Friday, July 29, 2011

What's in a Name?

Reading a piece about the opera singer Maria Callas in The New York Times a few days ago has set me thinking about the use of names of real people in fiction.

The Times piece discusses the Terence McNally play Master Class, currently on Broadway, which is based on a series of classes Callas gave for aspiring young opera singers almost 40 years ago. Regrettably, I haven't seen the current production of Master Class, but I did see another production years ago, and I remember it fairly well. Callas was imperious, dictatorial, at times almost sadistic with the students. It was fascinating to watch, and great theater.

But, Anthony Tommasini tells us in the Times, that's not exactly what happened. It turns out there's actually a book about Callas's master classes, and also a three-disc recording of them. And according to Tomassini, they reveal a Callas who was "frank and demanding," yes, but also "unfailingly patient and encouraging." Most important, she was way better at providing substantive artistic advice than the Callas of the play. And it bothers Tommasini that theater-goers will come away with the wrong impression.

It bothers me too. If you're going to write fiction that messes around with the facts of people's lives--and that clearly presents itself as fiction, the way McNally's play does--why use those people's real names? I find this particularly bothersome when the people whose names are used are still alive (see, for instance, the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), but I also find it a problem when the subjects are dead. Maybe it's actually more of a problem, since they can't defend themselves. Would it have detracted from the drama of Master Class if the main character had been a Callas-like figure who was called something else?

I've come across a number of instances of this lately in fiction. I recently finished a novel called City of Light, set in Buffalo around the turn of the century. Among the many things that bothered me about the book was the fact that the author played fast and loose with the reputations of a bunch of real people (most of them known only to aficionados of Buffalo's local history), inventing a plot in which they casually father illegitimate children with underage girls and scheme to offer up the protagonist as a kind of sacrificial virgin to the sexually rapacious Grover Cleveland. (Okay, Cleveland really did father an illegitimate child--but I doubt he was as warped as he's made out to be in the novel.) A descendant of one of the people slandered by the author has posted an understandably outraged review of the novel on Amazon.

I also recently had a conversation with someone about the E.L. Doctorow novel Homer and Langley, based on the lives of the Collyer brothers. I haven't been able to bring myself to read the novel because I read that Doctorow changed quite a few facts, including having the Collyer brothers live on into the 1960s, when in fact they died in 1947. None of that bothered the person I was talking to, who was enthusiastic in her recommendation. She even told me that Doctorow had changed the brother who was blind, making it Homer when it had actually been Langley ("Well, he had to," she said, alluding to the blindness of the original Homer). It turns out it really was Homer Collyer who was blind. But what bothers me is that the person I was talking to wasn't bothered by the idea that Doctorow made the switch.

I'm currently reading a novel in which Senator Joseph McCarthy is a minor character. I'm not finding this as bothersome as the other examples I've given, maybe because McCarthy isn't "on stage," as it were, all that much, and maybe because the way he's portrayed seems pretty consistent with what I know about him. Still, I find myself wondering: Did McCarthy really have a childhood friend whose house he moved into when he was in disgrace? Did he really spend all his time trying to get people to take his phone calls? If he'd merely been presented as a McCarthy-like figure, I suspect I wouldn't be asking myself those distracting questions.

Of course, there's a reason writers like to use real names: it arouses people's interest. We all want to know the intimate details of other people's lives, or most of us do. But the problem is we're not usually getting the real details. Yes, we could look up most of these people on Wikipedia and get the true story, or try to, but I doubt many of us bother. Instead, we just assume that what we've read or seen is true. A number of people have told me how much they despise Mark Zuckerberg, based on the movie. But is Mark Zuckerberg really like the "Mark Zuckerberg" of The Social Network? I've read enough about the divergence between the two to make me doubt it.

I realize this may sound hypocritical coming from someone who wrote a novel based on the lives of real people, using their real names, and is currently working on another one. But I've chosen to write about people who are long-dead and pretty obscure. And I've almost never changed a verifiable fact that I've come across in the historical record. Instead, I've let my imagination play in the many gaps between the facts. Plus, I try not to just make stuff up about my characters in order to create a juicy plot, which (it seems to me) is what the author of City of Light did. I've tried to understand as much as I can about who my characters really were, from the scant evidence available to me, and then extrapolate from there. (And I have to say, I haven't gotten any complaints from descendants--quite the contrary.)

