TT: Is That the Author?

ALAN: When we were talking about Cordwainer Smith, I remarked in passing that one of his characters was possibly a representation of Smith himself. That seemed to strike a chord with you and you disagreed strongly. So how about we take a closer look at the idea of writers appearing in their own stories? And perhaps as we examine the idea, we might pin down the reasons why you believe that it is less common than some people think.

Kel Untangles the Issue

JANE: I’m all for that.  However, I’d like to clarify what it is that makes me uncomfortable:  That’s when readers assume that a character is “really” the author.  Certainly some authors deliberately fictionalize themselves, but even the specifics of how that is handled are worthy of discussion.

Do you have any examples to start us off?

ALAN: As it happens, I do. Kingsley Amis is a writer I admire enormously. Amis was, shall we say, rather plump and he was also well known to enjoy extramarital affairs. Lots of them. Once when he and his wife were on holiday Amis fell asleep on the beach. His wife took her lipstick and wrote “One Fat Englishman – I fuck anything” on his back. Then she took a photo of what she’d done and sent it to everybody she knew. Amis was apparently much amused (and a little appalled).

His next novel was called One Fat Englishman and the viewpoint character was a serial fornicator. I find it really hard to avoid seeing the author as the protagonist of that novel!

JANE: Since I haven’t read One Fat Englishman, I’m a little crippled in my ability to respond.  However, I have read (and really loved) Amis’s Lucky Jim, so I’m with you on admiring his writing.

But let’s look at your contention that “the author” is the protagonist.  I’d be inclined to say that Amis used his own experiences and even tried to turn his wife’s indignation to his own advantage, but that’s as far as I’d go.

Why?  Because there’s a big difference between autobiography – which itself is fraught with issues as I’ve noted in one of my Wanderings – and fiction.  In fiction, the author is free to change events to fit the fictional model.  Therefore, before I’d say a character “is” the author, I’d want to read something (essay, comment in interview) saying “Yep.  That’s me.”

ALAN: You are correct when you say that “…Amis used his own experiences and even tried to turn his wife’s indignation to his own advantage” and in the absence of any further evidence that’s probably as far as anyone can legitimately go.

But I have information that you don’t have. I’ve read Amis’ delightfully gossipy autobiography Memoirs and I’ve read several reminiscences of him by other writers – notably Colin Wilson’s The Angry Years – and while I don’t think Amis ever specifically said that he was the protagonist of One Fat Englishman, the character and the man himself are so alike in thought, word and deed that trying to tell them apart becomes something of a futile exercise.

JANE: Ah… But then autobiography itself can be an exercise in fictionalizing the self.  That’s why reading an autobiography is not always preferable to a well-researched biography if you want to learn about someone.  However, I do find it interesting that the person recalled in other people’s reminiscences and Amis’s portrayal of himself seem to be in sync.

ALAN: I won’t ask you to take what I say completely on trust, so let me give you another opinion.

Ever since the Great Library Purge of 2014 I’ve slowly been re-buying old favourites as ebooks. My recently purchased ebook of One Fat Englishman has an introduction by David Lodge, himself a respected novelist and academic. If I may quote:

[The protagonist] is rude, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, treacherous, greedy and totally selfish… His thoughts, and often his speech, are crammed with offensive observations about Jews, Negroes, women, homosexuals and Americans in general. He eats like a pig and drinks like a fish. He is quite conscious of these traits and habits, and perversely proud of them…

In 1963, knowing little about Kingsley Amis except through his writings, I was puzzled to know why he had taken such pains to create this vividly unpleasant character. In my memory, many other fans of his work were equally baffled and disappointed. But in the light of Amis’s subsequent literary development, and all the biographical information that has emerged since his death, One Fat Englishman seems a much more comprehensible and interesting novel – also funnier, in its black way – than I remembered. It now seems obvious that [the protagonist] was, in many respects, a devastating and prophetic self-portrait.

JANE: Ouch!  Talk about using one’s own writing as catharsis.  That’s amazing, and really very sad.

ALAN: There’s a very delicate, and hard to pin down, line in the sand here. I think we need to distinguish carefully between characters who are presented as experiencing aspects of the author’s life (because those aspects are important to the novel) and characters who are so close to the author that separating the two turns into rather pointless hairsplitting.

JANE: Elegantly put!  Last week, you commented that you felt that Lord Jestacost was, to some extent, Cordwainer Smith putting himself into his own book.  Maybe you could examine that contention within the parameters you’ve established in the statement above.

ALAN: I’ll try – Jestacost appears in several of Smith’s stories. As I recall he is generally benevolent (something that is not typical of the Lords of the Instrumentality). Jestacost is politically aware, not afraid to take sides, and very adept at maneuvering his political opponents. Paul Linebarger (aka Smith) was himself all of these things. He was a political and military advisor in China, Malaya and Korea and he (literally!) wrote the book on brainwashing: Psychological Warfare. Jestacost’s role in the Rediscovery of Man has many correspondences with Linebarger’s real life preoccupations.

I’m not completely sure on which side of the line that I drew in the sand Jestacost/Linebarger stands. Perhaps he straddles it. Smith didn’t write enough fiction for us to have any degree of certainty about the question. But there are parallels…

JANE: I see why you would want to say Jestacost “is” Linebarger.  I would place the line in the sand by saying that Linebarger used his own experiences to make Jestacost a believable and complex character.

“Write what you know,” after all, is something that would-be writers are often told.

One thing just came to me…  In a sense, Paul Linebarger always wrote at one remove from himself.  I believe all his work was published under pseudonyms.   So, even Cordwainer Smith can be considered a character…

ALAN: Good point! I hadn’t thought of that. Meanwhile it occurs to me that you are a writer and you know many other writers, so I have an obvious question to ask you. Perhaps we can investigate that next time?


2 Responses to “TT: Is That the Author?”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    Would you say about the Peter Frigate character in the Riverworld books being author self-insertion in the books by Philip Jose Farmer? A lot of people seem to think it was, but then the character changes in later books.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I think the answer is both yes and no — Farmer had a delicious, and sometimes very subtle, sense of humour. You only have to look at his “biographies” of Tarzan and Doc Savage to see that. I think that Peter Frigate in Riverworld and Paul Finnegan in the World of Tiers series are examples of Farmer poking fun at himself. He telegraphs it by giving both characters his own initials so as to convince you that he’s writing about himself and then doesn’t write about himself. It’s a very typical Farmer joke…


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