You’ve Been Fictionalized!


Arts & Culture

Or, Is this really what you think of me?

The shock of recognition.

Twenty-odd years ago, T. C. Boyle asked me about the artists’ colonies I’d been to—he was writing a novel. I described the lunches dropped off on the residents’ porches, the nightly readings and revels. When his book, East Is East, came out, I read a few chapters, then stopped, gut-socked and mortified. Yes, there, sprinkled in, was the material I’d given him, along with an added surprise—Wasn’t that me in those pages, and cast in a none-too-flattering light?

In real life, T. C. called me La Huneven, and here he called his heroine, Ruth Dershowitz, La Dershowitz. Ruth was a talentless writer who aspired to literary fiction while writing restaurant reviews and articles for Cosmo. Hey! I wrote restaurant reviews! And I’d once written an article for Cosmo! Was this, then, what Tom really thought of me? That I was a talentless airhead poseur trying to break into the hallowed world of literature?

This was my first experience of being fictionalized. I still recall the yellow-white flash of queasiness, the mortification: a sense of powerlessness and an utter lack of recourse.

 * * *

So when my husband recently announced that he was uncomfortable about my putting him in a short story, I sympathized. Then I tried to explain.

“I didn’t put you in a short story!” I cried.

I swore to Jim that my young man owed far more to Owen Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton than to him. In fact, I’d used only a tiny nub of our shared life—a small family ring he’d been given for his bar mitzvah—but the use of it, Jim felt, implicated him.

“I’m not telling you not to write or publish the story,” Jim said. “I’m just telling you how I feel.”

I know that feeling. I wished there was something I could say so he wouldn’t take it so personally. But, wouldn’t you know, my next idea for a story came from something that happened on our honeymoon.

That wasn’t personal, either.

 * * *

What can you do when you’ve been fictionalized?

Go fetal. Give the writer a good talking to. Write a letter of complaint. Write your own book, your way. Keep it to yourself and seethe. You can sue, but the bar for libel lawsuits involving fiction is very, very high. And so is the cost.

According to the libel lawyer Elizabeth McNamara, the fictionalized, like all litigants, sue for one of two reasons: because they feel wronged, or for money.

Your ex-girlfriend has put you in a story; you’re unmistakable—that’s your hair color, your tattoo, your speech impediment—only she’s made you a rapist.

Or your cheating, lying ex-boyfriend has written a best seller featuring you, your family, and all your best lines; he’s sold the screen rights, he’s raking it in. Why shouldn’t you have a share of the pot?

“Since time immemorial writers have used real life to inspire them and build upon their experience,” says McNamara. “But invariably, characters diverge from reality.”

There’s the rub. And there goes your case, out the window.

 * * *

Writers can take offense when someone asks what’s real or autobiographical in our work, because to us, that’s not what counts. The bits taken from life are tiny scales on the dragon’s tail—what about that whole beautiful writhing, fire-breathing dragon?

But one scale can assume enormous importance to the friend or family member who beholds him or herself in its shiny surface. Often—but not always—that’s a sick-making moment.

It isn’t as if a writer merely records life as it unfurls. Reality does not automatically transcribe as literature; real people are not shapely, compelling characters to be harvested. Charming facts and sharp observations rarely slide seamlessly into whatever narrative is at hand. To fictionalize material—any material, real or imaginary—is to subject it to the demands, the conventions, and rigors of the project at hand. A fictional narrative is constructed, shaped, and sized, its raw material muted, amplified, trimmed, and minced, recombined and recolored.

The writer Susan Taylor Chehak said that she was fictionalized once, “But by the time she got me to fit, I wasn’t me anymore.”

Not all are as cool-headed as Chehak. Some of the fictionalized share a wide streak of solipsism—for them, a few recognized facts can trigger a strong response. I have one friend who, years before I knew her, lived in Round Rock, Texas. She told me how, drunk in her youth, she’d once called some policemen “pin dicks” as they were driving her down to the station. I stole that line and gave it to a young man as he was being hauled to the police station in my first novel, Round Rock, which was named for a drunk farm near Piru, California, where round rocks occur naturally in the riverbed—it had nothing to do with Texas. My friend read two pages of this novel and phoned, furious. Not only had I named my novel after the place where she used to live, I’d put her words into my character’s mouth. “You stole my life!” she said.

I’m sure, for a few moments, she felt burgled and betrayed. I’d felt that way, too, when reading about La Dershowitz in East Is East. The first wash of it is the worst.

So why are we so shocked, startled, and gut-socked to glimpse ourselves on the page?

Not long ago, I opened my MacBook Air to see a strange older woman frowning at me. It took a moment to realize I’d accidentally opened Photo Gallery and—horrors upon horrors—that big-nosed grouch was me.

An unexpected reflection of self rarely provokes joy.

* * *

Because the shock of recognition is so acute, the fictionalized often fail to grasp how impersonally their “personal” material is used—or how minor a role “their” material plays.

As a novelist, I tend to know significantly more about my characters than I do about my friends. (For example, I do not necessarily know my friends’ preferred brand of shampoo, or their dental histories, or how they behave in bed.) Even when I’ve borrowed a character from life, I have to fill in a lot of blanks, not to mention make them do things they’ve never done in life. Often, it’s this auxiliary material that the fictionalized find especially painful, for they see in it a kind of subconscious, inadvertent truth telling.

