FACT OR FICTION?

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Readers often wonder how much of a novel, novella or short story comes from the writer’s own life and how much is made up. Some literary critics (and some biographers) have built an entire career on teasing from literary texts published as fiction what may have really happened and what likely didn’t. Other critics — and probably all writers — maintain the fact-or-fiction question doesn’t matter because after the writing leaves the writer, it must stand on its own.

As a would-be writer, and certainly as a nearly life-long reader, I don’t think the question is worth pursuing.  What did or did not happen in “real life” is irrelevant to the merit,  or lack of it, of the completed literary work. Anyone whose reading of what a writer publishes is driven by prurient interest in the details of the writer’s life is not far removed from the reader of fanzines and other sources of celebrity gossip.  Which is not to say that a taste for gossip isn’t a  widespread human failing, shared by me, but should not be confused with the experience of reading literature.

What’s more, even where the published work bears no apparent surface resemblance to what is known of a writer’s life, you can rest assured that every writer who ever lived has in one way or another cannibalized his (or her) own experience of living for material.  Nothing is safe from the writer, not even the writer!  Sometimes, it’s emotional experience — translated, for example, into science-fiction, or fantasy, or “post-modernism” of some kind, or innovative structure.  Sometimes, apparently more realistically, it’s a character or characters modeled either on the writer, or someone the writer knows or has heard of.  But — and this is the important part — something always happens to that lived experience in the process of putting it on the printed or digital fictional page, and what that something is makes all the difference.

(Parenthetically, I would go further yet and assert that even when writers compose allegedly factual memoir or autobiography, or when non-writers explain to themselves in private the important events in their lives, the accounts can never be fully factual accounts of “real life.”  They are how we see things, how we justify to ourselves what happened. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves so that we can keep on living. But did they really happen that way?  Who’s to say?)

Now back to writers. When in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” teen-age Alexander Portnoy comes home from school and twice that day has the liver he finds in the refrigerator:  once,  raw, behind a closed door in the bathroom and again, cooked, on his plate for dinner — does it matter to the gestalt of the book whether Philip Roth ever himself jerked off with raw liver when he was a teen-age boy in Newark, New Jersey?

Roth, of course, is our century’s champion creator of what appear to be fictional alter egos.  “Portnoy” was his fourth book, relatively early in his career.  “Deception,” his eighteenth book, is a series of pre- and post-coital conversations over several years between two adulterous lovers (with a few other conversations interspersed). The man is “Philip,” a writer of novels who spends half the year in London (as did Roth for many years while living with Claire Bloom). The woman in “Deception” is English, and  nameless. The conversations, and the coitus, take place in “Philip’s” London writing studio, on a mat where at other times he does back exercises.

At some point between the earlier conversations and the last one in the book, “Philip” has written and published a novel in which the lover, and then wife, of a man named Zuckerman is an Englishwoman. Non-Roth readers should know that Nathan Zuckerman, who has many of Roth’s characteristics, had already appeared in several Roth novels prior to “The CounterLife,” a novel with many of the characteristics of the novel that “Philip” has just published in “Deception.” “The CounterLife” was Roth’s second book before “Deception.”  If it isn’t already too confusing, I might point out that Peter Tarnopol, another Roth fictional alter ego, wrote two stories about Zuckerman in Roth’s “My Life As A Man” before Zuckerman got to be the central figure in novels apparently written by Roth. (With Tarnopol’s help?)

The Englishwoman in “Deception” is upset that “Philip,” she thinks, has written about her in his recently published novel. I will leave you with their conversation, which is obviously much better than anything I could add at this time to the topic under discussion.  (It’s on the second to last page of “Deception.”)  I love the last line.

“….I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction.  And then being a famous author who resents critics for saying he doesn’t make things up.”

“Because you had a baby doesn’t mean I didn’t make up a baby; because you’re you doesn’t mean I didn’t make you up.”

“I also exist.”

“Also. You also exist and also I made you up.  ‘Also’ is a good word to remember. You also don’t exist as only you.”

“I certainly don’t anymore.”

