Autobiographical Fiction?

This last weekend, Jim and I watched the movie Velvet Goldmine.  It’s a strange

Distorted Truth?

and disturbing movie, but I’m guessing that what disturbed me was a bit different from what hits many other viewers.  I’m a big David Bowie fan.  Elements of Velvet Goldmine draw heavily on elements of Bowie’s career, so heavily, in fact, that I have heard people refer to it as a “bio pic” about Bowie’s early career.

Except, it isn’t.  However, unless you’re of a somewhat pedantic nature (I include myself in this category), it would be hard to sort fact from fiction.  Brian Slade, the Bowie-based character, is designed to look very much like Bowie in various stages of his early career.  There’s the long-haired folky, the wide-eyed boy with shoulder-length curls, and, of course, the wildly made-up glam rocker with the space alien persona.

The parallels don’t stop with appearance.  Titles from Bowie songs are slipped into dialog.  Slade’s wife is American and named Mandy.  Bowie’s wife was American and named Angie.  (The words don’t look much alike, but try saying them.)  The are many other such parallels – but what bothered me was how many of the parts of Bowie’s life that were chosen to be included in the movie’s Slade were those that were cruel and mean-spirited.  Where is the young father who was so excited by the birth of his son that he wrote a song – “Kooks” – about the event?  We see the ruthless would-be star who drops one agent for another, but no use is made of many enduring relationships.  Even Bowie’s friendship with the often difficult Iggy Pop is twisted for the movie’s needs.

I could go on into minutia, but I’ll spare you.

Instead, I’ll admit that I have a hang-up about what is coming to be called “autobiographical fiction.”  Probably the greatest promoter of this type of writing was the early twentieth century writer James Joyce.

I’ve read just about all of James Joyce’s fiction.  Even as an undergrad, I never really liked how heavily Joyce stressed that his novels and short stories were based on his life.  Why?  Because of the degree of distortion that Joyce felt free to introduce, distortion that was often quite unfair and unkind to the people he was writing about.

If Joyce wanted to represent himself as some sort of soulful artistic hero, well, I guess that’s fine.  There’s no way for any of us to tell what was going on inside his head.  However, when Joyce started distorting other people – while leaving them perfectly recognizable to those who would be reading the novels – that seemed flat-out wrong to me.  Even people who have never read Joyce’s novel Ulysses have heard the opening line “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…”  It’s been quoted and parodied many times.

In Joyce’s time, everyone who was anyone knew that Buck Mulligan “was” actually Oliver St. John Gogarty, Joyce’s close associate.  I hesitate to use the word “friend” since Joyce’s representation of Buck Mulligan was a distorted caricature of the real man.  I always felt this was very harsh treatment – especially because of the numerous kindnesses that Gogarty did for Joyce.  The poet and playwright W.B. Yeats comes in for shorter, but equally cruel treatment within the pages of Joyce’s fiction.

The worst thing of all is that, as the years have passed, these caricatures have gained prominence over reality.  Joyce deliberately courted the budding literary critical establishment, going so far as to provide would-be commentators on Ulysses with an essay that I can’t help but think of as a secret decoder ring for the novel.  This essay made certain that the “autobiographical” elements of the novel would be reviewed and re-reviewed in the years to come.  Indeed, whereas kind, compassionate, highly-intelligent Gogarty has been all but forgotten, the parodic Buck Mulligan is well-remembered.

I guess you can tell this burns me up.

People often ask me where I get my ideas.  I suspect that – influenced by the idea that authors are all really writing about themselves – they want to be told that I have actually lived with a wolf pack or resided in a house populated with mysterious silent women or whatever.  Some years ago, as we were getting ready to go on-stage for a literary talk, Steven R. Donaldson commented (I paraphrase), “What people really want is to meet Thomas Covenant, not to hear me talk about how I write the novels.”

Want to know how much of my fiction is based on my life?

Everything and nothing at all.  You’re not going to find my mother or my father, my brother or my sisters on the pages.  Any coincidence in name to one of my friends is just that, a coincidence.  You will find Jim in one short story.  It’s called “Jeff’s Best Joke.”

I’d been asked to write a time travel story for an anthology called Past Imperfect.  To me, archeologists are constantly time traveling, because they see the past in the landscape of the present.  I decided to write a story in which archeologists meet with an actual time traveler.

For the story, I wanted to use some of the practical jokes Jim and his frequent co-director Jeff had played on each other over the years.  However, I rapidly realized I couldn’t separate the tricks from the tricksters.  I asked the guys for permission to use them as characters in the story.  They agreed.  They appear under their real names and descriptions in the story.  I also would like to think they appear in a fashion that their friends and family would recognize without wincing because of any distortion.

