May 9, 2021

"I was accustomed to thinking of most novels the way Nabokov wanted me to, or as Flaubert did—he once wrote that the most beautiful books depend 'on nothing external . . . just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support.'"

"Then something happened to change my thinking. I realized that the real world is full of people who, presumably, have feelings about being appropriated for someone else’s run at the Times best-seller list.... Is moving someone down the existence scale from 'human person' to 'character' anything like murder?... I thought that I recognized my past in a stranger’s words... Yet perhaps I was exaggerating the similarities, getting paranoid, self-absorbed.... Who owns a story? In writing my original piece, I lifted the lives of my parents and sister.... If Hall did use my text in some way, perhaps she only turned me from a superpowered narrator back into a character... 'My'... ends up a desiccated, unlovable, insect-like creature; her twin sister dies young.... Interrogating [my] anger now, I find it fascinating. It scans as an authorial fury. My essay was not just a personal history; it was an attempt to reckon with literary and societal representations of anorexia..."

From "Who Owns a Story? I was reviewing a novel. Then I found myself in it" by Katy Waldman (in The New Yorker). This article is from 2019. It came up in a search I was doing this morning (about a book that's mentioned in a different part of the essay).

In asking "who owns a story," Waldman isn't asking for a discussion of copyright. It's about art and ethics. Personally, I've been somebody else's fictional character. More than once. It's a complex matter to be used like that. You may enthusiastically support it, at least some of the time. You might want your story told... but perhaps not quite like that. And if it's told once, is it still there for you to tell it? 

In Waldman's case, she wrote something that another author apparently soaked up as raw material and transformed into a new work of art. Waldman never authorized or encouraged this other person, but she had put her experience out there to be absorbed by other people and to become part of their understanding of the world. Their understanding can't stay locked inside your understanding. And, of course, Waldman reappropriated everything and made a new piece of art out of it, the New Yorker essay, "Who Owns a Story?"

The book I was doing a search on is "The Human Stain" by Philip Roth. Roth used a real-life incident that happened to his friend and spun it out into an elaborate fictional story. The book shows a friendship between 2 men who are essentially Roth and his real-life friend. In the book, the friend insists that Roth write a book about what happened to him, and the Roth character says no. But the book is the Roth character's book about the friend character, but it's not the book the friend character wanted written. It's something else entirely, the book the Roth character (and Roth) wanted to write, not the book the friend character wanted written.

FROM THE EMAIL: Bothsidesnow writes: 

A few years ago I dived into the six or seven volume work My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The author takes the narrative of his life and those around him -- his father, his uncle, his brother, girl friends and wife and fashions a novel/long essay/work of some type of literature. By the time he writes the last volume, the first volume has been published, and the last volume in part details the reactions of the living people whose lives he has captured and published for the world to see. The first volume, in my view, is essentially a tale of a monster, with overtones of the Grimm brothers and other works of the literature of monsters. The monster is Karl Ove's father, who dies at the end of volume one in grotesque circumstances, so never gets to read the work. Karl Ove, before he publishes Volume One, sends the manuscript to his brother and uncle and invites or at least indicates he will accept reactions. His uncle responds in a brief email with the heading "I have been raped." [This is from memory] His wife, after reading the manuscript, is admitted to a psychiatric ward for several weeks. [Again, from memory.]

Apparently in Scandinavian literary culture, there is now a somewhat extensive body of works by authors who write similar works based on their own life, family, and friends.

Knausgaard is reportedly not a common last name in Norway, in fact, only one family bears the name, so there was never any doubt about the subject. The first volume was purchased by an astonishingly large % of Norwegians.

1 comment:

Ann Althouse said...

Jim writes: "This piece reminded of this famous Joan Didion quote in a piece in Slouching Towards Bethlehem about reporting: “That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”"