Unauthorised Stories

Apologies for the lack of blogging this week; the real world has been kicking my ass somewhat. In lieu of content, I’m going to steal shamelessly a question I was asked in an email recently: is it unethical to fictionalise historical figures? Here are some thoughts.

  1. Guy Gavriel Kay has an essay on his website (actually a transcript of a speech), in which he argues that the use of real people in fiction is symptomatic of an ongoing erosion of privacy:

    What I’m suggesting is this: with all the variations of purpose and craft, what we can see in all of these works — and countless inferior ones — is an expanded perception of entitlement. And this, I ask you to consider as being of a piece with other elements of our place and time.

    We end up back, or my whimsy for today takes us back, to Yogi Berra: 90% of the exercise is half mental. We writers like to wrap ourselves in the cloak of liberty, defenders of free speech and the individual voice against the tyranny of state or fashion. What happens when we shift the mental perspective — as I am suggesting today that we do — and consider ourselves as tools of tyrant fashion, instruments against individuals, not defenders of them? This, I begin to suspect, is what might be happening when so many important writers embrace this co-opting of real lives. Instead of challenging or querying, those who anchor their fictions in the co-opted lives of the real may be subscribing to the the erosion of the private that I see as a defining component of our society.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I am suggesting, as respectfully as I can, that we may be suffering a loss. That a through line, a direct continuum, exists between the unwanted gaze of the media or of the high tech industry, or the solicited gaze embodied in the jennycam and ‘Big Brother’ and daytime talk shows … and those works of fiction that use the living and the dead as elements and instruments.

  2. I’m not sure I can go quite as far as Kay, but take Geoff Ryman’s short story “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)”, from the October/November F&SF. A sort of fantastical pendant to his mimetic novel The King’s Last Song, it claims to be “a completely untrue story about someone who must exist”. In a way, this is only an extension of the reader-as-tourist strategy that The King’s Last Song employs; the characters in that novel do not exist, but they are types who, Ryman makes clear, do exist. (“You could very easily meet William” is the first line of the novel; a few pages later, we’re told, “You would meet Map easily as well”.) What threw me, as someone who knows only the broad strokes of Cambodian history, was reading Lois Tilton’s review of the story:

    Several times during the course of the narrative, Ryman reminds us that this is not a true story. Of course it is a fantasy, in a fantasy magazine. There are ghosts. What bothers me is the truth that Pol Pot did have a daughter named Sitha, but she was born six years before the Sith of Ryman’s story, and does not seem to have lived the sort of self-indulgent, moneyed life he describes. Perhaps I am being too literal-minded, but I do have to wonder what the real Sitha would think of this tale, which makes such unauthorized use of her life in a story that is not true to it.

    I had taken Ryman’s story at its word, but it had been lying to me. And I think, to an extent, the story plays on the fact that a lot of people will probably be in the same boat as me; it’s a sting, a reminder that we don’t know as much as maybe we should. But is it ethical?

  3. Lydia Millet’s novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart revolves around a simple conceit: at the moment of the first test of the atomic bomb, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi are transported forward in time to California in 2003. A moderate Google did not turn up any reviews that question whether or not this is an ethical narrative strategy; it’s certainly not something that occurred to me when I was reading it. I am not an expert on any of the three scientists, but the book is full of biographical details that seem to be accurate, and as characters they seem to start from where their real-world counterparts were at the moment of divergence. (They grow along their own path, of course, just as — and I can’t quite believe that I’m about to use this example — a double created in a transporter malfunction would soon become their own person.) I think I felt that these scientists are already in the public domain, in a way that someone like Sitha isn’t.
  4. At the very least there is, I think, an obligation to try to get it right if you’re using historical characters; they have to fit within our understanding of the real person. I vaguely recall some debate about this with reference to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, and I think it’s why I am so thoroughly creeped out by the concept of real-person slash fiction, which seems a deliberate attempt to get it wrong (or to put it another way, to utterly divorce the persona from the person).
  5. From an interview carried out at the last Eastercon (forthcoming in Vector):

    Graham Sleight: You talked a bit about the relationship between, let’s say, autobiography and story. Do you consciously set down and say, “right, I’m going to write an autobiographical story,” or do you find material transforming itself as you write, or do you think, “oh, I can use the time I visited place X” and plug it in?

