Don’t put real people in your fiction! It could kill, says novelist A.S. Byatt.


“Writers often realize the power of writing too late.” (Fred Ernst/Creative Commons)

A few days ago on these cyber-pages, Ursula K. Le Guin said, “It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. Is that right? Is that fair? And then, when we get these biographers where they are sort of making it up as they go along, I don’t want to read that. I find myself asking, what is it, a novel, a biography?”

Her comments about how the imagination of children needed training was echoed in our subsequent post about poet Dana Gioia here. Now we find the eminent Le Guin seems to have channeled her colleague, the novelist A.S. Byatt. From a 2009 article in The Guardian: “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.”

In a more cheerful mood. (Photo: Seamus Kearney)

To tell the truth, her admonition would seem to be common sense for any principled person – not only because of the possible lawsuits, but just because it’s a kind of speculative gossip.

Yet Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children’s Book. What does she have to say about that? Not the same thing, she said, because she “doesn’t say what he thinks.” Perhaps it’s because he’s been dead for awhile, too. However, we made something of the same case a few years back with Shakespeare in Love, and Shakespeare has been dead a lot longer.

The effects of such psychospiritual heist can be fatal: “I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell,” Byatt said.

Even bloggers are to blame – modest, unassuming people, like Humble Moi: “Now we have the blog and the facebook everyone is a writer, and everyone’s idea of anyone else, kind or cruel, just or unjust, is available on the web, to be believed, or mocked. Blogs and facebooks, too, have caused suicides. Writers often realise the power of writing too late.”

Random strangers may kill themselves, but our families are deeply affected by our abstraction and neglect, too: “One impact of writing on families is that the writer has to spend long periods alone with a pen, and this time, and this attention, is taken from the family. I knew a writer’s family where the children buried the typewriter in the garden.”

The Book Haven is happy to report that no one has ever buried our MacBook Pro in the yard. No one has needed to. We’ve gone through five in the last year alone. They seem to bury themselves. Read the whole article at The Guardian here. Easy to criticize the excess, but … she does have a point.

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