September 21, 2006

"I think it is extremely important to defend the autonomy of art, and of literature."

Said the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who was charged with the crime of insulting Turkishness, for things the characters said in her novel, "The Bastard Of Istanbul." The news today is that she has been acquitted.

It's a very limited defense -- isn't it? -- to say: I didn't express the opinion myself. Don't hold me responsible for what my fictional characters say. It reminds me of the Pope's it's-a-quote defense. You wrote those characters. You chose that quote. It means something. It's crafty. You get to say something and deny that you've said it. It drives your opponents crazy. The thing you are saying enrages them, and the crafty way you found to say it further enrages them, which allows you to say they lack basic comprehension skills, which further enrages them. A strong thinker and writer understands this dynamic.

I hasten to say that whether a literary device is used or a statement is made directly, there shouldn't crimes like "insulting Turkishness" and people shouldn't become violent over the expression of ideas. But this notion that writers who use indirection have no connection to their statements is not credible.

22 comments:

Maxine Weiss said...

Indirectness?

You mean passive-agressive.

But still, 'imagination' never gets any credit these days, in fiction writing.

Anything that's said, fiction or not, is always taken at face value.

I think it's a problem more about the lack of fiction reading, going on, than it is with fiction writers.

Peace, Maxine

Curtis Edmonds said...

Isn't it just as likely that the author put words into the mouths of her fictional characters that she doesn't agree with? Fictional characters aren't just mere mouthpieces for the author; if they were, fiction would be intolerably dull. It's not too hard to think of examples where authors use their characters to speak their own opinions, but certainly there are just as many authors who use their characters to say outrageous things in which they do not believe.

Ann Althouse said...

Curtis: Of course. But one still develops opinions about what the author really thinks based on how things are said by characters. Often you can tell the author thinks exactly the opposite of what a character says. There is great art to it, especially when it's hard to tell.

Chris said...

A little like a blog post consisting entirely of a quote from someone else, no?

Kirby Olson said...

Milton's Satan.

Shakespeare's Falstaff.

They were both seemingly against the character but it got away from them.

Orhan Pamuk's characters in Snow clearly don't refer to his own beliefs (especially the terrorists).

But they're weirdly sympathetic.

More polemical writers use characters to advance an agenda almost purely and one always knows instantly.

Ayn Rand might be like that, though I can't make it past the first sentence for some reason.

Craig said...

Ayn Rand is an example of a writer whose protagonists are sock puppets for her own views. But she also writes the villains in her works, whose views and actions are anathema to her.

Writers can write a character whose views they have no connection with. Indeed, to make a good villain, you have to be able to do this. The very good ones will also make the character believable and sometimes sympathetic. It's a key part of the craft of fiction writing.

Revenant said...

Isn't it just as likely that the author put words into the mouths of her fictional characters that she doesn't agree with?

It is certainly a possibility, but I wouldn't say it is "just as likely". It is pretty rare for authors to have characters express controversial attitudes the author disagrees with, unless the story is structured in a way that makes the author's disagreement apparent.

For example, how many books can you think of that were (a) written by a supporter of civil rights AND (b) presented racist characters who were not portrayed as being flawed due to their racism? Such books probably exist, but they are outnumbered by mountains of books wherein the author's racism is passed on to the characters, or the author's anti-racism is expressed in the implicit of explicit condemnation of racism within the text.

Diecast Dude said...

This may only be slightly related, but it does relate to "yes they're my words but I don't personally mean them."

I was corresponding with a newspaper editor the other day about a different paper's recent issues with comments on their blogs getting out of control.  He mentioned this in regards to the blogs on their own site (direct quote from his boss): "Our lawyers tell us that the latest court ruling is that if you don’t edit the comments, you’re not responsible for the content of the comments, so we don’t edit the comments."

Does that make sense or sound right to anyone?

Simon Kenton said...

"But this notion that writers who use indirection have no connection to their statements is not credible."

Ms Althouse, I think that with real novelists, the connection to their characters' statements is too tenuous to be demonstrated. One of the Victorians left a vignette of Dickens, writing in a room behind a closed door. From within came a crowd of different voices, arguing through a dramatic scene, yet all were the novelist's voice, and all appeared as nearly verbatim as the reporter could recall, in Dickens next novel. Similarly, John D. McDonald, at the behest of a psychologist friend, took one of the standard personality tests twice, answering once as Travis McGree, and once as Meyer. The results were, of course, strikingly different, and consistent through each separate test, without triggering any of the faking-good, faking-bad telltales built into the tests. When it is winter and outdoor exercise is impossible, the great David Case reads one of Trollope's novels, and a voluble throng of wholly different people crowd roung my rowing machine. Trollope seems to like and dislike some of them, as do I, but they are clearly not the elderly, energetic post office exectutive. Dramatic novelists, novelists of manners (as opposed, say, to monologists or narcissist novelists like the egregious Djuna Barnes), seem to be mastered by a depth and vividness of imagination that dissevers their characters and their characters' opinions from themselves. There may be a connection between the channel and the river, but the channel is not the river.

Marco said...

I agree with Kirby Olson. Any writer that puts their own words in a character's mouth is a lousy writer. Ayn Rand. Robert Heinlein. Bleah.