“You never did. As I made you up, you never existed.”

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Res ipsa loquitur.  (The thing speaks for itself.)  Which has nothing — and of course everything — to do with the matter.

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12 thoughts on “FACT OR FICTION?

  1. I agree completely. We can never ever ever know what had an impact on another person’s life. A seemingly tiny, unimportant incident that one person wouldn’t even notice could have an enormous, earth – shattering influence on someone else.

    Even when I analyze an autobiography, I still treat it as a literary text that is just as “fictional” as a writer’s novel. Ultimately, trying to relate a work of literature to the “real life” of the author is just a waste of time. It’s a lot more useful (and fun) to ask not “What was the author trying to say?” bit “What does it say to me?”

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  2. Rita Stewart

    How wonderful that you posed a question that I have discussed with myself many times–having just finished “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid–a fascinating book, and discovered that the husband in the book is based on her former real life husband….I realized that it didn’t really matter–what mattered was what the author was trying to say about human beings and how they act…and what Kincaid brings to the reader!

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    • Ah Rita, are you crediting me with second sight? 🙂 Of course, you’re absolutely right: what matters is — as Clarissa just pointed out — what the book says to the reader. I might add that at different points in our lives, the same book will bring different or additional insights, none of which have to do with the source of the incidents in the book.

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  3. I remember Portnoy’s Complaint coming out or rather the Australian government allowing it to be released. The queue of buyers reached all the way to the Harbour bridge and police had to direct the traffic. It took riots and batons to subdue crowds pro and anti DHL’s Lady’s Chatterley Lover coming out. I avidly read all that had hints of dribbling coitus but was deeply disappointed in Roth’s book; never even cracked a fat.

    I find it childish when people recognize themselves in something that has been written. Does it matter whose legs were swinging about? Surely, everyone would have had something happening in their lives or is that assumption wrong? Are there really events that are so uniquely exclusive to a single person?

    Apart from all that, Nina, a superb bit of writing. I am in awe of your skill and art. (Good word order)

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    • Neither Portnoy nor Lady Chatterley’s Lover were written as pornography, or were intended to sexually excite the reader. I’m surprised (1) that you expected to be aroused and (2) that release of the Roth book into Australian bookstores required the permission of the Australian government; there were no such issues concerning release in the States. In fact, I remember a large early section being printed in The New Yorker before the book’s publication date.

      Thank you for appreciating my prose. Skillful perhaps, after nearly a lifetime of writing professionally in one form or another and also trying to be very careful with these blog posts, sometimes taking two or three days for review and rewrite before clicking “publish.” But art? I must disagree. However, it’s very nice of you to think so.

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  4. There’s a bit of the Rashomon effect, I see it all the time in a family of storytellers. Our perception of important events in childhood is subject to our unique interpretation. Fact and fiction become a blurred line.
    But, a good story stands on its own…I don’t think it really matters. Great post, Nina, so well thought out. 💕 Van

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  5. I agree, you can write in any which way. But I have a battle with people who think that a writer must have experienced anything they write about. I don’t know about you, but things happen in my dreams that I have never remotely experienced in real life. Imagination is amazingly constructive.

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    • When I say that all writing is a reflection of the writer’s experience of life, that needn’t be taken as literally as you seem to have done, Hilary. The building blocks of what you call your imagination can only come from, and as a reaction to, your own emotional experience. As someone with twenty-four discontinuous years of therapy under her belt, I must point out that your dreams are yours, not someone else’s, and whether or not you have actually gone through or seen what you dream about, they are necessarily metaphorical or imaginative expressions of your feelings about your own life experiences, whether consciously recognized or not.

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  6. Ah… I used the dream as an example only. I absolutely agree that dreams are ours and the products of our brains and our brains make incredible and constructive use of all our experiences. However the human imagination is a construct of the crossfire of neurones from all over the brain and can create new material. I have a background in brain science and research. While sleep studies have much to tell us about the mental and physical health of a person. The content of dreams is probably a fairly random rehash of recent neurones and their connections firing. Therapists can of course use our dreams as a way to help us introspect.

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