Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Oscars and the Truth

As the Academy Awards approach--they're now only a breathtaking few hours away--it's interesting to consider that four of the ten nominees for best picture are, as they like to say, "based on a true story."

Or are they? Two of them--The Fighter and 127 Hours--are presumably pretty accurate, or at least pretty close to the way the central characters' remember the experience, since we see the real people on whose experiences the stories are based on screen at the end of the movie.

But the other two--The Social Network and The King's Speech--appear to have taken some liberties with the truth. In today's Washington Post, film historian Jeanine Basinger dismisses what she acknowledges to be historical inaccuracies in The King's Speech as "nitpicks." What difference does it make if films get the historical facts wrong, she asks, as long as the end result is a good movie?

Okay, let's go through the inaccuracies she lists. Colin Firth is taller and more handsome than King George VI. Okay, fine--that's Hollywood. Winston Churchill wasn't as fat as the actor who portrayed him. No big deal. The King didn't actually stammer that badly. Hmm, well, that's a pretty central element of the plot, but exaggeration in the pursuit of a good story is a minor sin. And Churchill didn't really think it was necessary for Edward VIII to abdicate before marrying Wallis Simpson. Whoa. That seems like a pretty big nit to me. In fact, that seems like a distortion of the historical record. And was it really necessary to change that fact in order to make a good movie?

The Social Network, from what I've read, is even worse in terms of hewing to the truth. For instance, according to the movie, Mark Zuckerberg's motive for inventing Facebook was to impress and/or avenge himself on a girlfriend who had dumped him. But in fact, Zuckerberg still has the same girlfriend he had at the time he started what became Facebook. Beyond that, the movie portrays Zuckerberg as a socially inept, social-climbing, obnoxious, opportunistic (albeit smart) nerd. Given that they changed the girlfriend thing, I don't have too much confidence in the rest of the portrayal. And yet Zuckerberg, who isn't even thirty yet, will have to spend the rest of his life living in the shadow of a fictional portrayal that I would bet the vast majority of moviegoers accept as the gospel truth.

Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed and admired both of these movies. But I have to admit that when I learned about their cavalier attitude towards the truth I felt a little uneasy. Kind of the way I've felt about books that purport to be "true" but turn out to be largely, or entirely, fiction. If that sort of thing bothers people--and given the furor surrounding the revelation that James Frey's "memoir" a few years ago was more like a novel, that sort of thing does bother people--why shouldn't it bother them when the medium is a movie?

Maybe some people will say that it doesn't really matter what Churchill thought about Edward VIII's abdication, or that Mark Zuckerberg has enough money that he shouldn't care how he's portrayed in a movie. I happen to disagree with both those observations, but the question is, where do we draw the line? And who gets to decide? Do we really want our understanding of history, or of the characters of real people, to be determined by movie studio moguls whose primary concern is "telling a good story"? I'm pretty familiar with the story of someone named Betsy Bonaparte, a 19th-century celebrity who married--and then was abandoned by--Napoleon's youngest brother. Back in the early days of Hollywood, two movies were made "based on" her life. In both of them, her errant husband returns to her. That may make a better story in the eyes of screenwriters (or at least it did then), but it's about as far from the truth as you can get.

The thing is, stories get a boost from their association with reality--which is why that "based on a true story" label gets slapped onto whatever seems to qualify. We get a little added frisson from the idea that "this really happened." But are movie-makers--or writers--entitled to take advantage of that frisson when they've rearranged the facts? Yes, it's true that real events don't always naturally fall into a convenient narrative arc, and that people don't always behave quite the way fictional conventions would dictate. But that, it seems to me, is part of the challenge of writing about real people: you need to make sense of them and their lives, not just convert them into characters who follow the path that you'd like them to.

This may sound strange coming from someone who has written a novel--A More Obedient Wife--based on the lives of real people. But I chose to write about people who lived so long ago, and who were sufficiently obscure, that I didn't have to alter the historical record to come up with a decent plot. All I had to do was fill in the many gaps in the record with my imagination. (Okay, I did eliminate a few of the many siblings a couple of my characters had, but given that so few people have heard of these historical figures, let alone the siblings I killed off, I don't really see that as a major problem.)

I've heard other authors of historical novels make a similar point. Even if they write about well known historical personages, they often choose to write about parts of their lives that are cloaked in obscurity. Otherwise there's nothing to play with.

