What do writers owe their subjects?

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
What do writers owe the people about whom they write?

A number of years ago, my mother gave me, as a gift, a set of paper cocktail napkins featuring a Lichtenstein-esque illustration of a distraught woman weeping into a telephone. The caption: “If I’d know he was going to be a writer, I would have been a better parent.” Was my mother being tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps. Self-revealing? Certainly. But the gift was also reminiscent of Czeslaw Milosz’s biting statement: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

Writers, after all, mine experience for material; that’s a given. What else, frankly, can we do? And yet, I’d be lying if I denied that there were ethical implications, having to do with revelation, exposure, what happens when we take real people and re-imagine them, in one way or another, on the page.

In the New Statesman this week, Oliver Farry touches on this issue, writing about the relationship between authors and their subjects. “Pat Conroy’s novel ‘The Great Santini’ was such a thinly-veiled portrayal of his tyrannical military father,” he tells us, “that Conroy’s mother presented it to the judge at her divorce proceedings, saying, ‘everything you need is in there.’”

Farry largely skirts the ethics question, preferring to focus on a kind of literary payback instead. His piece is full of anecdotes, such as this one, about the British crime writer Peter James, who “responded to a gratuitous act of rudeness by former schoolmate Martin Amis by writing him into a novel as Amis Smallbone, a poorly endowed fellow who was ‘never half the man his father was.’”

That’s entertaining — unless, of course, you happen to be Amis — but it also seems to miss the larger point. One of the most important ideas I try to impress upon writing students is never to work from a position of revenge.

This does not mean that we avoid the difficult material, the tensions out of which character and narrative arise. And yet, what is a writer to do about portrayal, which is, of necessity, an act of appropriation, of claiming someone else’s story as one’s one?

In 2011, Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestselling novel “The Help,” was sued by Ablene Carter, a housekeeper for her brother; Carter claimed a character in the book was based on her. The suit was dismissed on a technicality, but at least some of the questions it raises remain.

What do we owe our subjects? Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.

“The act of writing about another person,” the memoirist and essayist Marion Winik has written, “occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.”

At the same time, as Abigail Thomas puts it in her memoir “Three Dog Life”: “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn't my memory of a memory also real?”

The questions Thomas is asking sit at the heart of not just literature but also living, the problem of perception, meaning, of (to use a word I don’t believe in) truth. How can we ever see anything except from our own perspective? And if that’s the case, isn’t it the perspective that ultimately counts?

All writing is autobiographical, in other words, even when it aspires to be, or insists on being labeled, something else.

Take my mother, for instance. Not long after she sent me those cocktail napkins, she underwent breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy. I accompanied her a few times to her appointments: moral support, yes, but also something more mercenary.

The first afternoon, as she sat in a treatment room, hooked up to an IV and chatting hollowly, I kept excusing myself to go to the bathroom, where I would write things down. After the second or third trip, she gave me a knowing look and said, “It’s all right; you can take notes.”

The ensuing essay told my side of the story, which had to do with the specifics of our relationship, my position as her child. How could it not? If it were to reflect her experience, she would have had to write it, which she didn’t do.

Is that an act of betrayal? Perhaps. If so, then maybe I am betraying her again by writing this.

Writing, though, belongs first to the writer, and then to the reader, to the world.

The subject is a catalyst, a character, but our responsibility is, has to be, to the work.

Or, as Farry observes, quoting Carl Franklin: “[Y]our mother is not reading what you have written. These words are your private preserve until the day they’re published. … And even if someone, at that time, gets upset with your words, so what? Live your life, sing your song.”

Twitter: @davidulin

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