I’ve been thinking lately about writing about people – dead or alive – but not as a biography. Merely fiction.
It’s been done before, and done well: example of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde or Michael Cunningham’s The Hours spring to mind (of Marilyn Munroe and Virginia Woolf respectively).
But does that make it right? Should authors be allowed to take living people and immortalise them in a way that might not be 100% historically accurate?
The Guardian thinks fiction is up for grabs, by anyone:
The question of whether authors have the “right” to write about living or real people is not one that should be answered by the caretakers of historical reputation. Fiction is a free-for-all, and as long as an author can find someone who’ll publish what they write (or these days, publish it themselves), there are no actual rules about who or what can be tackled, give or take a few libel laws.
And they raise an interesting point: the onus seems to fall on the writer about whether they do it or not, and, most importantly, how they do it.
Personally, I love The Hours. It’s one of my favourite books. And I’ve read a little of Blonde (and I own the mini series) and from what I read – just beautiful.
But my concern is that what these authors write will become the perception of that figure in the reader’s mind.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say my perceptions of Woolf weren’t based around Cunningham’s words for quite some time.
It’s a delicate situation as I do believe the writer has a responsibility to the reader in this respect.
If a writer is going to alter someone’s life so much, alter their personality and traits and events in their life so they barely resemble that person anymore, why doesn’t the writer simply make someone up? Because even though at the beginning of The Social Network it outlined that the following was ‘based on true events’, we can’t help but walk away thinking the Zuckerberg is a jerk who screwed over his best friend (which may or may not be true).
I like what Oates said in relation to her Marilyn:
I’d hoped to evoke a poetic, spiritual, ‘inner’ truth by selecting incidents, images, representative figures from the life, and had absolutely no interest in a purely biographical or historic book.
The fact that Woolf had very little confidence and strongly suspected that she was just a hysterical, spinsterish figure whose tinselly little experiments would be swept away by time. And so I thought about contrasting this day in the life of my reimagined Clarissa with this day in the life of Virginia.
It makes you wonder.
What do you think? Is there a responsibility? Should fiction writers stick to making things up or can they borrow from real people’s lives?