Sunday, October 28, 2007

Offending Your Family

This morning I found myself sitting in the lobby of a Ramada Inn in Syracuse. (For any audio geeks reading this board, I had managed to find a Studer B67 on eBay and agreed to meet the sellers there to pick it up. A delightful mini-adventure it turns out. But I digress. (But then again, this blog is just one digression after another, so I retract that semi-apology.)) I picked up a copy of the local free weekly from the glass-and-fake-oak coffee table, opened it to the arts section, and found this:

According to Michael A. FitzGerald, a Boise, Idaho-based author originally from Skaneateles, while he or she is writing, an author should pretend that everybody he knows is dead. This way, he'll never feel the need to censor his words or ideas out of concern for what friends or family might think.

Now, I am not here to get on Michael A. FitzGerald's case, as I know from long experience that there is nothing like a local paper to make you sound like a complete moron. I once gave an interview--set up, I'm afraid, by my mom--for my home town paper, and the resulting article did not contain a single thing I even remotely said. It was all entirely made up, from start to finish.

However, let me say that I think this imagine-your-friends-are dead tactic is ill-conceived in the extreme. FitzGerald, I should say, turns out to have just been worried about all the sex stuff in his book, and his mother getting grossed out by it. Fair enough; he's off the hook. But I've heard this argument made before, by writers whose aim is to fictionalize actual people in their lives, insulting the living crap out of them in the name of art.

There are plenty of books out there, really good ones, that feature thinly veiled versions of real people; and there are plenty of these real people who have gotten good and pissed over it. Ulysses, which I was praising here the other day, is a perfect example: Joyce didn't even bother changing the names of the people he slandered. He caught a bit of hell for this, and as I see it, he should have. I don't think he ought to have done it--it's shitty form. There's an argument to be made that Joyce had special license, because he was a genius, and what, Lennon, would you rather he hadn't written Ulysses? Huh? But that argument doesn't do it for me. Joyce does not deserve special consideration. If he was such a goddam genius--and he was, of course--he should have made people up instead. Ulysses might have been even better.

I guess what irks me about this topic is the idea that, in writing, the ends ought to justify the means; and in my view they never do. When you insult real people in a book, you're no better than a kid pissing off the highway overpass. You are alone, insulated by time and distance, and don't need to face the accused.

Now, here's where I admit that I've done exactly this. One of my novels contains a rather extended bit of revenge against one of my high school teachers, whose fictional doppelgager even has the same name, except with the letters slightly rearranged. It's a good bit, too, at least by my own standards--but to be entirely honest, I cringe to think of it. If I was to be a real man about it, I would have driven back to my home town, showed up at the dude's door, and told him to his face how he made me feel that time, back in 1986, when he gave me a wedgie in front of honors English. (Could I have had him fired by week's end? You bet. But I had not yet developed my antiauthoritarian chops. In fact, I suspect that was the day I got started on them.) That bit of my book might have been fun to write, but it's a small stain on my work, and a small tear in my moral fiber.

In any event, I don't think it's excuseable to rake real people over the coals in fiction--unless it's, like, the President, and you're a satirist. I also don't think it's an artistic compromise to curb one's impulse to do this. The fiction writer ought to process experience, to chew it up and spit it out in another form, not to prop it up and slap a coat of paint over it. To defy the vengeful instinct is to strengthen your mettle. Invention is power.

8 comments:

rmellis said...

Per the wedgie: Look, how else are you supposed to get revenge -- no, justice! -- after all these years? That bit warms my heart every time I think of it. It's the universe achieving a rare moment of balance.

ed said...

FitzGerald's a Montana guy.

jrlennon said...

Why am I not surprised that you know him? :-D

Of course this morning I completely disagree with my post. It gets tiring, this containing of multitudes...

zoe said...

If someone chooses to do something that pisses all over your humanity then why should they be protected from it appearing in print? Your teacher chose to do that in front of an audience already. It isn't like someone writing about an ex partner's response to their abortion or equally private event.

By the way, that's one of my favourite bits in the book and, as a teacher, you are completely aware of the power of a captive audience of adolescents. I agree with Rhian.

michael said...

Yeah, I’m just happy he didn’t put it in quotes. Seeing what they cull from an hour-long phone interview you do during your lunch break is always exciting. But, in truth, I had no tactic.

Something snarky about Richard Ford did end up in the book. It’s said by a young wanna-be writer character and I think I thought (?) it rang true while I was writing. I can’t image RF caring or even aware, but I now regret it.

It’s probably fun in the moment of writing, but I doubt anyone has any long-term intention to dis real people in their work. Unless maybe through evil coincidence it actually served the story. Like this story I have going about a bastard poet from one of the flat states.

Thanks John for seeing it for what it was.

-m

jrlennon said...

Hah! Hey Michael thanks for checking in! I wish you great luck on the book. You came off just fine I think.

It is possible, I think, if you're watching yourself TOO closely, to overthink everything, and suck the life out of the prose. Sometimes I feel as though the mojo zone is thinner than a knife edge...you're always having to strike that perfect balance between abandon and analysis. And this issue is just one more thing to worry about...

michael said...

So well put, John. And it’s that thing on the left-hand side of the edge that’s the hardest to teach. It’s like watching Bodie Miller ski. He’s completely out of control, always inches from crashing. But he’s also memorized the course, waxed and sharpened his skis, donned on his 3000 dollar suit, etc...

I’m teaching a class at Boise State after 7 years outside the classroom, and although I feel I’m writing as confidently as ever, I’m completely paralyzed when I'm up in front of the class---I just feel it's all instinct at this point. I have no idea what to tell them other than each sentence should be interesting and hope it all adds up.

ed said...

Evil poet from a flat state?

Come now.