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.

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