To extend the point, you shouldn't even be able to tell the author's opinion about anything based upon the work itself. Lucky Jim. Hamlet. Ulysses. American Psycho.

In fact, I think Shafak has it exactly right. The autonomy of art has to be protected. Especially from people who think that everything is literal.

Chrees said...

Here's hoping Shafak doesn't have an "Unamuno moment" with her characters (thinking of Mist in particular).

Fenrisulven said...

Ayn Rand is an example of a writer whose protagonists are sock puppets for her own views. But she also writes the villains in her works, whose views and actions are anathema to her

West Wing?

Pogo said...

Russell Kirk analyzed the death of prose in the Soviet Union, pointing to episodes like this one, where dissent is crushed beneath the wheels of total State rule.

"Intolerance no longer contents itself with suppressing active opposition, but insists upon obtaining active endorsement. And that works the death of literature, as we have known it for seven or eight centuries, and the death of all art.

The task for the writer, under the intolerant regime of the New Faith, is to stimulate production, to induce conformity among the masses, to popularize the decisions of the masters of the State. No time will remain for bothering with the intricacies of human nature and the secrets of human belonging."


It reminds me of the New New Left, and their reactions to Althouse.

Bruce Hayden said...

One of the things that has impressed me about some HS English classes recently is that the students there are being taught to look behind the story at what the author is really saying. In many cases, by putting a story far enough in the past or the future, they are able to say things that they couldn't if they said them directly.

Maybe the reason that I prefer SciFi/ Fantasy over more cultured writings is that I really do look more at the message than the art, and it often seems to me that a lot of what is considered great writing is art for art's sake alone, and making a point, or trying to convey a message is somehow dirty.

And, yes, I thought that a lot of what Heinlein wrote was juvenile. But I still occasionally think about some of the points he was trying to make, decades later.

Maybe the key here is that it really is hard to definitively determine whether a character said something in order to develop that character and plot, or whether it was to make a statement that the authorities of the time would not appreciate. Because you really do have both, and the line between them is not that bright. And, thus, authors are going to continue to embed messages in their works that they can't say otherwise.

Coco said...

I disagree Ann. From what I understand, the supposedly troublesome dialogue occurs when an Armenian character refers to the "war" as genocide - which of course is precisely how an Armenian would refer to those events. Its somewhat akin to someone writing a novel in which two characters have a discussion about the OJ Simpson trial. If a young black character in that novel referred to Mark Furman as a racist, it wouldn't necessarily mean the author believed he was a racist - just that the author believed that's what the character would believe.

Realism still has its place

Ron said...

I hope this doesn't mean that every actor who plays Hitler will also be equally condemned!

Revenant said...

Any writer that puts their own words in a character's mouth is a lousy writer. Ayn Rand. Robert Heinlein.

Mark Twain. Jonathan Swift. Voltaire. Jean-Paul Sartre.

Yeah, man, I hate those posers. :)

Kirby Olson said...

Satirists like Swift, Twain and Voltaire generally have a point to make. A clear point.

There's a different kind of writer (Sophocles in Antigone, for example) where the point is almost to show the difficulty of making a decision for Creon or Antigone (Hegel backed Creon).

But the point is to show the good intentions of others -- to understand them imaginatively and walk in their shoes -- rather than to say, this one is good, and that one is bad (white hat, black hat).

When Shakespeare really gets going in his Problem Plays (Measure for Measure), the notion of good and evil in all the characters is almost equally distributed, and the madness of someone taking the high road and saying only I am right, is demonstrated.

Satirists on the other hand believe that they know what is right, and have their characters make their points for them.

I prefer a more complex distribution of justice in characterization, and think that's a higher form of literature.

(Shakespeare better than Voltaire or Swift for this reason, in my eyes.)

I can't stand opera, but isn't there an opera with Falstaff? The opera singer who sings Falstaff's part has an imaginative identification with him (as we do when we listen), but isn't himself Falstaff, nor are we, right?

Revenant said...

Satirists like Swift, Twain and Voltaire generally have a point to make. A clear point.

Even in Twain's non-satires he had characters who were clearly speaking on the author's behalf. The same goes for Sartre.

You may think that people like Heinlein were lousy writers (although he certainly met the only real criterion for great writing -- namely, lots of people who love reading it). But if Heinlein was a lousy writer, it wasn't because he put his words in his characters' mouth.

Kirby Olson said...

I never mentioned Heinlein. I don't think I've read him. I did try a little science fiction as a teenager but was allergic to it for some reason.

Another writer to think about in this respect of "who's speaking in a narrative text" is Kierkegaard.

With him, you can ultimately sort it out, but it takes volumes and volumes before you do.

I want to say something about archetypes, and children's play, but don't know quite what it is that want to say. More rumination needed.

Revenant said...

I never mentioned Heinlein. I don't think I've read him.

Oops, my mistake -- I thought you were the same person I'd originally replied to. My bad.

Kirby Olson said...

No worries. i referred to Ayn Rand, and someone else chipped in with Robert Heinlein.

he's part of a whole field outside my knowledge,

It might be fun to read libel law in fiction cases in this country. No case has succeeded for years I'm told -- free speech getting the upper hand, apparently. where to start? I write and publish fiction, but am nowhere near a law library.

the situation souns dicier in Turkey.