Julian Gough: The myth of the selfish artist ruined my marriage
I now know male writers do not have to choose between family and work. Both feed each other
Julian Gough: The message John Banville sent in a recent Irish Times interview will damage young male writers
In a recent interview with The Irish Times about his new memoir, Time Pieces, Irish novelist John Banville said, “I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.” It was the key quote of the interview, and it was paraphrased for the headline.
A lot of writers piled on to him straight away. David Simon, who created The Wire (and is therefore the nearest thing our culture has to Shakespeare), tweeted “Speak for yourself, fucknuts. The work is the work and the family is the family.”
That night, I ended up in a three-hour, 30-person conversation on Twitter about fatherhood, motherhood, and writing. Most of those who joined in were writers: Neil Gaiman (who writes award-winning fiction for both adults and children); thriller author Holly Seddon; crime writers Sinéad Crowley and Jane Casey; experimentalist Paraic O’Donnell; young adult writer Claire Hennessy; poet Eleanor Hooker; and radical science-fiction writer J Courtenay Grimwood (who was a single father for some years).
It was a rich, thought-provoking conversation. Neil Gaiman wrapped it up succinctly: “Bad fathers are bad writers are bad people.” But after it, I felt I should write something about this issue that was longer than a tweet.
Why? Because John Banville, at 70, is a Booker-prize winning elder statesman of ambitious literature: many younger male writers look up to him, and listen to him. Are guided by him. (Young female writers? Er, less so, for reasons that are probably becoming obvious.)
And I think that the message that John Banville sent in that interview, and in that quote in particular, will damage young male writers, if they act on it; damage their lives, their kids, and their art.
And yes, it’s personal: I used to believe the same myths John Banville still seems to believe: believing them got me and my young family evicted, caused intense stress and pain for all those around me, ultimately destroyed my first marriage, and left me close to suicidal.
Oddly enough, three days after that interview ran, we were both shortlisted for an Irish Book of the Year Award – he for his memoir, in which he says that fathers who write must, of necessity, neglect their children; and I for a children’s book that started as a bedtime story for my daughter Sophie, and which I wrote with enormous editorial help from her. So our work is already in conversation, and disagreement, on this topic.
I should first say that I love The Book of Evidence, John Banville’s Booker-shortlisted masterpiece. The dude can really write. I respect him as a writer. And if he had said “Many male writers of my generation were not good fathers,” the media wouldn’t have been full of the fallout all last week.
Clearly, many male writers of his generation weren’t good fathers. (A few of the female ones weren’t great mothers either; but it was the men who more consistently failed.) We’ve read their kids’ memoirs: the verdict is in.
But in saying that no writer can be a good father, he was trying to pass off a specific historical cultural catastrophe as a universal truth. He gave permission to young male writers to behave like assholes (and young male writers really don’t need more excuses to behave like assholes).
And, for extra bonus points and a high score, he was at some level assuming, in his revealing and interesting choice of words, that all writers are male. As the bestselling novelist Joanne Harris wrote, in a fine series of tweets that night on Twitter:
>>“Not only is Banville’s claim ludicrous, it reinforces the myth that women can’t be Proper Writers because of all the Caring they have to do.”
>>“For a start, being a parent is excellent story-telling practice. Also, writing is about communication, not seclusion...”
>>“I’ve lost count of the number of times I was referred to as a ‘Yorkshire housewife’ when Chocolat came out, as opposed to ‘academic’, ‘teacher’, or even ‘writer. For some newspapers, ALL married women are housewives.”
>>“I could never have written Chocolat (or any of that series) without being a mother.”
(In general, when any literary hoo-hah kicks off, follow Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) and Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) for sharp, witty, commentary.)
But let me focus narrowly on the issue of writing’s relationship to fatherhood, because it’s the specific issue Banville raised, and because it’s an issue I know something about.
(Oh, one more point – because I can hear a great crowd of angry childless writers approaching with pitchforks – yes, childless men and women can, and do, write great fiction! Different article! For another day! I love you!)
My role models (the only ones supplied to me by the culture back then; by Irish schools, libraries, universities), were, probably like Banville’s, mostly male, mostly early 20th century novelists, and mostly lousy dads.
They had simply replaced religion with art, and thus they blamed on art what many priests had once blamed on God: I can’t look after women and children, in this room, here and now, because I have a higher calling. My eyes are on heaven, or posterity. My duty is to God, or art.
But this is entirely arse-backwards. The human beings in the room are heaven, are posterity, are God, are art.
And I say all this not because I am perfect, or holding myself up as a good example, but because I am deeply imperfect. If anything, I would hold myself up as a cautionary tale.
As a young man, I used art as a weapon, and a shield. I used guys like Beckett, Mailer, Bukowski, Roth, et al, as excuses to not get close to those I loved. I put the art ahead of everything. And in doing so, I think I made art that was thinner, emotionally, than it should have been; and I led my young family into appalling financial difficulties, leading to eviction and tremendous stress and tension.
My first wife was ill for the first few years of my daughter’s life: a huge contributing factor was the stress I put her under, in obsessively working on a f**king novel, for no money, when I should have been looking after my wife and young daughter.
