Fine Print: Can two writers handle real life together?

For his first monthly column, Drew Zeiba asks if art is worth it

“PRETTY WIDOW, VIVACIOUS, SHARP, liberal NY area writer, 85, seeks intelligent, Active man 78–88 for concerts, theater, walks, talks and friendship. Working on memoir, Want to be in it?” — New York Review of Books personals, February 8, 2024

When my boyfriend wrote about how I was so good in bed he nearly felt obligated to share, I nearly felt compelled to share the essay—though I stopped myself, deciding that would be embarrassing. But a few months later when he, Geoff, published a piece on his nightlife review platform mentioning he couldn’t cum, my confidence deflated. I guess that’s what I get for dating a personal essayist. It would’ve been unethical of me to tell him to hold back. Instead I asked, of the first draft, “Do you really think you should publish this?” He responded by beginning the second version, “We had come to Mexico City for New Years in a bid to save our relationship.” News to me.

“You’ve basically invited all these people into our relationship, present tense. It’s not just your life,” I complained to him as we walked to an opening, the first time I’d seen him since he’d hit “post.” He crammed his arms into the pockets of his electric-blue parka and stitched his brow. “Noted,” he said. I attributed the peeved body language to the winter cold. I went home alone. Later, over iMessage, he relented. “I’m sorry, okay?” he texted without preamble. “I’m not apologizing for the writing, I’m apologizing for being the shitty person who writes things like that.”

Does this sorry-I’m-not-sorry imply a compulsion? Here we were, our first standoff. I should’ve known better: writers are always writing about each other. In the last few years we’ve had “the bad art friend”; Tao Lin’s transitory cancellation (reprinted e-mails; underage poet); a biography digging up dirt on long-dead W.G. Sebald (the writer of burning bridges who burned many bridges); an essay in The New Yorker about divorcing a husband who’d recently written an essay about his previous (dead) wife in The New Yorker; Janet Malcolm’s affair bombshells; Linda Boström Knausgård, ex-wife of Karl Ove, creating her own autobiographical novel, in part about her relationship’s end; and, most recently, the ad-infinitum discourse about Blake Butler’s Molly, a book divulging unflattering details about Butler’s deceased wife, the poet Molly Brodak.

These controversies aren’t a phenomenon unique to our self-surveillance social-media era: in the 19th-century French writers like Stendhal, Proust, and Gide thinly veiled their personae, if they bothered to veil them all. Elizabeth Hardwick didn’t file for divorce from the adulterous Robert Lowell until 1972, when she learned that her husband hadn’t ignored her letters; he’d simply been busy copying them into his book-length poem, The Dolphin. (“Art just isn’t worth that much,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote Lowell, trying to dissuade him from appropriating the correspondence; “I regret the Letters in Dolphin [but] the only way to make a narrative was to leave a few,” he later non-apologized.)

What is art worth? Or, better: when is it worth it?

To write about yourself, per Carrère, is like Massu prodding himself—you decide how much voltage, you decide where to target, you decide when to stop, above all, you decide. When somebody else is writing about you the shock can be unbearable.

One hungover morning four or five years ago, I was overheated and scrolling Twitter (as it was called then) from bed, when I saw a link that sounded compelling. Three paragraphs in, a pit welled in my stomach. There I was: post-party, coked out, foolish, and, of course, 22. At least I’d been anonymized, and unless you’d been peculiarly lucid at China Chalet that October night, there was zero chance of identification. Unlike Geoff’s recent ignominious party report, I couldn’t claim my “privacy” was violated. What I disliked was seeing me how someone else saw me: as if I were looking into a funhouse mirror.

A few months later, the writer and I performed in the same reading. After the applause died out, I marched up to her with my plastic cup of red wine and announced: “I read that essay in [redacted], by the way.” “Oh,” she said, face blank. “Well, it’s not all real, I fictionalize elements to highlight the point.” It was sweet of her to say, but what little I remember of the evening, it seemed she hadn’t had to embellish much.

Capote, Wolfe, Wurtzel, Stagg—every era needs its chronicler, and one must accept they could become prose when they’re out in public, but it’s another thing when one’s in a relationship, right?

When my ex-boyfriend, Andrew, got mad about how I’d included him in my novel, I included his explosive reaction in the next draft. Some months later, in a bout of blessed narcissism he confronted me again: Why’d I go and change his last name? It would’ve been cool to star in a book.

“How did you feel when you first read the ‘Andrew’ I’d written?” I asked him recently. “Flattered. Important.” That’s not true, you screamed at me in the street! I countered. “Because at first I seemed cool and hot in the book. And then I wasn’t.” At the time I’d tried to defend my actions by quoting Robert Glück:

“In writing about sex, desire and the body, New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen—the book becomes social practice that is lived. The theme of obsessive romance did double duty, de-stabling the self and asserting gay experience. Steve Abbott wrote, ‘Gay writers Bruce Boone and Robert Glück (like Acker, Dennis Cooper, or the subway graffitists again) up the ante on this factuality by weaving their own names, and those of friends and lovers, into their work. The writer/artist becomes exposed and vulnerable: you risk being foolish, mean-spirited, wrong. But if the writer’s life is more open to judgment and speculation, so is the reader’s.’”

