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This item is taken from PN Review 89, Volume 19 Number 3, January - February 1993.

IN THE London Review of Books (22 October 1992), describing Philip Larkin's obsession with his literary reputation in the Selected Letters, Ian Hamilton remarks: 'Mailer, in his Advertisments for Myself, set out to annihilate the opposition, rather as Larkin seems to have done.'

No, Larkin seems to have done no such thing. Larkin didn't want such a book published. The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (reviewed in Reports in this issue by Donald Davie) is by Anthony Thwaite. The selection, deletions, apparatus, all are his; it is a partial record in every sense.

Hamilton is not alone in his readiness to accept the volume as an addition to Larkin's oeuvre, rather as Sylvia Plath's Letters Home have been taken as part of hers. In a sense this is inevitable: the words are Larkin's, and the book cannot now be unpublished. And it inevitably affects the poems. To Kingsley Amis Larkin once wrote: 'You know that the putting down of good words about good things is the mainspring of my endeavours.' Thwaite's book breaks that spring. The estate of Philip Larkin will profit, for a time. In the longer term, I wonder?

What rights do writers, dead or alive, have over their private writings - and their lives? Lady Natasha Spender's pained article in the Times Literary Supplement (9 October 1992) argues the case, once again, for privacy for a writer and his family. A new, unauthorized and 'sensationally' marketed biography of her husband appeared against his explicit wishes, expressed even before the book got under way and reiterated during its composition. Sir Stephen Spender's protest became the chief marketing instrument. The media had a field day, baiting the poet and interrogating the biographer ad nauseam. Reviews came thick and fast and were generally unfavourable. 'David's lack of research, his meretricious style and his innumerable mistakes, misrepresentations and misjudgements, merely render his book worthless,' Peter Parker wrote in a Times Literary Supplement review (16 October 1992) running - with a portrait of Spender from the 1930s - to 39 column inches. What carried the book was an opportunism in its presentation, a main chance approach among literary journalists, some gleeful, others indignant, all drawn into collusion with a marketing machine. Few reviewers could resist repeating, even if to condemn them, the biographer's 'mistakes, misrepresentations and misjudgements'.

It isn't hard to imagine the distress caused to the author and his family. The late Laura Riding suffered similarly from 'revelations' about her life which were generally far of the mark but which gained currency with each repetition. Few biographers can claim to understand the intellectual and emotional imperatives that lead to sensational 'facts'. As 'facts', in relation to the writings or the person, they are meaningless except as comedy and melodrama.

It is this kind of distress which the Hughes family must have experienced over two decades, with new allegations and 'discoveries' each year which feed the poisoned legend of Sylvia Plath and - as Eavan Boland argued in these pages - further displace the work, which we approach if at all through a thicket of anecdote, allegation and theory. In the end prurience is stronger in the marketplace than a readerly passion for poetry. It's the life, not the work, that draws big advances, serialization and hype. When prurience is resisted by the subject or the subject's relicts, on the ground of fact, or human pain, or the distress of children, it gives the marketing effort an extra spin: a living human drama.Only it's not EI Dorado: the actors are soldered into their rôles.

There is, too, a distress which some readers experience when a poet dear to them is appropriated by an interest group and issues of gender or race begin to occlude the work. The life is eagerly unpacked from the cupboard, with special attention to any bones that may be there. Elizabeth Bishop has already been mentioned in this connection in these pages.

It's not that Philip Larkin's letters, or Sir Stephen Spender's life, or Sylvia Plath's or Elizabeth Bishop's, are sacred, or state secrets. It's not even that the feelings of the living should be spared at all costs. The issue ought to be one of tact, accuracy and relevance to the work. Ill-conceived or ill-executed projects, whatever benefits accrue to the balance sheet, can damage and displace the work of a writer for a generation or more. Personalizing the literary product is common-place nowadays. It would be naive to assume that the work remains unaffected. Sylvia Plath is only the most salient example of displacement and appropriation.

Publishers are responsible to the subjects of their authors' books if they are responsible to the authors themselves. A biography or an edition of letters establishes a record. It is a record whose inaccuracies and lies survive the corrective rage of the critics. Scholarship - or the standard it proposes - seems nowadays to play as little part as courtesy and discretion do in the conception and execution of what are, after all, important tasks. Old habits of trust in the probity of biographers, editors and publishers die hard. But die they should, and soon.

Indeed, such habits ought never to have taken root in us. Jeremy Treglown comments on Lady Spender's sense of a decline among biographers from 'the formerly accepted principles' of their craft. In a review of Ian Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame: Literary estates and the rise of biography (TLS 30 October 1992), he says: 'This is one of those generational chimeras, like our belief in the higher standards of morality, grammar, etc that prevailed until - well, roughly until we ourselves became middle-aged.' Perhaps what has changed is the degree and nature of curiosity - in the market place, among producers. Also, perhaps, the level of impertinence of the media, which serve up tit-bits to satisfy the insatiable hunger for gossip, has increased. Something other than middle age makes me uneasy when I read of Larkin's will, or the opposition to David's biography, and then read the books they didn't want published, for obvious and not discreditable reasons.

This item is taken from PN Review 89, Volume 19 Number 3, January - February 1993.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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