There's another way to write about, or portray, real people without confronting this dilemma: make them relatively minor characters and embed them in what is clearly a fictional narrative. A case in point is the current Masterpiece Theatre presentation, Any Human Heart (which, alas, conflicts with the Academy Awards tonight). Its central character, a sort of British upper-class Zelig figure named Logan Mountstuart, interacts with a delicious array of real personages from the 20th century--Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming, and a corrupt and vengeful Duke and Duchess of Windsor. We get that added frisson that comes from watching "a true story," or at least a story peopled with real individuals, but at the same time we retain our awareness that what we're watching is fiction.

All that having been said, I'll be perfectly happy if either The King's Speech or The Social Network wins the Oscar for best picture, because both of them were terrific movies. I just wish that when Hollywood powers-that-be are looking for a good story, they would either find a true one that doesn't require tampering with significant facts, or else come up with something that's NOT "based on a true story." After all, although it's probably true that the number of basic plots available to mankind is finite, the number of variations on those plots is pretty much unlimited. You just have to use your imagination.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ablene and Aibileen

In a stunningly ironic development, this morning's papers bring the news that the author of the best-selling novel The Help is being sued by a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, for allegedly using her name and physical description without permission.

Why so ironic? As those who've read The Help know, its plot hinges on the publication of a book that is a thinly disguised portrait of a group of middle-class white women in Jackson as seen through the eyes of their black maids. Much of the tension in the novel comes from wondering whether those white women will recognize themselves in the book, and what action they'll take if they do. Only--this being the South in the early sixties--the maids who have told their stories are worried more about lynchings than lawsuits.

Ablene Cooper, the maid who is suing author Kathryn Stockett for supposedly portraying her in The Help, is seriously misguided for a number of reasons. Yes, there's a similarity in names (the character in the book is named Aibileen, which is apparently how "Ablene" is pronounced) and appearance (both Ablene and Aibileen sport a gold tooth). And both have a son who has died. But Aibeleen's story is not Ablene's, nor could it be. For one thing, Aibeleen's experience takes place fifty years ago, when Ms. Cooper (who is 60) was a child. For Ms. Cooper to argue that she is somehow "embarrassed" by the racial insults suffered by the fictional Aibileen in the early sixties is so convoluted as to boggle the mind.

One problem is that the book's Aibileen is such a sympathetic, admirable character--unlike most of the white women portrayed in the book-within-the-book--that it's hard to see how the real Ablene can credibly claim to have suffered any injury. According to the Wall Street Journal, one of Ms. Cooper's claims is that the Aibileen character speaks in a "thick ethnic vernacular," which embarrassed Ms. Cooper because she herself doesn't speak like that. Ms. Cooper herself undercut that claim somewhat when she told the New York Times, "Ain't too many Ablenes."

Aside from the vernacular, she has a point. No matter how admirable the character she invented is, Ms. Stockett would have been wise to choose another name. (She apparently knows Ms. Cooper, who works for her brother and sister-in-law, only slightly; the real-life maid Ms. Stockett based the character on, and who was her family's own maid when she was a child, was named Demetrie.) A writing teacher once advised me to change as many details as possible when a fictional character is modeled on a real person: if the real person is tall, make the character short; if the real person has blonde hair, make it brown; and so on. Surely it would have been easy to come up with some other name. But Stockett probably just started writing the book using the name Aibileen, and then the character and the name became inseparable. I know how that is.

But let's leave all that to one side. The basic, and most obvious, point to make here--and the one Ms. Cooper has apparently failed to grasp--is that Aibileen is a fictional creation. That's one essential difference between The Help, which is a novel, and the book-within-the-book about white women in Jackson, which was nonfiction (albeit with disguised names). Even if Aibileen were a lot closer to the real Ablene, Ms. Cooper would--or at least should--face a high bar in prevailing in court.

The fact is, ALL fictional characters are modeled on real people, to a greater or lesser extent. Even if an author doesn't have an actual person in mind, he or she is probably borrowing various attributes of a character from different real people. And even if that's not true, it's likely that a fictional character, if done well, will at least remind some readers of an actual person. Should that person be able to sue? Clearly not. And where, exactly, do you draw the line?