When I was writing Changer, I decided to let Bubonicon auction off the chance to be a minor character in the novel.  Two fellows tied.  Here, because my publisher was a bit nervous, I changed the names.  Craig Chrissenger appears as Chris Kristofer and Bill Scott as Bill Irish.  Again, however, I tried to write portraits, not caricatures.  I gave each subject a questionnaire, asking for the little details that make a person recognizable to their friends.  (Coffee or tea?  What type of car?  Favorite color?)  Then I worked these in.

David Weber does something a bit more dramatic.  He offers a chance for someone to be a character – then offers a separate bid for whether that character lives or dies.  Often the bidding for the second option is more heated than the first.  And, of course, what both Weber and I have done owes a lot to Wilson “Bob” Tucker, who “Tuckerized” both friends and fans in many of his novels.

So, how far is it reasonable to go when using someone else’s life in fiction – especially if that person is still alive, not a historical figure?  I’ve seen a T-shirt that says something like “Watch out or you’ll end up in my novel.”  Is fiction a place for personal vendettas?   Obviously, I find the entire idea of this sort of fiction disturbing, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts, even if you don’t agree with me.

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8 Responses to “Autobiographical Fiction?”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Dear Jane,

    Very interesting post. I’ve read fictional novels about living people and think that there is a point of going too far. As you can get sued for libel or defamation, I believe.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed a book called X-President by Philip Baruth a few years ago, and it was partially about Bill Clinton, and time travel where the protagonists go back in time and interact with a young Bill. I loved this book.

    I think with dead/historical figures you can do whatever you want. I love your posts, Jane, and I just found out you’re coming to ConDuit here in Salt Lake City, where I live.

    If you, or your husband, if he’s coming with you, need a ride from the airport to the hotel, let me know and I’ll pick you up. As an aside, I was speaking with Ian Tregillis a while back when he was in town here, we went to dinner, and we figured out that your husband and Ian hang out together.

    See you soon at ConDuit. Email me if you need a ride pgenesse (@) msn dot com.

    Best wishes,

    Paul Genesse

  2. Dominique Says:

    I agree entirely! The whole thing is slander without any consequences. … And I despise Joyce, albeit for more reasons than you so eloquently stated.

  3. Pat McGee Says:

    Just yesterday, I downrated a song in my iTunes library from 5 stars to 1 for a very similar reason. “Casey Jones, Union Scab”, by Joe Hill, sung by Pete Seeger. I think it’s a great song, except for the little detail that, in all the brief histories of him that I’ve read, he’s not a scab. As much as I enjoy many other things about that song, I couldn’t take that lie anymore. So I think I understand where you’re coming from on this and I agree with you.

  4. beardedtriffid Says:

    I used to live in Eastwood, a small village near Nottingham where D. H. Lawrence was born. My landlady had been to school with Lawrence and she wouldn’t allow his name to be spoken in her house because of all the nasty things he had said in his books about people she knew. Her attitude was quite typical. Lawrence was definitely persona non grata in the village.

    So to that extent it’s a terrible thing to do.

    But, speaking personally, I’d absolutely love to be outrageously slandered in a novel. And perhaps die a horrible death as well, just for the hell of it.

    But that’s just me…


    -Alan

  5. heteromeles Says:

    I was just (re)reading Graeber’s Debt (highly recommended), and he made a relevant comment. In a discussion of how much of our modern economy came from the slavery of previous societies, he noted how the law had this idea that we owned ourselves if we are free people. This comes from Roman law, and I agree with Graeber’s opinion: it’s bizarre, and certainly not supported by biology. What does it mean to own yourself? Perhaps your mind owns your body? Your soul owns you? Arbitrary or not, that’s the way our law and society work.

    Yet isn’t that what an author does when he puts a living person in a story? He’s appropriating the person’s appearance, personality, history, relationships, or whatever, and often skewing them for his own purposes (using the male pronoun here to pick on some previous practitioners). Worse, if the image he creates is negative, it burdens the living person.

    Obviously, some people go with the idea that any publicity is good publicity, but I can see where many people would want to retain some control over how they are perceived.

    Of course, if we’re willing to think of ourselves in non-economic terms, this whole thing gets bizarre. Our mind and body are unified, and we’re defined by a dense web of relationships, and you don’t own how other people see you, any more than they own your perceptions of them. I guess it depends on how you see yourself and others.

  6. Paul Says:

    This is why I seldom watch “docu-dramas”; they insert events that never happened and “seeing” the fictionalized depictions leaves you with a more vivid but false memory than reading the actual history. Not that histories always get it right. As GBShaw once had a character say, history is written by the winners. All this also applies to novels that use real people as characters. All this said, I must admit I was charmed by a book called “The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown,” which fictionalized the adventures of Heinlein, de Camp, Asimov, Hubbard and other SF icons during World War II. There was no pretense that any of it was real.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Interesting that, despite the reactions posted here, this remains a popular form of fiction. Just this past weekend I learned of a detective novel series where Abigail Adams is cast in the role of detective.

    Admittedly, this interests me because I’m a big fan of Mrs. Adams, but still… Why not just read her collected letters?

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