Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Are Authors Vampires of Others' Lives?

A couple of months back in 'The Guardian' newspaper and elsewhere there was commentary on how authors take revenge on people.  The latest in a long list (and foolishly I have lost the articles which have named historic examples), is Jonathan Franzen who in 'Freedom' passes a harsh comment on fellow author Ian McEwan's novel 'Atonement'.  I have found an article from 'The Independent' listing some others: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/poison-pens-the-art-of-literary-revenge-2107142.html  These include Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century ridiculing a love-rival and more recently novelist Jilly Cooper featuring a goat named after a critic of hers from twenty years earlier in her recent novel 'Jump' (2010).  Melvyn Bragg included a caricature of interviewer Lynn Barber in his 1992 novel 'Crystal Rooms' following an awkward interview between them two years earlier; Sebastian Faulks apparently caricatured reviewer D.J Taylor in his novel 'A Week in December' (2009) and Taylor did the same in return in his 'At the Chime of the City Clock' published this year.  There has been commentary that now rather than be subtle in doing it, especially to reviewers, authors simply send a harsh tweet such as Alison Flood and Alain de Botton last year.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am often frustrated that people are able to do bad things to me, especially to impugn me with impunity.  Though it is a painless form of revenge, I have got some recompense from treating versions of these people in bad ways in my writing, though I have kept those stories off this blog.  It can be unhealthy to focus your stories in this way if you let the revenge taking dominate, but it other ways it is useful.  The behaviour of these people is never unique to them and you can be sure that many of your readers will have met people who behave in the same foolish or nasty ways.  It also allows you to have a believable element to your 'villains' and for personal experience I know it can be very satisfying to feel that at least in one context, you have some revenge. 

I think the concept of Karma and of 'vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord' come about because most of us get no chance to get any come-back against those who treat us badly so our only compensation is that sometime in the future, probably when we are not around to witness those who do us bad will have to pay.  In fact, they probably never will, but that is hard for us to accept.  This world, especially UK society today is unfair.  We live in the time that the rich and privileged benefit at the expense of the rest of us.  The bad are winning out with little chance for the good people to regain anything; just look how badly nurses and the elderly who have given their all, suffer. These days so many people are self-centred, and even worse, self-righteous with it, meaning that not only can they not see the perspective of anyone else they also feel that you are wrong not to totally accept their personal viewpoint of how the world should be.  In particular they love you to 'recant' outlining in detail and length how wrong you have been.  In such circumstances, to retain any self-respect, we either need faith in divine or natural justice or to find a safe way to take revenge.

Taking revenge in the fiction you write is an explicit way of drawing real people into your writing, often the one that people look out for.  However, it is not that uncommon a process, it happens constantly in all fiction.  Whilst we may conjure up exotic and alien characters, the bulk of how we portray them is based on the accumulation of what the author has seen of real people or read about them in others' books whether fiction or non-fiction or seen in other media, notably these days, movies.  All of these sources give us a sense of how people behave.  A friend of mine, himself a non-fiction writer, accused me of stealing people's lives to use in my writing.  His accusation was that he was more honest in his use of the lives of others often for legal reasons, compelled to gain his subjects' approval before writing about them.  He felt I was exploitative and devious in using people, often many more than he did, without seeking their approval first.

Given that I am not a prolific author, nor a successful one, I seem to get more than my fair share of people telling me how I should write and criticising me for now doing it the way they feel is not only advisable but necessary.  Back in 2008 I commented on the other friend who complained if I wrote about anything I had not directly experienced and certainly from the perspective of any character who was of a different age, gender or ethnicity than myself.  See: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/06/authors-writing-and-internet.html  I know there were critiques in the 1970s of writing the history of a culture that was not your own leading to the development of what came to be known as 'subaltern history', i.e. the history of peoples ruled over by others written by descendants just of those people.  Personally I welcome histories from every perspective.  I would also be careful in drawing such lines and saying that particular perspectives are somehow 'better'.  I am a descendant of my grandfather, one among many, but who is to say that I understand his life or could write his history any better than say an anthropologist from India who had made a particular study of white, skilled working class men living in North London in the mid-20th century?  I see legitimacy not only in anyone's story but in anyone's telling of anyone else's story.  This may be controversial, but I fear that unless we have a broad view on what is 'permissible' in writing and other media, we will choke off so much good (and bad) art.  Should Ang Lee have been barred from directing 'Sense and Sensibility' (1995), David Cronenberg from directing 'Eastern Promises' (2007); should Sebastian Faulks have been blocked from writing many of his novels, because he is not French; should Nicole Jordan be barred from writing historical romance because she lives in the 21st century not the 18th; should Anne Rice be blocked from writing about vampires because she is not one?  We certainly would have no 'Watership Down' (1972) until a rabbit could operate a wordprocessor and 'Star Wars' could never had been legitimately produced in this galaxy under such regulations.

Authors draw on everything that interests them, everything they see, hear, touch, taste and smell.  They draw on other writers' stories, but above all they draw on human life.  Authors are human, they are flawed.  They fill their books with assumptions and prejudices as everyone else does.  Of course, we would spurn those fuelling hatred in what they write, but it is important to understand why they write it not simply say everything should be censored.  Humans are constant story tellers, diarists even lie to their diaries, but everything that is written, in particular for novels, draws on an author's take on the world and the people they meet in it.  There is exploitation, but fiction authors do not somehow drain away the souls of the people they feature in their stories.  As it is, most often, even when historical or contemporary characters appear under their own names, they are presented as the author sees them, not as they or their loved ones might see them.  However, saying that, how different do people appear in different biographies of them?  Even those trying to adhere to non-fiction, cannot but help putting elements of themselves and their perspectives into their books, if simply by choosing what to include.

Perhaps I have been more challenged about the intellectual basis of my fiction writing than the average amateur author is.  I imagine that the many tens of thousands of people writing fiction in their homes possibly at their very moment have to justify how they go about conjuring up the tens, the hundreds of fictional characters they create in the way that I have done.  Perhaps I have been apologetic for too long and should be more assertive that like every other author, I will take fragments, some large, some small from dozens of people I meet and will then blend them together into my characters.  Sometimes, yes, like the authors seeking revenge, I will bring almost an entire person into my writing, but I trust that my humanity means I only do it in retribution and my use of them will be minor compared to the distress they have inflicted on me.  In particular, I am no bestseller, no Booker prize winner, so my revenges (and there have been very few) will have a very limited audience.  However, even if the audience is simply me, it helps my state of mind to get a little bit back from being treated unjustly.  Perhaps authors are vampires, but like vampires, in most cases we only tend to take a little from each person and it is what sustains us in what we do.

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