But people can be quick to take offense, or at least to see the opportunity to make some money off a best-selling book. That's why, if you're going to write fiction based on the lives of real people, it's a lot safer to choose people who are dead--preferably long dead. That's what I did in my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, and that's what I'm doing in the one I'm working on now. Not only are they themselves unable to sue, their descendants tend to be flattered rather than offended by an author's imaginative riffs.

I confess to having some trepidation on this score about the novel that's with my agent now. Its setting is contemporary, and let's just say there are a few people who might think they recognize themselves in it if it should ever get published. But in that unlikely eventuality, I hope they'll understand that the characters in the novel are no more "them" than the protagonist is "me"--and also that, in a way, ALL of them are me. They're all bits and pieces of me and other real people and things that just came into my head. In other words, they're fictional.

But who knows? A few weeks ago there was a chilling essay in the New York Times Book Review that told the tale of an unstable man who was convinced that a 1909 novel was a thinly veiled attack on his family, the Goldsboroughs of Maryland. He didn't just sue. He stalked the novelist who wrote it, David Graham Phillips, and shot him six times near his home on Gramercy Park. After the shooting, when Phillips was asked whether he had in fact based the novel on Goldsborough's family, he responded, "No, I don't know the man." They were, perhaps, his last words.

So if my novel doesn't get published, I can at least console myself with the thought that I won't have to worry about armed stalkers. Unless they're zombies, risen from the dead. Now THERE's a plot that would probably make the editors at major publishing houses sit up and take notice. Maybe I should give it a whirl.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Celebutantes of the 19th Century

I recently went to a fascinating lecture about the Caton sisters.

Who, I hear you ask? Is that like the Kardashian sisters? Well, yes, kind of.

The Caton sisters were beautiful and wealthy, and basically famous for being famous. They were, if you will, the celebutantes of their time. But--given that their time was the early 19th century--they were way more discreet. And their parents--unlike the parents of Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe--weren't into alliteration. The Caton girls were named, rather boringly, Mary Ann, Elizabeth (or Betsey), and Louisa. (There was also a fourth one--Emily--but she never made it as a celebutante.)

Before I went to the lecture, almost everything I knew about the Caton sisters was filtered through the letters of the two women I've been researching for the past few years, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte and Eliza Anderson Godefroy. All five women grew up in the same elite social circle in late 18th- and early 19th-century Baltimore.

I knew enough to discount much of what Betsy Bonaparte said. Not only did she have a phenomenally venomous tongue, but she clearly saw the Caton girls as her rivals for the title of Belle of Baltimore. Beautiful and wealthy herself, Betsy was the first Baltimore girl to snare a royal title--well, sort of. She married Napoleon's youngest brother in 1803, but her hopes of someday rising to the throne herself (or at least some kind of throne--I imagine a principality would have sufficed) were dashed by Napoleon's vehement opposition to the marriage, which he had annulled. Imagine Betsy's anguish when all three of the Caton sisters ended up with titles after marrying into the British aristocracy (including one, Mary Ann, whose first husband had been Betsy's own brother).

But Betsy's animosity toward the Catons started even before their famous 1816 trip to England, during which the sisters were feted as "the three Graces." Shortly before their departure, Betsy was scolded by her friend Eliza Anderson Godefroy for badmouthing Betsey Caton at a New York boarding-house. After swearing Betsy B. to the strictest confidence (for Betsey C. had "charged me not to tell it to you"), Eliza reported the gossip retailed by two gentlemen in New York who were Betsy C.'s "devoted lovers." According to them, Eliza told Betsy B., "at a public dinner at the Boarding House you abused her in the blackest & most infamous manner, & that they made it a point to tell her to put her on her Guard against you_ I told her I did not believe a word of it & that they must be dirty Fellows indeed who would take such a business upon their hands."

Eliza pleaded with Betsy B. "not to open her lips" about Betsey C. in the future (so, despite her protestations, she obviously DID believe the report). Perhaps Betsy B. grew more discreet, but her hatred of the sisters continued to burn with a hard, gem-like flame. In her later years, Betsy B. apparently spent many hours going through her voluminous correspondence and annotating it, just for fun. In 1867--fifty years after Eliza wrote her that letter about the New York boarding house--she wrote on the bottom, "From Mrs. Anderson Godefroy about my old Enemies the Catons who hated & injured me in Europe in 1816 & were, out of the Patterson father & sons Robert John Joseph & Edward, the most pernicious foes of my life." (The Patterson men referred to were Betsy's own father and brothers, so you get some sense here of what her relationship with her own family was like. But that's another story.)