    Elizabeth Hand: Well, I’m not good at making stuff up. I’m really not. But I’ve got a very good memory. So I like to experience things so that I can then use them for work. I think all writers and artists do that. But for me, I really am not able to just make things up out of whole cloth, which is why I don’t think I’d ever really be able to write a successful secondary-world fantasy or science fiction book. And the things that I’ve tried that are like that are not successful. I think what I can do is tap into my own experience or story and change the details enough to make a narrative out of it. And when I’m not doing it for myself I’m doing it with other people who I know. So I’m very big on mining friends, not family so much, but friends … I find it much easier to remember them, I have a good ear for dialogue and can remember how they talk, and what they look like. I started out wanting to be a playwright. I was a terrible playwright, but I pay attention to how people speak, just sort of the habit of listening to the rhythms that people fall into when they’re speaking and use those.

  6. So perhaps (and this is not really surprising) it’s a question that has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Walt Whitman’s cameo in Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is objectionable because it is a cameo only, he’s there to lend weight, to prop up an argument; Jim Lovell’s appearance in Simon Ings’ The Weight of Numbers works despite its brevity because there’s a sense that while he’s on-screen it’s Jim Lovell’s story, he’s there because Ings is telling a story that reaches out into real history. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect none of the characters in Sean McMullen’s “Electrisarian” mind being there (and, unusually, I could actually find out for sure if I wanted to). The splurge of walk-ons in most Harry Turtledove books, on the other hand, has an air of voyeurism about it — but you could also argue that historical fiction, and alternate history, can’t afford to divorce itself from the world entirely. In Stephen Baxter’s Voyage, Joe Muldoon takes the place of Buzz Aldrin, and new characters are hustled on-stage almost as fast as is decently possible; but he couldn’t have written about a post-Apollo Mars programme without including, to at least some extent, people who existed.

19 thoughts on “Unauthorised Stories

  1. As you may recall, I was less sanguine about Ings’ appropriation of Lovell in The Weight of Numbers, primarily because Lovell is still very much alive, and Ings delves into (or, more accurately, invents) Lovell’s intimate thoughts, including his relationship with his family and a sexual encounter with his wife. This strikes me as being uncomfortably close to real-person fanfic.

  2. I haven’t read Specimen Days, but I can think of several cases where a historical character gets a walk-on that seems trivial but is often of great significance. Adding weight is importnat, bolstering the argument is not always a fault.

  3. Abigail: I think it is the fact that Lovell is on-screen for a pretty short time that makes it work for me. We don’t really have time (or at least, I didn’t have time) to get deeply enough into Lovell’s head to feel disturbed; what I got instead was the sense that Ings’ story was brushing up against real history. Which I suspect is what was intended.

    Kev: I think Specimen Days is one of the worst, or at least the most disappointing, books I’ve read in the past couple of years, so I can’t recommend it. But I think I would object to similar walk-ons in other books, too; it seems to me they can’t help trivialising the people they use. Cunningham uses Whitman’s reputation as a shorthand, to avoid having to actually make his argument convincing by his own work.

    And to both of you: what do you think about the general issue? Where does the line lie, when fictionalising real people? Is it enough that they be dead, for instance?

  4. Oops cut myself off short above.
    I’m thinking of the way Howard Waldrop uses walk-ons. Jerry in ‘You Could Go Home Again’ is revealed in the afterword to be JD Salinger, which adds to the meaning of the story as I see it.
    ‘Ike at the mike’ has the line about ‘President kennedy reelected in 1964’ which most people have taken to be JFK but the next line refers to his ‘three younger brothers’ which means it must be Joseph P Kennedy jr (actually killed in WWII). This doesn’t change the story, its just a reminder as waldrop says elsewhere, to watch him all the time. It makes the reader think about other clues.

  5. I suspect Waldrop’s gleeful appropriation of historical reference points is one of the reasons I have reservations about his work. It all seems a bit too much like a game.

  6. I found Terry Bisson’s Nebula-winning “macs” distasteful because it used the imagined behaviour of real people who lost relatives in the Oklahoma bombing to make a rhetorical point (even though I agree with the rhetorical point).

  7. I know it sometimes looks as though Waldrop is just using references to show off his knowledge of obscure trivia, but in his best stories references are very carefully chosen.

  8. I certainly have qualms about the use of living figures in any form other than as icons. Having said that i am really enjoying David peace’s The Damned United in which several still-living figures are portrayed as quite unpleasant.

    Is there a difference between fiction which purports to portray an approximation of history as we know it and alternate history which clearly says theis is how X might have been? I think so.

  9. I certainly have qualms about the use of living figures in any form other than as icons.

    Is there a reason dead figures are ok, beyond “they’re not around to be insulted”?

    I think I feel the same about both, and I think I take the opposite position to you, which is that reducing real people to icons is usually at best lazy, and at worst insulting. Or to put it another way, I don’t care how meticulously Waldrop is selecting his references — too often it still reads to me like trading on borrowed emotion.

