The Children’s Book tackles the responsibility of writing and the impact that it might have on family and friends. In your own life, have you been conscious of the impact your writing career has had on your family and friends?
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. I do try very hard not to “put people into stories.” 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. All writing is an exercise of power and special pleading – telling something your own way, in a version that satisfies you. Others must see it differently. As I get older I increasingly understand that the liveliest characters – made up with the most freedom – are combinations of many, many people, real and fictive, alive and dead, known and unknown. 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. Oscar Wilde appears in this novel, but the novelist doesn’t say what he thinks. I am also afraid of the increasing appearance of “faction” – mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention. It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them. 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.
I’m tempted to let this quote speak for itself, but I’m also tempted to opine.
First, let us pause to reflect on the logic that can begin at the deleterious effects of being an author on family life, proceed through the use of fact in fiction, and end in a denunciation of social networking.
Now then. Granted, many authors think it’s unethical to obviously base a character on a friend or acquaintance. Duh. That’s what those “any resemblance to people living or dead . . .” disclaimers are all about. I suppose Byatt has a point, although it’s an obvious one.
Byatt’s remark about the “faction” that mixes “biography and fiction, journalism and invention” is a little tougher to sort out. Her remarks are essentially vague, so it’s hard to know exactly what she means. One would think that, broadly, this would condemn genre historical fiction, insofar as it tries to inhabit well-known agents of history (fine),
and also perhaps condemn the entire camp of writers that runs from Thomas Bernhard up through W.G. Sebald (not fine) (I’ve changed my opinion on this; see comments), and probably also condemn a good deal of postmodernism as practiced by the likes of Don DeLillo (also not fine). (I won’t even try to guess what “going into the mind of the real unknown dead” means.)
As to Byatt’s use of the definite article before the words blog and facebook (did she specify not to cap the latter?)–and basically everything that follows that–the less said the better.