Thursday, 31 January 2008

A paradoxical dedication

Last week, I was teaching on the M.A. in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University, which was fun, if a little strange, in that one never meets the students but chats to them via the keyboard: a disembodied experience which was strangely more intense than a real-life seminar ... in a good way.

Anyway, the subject of discussion was memoirs, and I was asked about the dubious ethical status of memoirs, and writing about other people. These questions always come up when it comes to memoirs for good reason: they are the central questions posed by the genre. If you're not tortured, or at least exercised, by the moral questions posed by the genre, then you shouldn't be writing memoirs, as far as I'm concerned.

In my book, the dedication reads: "This book is dedicated to my father, John Taylor (1928?-2001), who would probably have hated it." Obviously, this dedication itself poses all sorts of ethical and moral problems. Should I have written a book about my father if he would have hated it?

When my brother first read the book, he said to me: "Well, yes, dad would have hated the book when he was ill, given the paranoia and paranoiac fear of being talked about in the local papers or elsewhere. But, if he'd been well, he would have liked the book, because when he was well, he loved writing and reading." My father was, after all, a very cultured man.

So this makes the book a deeply paradoxical enterprise.

Put it this way: when he was ill, in the early 1990s, my father used to come into the dining room (where I was typing fantasy-science-fiction), shouting: "HE'S WRITING ABOUT US, YOU KNOW! HE'S GOING TO EXPOSE US IN HIS WRITING!" ... and he was proved right retrospectively by the future, but not at the time, when the thought of writing about my own family hadn't even crossed my mind (Tolkienesque fantasy seeming more relevant to my life back then).

But, as my brother says, before he was ill and paranoid, perhaps he would have loved the book ... the problem being that then the book would not have been possible or conceivable. After all, the book is partly about his illness, dementia, Parkinson's, paranoia. My father would have loved the book when he was well, but the book is posited on the fact of his latter-day illness. So the book is a strangely impossible paradox in ethical terms. My father would have loved a book which is partly about an illness which would have made him hate it, if you see what I mean. Or, in other words (and there are so many ways of putting this), he would have loved a book which is about a later self who would have hated it. Or my father would have loved a book if he could have gone forwards in time as he was before the illness, read it, and then gone back to experience the horrendous illness so it could have been written at all.

These are the kind of ethical ambiguities and time-travelling paradoxes and questions that memoir-writers have to confront. I don't think there're any simple answers, and I don't have any to offer.

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