    I’d agree that there’s a difference between historical fiction and alternate history; the latter is perhaps easier to make work because the writer has more freedom.

  10. I can think of quite a few ways in which ‘real’ people can be used in fiction, some less reprehensible than others.

    1. Isaac Newton in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (integral to plot, only slightly AU)
    2. Newton in Greg Keyes’ Age of Unreason books (integral to plot, rather more AU)
    3. Newton as a cameo role in (damn, have forgotten title) a fantasy novel
    4. Newton / Liebniz real person slash (no, really, and it wasn’t me)

    or, from personal experience:

    5. William Dampier in a work of fiction based closely on his life and writings
    5a. As above, but with hints of Scandal
    5b. As 5a, but with hints of Scandal that subsequently turn out to be historically accurate
    5c. An original character whose name is not William Dampier, but whose adventures bear an uncanny resemblance to Dampier’s adventures.

    All well and good. Now, what if we find examples using living individuals?

    And what if we bring in nasties such as that story about using Ronald Reagan’s living body as a resource? (Can’t remember title, and am at werk). That, to me, is ever so much worse than real person slash — which, I agree, separates persona from person when it deals with those in the public eye, but what of those who don’t have a deliberate persona?

  11. reducing real people to icons is usually at best lazy, and at worst insulting

    What about those ‘real’ people who have iconicized themselves? Amongst living figures we might consider Madonna a prime example, or historically Byron. I think I’m ready to argue that Waldrop himself is engaged in an ongoing process of self-mythologization that has its origins in romanticism. Hence in the examples above he chooses iconic figures to consider why they are iconic and how it affects them internally.

  12. The story about using Reagan as a living resource was “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report” by Michael Blumlein (and can be found in his collection The Brains of Rats).

  13. I hesitate to mention my own writing in this discussion because it isn’t in remotely the same class as the other stories mentioned here but it is directly relevant to this topic. In the most recent issue of Aeon I’ve used two real characters – Gandhi and Roger Casement – in my story “Palaces of Force” and, reading this, I’ve been thinking about the process of the story coming together and why I chose to use these men.

    One germ of the story was a couple of passages in Gandhi’s autobiography about his time as a lawyer in London (before he was famous) – one where he describes buying his suit from Bond St. and another where he simply says he went to the Paris Exposition of 1889 and wasn’t impressed. By chance I knew a little about that exposition (Eiffel’s tower and a bit more) and it struck me as fascinating to imagine this soon to be iconic figure in a three piece suit and top hat walking amongst the cathedrals built to a technology and culture that he would eventually become a trenchant critic of.

    That high-Victorian/Imperial era laid the foundations for the relationships between Europe and the rest of the “developing” world in the first three-quarters of the 20th century and then – at least in part – for the economic/cultural globalisation of the present. And I wanted to talk about that but I wanted a character who could contrast with Gandhi’s pacifism and localism.

    I was actually planning to write a quite different piece about Roger Casement – an academic paper on his role as a prototypical form of the modern Western aid campaigner and the potential contradictions in the desire of these movements to improve the physical and economic wellbeing of those in poor cultures with their sense that the “nobility” of their poverty somehow makes their way of life worth preserving. Casement in his eventful life moved from being a feted and highly celebrated humanitarian to “freedom fighter”/”traitor” and outcast when he tried to apply his concerns for distant peoples to those of his native Ireland.

    And then I read an editor say that the three stories he never wanted to read again were those with unicorns, anything with Nazis and a story where two famous people meet up in odd circumstances.

    I wrote a unicorn story, and a Nazi story (which also features Albert Speer as a background character, now I think about it) and so somehow, inevitably, Casement ended up in my story about Gandhi. Primarily, I think, because I became fascinated to know what they’d make of each other’s beliefs, and of the Exposition. And partly because they struck me as such an improbable pair – one small, delicate but absolutely unshakeable, the other huge and hearty but strangely fragile – from very different backgrounds but whose concerns and fates were so similar.

    So, as a writer, do I owe these “real” people anything?

    Well I use both as representative of a point of view (although I hope not as “iconic”) and although I did a fair amount of research on both I certainly don’t claim that my representations are accurate – how could they be, I doubt if I could precisely represent even those people I know best, I’ve got little to no hope with two men I “know” only from words on a page. But then again I’m not writing a biography and I never felt the need to get every detail nailed down. From the moment I put the two men together I’m speculating and can only guess how they would react to each other. I try to be true to what I know about them – but, for example, I had to make both men a little less reserved than they seemed to have been in reality to generate some conflict and I had to put words in their mouths that they’d probably disown. In the words of The Redskins (agit-pop band, not Washington football team) I was hoping to “take no heroes, only inspiration”.

