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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.