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.