I trusted Eliza's observations a bit more, but she was ambiguous on the subject of the Catons, especially Betsey. In that 1816 letter to Betsy B., Eliza seems to be endorsing her friend's own dim view of the Caton girl: "No matter what she may be," she tells Betsy B., "you cannot but injure yourself by speaking of her. .. she will always make herself appear the unresisting victim to your unmerited dislike."

But maybe Eliza was only saying what she knew Betsy B. would want to hear. Many years later--when Betsey Caton finally snared a titled husband at the age of 45--Eliza reminisced about her with considerably more warmth. “Betsey Caton had more heart and more head than all the rest of the family put together," she told a correspondent on hearing of the marriage. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the rest of the clan, but still pretty favorable to Betsey.

Right after she says that, though, Eliza goes on to say: "... but nothing so wastes the heart, so deteriorates all elevation of mind, as the system of coquetry she and her sisters were taught to practice almost from their cradles. It has however succeeded perfectly well with them, for the end of life is to obtain the object of our Soul’s ambition, and rank and title was theirs.”

The lecture I went to--which was given by Mary Jeske at the Maryland Historical Society--provided a more complete portrait of these three women. They certainly don't seem to have been the demons Betsy Bonaparte thought they were. On the other hand, Eliza's judgment that rank and title were their "Soul's ambition" may well have been correct (they certainly were Betsy B's!). Such an objective may seem strange to us, in this day and age, but in the early 19th century an excellent marriage was the highest ambition that most women could aspire to. And on those terms, the Caton sisters succeeded spectacularly.

Before the lecture, I found the Caton sisters' story reminiscent of all those tales about impoverished British landed gentry marrying American heiresses for their money--the most recent version being the addictive PBS series "Downtown Abbey." But as I discovered, the Caton girls actually didn't have any money--not of their own. Their grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) was indeed fabulously wealthy. But the sisters weren't able to get a piece of that until Carroll died. And he lived to be 95, which was almost unheard of in those days.

After the first Caton sister married in 1817--not to an aristocrat, yet--it was rumored that her husband was shocked to discover, after the marriage, that she had no fortune. One of Betsy B.'s London correspondents wrote to tell her that no one was going to make THAT mistake again. No one, he said, would be taking Betsey Caton to the altar "unless the money is first paid down, or put into a Train that it will be forthcoming."

It's enough to make you feel sorry for Betsey Caton, whatever her ambition was in life. And it's quite a tribute to the Caton sisters that they all managed to marry aristocrats--at least one of them, indeed, impoverished--even AFTER everyone knew they had no money. Can the Kardashians top that accomplishment?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Historical Fiction at the AWP Conference

I've spent a good part of the last three days at the annual AWP Conference. AWP is an organization of writers and teachers of writing (the acronym supposedly stands for "Association of Writers & Writing Programs," in which case it should really be "AWWP," but never mind), and I had no idea there were so many writers in the United States. It was completely overwhelming. And exhilarating (look at all these people who care so passionately about writing!). And depressing (look at all these people who so desperately want to get published!).

But what I really want to talk about is, of course, historical fiction. Out of the hundreds of panels on offer, there were only three devoted to historical fiction, all well-attended. (Well, I really only know about two of them, because for some reason two of the three were scheduled to meet at the same time.)Listening to the panelists, I was gratified to hear echoes of many of the thoughts and feelings I've had during my own writing process: the need to find a gap or a mystery in the historical record, so that your imagination has room to play; the necessity of, as one panelist put it, gathering so much information about your period that you "drown" in your research (that was from Jane Alison, author of The Love-Artist, a novel about Ovid); the lingering anxiety that nevertheless you'll get something wrong and be exposed as a fraud.

I certainly know the last feeling well--even though, by the time I started writing A More Obedient Wife, set in the 1790's, I'd been working as a historian in that period for almost seven years. Maybe you can never really shake that anxiety when you're writing about the past. (Although there are those rare birds, like Edward P. Jones, who are immune to it. He wrote his novel The Known World, about black slaveowners in the antebellum South, without doing a lick of research. One of the panelists--Robin Oliveira, who wrote My Name Is Mary Sutter--said she heard him respond once to a question about how he could do that. "It's my book," she quoted him as saying, "and I can do what I damn well please.")

