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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

August 14th, 2009 (03:36 pm)
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Hrm.

A.S. Byatt: "Basing a character on a real-life figure is an 'appropriation of [their] lives and privacy".

Of course, her saying this has nothing to do with the fact that her competitor for the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel, wrote a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell.

Some thoughts, though:

  • "Oscar Wilde appears in [Byatt's] own Booker-nominated novel, The Children's Book, she added, but 'the novelist doesn't say what he thinks.'" Quite apart from the grammatical confusion that results from Byatt's dogged attempt to distance herself from the writing of her own novel ("the novelist doesn't say what he thinks? who is this male novelist and why is he being so reticent about his thoughts?"), I'm not buying into the distinction Byatt is trying to make. If you put a real-life figure in your novel, even if you're not explicitly stating "this is what so-and-so is thinking and this is who he is," you are nevertheless putting your vision of that person into a novel. It's ludicrously narrow and reductionistic to pretend that there's some thick clear line you can draw between what Byatt's doing with Wilde here and what Mantel's done with Cromwell. Byatt may excuse her conscience by telling herself she's not pretending to delve into Wilde's soul, but what she's doing is actually more subtle and, by her own standards, probably more problematic for that. The premise of Mantel's novel, and the way it's framed, makes it clear from the start that this is *her vision* of Cromwell -- a fictionalized character, based on reality but interpreted and shaped so as to illuminate human nature as Mantel perceives it. People reading the book are clear that Mantel is making a distinction between the flesh-and-blood Thomas Cromwell and the character she's writing about: otherwise it'd be shelved in biography. Byatt, on the other hand, is inserting a character into her book that she *is* claiming is flesh-and-blood. She's putting Oscar Wilde in her book -- and note that she says "Wilde" is in her book, *not* "a character based on Wilde" -- and passing it off as though she understands who he was completely enough that she can just stick him in her book and he'll act and speak exactly as the flesh-and-blood Wilde would do. This business of "not saying what he thinks" is bullshit. Writing a character who says things and does things *is* writing "how they think." That's what characterization fucking *is*. It's ridiculously disingenuous for Byatt to pretend otherwise. The only other option is character-puppetry, and Byatt is much too accomplished an author to be playing that game.
  • "The Children's Book centres on the character of Olive Wellwood, a "successful authoress of magical tales" for children who nonetheless neglects her own offspring. Byatt was inspired to write the story after noticing that 'the children of the great writers for children often came to unhappy ends – even suicide.' Kenneth Grahame's son lay down on a railway line, she said; two of the boys for whom JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan also committed suicide, although one may have died in a drowning accident, while Alison Uttley lost both her husband and her son to suicide." Again: so Byatt is saying here that she was inspired to write this book by Kenneth Grahame's children, and by JM Barrie's children, and by Alison Uttley's children. She is saying this outright. She is saying that she has taken their real-life experiences, and drawn conclusions about human nature from them, and used them for inspiration, and kept them in mind while writing, and attempted to represent reality while keeping them in mind as a touchstone. Seriously, now: how different is this, really? Where do you draw the lines between being inspired by a real person, writing a novel in which you create a thinly-veiled fictionalization of that person under a different name, and writing a novel in which you state outright that you are writing a fictionalized version of someone? It's a continuum, and honestly, I think just about every novel is on it *somewhere*. Inspiration is always drawn from life and from other human beings. But Byatt is nowhere near the end of the spectrum that she claims to be at if she's openly admitting that she was thinking of x, y, and z real people when she wrote her novel.
  • A.S. Byatt was also a jackass about J.K. Rowling so I don't like her anyway. She is not exactly the least jealous person in the world, is she? Of course Rowling writes a pretty sucky prose line, but she's one of the best storytellers out there today -- in creating what Stephen King calls "the gotta," as in "I gotta see how this chapter turns out", she's damn near unmatched. (King himself is one of the only people I can think of offhand who gives her a run for her money. And of course they both have moments where they flat-out suck -- in Rowling's case it's her prose and her novels' general bloat, in King's case it's careful plotting and detail-work. But none of that is really the point when you're talking about them. There's a damn good reason they outsell 99% of other writers. Including A.S. Byatt.)


