Divorcing the novelist Joel Rose has proved an excellent career move for avant-garde New York writer Catherine Texier. Her last two novels languish unpublished, but her just-out, scathingly personal account of the marriage’s meltdown, Breakup, scored a six-figure advance from Doubleday and the eager thumb-throughs of publishing insiders.
The book is reheating industry chatter that first percolated in 1996, when — after 18 years of cohabitation and collaboration — Rose, 50, left Texier, 50, for his then-editor at Crown, Karen Rinaldi. (Rinaldi, 37, had bought his novel Kill Kill Faster Faster for a reported six figures.) As the betrayal began to surface, Texier found herself coldly logging details in her computer journal. ”That’s my job as a writer — to write when there’s a story,” she says.
And therein lies a trend. When movie-star marriages turn sour, the participants slink into hiding and bicker over Planet Hollywood shares. When literary couples fall apart, players vie for custody of the material. This year, publishers are feasting on the remains of writerly affairs gone awry. We now know more about Ted (Hughes) and Sylvia (Plath), Philip (Roth) and Claire (Bloom), and Joyce (Maynard) and J.D. (Salinger) than we ever did of Burt and Loni.
Writers cashing in on failed relationships is nothing new — Nora Ephron’s seminally vengeful roman á clef about her marriage to Carl Bernstein, 1983’s Heartburn, still does brisk business in paperback. What is new is the level of salacious detail burbling behind the thin veneer of literary respectability. Those dipping into Maynard’s At Home in the World will learn how Salinger schooled the 18-year-old in the finer points of bulimia and lugged her to a naturopathic gynecologist when they couldn’t consummate their romance. Breakup scores gross points for its gruesome revenge fantasies. Texier addresses Rose point-blank: ”If you leave, I will take your head and smash it against our front door until your brain explodes….” Rinaldi meets an even more violent hypothetical end, with her ”guts [and] ovaries, spilling all over her glamorous clothes.” (Rose, who shares parenting responsibilities with Texier for their two daughters, ages 7 and 17, and who has a son with Rinaldi, says he has no plans to read the book — yeah, right — and won’t comment on the record.)
So what’s the attitude here? No guts, no glory? Or is this a Jerry Springer-style swipe for attention dressed up in aesthetic garb? ”These experiences have to be written and published,” argues Texier. ”That’s the way that we break taboos and become more conscious of who we are.” Says Kathryn Harrison, who drew flak for writing about an affair with her father in 1997’s The Kiss: ”A person writes about what they need to write about, and that’s just it. It’s not negotiable.”
Not like an author’s follow-up advance, anyway. Consider this: Mining one’s life for a splashy memoir produces at least one major hurdle — finding a story that can top it.