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.