It is not uncommon for the fictionalized to assume that the writer has revealed the real, possibly hidden way they feel and think about a person. Another correspondent writes of seeing herself in a friend’s work: “It was deeply unpleasant, unfair, desperately mean but—let’s see, the good side? It was very, very revealing of certain of the author’s subterranean feelings for me—ones I’d long suspected and which she’d always denied.”

The experience of being fictionalized can be like overhearing people talk about you when they don’t know you’re there. The temptation is to give what you overhear great credence, as if people would only say what they really think about you behind your back. But behind your back is also where people are most free to vent, to be peevish, unfair, sniping, and slanted; behind your back is where they are most apt to try out imprecations and outlandish opinions and, in general, to be far less generous or compassionate or accurate than they probably are.

The laws of literature, like the laws of gossip, usually demand exaggeration, decontextualization, a heightened or minimalized reality, and a lot more shape and order and impact than everyday life. “You’ve been fictionalized” actually means, “You’ve been exaggerated!” (Or downplayed!) You’ve been snipped and shaped and built on, face-lifted, aged and/or repainted for maximum artistic impact.

It would be naive to claim there aren’t writers who write from a deep sense of rage, a yearning for justice, a need to get something off their chests. Certainly, some writers do take personal revenge in their work, and yes, some do spill all kinds of unconscious matter onto the page.

I knew a writer who kept a list of enemies to be skewered down the line—editors who’d rejected her work, critics who’d been less than kind, colleagues and others who’d slighted her. She did her skewering subtly, mostly in little in-jokes that only she and a few intimates would enjoy. I’m not sure her victims recognized themselves (no fool, she), but revenge is a mighty energy. Why shouldn’t a writer harness such potent wrath from time to time?

But I would argue that most writers use material in the way a coyote eats a mouse—impersonally, pragmatically, with neither pity nor loathing, to fulfill a need.

When Tom Boyle caught wind of my dismay those many years ago, he in turn was mortified, and wrote a note saying he’d intended nothing personal at all. I should have known that, too, because all material fed into T. C.’s brain had a good chance of coming out satirized, outsized, and hilarious.

Then again, I got off easy. A mutual friend recently wrote, “I learned about my wife’s affair from T. C.’s book.” (Which book, he didn’t say.)

 * * *

Of course, not everyone objects to being in a novel or story, even if the portrayal is unflattering. I met a man once who, within minutes of our introduction, informed me that he was the prototype for Chip in The Corrections—a claim not everyone would be quick to make. And my neighbor happily tells people that she’s a character in my latest novel, Off Course. Actually, she’s part of a composite character, and she never said or did ninety percent of what that character says and does—although she did, like the character in my book, make a great beef stew and manage an apartment complex thirty years ago.

Boyfriends and girlfriends, says McNamara, are among the most fictionalized, and thus the most outraged. But two of my former boyfriends were flattered to be represented in my fiction. “It’s an honor to contribute to art,” said one. “I liked that character. He was cool,” said the other. A third boyfriend was so secretive and private, he suffered a kind of preemptive anxiety around me. Whenever I asked even a faintly probing question he’d say, “What, are you writing a book?”

Eventually, yes, I wrote that book.

And then there’s the fictionalizing of a person you don’t even know. In my first novel, the central character is a man named Red Ray. I made him up from whole cloth, or thought I had. At a reading, a stranger came up and told me that he knew Red, who was now living near San Diego.

* * *

If you’ve been fictionalized, it’s unlikely that many others will notice you in the story. If they do, it’s unlikely much will be made of your cameo, or even your starring role. Frankly, nobody cares as much as you do. Not one person among many mutual friends has ever suggested that La Dershowitz is a facsimile of me. In fact, I recently went back to East Is East to find the passages that had caused such uneasiness twenty years ago. Yes, there, in a subplot, was La Dershowitz and, amid myriad other details, was one glancing reference to restaurant reviews and Cosmo. So much else was going on in the book—all of which I’d forgotten—the objectionable details were very far apart. In this reading, it wasn’t even clear if La Dershowitz was untalented. There was certainly nothing to be upset about.

And yet, once I saw my own worst fears knit into those sentences.

On seeing oneself in fiction, it might help, then, to attempt a larger view. Take a deep breath. Consider the character your contribution, however inadvertent, to art. Try not to take it so personally. Don’t read too much into it. Cultivate lightness.

Victoria Patterson, in her debut story collection, Drift, drew heavily from growing up in a wealthy seaside community and her parents’ divorce. “It occurs to me now how very autobiographical the book is,” Patterson writes, “and how painful it must have been for my parents to read it, and how lovely that they still speak to me!” In the book, as in life, the heroine’s mother inappropriately confides in her, divulging that the girl’s father had been “a marginal lover.”

When the collection came out, Patterson’s father phoned her. “I’m happy to report some improvement,” he said. “I can now say I’m a solidly average lover.”

Michelle Huneven is the author of the novels Off Course; Blame, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Jamesland; and Round Rock. She lives in Altadena, California, with her husband, Jim Potter.