But Whose Story Is It?

October 11th, 2004 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

Writing is weird — you get into a story and sometimes it takes a life of its own. To non-writers, it seems the author has full control: you are, after all, putting the words down on paper. It’s your imagination. You can shape the text however you wish.

But, if you’re a writer — and when this happens for the first time, it’s often a surprise — the unexpected, unplanned, unwanted happens. In the end, whatever the flaws or missteps, the story is the story. In fiction, it is hard to weigh the real world (such as it is) against the fictional world. Things that happen in one sphere may not jibe with the other. This is why we think over-emphasis on historical detail sometimes gets in the way of the story. If you know it isn’t possible for something to have happened at a point in time, yet the story says it did, who is the ultimate master? We think, in fiction, it must be the story. To do otherwise is cheating.

Stanley Crouch wishes Philip Roth had paid more attention to real history when writing The Plot Against America, but Crouch is trying to impose his vision of a novel on someone else’s work. Had Roth focused on black/white racial bigotry in his story, it wouldn’t be the same book. Perhaps doing so would have made the work resonate in another way, but it would have changed other themes, other plotlines. There are many stories in any given period, small ones, big ones, and not every work of fiction can address the whole of the parts. It is the responsibility of the author to be honest with the work, not to write for every sensibility.

Roth’s new book, and the many articles about it, have made us think a lot about political correctness in fiction (leading to several half-finished posts because we cannot fully wrap our thoughts around the subject). Writers, like most humans, do not want to be censured for thinking things (or writing things) that offend, yet, if you’re writing honestly, it will likely happen. Philip Roth didn’t write the story Stanley Crouch wants to read; like most books that deal with our history, someone is left out — our particular bias is the honest assessment of the treatment of women by society: we don’t always get what we want, either. Criticizing an author’s failure to fulfill his vision is one thing; criticizing his failure to fulfill your vision is, well, sort of like asking him to be a mind reader.

  • Roth’s historical sin: In “The Plot Against America,” the great novelist imagines a 1940s America devoured by anti-Semitism — ignoring the brutal anti-black bigotry that actually existed.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

5 responses so far ↓

  • gwenda // Oct 11, 2004 at 8:54 am

    Sorta but not really related… I attended a panel discussion/interview session with Ursula LeGuin and Carol Emshwiller at a conference a few years ago and someone in the audience asked them what they did when their characters started behaving in unexpected or out of control ways. I wish I could remember which of them actually answered, but they both shook their heads and agreed, mystified, that they went back to the point where the misbehavior started and deleted, then rewrote so the characters did what they wanted.

  • Susan Gable // Oct 11, 2004 at 11:51 am

    I like it best when my characters do unexpected things. That’s part of the “magic” as far as I’m concerned – and quite often, they know the story far better than I do – after all, it’s their story, not mine.

    When I get stuck in a story, it’s often because I’m trying to force the story or the characters to do something it/they shouldn’t.

    I think a lot of crits leveled against books are leveled because the writer didn’t write the book the way the reader wanted.

    Being PC in fiction is highly overrated – and yet it is imposed on writers. And I agree – that’s a lie. It should be the reality of the story that matters most. (And the reality of the story may not be the same reality that we experience daily. Also, as a writer I’d like to point out that just because one of my characters holds a certain opinion does NOT MEAN that I have the same exact opinion. In fact, if I do my job right, the reader shouldn’t be able to tell what MY opinion is – only the opinions of my characters.)

  • booksquare // Oct 11, 2004 at 6:51 pm

    Yeah, I like the twists and surprises, too. But I work out the story on the page — I wonder if LeGuin and Lemswhiller are careful plotters? I always imagine those who plot intensely in advance work out the surprises there.

    Every writer approaches this differently (thank goodness!), but I think the story rules. My guess is authors who pull their characters back are remaining true to the story — heck, if real people can behave out of character, why can’t fictional people (and we have less tolerance for made up folks’ inconsistencies…).

  • Ron // Oct 12, 2004 at 10:04 am

    Crouch’s thickheadedness is reinforced by the excellent Clive James review in The Atlantic, which also has problems with Roth’s creation but gets James’ points across in a way that (a) treats Roth’s intent with respect and (b) doesn’t make everyone but James out to be a dummy.

  • Sylvia Day | Sensual Romance Author :: Weblog // Oct 12, 2004 at 7:32 pm

    Booksquare blogged the other day about historical accuracy in books. I have to say that I agreed with most of what was said.