But what I wanted to ask the panelists and didn't get a chance to was this: isn't there also a sense in which we can know the past BETTER than the present? True, we can never be entirely sure of the details of daily life in the way we are of those that surround us now. But the past is not a moving target. It's fixed, static--whatever happened there has already happened.

Maybe more important, we have a perspective on the past that we can never have on the present, because we know--in historical terms--what happened next. In that sense we have an advantage over our characters, who have no idea what lies down the road. We know which institutions and ideas will become discredited in the future. And we know which ones will ultimately win acceptance.

Take, for example, a character in the novel I'm working on, a doctor of the early 19th century whose ideas about the cause of disease anticipated germ theory. His contemporaries ridiculed him--disease caused by tiny invisible animals that somehow entered the body?--and he lost a good deal of his practice. Now, in the 21st century, I can simply present his experience, without authorial comment, and both the reader and I will know something that he doesn't: that he was basically right. Another of my characters is a woman who dared to undertake what was considered a man's job, and who argued, over sometimes fierce opposition, that women had the potential to be the intellectual equals of men if they were only given the same educational opportunities. Someday, she lamented at one point, her ideas would be recognized as valid. And we--the writer and the reader--will know that they were.

That kind of layering--the layer of what the writer and reader know, as compared to what the characters know--is one of the things I love about historical fiction. The closest thing I heard to it at the AWP panels was from a writer named Kelly O'Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, which is set before Alcott became a successful writer. "I knew what she would go on to," O'Connor McNees said, "and she didn't know. I had to admire her audacity."

I suppose that's what all of us aspiring writers need: audacity. We need to act like we're all going to end up like Louisa May Alcott, even though we know that can't be true.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

They're Just Not That Into It

"I just didn't fall in love with it."

So ran the bottom line of a recent rejection of a novel my agent is shopping around. I cringed: I was suddenly inundated with extremely unpleasant memories of the last time an agent sent out a novel of mine--when, as I recalled, this was the standard rejection line,usually preceded (as this one was) with a few moderately flattering comments about my manuscript.

As it turned out, when I looked back at those rejections (yes, I saved them all--don't ask my why), only one or two of them actually used the "didn't fall in love with it" line. But for some reason, that was the line that had stuck in my mind, irritating as a festering splinter.

Why? It would seem that rejections that pick apart the specifics of your characters, your plot, your writing would be much harder to take. But for me, at least, they're not.

Rejections, of course, are never fun, but anyone who wants to make it as a writer has to get used to them (unless you're one of the anointed few who have a smooth and rapid ascent to success, in which case all you have to deal with is the jealousy and resentment of the vast majority of your fellow writers). And I think I've developed a relatively tough skin over the years. But hearing "I just didn't fall in love with it" remains pretty devastating.

Maybe it's because the line is so vague and global that it's hard to separate the rejection of one's writing from the rejection of oneself, something all aspiring writers need to learn to do. What it puts me in mind of, really, is high school, when it seemed that any guy who I was in love with "just didn't fall in love" with me. Meanwhile, of course, the guys who WERE calling me weren't the ones I had any interest in going out with. They were the equivalent, I guess, of those pop-up ads that seem to magically appear on any email I send or receive that has the word "publish" or "book" in it: "Publish your book now! Low rates!" Yeah, the self-publishing companies are all in love with me. They're just not the ones I want.

And of course, the objects of MY affection are going all googly-eyed over others whose charms I fail to see. Yeah, maybe they're more sensational, more provocative. But, I want to cry out, can't you recognize my substance, my depths? Then the bargaining begins, at least in my head: okay, listen, I can give you what you want. I can goose up my plot. Or is it sex--is that it? Okay, I can put more sex in. I'll feel cheap, but I'll do it. I'll do anything!

Of course, the problem with these rejections is that they never tell you exactly what you need to do to win acceptance. And maybe, in fact, there's NOTHING you can do. Maybe they're just not that into you. Oh, yes, they'll say things like, "It's probably just me--I'm sure some other editor out there will love this." But you can tell they're just saying that to make you feel better.

As with other things one has no control over--like snagging a date with the cool guy who doesn't know you exist--the best strategy is simply to move on, if you can. And I've found the best way, maybe the only way, for me to move on is to focus my attention and energy on another writing project.

Because, really, waiting around for someone to fall in love with you, or with your novel, is simply no way to go through life.