I suppose part of why I'm interested in this is because it brings up the issue of real-person fanfiction, which is increasingly becoming a mainstream part of fandom, and which used to be judged much more harshly than it is now, I think. Obviously most readers of this journal know that I have a fairly obsessive thing about Julie Andrews/Carol Burnett RPS. No one has ever written any AFAIK, and I haven't written any either; I'm perfectly comfortable defending Hilary Mantel for writing a novel about Thomas Cromwell, but he is long-dead and Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett are both alive and the issue of invading a person's privacy by imagining their personal lives switches out of the theoretical when said people could actually read what you've written. But leaving my own personal squidge about writing RPF aside, I do see it becoming a mainstream part of fandom, and somehow it doesn't trouble me much. Because over time I've found it increasingly easy to split off the imagined, fictional version of the people in RPF from the actual people. And it's doubly tricky because if I ever were to write Carol/Julie RPF or whatever, I would be quite concerned with the issue of characterization, because there is no point at all in writing a story if you don't feel it's true to your characters. A good RPF story ought to be a story of what might be, and if it reads as completely OOC it's as bad a story as any other OOC fanfic would be. But I'm not stupid enough to confuse "what might be" with "what is". Honestly? These people exist in my imagination. I don't know them, I'll never know them, they'll never know me, and what I think or imagine or believe about them has no impact on them whatsoever, provided it's under friends lock. Even if it's not, I'm not sure how much it matters: I think any celebrity is going to have an awareness that the images their fans carry around with them don't correspond to reality, and they'd better be able to deal with that. It's one thing when the fantasies or misconceptions are presented as reality -- hence, the existence of libel as a legal concept -- but when you create someone in fiction and you state that it's fiction? At that point, I think what you're writing stops being about *them* and starts being about *you*. Your fantasies, sure, but that's part and parcel of how you imagine the world to be and how you imagine people to be and what you think you know about human nature. I think the mistake in judging RPF harshly can come from two directions: one is that the reader may assume that this is not a story about the author's imaginings, but rather a story about real people -- and the other is that the author can assume that. Both mistakes are stupid in their way, but the second one is what turns a story into a house of cards.

You know what? If you ask my honest opinion? Even if what you're writing is not RPF -- even if it's 100% "fiction", whatever the fuck that even means when you get right down to brass tacks -- no one should ever assume they know everything about their characters and their story. Assuming you know every single fact about everything that happened or will happen in your fictional world is setting yourself up for a fall. It turns into character-puppetry, as mentioned above. If your story-planning never includes mulling over ideas that start "She might..." or "I think...", ur doin it rong.

So say I.

Now it is time for me to stop my irritating amateur preaching on What Fiction Is and actually write some. I'm meant to have a full, polished, final draft of the Jane book by Sept 1. It would be nice if this concept did not evoke a bitter laugh.

Comments

Posted by: lady of the summer, princess of the morning (diana_hawthorne)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
julie and carol

Love your icon! I also agree with what you said here.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC)
haha, and while we're on the subject, let me torpedo all my credibility
carol/julie is the cutest ever

Julie and Carol are seriously the cutest ever.

Here, again, we have a distinction between RPF and reality: if I wrote a RPS story about Julie/Carol, it would be fiction. But if I said outright that I think they're lovers, I honestly think I am representing objective reality in that statement.

No, seriously. Have you seen the videos of them? Holy shit, man.

Edited at 2009-08-14 09:21 pm (UTC)

Posted by: lady of the summer, princess of the morning (diana_hawthorne)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
Re: haha, and while we're on the subject, let me torpedo all my credibility
julie and carol

YES. Definitely in my top three of couples-that-should-be-together-but-aren't (the other two couples being Maggie Smith/Judi Dench and Harriet Walter/Janet McTeer).

Their videos together are AWESOME. Seriously amazing.

Have you heard about how they were playing a prank on their producer and started making out to play a joke? And then Mamie Eisenhower ran into them... LOL!

Posted by: Light in the Darkness (lostin_thestars)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC)
Re: haha, and while we're on the subject, let me torpedo all my credibility

Must find these videos!

