The Names Have Been Changed To Protect The Innocent; A Fiction Writer Struggles With Nonfiction Tendancies
by Tara Ison
(essay from The Kenyon Review, Summer/Fall 2001)
…We generally assume the nonfiction writer – the essayist, the memoirist, the journalist, the biographer – even with the subjectivity of an “angle” or a nod to literary style, offers up a good-faith intent: my goal in attempting to paint a portrait of this life, this person, this world, is honest, unprejudiced depiction, because This Really Happened. I will resist the shadings created by memory, or interpretation without hard evidence, or the colorings of very-human emotion. It is like those Victorians who strove to paint images of nature indistinguishable from photographs; this is truth, this is truth, this is truth. We disapprove of the journalist who enters her story in order to drive it, or the biographer who invents a character to give the story spice, the memoirist who shifts events around to neaten up time; they are entering the world of the fiction writer, who theoretically makes stuff up, or at least gets to play around with What Really Happened. Who gets to manipulate character, setting, structure, motive, need, obstacle, consequence, for dramatic effect. It’s the caricaturist who makes us uncomfortable, who uses just enough truth for us to be identified, and just enough exaggeration – distortion? – to make his point. Whatever point he chooses, in a slash of permanent marker on the page.
Open a novel, turn to the copyright page. See the standard disclaimer:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
– Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi, copyright page
Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and Don DeLillo’sUnderworld say exactly the same thing, word for word. So does Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House, except after “is entirely coincidental” is added “and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher”: Okay, oops, I didn’t intend to write about you. Disclaimers for Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, like A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, elaborate on the theme, cast the caveat wider; references to historical events, real people, or actual locales are deliberate, but only there “to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity.” The disclaimer for The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is both pithy and vague: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” And which “few details” are those? Isn’t that a slight tease, the magician’s trick of illusion? The author’s “own life” – doesn’t his life ever touch or blend with another’s? Alberto Moravia’s aphorism, that fiction is a higher form of autobiography, may be true, but it’s too suspiciously tidy; how much of anyone’s life is their very, very own, autonomous, exclusive of all or anyone, a true autocracy?
Don’t hate me, this isn’t at all about you, it’s about me, me, me,my experience of this life, the disclaimers plead, remind, disavow.
You’re so vain, you probably think this book is about you, they all begin to sound like, and it probably is.
I don’t mean to imply that these writers – that any fiction writers – are attempting to disguise non-fictional writing by simply labeling it fiction. But we breathe in, we breathe out, the air around us, even if it’s molecule by molecule, so when do enough molecules add up to become mist, fog, an entire cloud? When does how your friend got that strange scar in childhood, plus her alcoholic brother’s trick for hiding vodka in the car’s windshield-wiper-fluid container, plus her quirk of using a strand of hair for dental floss, when do these molecules of personhood add up to make a real, existing person drifting across your page?
But, of course, the disclaimer is really the publisher’s boilerplate bit of legalese. They should just go ahead and stamp Don’t Sue Mein pleading, meek blue ink on the cover.
A recent column in Poets & Writers magazine titled “Defining Libel in Fiction” includes a novelist’s query: The antagonist of my novel is based on an acquaintance; can I get sued? The answer, a big Oh, Yes, surprised me – I’d always assumed calling it “fiction,” with “a novel by” on the cover and the disclaimer were enough, but no. All it takes is one person to recognize the real person behind the fiction, and sound the alarm. The column’s author, attorney Alan J. Kaufman, is wonderfully pragmatic in response:
The financial burden that could result from a libel suit is a compelling reason for you to utilize real individuals and real events only as the starting point of your creative process and to ensure that they are sufficiently modified in your novel so as to be unidentifiable.
No perplexing ethics here: Don’t steal, ‘cause you might get caught. But if you do, he counsels, disguise your theft, cover your tracks. Tweak the facts. Change the character’s hair color, switch him from doctor to lawyer, from Nebraska farm to suburban Salt Lake City. But remember:
If the individual is treated as a likeable character, you are not likely to be sued for libel. However, if the individual is treated as a malevolent character who performs nefarious deeds, then the likelihood of suit becomes greater.
Of course, there’s always the “small penis” rule – give any Character you’re basing on a real man a very small penis, because no guy will ever come forward to claim the character is based on him….