    I did spend a lot of time reading about their “ideologies” – in a 7000 word story I can’t do full justice to the beliefs of either man, and I’ve no doubt there are plenty of better informed people than me who would dismiss my interpretations – but I wanted their positions to be as right as I could get them (which is the same approach I take when I try to write science in SF – I’m not a scientist or an engineer but I try not to make stupid mistakes).

    Still, I wouldn’t say that my Gandhi and my Casement are the “real people” – they aren’t any more real than Sanjit the fictitious narrator – ibut in my piece of fiction they offer a useful peg around which to hang a story that wouldn’t have the same resonance if these were any other two “Joe Bloggs” – both Gandhi and Casement took difficult paths and made many sacrifices as they pursued the same goal through almost diametrically opposing views. The poignant things about both my characters are the fact that for all their personal courage and their sacrifices, their personal credos were ignored, the governments of the countries they helped found neatly sidelined most of their ideologies and their faith in their fellow man was betrayed by sectarianism and partition.

    And so, since my story is also, at least in part, about how “great men” are almost automatically disassociated from the things for which they fight because their experiences distance them from the lives of those they champion, the only way I could compress these points into a short story was to use characters who had a history that could be “decompressed” by knowledgeable readers and create a back story that I didn’t have the space/time to construct for myself.

    Now I don’t know how much of that actually comes across to the reader in my story (probably not that much if the reviewer at Tangent is typical) but what I suppose I’m saying is that, like God, if Gandhi and Casement hadn’t existed, I’d have had to invent them.

    But that would have been a novel, not a short story.

  14. There’s a lit crit dimension here that says that no matter whether the character is real or imagined, identity is a fabrication in language. One point of view would say that the narrative of (any) life would have more to do with narrative than it would with living. This is a very postmodern notion, and has affected profoundly the study of both autobiography and history – the latter being read frequently now as a presentation of the past, rather than a representation. And then, someone like Ronald Regan, say, would be such a ‘fictional’ character to the vast majority of the public in any case. Who he ‘really’ is, is not something any one who doesn’t know him intimately would be able to say. He’s a media/historical creation essentially. So, I would wonder whether the inclusion of such ‘real’ characters into fiction isn’t precisely a way of calling attention to the uncertain borderline between experienced reality and the modern cult of the image, virtual or otherwise.

  15. Litlove — I think it would probably be fair to say that what we’ve been circling around in the above comments is the question of how comfortable (or not) we are with exactly that notion. Which is an interesting question for a number of reasons, and I think you’re right that the inclusion of “real” characters can draw attention to that uncertain borderline; actually, come to think of it, that’s one of the things that Lydia Millet’s use of famous scientists in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart does. But clearly not every example works as well, or plays as fair, as that.

  16. Litlove — I agree with you there mostly but Niall is also correct to say that not every case fits that analysis. I keep coming back to waldrop not least because I’ve been researching him lately but also because he has made a career out of this. ‘You Could Go Home Again’ is about the creation of a persona and about the nature of the imaginative process. I don’t think it highlights the borderline so much as steps into a liminal fantasy area and the border is a clear and fixed point. More to follow on this, I hope.

    Niall– do you have the same problem with Shakespeare using historical characters?

  17. I tend to avoid using real historical characters or pop culture icons or whatever in my stories because I think there’s a real danger of using received ideas without realizing it–buying into the persona that has become the consensus reality of the person–and that means you’re substituting someone else’s imagination for your own, or being lazy. Also, too many readers have a set idea of a historical figure in their heads that will clash with whatever you come up with. For me, it works much better to fictionalize the real person in such a way that whatever it was you found interesting about them is still in the text, but met half-way by the writer’s own imagination.

    Obviously, people write about historical figures in fiction all the time. But I can think of very few instances in which it worked for me.

    Now, about Geoff Ryman. I think his changes to the daughter are perfectly within the bounds of what would work for me as a reader. This is still a fiction, not a historical account, and the writer is under no obligation to be accurate so long as it seems *right* to the reader. Clearly, mileage will vary in that regard. But it is not automatic that skewing the details means the fiction is automatically less genuine or somehow compromised.

    Howard Waldrop realizes that fiction is fiction and he’s a born storyteller. He’ll use any tool at his disposal for his fiction and he’s not likely to worry about being accused of playing a game or not being serious. Because that’s part of his point. There quite simply isn’t one approach or even one series of approaches that defines successful fiction.

    The larger point is: I can read Waldrop and appreciate what he does so well and I can read Ryman and appreciate him, too. I don’t really feel the need to operate off of one set of assumptions as a reader or even a dozen different sets. I just enjoy good fiction in all of its various permutations.


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