When we were evicted, when we moved from house to house, I thought, well, that’s what James Joyce did, so it’s fine. (I put no weight on the fact that his daughter spent most of her life institutionalised, and his son drank himself to death.)
In following those role models, in putting art ahead of family, I was wrong.
My wife’s illness forced me, from the start, to look after our daughter for much of each day. And it was only in looking after my daughter, for a good chunk of every day, for years, that I came fully to life. I gave up on the dream of myself as an isolated atom, an artist on a mountain top. And I came to terms with who I really was; a broke, imperfect guy, a father who sometimes wrote, wandering along behind his unsteady, wobbling daughter, as she explored the world, seeing it fresh.
I spent a lot of my first year as a father exhausted, in tears, with my daughter strapped to my chest. Wandering into the amusement arcades of Salthill, at 1am, to get in out of the cold, trying to get her to go to sleep, as old ladies looked up from their one-armed bandits to stare at me in disapproval.
Later, I walked behind her, in parks and playgrounds in Dublin, in France, in Berlin, as she explored the world. (After emigrating, by Ryanair, for a euro, we had kept moving, in search of the lowest rent.)
Later again, my daughter and I would climb under fences, set fires on wastelands, break into construction sites, climb scaffolding, explore.
Total immersion in the life of my daughter blew my ego apart. Destroyed the old me, which was easily done because the old me had been a brittle, rigid shell. A defensive shell, defending very little; a shrunken emotional core that had never been allowed to develop.
With the help of my daughter, I have finally begun to grow up. I am less of an asshole. I’ve learned how to love, and be loved. I’ve stayed friends with my ex-wife (an excellent woman), and have married a splendid, loving, feminist. And I have finally begun to write work that connects with the hearts of others.
My daughter is 11, and a wonderful human being. Neither perfect nor imperfect – just herself. Right now, judging by my recent work, I am about seven years old. My new books connect with my peers; other seven year olds.
I hope my character will continue to improve with age (from its low base); and my work along with it. Because they are not separate things: art and character are entwined. And they’re on the same quest: to become, before they die, the best they are capable of becoming.
So to work on your character is to work on your art. But you do not get to decide if you’re succeeding in that joint, entangled quest. Your child decides; your friends decide; your partner decides; your reader decides.
And so I am writing this not to attack John Banville, but to attack the myth of the selfish, isolated artist, so that it is not passed on to the next generation of young men. To save them from our sorrows and regrets.
I understand why John Banville was the kind of parent he described in that interview; it’s the same reason I was the way I was. We both grew up in an emotional wasteland. The old Ireland was a catastrophe for so many girls and young women, but it was also a catastrophe for boys and young men.
Like Banville, I was educated in an all-male Christian Brothers school. Expressing any positive emotion was punished. Anger was the only raw, uncensored emotion we saw expressed regularly by our teachers. It bent many of us brutally out of shape.
The former head of my primary school (a Christian Brother) was jailed some years ago for indecent assault of a young boy at another school. Where we should have had a strong and compassionate male role model, Irish society placed a sadistic, paedophile bully. (I was one of the luckier ones, being merely beaten by him, and not sexually abused.) I have found compassion for him too, finally, in recent years. He, too, was destroyed by the old Ireland.
John Banville survived that Ireland: it’s a small miracle that he became a great writer in an Ireland that did everything to suppress such dreams. It is entirely understandable that he clung so fiercely to that dream: that he couldn’t risk doing anything that might take it way from him.
I suspect that, like many writers, he clung to his desk as to a life raft. He may have feared that if he let go of it for longer than a moment, even to embrace his children, he could go under. Drown in the everyday. Become normal, a person, a dad: not a Writer.
So I want to apologise to John Banville. I didn’t call him fucknuts, but I did laugh, and retweet David Simon’s tweet. I was mean to Banville myself a few years ago in print, and I was mean to him again later, in a novel.
But in attacking him, I was attacking those things I didn’t like about myself. And in attacking him, I was passing on the same nonsense that had bent us both out of shape.
I think he’s a good man. If he’s occasionally comes across as spiky and defensive, well, he grew up in a time where there was a lot to defend yourself from (including pups like me). He was probably a better father than he thinks or knows.
And I want to apologise to my first wife, for believing in the myth of the solitary artist. For messing up her life, too.
But if you’re a young male writer reading this: you do not have to choose between family and work. You need both. They feed each other.
(Most female writers know this already. Ursula K. LeGuin is particularly good on the subject. Read her. Oh, and while you’re at it, read JG Ballard’s memoir, Miracles of Life, in which a widowed man raises three children on his own while becoming the greatest writer in England.)
I hope John Banville wins Irish Book of the Year in his section, non-fiction. I don’t think I will in mine: Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers, mature artists, have written a masterpiece in my category. (It’s called A Child in Books; buy it, whatever age you are.) I’m not old enough or wise enough yet to win. But I’m only seven, and I’m growing fast, and there’s always next year.
Julian Gough (@juliangough) is the author of a number of novels for adults and the children’s book Rabbit’s Bad Habits, which is shortlisted for an Irish Book of the Year Award