Fiction and Its Victims

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (a metaphor that is now obsolete, and also perhaps inapt because it assumes that there are people who are reading my blog posts regularly), I’m going to plunge once again into that worried and worrying subject, the relationship between fact and fiction.

This particular foray is prompted by having just come across a piece in the Sunday New York Times of a while back (July 15, to be exact) by the novelist Colm Toibin. In the essay, Toibin talks about remembering his mother walking to work one morning in 1968, wearing a red coat, traversing a number of real streets that he names. But then he crosses a mental street of his own, traveling from (to borrow his metaphor) the solid land of fact to the watery terrain of fiction: he imagines his mother’s thoughts, and he gives her a singing voice—which, he says, she did not have. “The shape of the story requires that she have a singing voice,” he writes; “it is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised.”

So far, so good: I can relate to this, as a writer. When I was writing my novel The Mother Daughter Show, which was inspired by a real-life experience, I engaged in the process that Toibin is describing, taking real events and real people and adding and subtracting from them according to the needs of my story. In the process, the people in my novel became fully realized, three-dimensional fictional characters—to me, at least. To some readers, they apparently seemed like caricatures or distortions of the real people they knew, or even of themselves.

Toibin more or less acknowledges that these real people have “rights,” as he puts it, “to be left alone, not transformed.” But to him, these rights seem “ludicrous.” He feels, he says, that he has no responsibilities to these people, but only rights of his own—presumably, to write whatever he wants to. And his only responsibility, he maintains, is to “the reader,” someone he may never meet, not to “people I have known and loved.”

Toibin cites other authors who have, in this sense, betrayed people they loved by fictionalizing them: Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, Brian Moore. Mann, for example, “wrote a story suggesting that his wife had had an incestuous relationship with her twin brother.” And yet, Toibin says, no one considered these writers to be bad people. It was only when they put on their writers’ hats that “their soft hearts became stony.”

It’s here that I have to part company with Toibin—and, I suppose, Mann, Beckett, and Moore, assuming they shared his lack of qualms about what they were doing. I do feel a responsibility to those I have known and loved, and I don’t feel that my “rights” as a writer override theirs. I couldn’t write a fictionalized version of someone I was close to, even if in my own head the character I created was a separate being from his or her real-life model. As I’ve learned from my experience with The Mother Daughter Show, that wouldn’t guarantee that anyone else would see the character the same way.

To be honest, while I hoped that people who had some familiarity with the real Mother-Daughter Show in which I participated would view my novel as fiction—and while I thought that the many invented aspects of the book would help to ensure that—I did worry that some people would be offended. If I’d still been a parent at the school where the show took place, knowing that I’d have to continue to interact on a regular basis with individuals who thought I’d caricatured them, I doubt I would have written the novel. And I can’t imagine taking that risk with a friend or a relative. All I can say is that Thomas Mann’s wife must have had superhuman qualities of forbearance; I’m not sure I would have been able to put up with the story he concocted, and I’m a writer myself.

One irony inherent in my own experience is that I left journalism (and, to some extent, essay writing) for fiction largely because I didn’t want to offend or hurt people. When I was writing feature articles, often profiles of people, I found that my subjects would sometimes get upset. It wasn’t that I was distorting the record. It might have been that I was recounting things that others said about my subjects, or that I’d observed, and that they didn’t particularly want to see in print. Or that my perception of who these people were didn’t match their own. In any event, I thought writing fiction would be safer.

But I’ve come to think that when you’re basing your fiction on real people, it’s actually more dangerous. Writers of fiction feel they have the freedom to invent—and rightly so. But the people who think you’re writing about them can easily mistake your inventions for revelations of how you really feel about them. Not to mention that readers with only limited knowledge of a situation (like, say, acquaintances of Thomas Mann’s wife) may have no way of distinguishing what’s true from what’s invented.

In his Times piece, Toibin seems to be saying that he has no choice but to fictionalize events and people from his own life if he’s going to write good fiction: “If I made up a mother and put her in another town, a town I had never seen, I wouldn’t bother working at all. I would turn to drink, or just sit at home, or run for election.” (An interesting choice, that last one.) But this makes no sense to me. I confess I haven’t read any of Toibin’s fiction yet, but one of his books, The Master, is sitting next to my bed. It’s a fictionalization not of Toibin’s own life, but of the life of Henry James. And since it’s received a good deal of critical acclaim, I assume Toibin was successful at imagining all sorts of things he’d never actually seen or experienced.

Having written one historical novel and being in the midst of writing another, I’m also familiar with the process of inventing scenes and characters that have no relationship to my own lived experience—except in the sense that all writing is related to an author’s own experience. You’re always drawing on your thoughts, your emotions, your memories, in creating fiction. But it’s a question of degree. No one has ever gotten mad at me because they thought I put them into my historical novel.

Obviously, I’m not saying that writers need to limit themselves to stories set in the distant past. I can see myself writing another contemporary novel, but if I do I think I’ll depart further from my own experience than I did with The Mother Daughter Show. And I’m not presuming to tell other writers what to do. Who knows how many wonderful novels would never have been written if writers were forced to limit themselves to non-autobiographical material? I’m just saying it’s not for me.

But I do think that if you’re going to write, say, a story that portrays your wife as having an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, the least you can do is feel a little bad about it.

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