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
Re: haha, and while we're on the subject, let me torpedo all my credibility

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=julie+andrews+carol+burnett&page=1

:)

The gayest of the ones available on YouTube is probably this one -- well, it's kind of a horse race -- that's the one where Carol pulls Julie's skirt off, but then here's where they get in a whipped cream fight and then Julie kisses Carol gently on the nose, so I dunno. But without a doubt the gayest video that exists of these two is "Old Friends Ending" from here. I hate that I can't link directly to that anymore, but it's the fourth one on that list. It is seriously nothing but a love song. It's the sweetest thing ever.

Posted by: Light in the Darkness (lostin_thestars)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)
Re: haha, and while we're on the subject, let me torpedo all my credibility

OH DEAR LORD Insta-love

Posted by: law_nerd (law_nerd)
Posted at: August 27th, 2009 04:40 am (UTC)
Re: haha, and while we're on the subject, let me torpedo all my credibility

Just wandering by -- randomly following an interesting comment in one spot back to the commenter's LJ (rinse, repeat).

Complete agreement, here, that Julie is the antithesis of boring.

Also had to thank you for the video links. ::swoon::

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC)

Ha. I would totally love to know what Byatt thinks of Shakespeare.

(Ironically, I was just rereading the play Wit, which is full of dismissive snark on Shakespeare as compared to John Donne. It was pretty funny, seeing all these characters smirk at Shakespeare as being a lightweight and a hack.)

Posted by: Pythian Habenero (lienne)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
ed norton: thinkyface

What the heck is "character puppetry"?

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)

Oh, just my term for the kind of bad characterization where you just kind of pull the strings and make your characters do what you want them to do. I'm a really firm believer in the idea that stories should grow out of characters, and that in a good story, you can't "make" a character do anything. Which, honestly, can fuck up your plotting pretty good: I am currently doing a Sims-style stomp-and-wave-of-frustration at Jane because I cannot get her to *not* blow her top at a friend of hers in this particular scene, because, well, that's just who she is and where she's at, only if she blows her top in this scene then the book reaches its emotional peak too soon and I lose what's supposed to be the climax scene, two scenes later, where she blows her top at her therapist. I've tried to make her cool the fuck off in this first scene, but I can't do that without making her into a puppet instead of a person. So now I need to find some way to keep the plot moving forward in an engaging way without engaging in character puppetry.

If you could not tell, I have been fighting with this all day. Now I have dumped it on you in a comment! Clearly this is TOTALLY on topic and not unnecessary blathering AT ALL.

Posted by: Pythian Habenero (lienne)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC)
emotions: pedantic

It is, in fact, on topic and not unnecessary blathering, because it explained the concept to me perfectly!

I tend to think of it more as a balance between character and story.

I mean, sometimes I am writing a story and I need certain events to happen a certain way, and that necessity solidifies some character traits that would've fallen out differently if I needed different events. And quite often I'll choose between a character's possible responses based on which one makes the story more awesome, as opposed to choosing based on careful consideration of exactly what would suit the character best. But I never take a character who really obviously would do A and make them do B instead, because when a character is that well established, I'm structuring the plots around them rather than the other way around.

So... I dunno if I'm engaging in character puppetry, but probably not.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)

No, I don't think that's puppetry. I suspect I handle those issues much the same way that you do, although honestly when I try to remember whence a lot of the plot twists in the Jane book evolved, it feels hopelessly chicken-and-egg at this stage. I mean, I know that if I fight with a character and try to make them do something they just wouldn't do, it inevitably ends horribly and destroys the scene, but I'd be lying (or mistaken, I guess) if I said characterization never evolves from plot. I mean, if I just let characters wander around without giving them the structure of a plot to bounce off of (and react to, and be shaped by...), it'd be like, well, life. Only even more pointless and boring.

I am starting to realize that I am writing about writing instead of writing-writing. Heh.

Posted by: Pythian Habenero (lienne)
Posted at: August 14th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
emotions: all smiles

Writing about writing instead of writing? I do that all the time! >.>

*goes back to my horrifying fanfiction*

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: lily bart (everypoembreaks)
Posted at: August 15th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)

Oh, Lord. I hate it when she does this.

(I also agree with what you had to say about it.)

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