Friday, October 23, 2009

A few thoughts on representing history in fiction

The ethical issues of representing historical persons, events, and even places in fiction has been on my mind since last summer's meeting of Sycamore Hill, when one of the writers attending wondered if it was wrong to use straight history without invention, as she did in the story she brought. A few weeks later, Alison Flood reported in the Guardian that A.S. Byatt
has launched a vigorous attack on writers who combine biography and fiction, calling it an "appropriation of others' lives and privacy". Her broadside against authors of "faction", which she describes as "mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention", is particularly startling given that it could be applied to her rival for this year's Man Booker prize, Hilary Mantel, who is longlisted for her historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall.

"I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead," said Byatt in an interview with the organisers of the Booker prize. "It feels like the appropriation of others' lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them." Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children's Book, she added, but "the novelist doesn't say what he thinks".

Guy Gavriel Kay then wrote a follow-up essay for the Guardian, Are novelists entitled to use real-life characters, arguing that the culture of reception has changed in such a way that writing about people who were once alive has become ethically risky:
Here's the New York Times on Oates's, Blonde: 'If a novel can't deliver Monroe's beauty ... it can give us her interior world.' What has happened when a reviewer suggests that a novel gives us the true inner world of a real person? This is nonsense, and it is pervasive.

Though Byatt and Kay have different concerns about historical representation in fiction, it would seem that simulation that isn't hedged about with certain kinds of ironic distance are anathema to both.

As it turns out, of course, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize for fiction. In an essay for the New York Review of Books, How It Must Have Been, Stephen Greenblatt, whose academic specialty is the British Literary Renaissance (particularly Shakespeare and Marlowe), reviews Wolf Hall. Judging by what Greenblatt says about the book, Mantel doesn't attack the morally loathsome Cromwell so much as make him her sympathetic hero (though I don't know if that attitude holds for all the other characters based on real persons who are in her novel, many of whom were in the same moral league with Cromwell):

Mantel decisively distances herself from those—and they are legion—who regarded Thomas Cromwell as the devil incarnate, a man born, as Cardinal Reginald Pole put it, "with an aptitude for ruin and destruction." For many Tudor historians, as well as for the innumerable contemporaries who feared and loathed him, Cromwell has been the man who worked tirelessly to satisfy the ruthless appetites of the monstrous Henry VIII, to expand the power of the state over lives and property, to accumulate wealth for himself and his cronies, to crush with merciless efficiency any resistance from any quarter. Cromwell was a master of Machiavellian realpolitik. He had a particular gift for luring people to their doom by promising them the King's pardon, as he did Robert Aske and the other leaders of the Catholic Pilgrimage of Grace. One would think that the first few broken promises would have been enough to scuttle that particular trick forever, but it proved irresistible again and again, so much were people conditioned to accept the solemn word of a prince.

I imagine that most people likely to read Wolf Hall will be familiar with at least the broad outlines (if not the many particulars) of the fates of the novel's many characters based on real historical persons. (The court of Henry VIII has long been a favored subject of historical novels, television series, and movies as well as popular histories.) So I find it interesting that Greenblatt says
Mantel invites us to forgo easy irony and to suspend our awareness of what is going to come to pass. To be sure, she offers aficionados of the period quiet pleasures: when Holbein complains that he has to complete a portrait of the French ambassador de Dinteville, we know that he is at work on his magnificent painting The Ambassadors; when Thomas Wyatt discloses his erotic obsession with Anne Boleyn, we know that his private notebooks are full of the love poems for which he is now celebrated; when we glimpse the unctuous musician Mark Smeaton hovering around the court, we know that he will eventually be accused of adultery with Anne and executed along with her other alleged lovers. But none of this latent knowledge actually matters. The triumph of the historical novel, in Mantel's vision, is to reach a point of ignorance.

Putting aside any ethical questions about its desirability, is it really possible, I wonder, to suspend awareness of what's going to come to pass? And how does an author "invite" readers to do that? What exact arts are involved in issuing such an invitation?

The extent to which authors write over the heads of their characters to wink or exchange knowing glances with readers has mildly obsessed me for the last couple of years. I'm fine when the style warrants it-- when the author is addressing the reader as s/he unfolds the tale. I recently wrote a story in which the narrative voice openly toys with the characters in this way from the first sentence, cuing the reader to take the narrative as playfully metafictional. But when, in a straight narrative that adopts a neutral voice of apparently transparent realism, the author introduces a referent loaded with significance for the reader that is unremarkable for every character in the story, the effects of such irony can range from deliciously witty to sublime to portentous (when deployed as a foreshadowing device). In stories told in a purportedly realistic style, it bothers me when the irony is gratuitous, just a trivial joke aimed at the reader that the character(s) can't possibly get. Other uses of such irony, intended to enhance the reader's pleasure or emotional involvement in the story, may backfire, putting the reader at an emotional distance from the characters, or as in the case of at least one novel I can think of, flattening the characters into cardboard by overshadowing them with the cloud of future events the reader knows lie in the pages ahead that the characterization is not substantial enough to carry. Science fiction that involves time travel or historical simulations is most susceptible to this, as is fantasy that lies in the historical (and especially recent) past.