Such explanations didn’t land with my ex. Nor did they always for Glück. His 1985 novel Jack the Modernist depicts a self-conscious scene in a soul food restaurant where the author and subject discuss a story draft, and “Jack” demands a name change. “But Jack, none of the other characters have different names,” the author-narrator argues in exasperation. Jack/Not-Jack says that Glück/Not-Glück’s changed some details anyway (pet finches), so it’s not 100 percent reality in the end. “I see what you mean,” the narrator demures. “[T]he obstacles to using his real name were insurmountable. I eagerly returned to perceiving Jack as he chose to be perceived, as he revealed himself.” Glück’s subject asks to be called Clovis. Or Alexander. “I think I’ll call you Jack,” the narrator concludes.

I doubt “Jack” felt Glück perceived him “as he chose to be.” Such perception is an impossible task: “A lot of people told me how humane, honest, and real the portrayal was. I think there was a lot of empathy and recognition,” Geoff said.

“Well I’d prefer if being humane and ‘real’ were up to me but that’s life I guess,” I replied.

“I understand that. Nobody likes getting written about.”

“Publishing is a way of being together, constituting collective language for how we communicate and perceive. Personal stakes are interpersonal. One can’t write to or from an empty world.”

The “nonfiction novelist” Emmanuel Carrère has an analogy: In the ’50s, French general Jacques Massu was challenged for his use of electroshock torture in Algeria. “Don’t exaggerate,” Massu scolded his detractors—he’d tried the cattle prods on himself and said they barely hurt. This is “nonsense,” says Carrère. “What’s atrocious about torture is that someone else is afflicting you, and you don’t know when he will stop. ‘I tried it on myself to see if it hurts. And I stop when it hurts.’ That’s the opposite of torture. That’s called an experience.” To write about yourself, per Carrère, is like Massu prodding himself—you decide how much voltage, you decide where to target, you decide when to stop, above all, you decide. When somebody else is writing about you the shock can be unbearable.

Can there be an ethics to writing about others, especially those whom you socialize with or date or fuck? Is art worth that much, to flip Bishop’s admonishment?

I don’t presume to have the answer, but as autofiction, personal essay, memoir, and targeted para-social posting thrive, I think it is a question we writers should be asking—and not just those of us dating another writer. Publishing is a way of being together, constituting collective language for how we communicate and perceive. Personal stakes are interpersonal. One can’t write to or from an empty world.

Glück begins his “Long Note on New Narrative” from which I quoted: “To talk about the beginnings of New Narrative, I have to talk about my friendship with Bruce Boone.” After looking towards Benjamin, Althusser, Foucault, as well as queer liberatory politics, Glück returns to friendship: “Bruce and I carried on what amounted to one long gabby phone conversation. We brought gossip and anecdote to our writing because they contain speaker and audience, establish the parameters of community, and trumpet their ‘unfair’ points of view,” Glück explains towards the essay’s end. “I could use the lives we endlessly described to each other as ‘found material’ which complicates storytelling because the material also exists on the same plane as the reader’s life. Found materials have a kind of radiance, the truth of the already-known.” The aesthetic and political significance of narration, for Glück, are “social” in all that word’s scopes. Bringing this “found material” together onto “the same plane as the reader’s life” raises the stakes, makes literature matter. Or at least makes it more fun.

I am lurking at a white-clothed table, sipping a half-filled glass of cava in the ostentatious Casa Battló in Barcelona. Beside me, a British journalist I’d recently met is recounting a moment she discovered herself in a friend’s novel. She decided that though it was definitely her, the net result was “more fantasy than autofiction.” “Can I record this? I’m working on a column,” I joke. She assents without pause. While her side plot seemed inconsequential to her real life, the journalist explains, by writing about her friends, her writer-friend’s own life became transparent: “I was like, Oh, clearly you fancy Tom.” The author didn’t show her boyfriend (who was not Tom) the draft—about whom the novel reveals she was having second thoughts. “She stays with him in the end,” the journalist summarizes. “Well, in the book. They broke up in reality.” I drain my glass, go out on the terrace to bum a cigarette.

Leaning against a sandstone modernisme banister, I catch the eyes of one of those Spanish clones: a mop of dark hair and affectedly messy beard (fake-wild like an English garden) and hoop earrings, assertive and probably plated-nickel, cage his pointed face. I watch his thin hands sprinkle tobacco into a creased rolling paper as his front teeth gnaw his bottom lip, his gaze still locked with mine. I look away, withdraw my phone. “I laaaav you,” Geoff’s slurred into my WhatsApp, molly-high at some 36-hour rave, I presume. “I’m looking at your Instagram. I’m giddy.” Oh, I realize—remembering his no-texts-on-drugs policy—he’s at home.

When I reach his apartment the following afternoon after 12 hours of travel, I push him to his knees onto his floor-bound twin mattress, tug down his Adidas track pants with my feet, suck his finger and tell him to put it, wet, in himself. He complies. I strip quickly, cradling one hand then the other beneath his jaw so his eyes are locked to mine, before rubbing the length of my body against his face as I lower towards the ground. I place his cock on my palette, wait for the blood to flood it, and make sure we finish, him first.

After, I’m lying on the rug so Geoff can splay across the mattress, and I tell him: “Don’t write about this, I already have plans.”

“So that was all for literature.” He laughs, wipes his slobbery mouth. “Anyway, who would know if I did? I doubt we’d see it the same way.”

Or at least that’s how I imagine it would go—I’m still on the plane, writing this, more fantasy than autofiction, uncertain, giddy, waiting.