I don't mean to get on a high horse about this. Obviously, there's been some wonderful fiction and drama that has taken liberties with the lives of real people, going back, as Tommasini points out, to Shakespeare. But when an author deliberately alters the facts of someone's life, I think it's only fair to signal that departure by making up a name as well. Yes, readers might lose some of the thrill that comes with getting what they think is an inside story. (And, with the passage of time, that thrill has to dissipate. No one goes to see Hamlet to get the goods on a former Prince of Denmark.) But on the other side of the scale, novelists and dramatists would no longer be distorting the factual record and promulgating misconceptions that can seriously damage people's lives and reputations.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fearing Success

Some months ago, when I was balking at rewriting the manuscript of my second novel for what felt like the 37th time, my agent accused me of suffering from "fear of success." To her mind, this was the only explanation for my reluctance to come up with a new plot and somehow figure out how to insert it into the existing framework of my novel.

To my mind, though, the idea that I was afraid of success was ludicrous. I'd been twisting myself into knots and jumping through hoops for months in order to ACHIEVE success. What I was afraid of was failure. In fact, I find the whole "fear of success" thing no more convincing now than I did when I first heard of it--back in 1972, when I was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, and Matina Horner, who originated the theory, was its president.

But lately I've come across the life stories of some writers that have made me think that maybe we all SHOULD fear success.

One of those is William Styron, whose first novel, published in 1952 when he was 26, was a huge critical and popular success. But, as I'm learning from a fascinating and beautifully written memoir by his daughter Alexandra Styron, Reading My Father, from that time on he was more or less tormented by his own perfectionism--and perhaps by the fear that whatever he wrote next wouldn't equal that first success. Indeed, his second novel was pretty much roundly derided. Although he went on to write two more highly acclaimed novels--The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the Pulitzer, and his masterpiece, Sophie's Choice--he spent the final 27 years of his life either trying unsuccessfully to write another novel, or in the grips of debilitating depression, or both.

Then there's Ernest Hemingway, the subject of a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by his friend A.E. Hotchner that detailed the final, paranoid year of his life. And a piece by Jonathan Franzen that appeared in The New Yorker on April 18, 2011, about his friend David Foster Wallace, who suffered from chronic depression and, like Hemingway, ultimately committed suicide.

It's hard to say that all three of these highly successful writers suffered from mental illness BECAUSE they were successful writers. But the writing, and the pressure of sustaining their success, was clearly related to their suffering. As Alexandra Styron says in her memoir, when her father died it had been "twenty-seven years since he'd felt good about himself," because it had been twenty-seven years since he'd finished a novel. When Hotchner asked Hemingway why he wanted to kill himself, the reply was, “What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?" And Franzen suggests that Wallace's suicide was related to his struggle to finish his final novel: "When his hope for fiction died ... there was no other way out but death."

The knowledge that you have thousands and thousands of readers out there, waiting for your next novel, and that as the years pass their expectations are rising ... that's got to be paralyzing. Maybe even more paralyzing than the fear, known to many less high-profile writers, that you'll spend years pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into a work of fiction, only to find that you have NO readers. In other words, the fear of failure.

It's interesting, but perhaps not significant, that all the writers mentioned above were male writers--and, in the case of Hemingway and Styron, Male writers with a capital M. Maybe there's something about being considered the Great American Novelist (a title that has yet to be bestowed, even putatively, on a female writer, to the best of my knowledge) that makes the head that wears a crown all the more uneasy.

But I don't know that there's anything gender-specific going on here (although I feel compelled to point out that, according to Matina Horner, it's only women who are afflicted with fear of success, associating success with "depression, illness, and sometimes even death"--maybe they know something men don't?). A while ago I heard the author Stephen McCauley speak about writing. He's not quite in the Great Writer category, but he's been highly successful and has a loyal following (myself included). He revealed that he'd been suffering from writer's block, which had been broken only when he received a call from an editor he knew inviting him to write "women's commercial fiction" under a pseudonym. Released from the persona of "Stephen McCauley," he found the words flowed, and he had a blast. (He declined, alas, to reveal the pseudonym under which he had written--but he said the books were available at Costco.)

I could certainly understand that story. I wouldn't presume to place myself in the same category as McCauley, but my first novel garnered a few intensely enthusiastic fans. When these people told me how much they loved A More Obedient Wife, and how they couldn't wait for my next novel, I was of course pleased. No, make that thrilled. But at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder if I could possibly do it again--whatever it was I had done.

My second novel did flow (at least the first draft did -- I'm now about to embark on draft ten, which I hope will be the last). But maybe that's partly because it's so different from my first novel, which is told in the voices of two18th-century women. My second novel, a contemporary comic tale about mother-daughter relationships, might actually be categorized as "women's commercial fiction." I didn't use a pseudonym, but like McCauley, I felt liberated by the idea that I was doing something completely different.

Who knows -- maybe Styron, Hemingway, and Wallace could have benefited from forgetting they were Great Writers and trying their pseudonymous hands at a little lower-brow fiction. After all, just because it's not Great doesn't mean it's not good.