The Fact in Fiction

Are critics paying too much attention to literary gossip?

In her latest novel, What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt may or may not have written about the troubled son and the ex-wife of her husband, Paul Auster. In the book, the son is a pathological liar, the husband is a famous artist, the ex-wife is an icy poetess. For some reason the temptation to dwell on crude autobiographical connections has proved irresistible for both the British and American press.

In an exercise of surprisingly thorough prurience, a New York Observer writer has pored over the novel with a yellow highlighter and a stack of old New York Posts: “Even the years closely coincide: Bill and Lucille”—the book’s protagonists—”got married and have a son in the mid-70’s. Mr. Auster married Lydia Davis in 1974. In 1981, Bill begins a romance with Violet, the same year Mr. Auster met Ms. Hustvedt.” The writer whips himself up into a reportorial frenzy, calling Mr. Auster’s publicist and his ex-wife’s publicist and a spokesperson at the jail where a possible counterpart to a minor character now resides. He writes, “One must fight the temptation to conclude that What I Loved is Ms. Hustvedt’s way of expressing her unvarnished feelings about Daniel Auster and his birth mother, Lydia Davis.” But of course he’s not fighting the temptation at all. He reads the novel in a literal-minded way—the marriage in the book is her marriage to Paul Auster; the stepson is her stepson, Daniel Auster—that would be discouraged in a classroom of eighth-graders. What is pernicious about the Observer piece is the implication that there is something unnatural about Hustvedt for exposing her family to the reading public. What kind of woman writes about her husband’s son? this writer seems to be asking. He goes so far as to make innuendos about the possibility of a rift in the Auster-Hustvedt household.

These sorts of connections may be titillating, but they certainly shouldn’t be news: Writers write about their families! Nor should they be taken, especially in a book as elegantly crafted as Hustvedt’s, as literal correspondences. Unfortunately this style of sordid literary sleuthing is part of a larger trend. People have always speculated about the autobiographical underpinnings of novels at dinner parties, but the status of this sort of thing as serious book reviewing and literary journalism has changed. In the mid-’50s, when Mary McCarthy wrote her novel A Charmed Life, reviewers took her to task for myriad weaknesses, but not for the mere fact of writing about her ex-husband, Edmund Wilson. It’s nearly impossible to imagine someone from a respectable newspaper calling up Wilson’s publishing house and asking for his reaction.

Now it seems an actual confusion between the writer’s life and the book has become more and more widespread. Gossip masquerading as literary criticism crops up in papers as respected as the New York Times. Book chat increasingly borrows from the milieu of celebrity profiles in People and Vanity Fair—as if readers can’t relate to a subject unless they see the flesh and blood behind the scenes. In the current climate, the mere fact that Janet Maslin’s New York Times review didn’t name the model for the protagonist in Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada was so astonishing that the Daily News felt it was worthy of a gossip item (scroll down to find it). Many reviewers of my older sister’s last novel, Glory Goes and Gets Some, conflated the family in the book with our real family. It may be that the profusion of memoirs in the late 1990s has caused reviewers to forget that there are books out there that aren’t memoirs. But if a writer chooses to call her book fiction, surely the distinction should be honored. The genre does not exist as a convenient shelving system for bookstores: It means that the words on the page are, by the writer’s own admission, at least part fantasy.

We should judge a novel—but only on its merits as a novel. In Hustvedt’s case the weakest, least plausible part of her often lovely book—the part Michiko Kakutani felt “devolves into a hokey thriller”—happens to be the part the Observer claims is based on the life of her stepson. And in the end that’s all that matters. Does it work as a story? Is the character interesting or believable? If her stepson minded her portrayal of “the stepson” that’s between the two of them.

Of course there are certain moral ambiguities involved in writing about the people you are close to. Having lived with writers all my life, I’ve been on both sides—the writer and the written about. I know what it’s like to walk into a bookstore and leaf through pieces of your childhood in the novel of an ex-boyfriend. And I know what it’s like to stay up nights sick with anxiety about writing about someone else. There is no getting around the fact that it is a very particular kind of violence that you do to someone when you write about them. But these are fundamentally private issues, entirely separate from the work itself. I’ve never once questioned anyone’s right to put anything they want into their fiction.

The relation between writing and real people is much more elusive than gossips and journalists can ever make it out to be. The art lies in the slipperiness—the alchemy between the messiness of life and what happens on the page. When friends attacked Robert Lowell for chronicling the disintegration of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick in The Dolphin, he wrote: “My story is both a composition and alas, a rather grinding autobiography, though of course one neither does nor should tell the literal or ultimate truth. Poetry lies.” The point is that once a person or a scene has gone through the twistings of the writer’s depraved imagination, what emerges is no longer that person or that scene. The “truth” can’t be ferreted out by an energetic New York Observer writer, no matter how many hours he spends on the phone with publicists’ assistants.        

And of course writing about your family has consequences. My mother’s family was so appalled by her autobiographical first novel, Digging Out, that she was disinherited from the fortune her immigrant grandfather amassed in the shirt business. (One of her aunts went to every bookstore on the Upper East Side and bought out every single copy of the book to prevent her friends from seeing it. She didn’t realize that she was inadvertently turning the book into a best seller in certain pockets of the Upper East Side.) But this is all between my mother and her family; it has nothing to do with her creations, with the seven novels she has written over the years.

Novels should be read and loved and hated for what they are, not for what they are “thinly veiling.” Let those who want to read tabloids read tabloids. And let writers worry about their own personal lives.