Greenblatt's observation that Mantel invites her readers "to forgo easy irony" made me realize that competent writers of historical fiction must be fully aware of the many temptations and pitfalls of that kind of irony, an irony that almost inexorably separates the characters in a historical novel from the reader (even more than the vast gulf created by their cultural difference must do [if the writer knows much about the time and place they're writing about]).

Do multiple reads of stories (where, that is, one hasn't forgotten their narrative events) inevitably introduce that same sort of irony? I suppose it's only the extent to which a narrative succeeds in maintaining a powerful flow of now-ness (i.e., its ability to hold the reader's attention fixed only on the moment)-- through that flow banishing all foreknowledge to the very back of the reader's mind-- that the reader can "forgo" that irony. Sometimes the irony makes the story more poignant or even delicious. (Twelfth Night springs to mind as an example of the latter.) Take Hamlet and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex: surely simply knowing the outcome of the action in these plays does not suffice to block the emotional intensity of their performance for audiences. If a story emotionally resonates with its reader or viewer with sufficient power, detachment is impossible, no matter how well the reader or viewer knows it, no matter how many times the viewer sees it performed or the reader immerses themselves in a textual narrative of it.

Still, how one re-reads a story can vary. Some books we reread because we want another hit of the emotional kick we got from them or for comfort; others we reread because we want to understand what we missed the previous time(s) we read them; and still others we reread because we want to revel in their complexity, or their coolness, or their sense of wonder, or their beauty, or their insights, to revist a particular state of mind that that particular story has the power to create for us.

To go back to the issue Kay raises-- the concern that the reader (reviewer!) will take the narrative as naked, revealed truth, a sort of inside scoop-- if this is a real concern (and with movies I often think it is), then occasional or intermittent ironic distance would surely be an effective ethical solution. And yet... I find myself balking. Must writers write to the most naive portion of their readership (or even their possible readership)? To tell the truth, I'm fairly gobsmacked at the idea of a reviewer for the NY Times taking Oates's novel as revealing Marilyn Monroe's interior life. I didn't see the review he cites. Could he have misread it?

But what interests me more, I think, are issues of representation not covered by either Byatt's or Kay's essays. Since I've already gone on far too long here, I'll continue this in a second post, which I'll try to put up in the next day or two.

ETA: Part 2 can be found here.


Foxessa said...

Very interesting commentary about subjects that I, at least, think about a great deal.

Further -- in terms of these same concerns, not only is it tiresome rather than fun or witty, the enormous numbers of titles in and out of genre that are about fictional characters made famous by other writers in the past. Poor Jane Austen -- she gets double-whammied: not only are her own characters and works prequeled and sequeled -- in vain attempts to continue writing in the voice of the author -- the author herself has become a fictional character as a detective, a vampire, a zombie, etc.

Somehow this tends to get some of us thinking along with the person referenced in your essay, this is a terrible failure of imagination and courage of conviction on the parts of both contemporary writers, editors and publishers.

We are saying we honestly don't believe we can create characters and stories interesting enough to compete with the past.

Love, C.

Josh said...

A couple of thoughts on this huge, rich post:

Anent "is it really possible, I wonder, to suspend awareness of what's going to come to pass?" Absolutely. As with people who don't visualize what's going on in the fiction they read, I didn't know people weren't aware of this practice! I had a professor in college who said she raced through the final third of Wuthering Heights every time she read it to see how it would turn out.

I feel as if anyone writing about Thomas Cromwell is gonna be aware that she's competing with, or in the company of, Ford Madox Ford, whose irony we know is over many people's heads ("But . . . The Good Soldier is a lousy book, because Ashburnham is really not a good man!"). So there's likely to be some self-consciousness there.

Timmi Duchamp said...

I used to love to read feminist reworkings of stories-- fairy tales, novels (for instance, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and so on, Constance. But that was back when such "borrowings" were far from common. Now there's such a glut of such borrowings (poaching?), always with such insipid, cliche results (and Jane Austen's not only one getting it from both sides) that I find it hard to read any of it anymore. Presumably it will eventually stop selling and publishers will decide the appeal of that particular commodity has been exhausted.

I'd like to think it's still possible to write about history without trivializing it. But I seem to recall in a fairly recent review of a work of alternate history the reviewer asserting that an alternate history can't be interesting unless the event that has been altered is one that "everyone" is already very familiar with. I don't recall who the reviewer was, but that assertion made my heart sink. That attitude probably explains why so many alternate histories are such crap, rather than the intricate thought experiments I think they ought to be.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Josh, what your professor said about racing through the ending of Wuthering Heights every time she read it is a better illustration than I could have provided myself. (I'm assuming she taught it often, maybe even read student essays on it.) Though with certain books I might know somewhere in my mind how it's going to turn out, if I'm completely absorbed in the story as I'm reading it, it's as though the part of me that's doing the reading doesn't-- because that part of me hasn't emotionally processed it during that particular iteration of the story. (And of course certain books make me cry in the same place every time I read them. Same thing, probably.)

I guess that's part of what I meant by its "maintaining a powerful flow of now-ness."