by a parent working enormous hours in the office, even if the result of those labours is their magnificent home and lavish lifestyle.
But home is a place for family, where the normal activity is to be together, to talk, to interact, even to argue. How can one tolerate a section of that home where silence is imposed, where the author-parent locks himself or herself away in order to hit that deadline or complete that vital chapter?
I’ve certainly been a grumpy writer often enough. My daughters still claim that I didn’t play with them for six months when, precisely twenty years ago, I was writing up my PhD thesis. When I wrote both the book and the score for a musical, Flotsam, performed in 2012, all the family agree I was properly obsessive, talking of little else and not sleeping. Was I that mad? Maybe, I was: it wouldn’t have been finished and performed otherwise.
Let’s get this in perspective. Surely every parent has at times been too busy to pay due attention to their children? But Banville is an author, and writers don’t just tell how things are: they have to exaggerate to make a point.
So would I ever “sell my children for a good turn of phrase”? I’ve never reached that level of madness or obsession: not yet. Maybe I would, though. But only for a very, very good phrase, and a very, very fat publisher’s fee.
The thing is that to ‘sell your children for a good turn of phrase’ is such a good turn of phrase!