An author cannot control audience responses to published work. One annoying aspect of audience reception: the assumption that your character is you.
I recall a bookclub discussion which dwelt for a short while upon whether Anne Bronte meant for Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be a sympathetic character or not. Markham is a violent man by today’s standards, and it’s doubtful that Helen had a good second marriage.
We ended up discussing the life of the author as we tried to work out what the book meant. But is there a danger in doing so? In a world where author’s lives are increasingly public (due to media and social media), is there a danger that fans will look too closely at an author’s life and neglect to look at the words of the novel itself?
Here are a few excerpts from reader reviews of Freedom, written by Jonathan Franzen. I’m no Franzen apologist, but this is an interesting take on someone who created the dreaded ‘unlikeable characters’:
I thought there were two possibilities: 1) That Jonathan Franzen is a complete douche bag himself and that he actually thought he was creating sympathetic characters. 2) That Franzen has an even lower opinion of people than I do and uses his skill to convey an utter contempt for mankind by creating these pathetic excuses for human beings.
Franzen really hates people and, by natural extension, the reader.
i am sure an argument can be made for his low level semi-misogyny [because i think calling him a misogynist is a bit simplistic] makes him quite skilled at writing 1st person accounts of self-loathing neurotic chicks.
Is this something authors worry about, especially when writing a particularly nasty/racist/sexist character — and most especially when creating such a character who suffers no punishment within the world of the story? What a nasty character, we might think. It must take a nasty author to create such a thing. Whereas in fact, the author may think and act the exact opposite, putting it on the table for us to consider. If you’ve seen some of our greatest living crime writers in interview, you may be struck by how benign they are. Some of them are the sweetest little old ladies. We’re told that when crime writers get together they have a jolly time. If they harboured any nastiness in the first place, it’s all been purged in their fiction.
Are there tricks authors use to make it quietly clear that it’s the characters talking, not the authors themselves? Are some voices/points of view more likely to get the ‘presumptuous mimetic’ treatment?
The mimetic way of looking at literary character: Imagining the character is a real person, based on the view that literature is a direct reflection of reality. A mimetic character is presupposed to “mean” or “represent” something. For example, you can give a literary character a Marxist, feminist etc. significance, presupposing that a character is typical for her class/gender.
The semiotic way of looking at literary character: Presupposing that characters, like any other textual element, is made of words alone.
THE SPECULATIVE BIOGRAPHICAL APPROACH
When speculating about the psychoanalysis of Hans Christian Andersen and his well-known tale The Ugly Duckling, Maria Nikolajeva offers the following caution:
This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
MIMESIS AND SEMIOSIS
Nikolajeva highlights a related problem, this time in a different book:
The danger of the mimetic approach to characters is that we can easily ascribe to them features that the author had no intention of providing, merely because “girls always like to gossip”, “boys are naughty,” “schoolteachers are insensitive,” and so on. We can further ascribe to them backgrounds not found in the text, merely on the basis of our experience. … It is equally dangerous, and in my opinion illegitimate, to ascribe to literary characters traits extrapolated from real people, which is easily done when novels contain at least some autobiographical elements. For instance, although there are obvious similarities between Jo March and the author of Little Women, I would not be prepared to search for motivations behind Jo’s behaviour in Louisa M. Alcott’s biography.Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
For a New Zealand example, I submit that Janet Frame was the author most heavily subjected to pressure from the press to reveal where her fictional and real worlds overlapped and diverged. I suspect this is a gender problem, though by no means exclusive to women:
We live in an age where perhaps the capacity for imagination in the reader is less than it was. I can think of no other explanation why so many readers seem to be interested in memoirs, which are of no interest to me, and don’t seem to have imaginative capacity for fiction that is, well, more imaginative than most of the memoirs I read, try to read, or don’t read. What’s interesting is this: I can’t think of a specific date, but there came a time — not before the 90s in my experience — when you as a novelist began to hear, almost as a first question, “Is the father in this story your father? Is the sister in the story yoursister? Is this character you? Did that happen to you?” When not just the first question but the first assumption from an interviewer was that surely the most interesting or the most credible parts of this novel have to be autobiographical.John Irving, who gets annoyed when people ask him if his novels are autobiographical
I also suspect this went some way in explaining Frame’s aversion to interviews. She gave only a few in her lifetime. Perhaps she wrote her autobiography partly to answer the questions, hoping this would relieve her of the requirement to talk incessantly about her life.
JANET FRAME ON ‘GENUINE FICTION’
This is from one of those rare radio interviews, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.
Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.
Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.
EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.
JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.
American writer Lorrie Moore is another author whose life is often presumed to mirror that of her characters. The Paris Review asked her about that:
Why do you think people are so curious about this kind of thing? Is it a preference for gossip over literature?
If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story. Or the story behind the story, pick your preposition. It does seem to me to be a kind of animal impulse almost, a mammalian curiosity. For a reader to wonder about the autobiography in a fiction may be completely unavoidable and in fact may speak to the success of a particular narrative, though it may also speak to its failure. Certainly literature has been written about and taught in this manner for a long time; it’s not new. It is sometimes, however, like so many things that are natural, unfortunate.Lorrie Moore at The Paris Review
From Salinger To Polanski: How can anyone see the work of J.D. Salinger, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski the same way once you know of their predilection for young girls?
Header image: Marcello Dudovich, 1905