How Writers Will Steal Your Life and Use it For Fiction
A Brief History of Plagiarizing Identity, From Leo Tolstoy to Salman Rushdie
Plagiarism in many instances should be shunned and punished; at the same time, it has been at the heart of cultural life for centuries, bringing much good and much pleasure. The great plagiarists have committed no crime. And there is the “added value” argument, which many find persuasive. But there is a further question to raise, and in many ways it is the most interesting.
The word plagiarism comes from the Latin for kidnapping, literally “going out with a net.” It was used first in something like its modern sense in AD 1 by the Roman poet Martial. A plagiarius was, in his view, someone who stole someone else’s slave or enslaved a free person. In epigram No. 32, he applies the term metaphorically to another poet, whom he accuses of having claimed authorship of verses Martial had written. Later, in epigram No. 53, he uses not plagiarius but the word for thief (fur) to apply to someone whom we would call a plagiarist. As Martial was to put it, a plagiarist doesn’t just steal a person’s body; he kidnaps his person, her inner life.
This develops into an altogether different literary theft. For both the memoirist and the novelist are inevitably inspired by the people they have met, and will make use of them to suit their purposes. This may not strictly be plagiarism, but it is similar territory. “Writing is an act of thievery,” admits Khalid Hosseini, author of the autobiographical novel The Kite Runner. “You adapt experiences and anecdotes for your own purposes.” John Cheever put it more gently: “Fiction is a force of memory improperly understood.”
It can also cut close to nonfiction, and the lines of demarcation become blurred. In a recent essay, Alexander Stille, himself a memoirist, has written: “Within this kind of work there is inherent conflict. The characters in a memoir are not real people, but inevitably feed on the blood of the living like vampires. And so it is entirely natural for those real people to defend their identities as if they were fighting for their lives.”
Such “kidnappings” can cause as much pain as, if not more than, someone whose work is plagiarized may feel. During the mid-1960s, Michael Holroyd was researching his two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey when he took time out to complete a short novel, his first and, as it turned out, his only. “It would be some fifty thousand words long and cover the happenings of a family over twenty-four hours,” wrote Holroyd many years later. The book was accepted for publication by Heinemann in Britain and by Holt, Rinehart in the United States. “During the long wait for publication I had given the typescript to my father to read—and he was horrified. For him the book was not a novel at all but a hostile caricature of the family. ‘You go out of your way to avoid any redeeming features in anyone’s characters,’ he wrote. . . . ‘The formula is evident. Take the weakest side of each character—the skeleton in every cupboard—& magnify these out of proportion so as they appear to become the whole and not only part of the picture. Please understand the whole family are together in their dislike of this distorted picture you have drawn of them.’”
The family had not in fact read the book, but Holroyd’s father’s reaction was enough. In a special introduction to the novel, finally reissued in 2014 after years out of print, Holroyd explains how he in turn felt. “I was nonplussed by this awful reaction. I had borrowed certain traits, gestures, tricks of speech and various mannerisms from members of the family, but had fixed them on to characters with very different careers and past lives.”
Whatever his son’s motives, Holroyd the father was determined to stop publication. There may have been breaches of trust, but none of copyright, and certainly no plagiarism of an actionable kind, so instead he threatened to sue for libel. In Britain, where libel laws are strict, Heinemann was concerned, but Holroyd was aghast. “The intensity of his grief and anger . . . shocked me. So I withdrew the novel and returned my advance.” Holt, however, having taken legal advice, went ahead, and the book was published in the United States in 1969. “No copies reached my family and I was able to help my father, who was sliding towards bankruptcy, with my advance.”
Something very different happened over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children. When his father first read the book, in 1980, he was convinced that Ahmed Sinai, the novel’s drunken patriarch, was a satirical portrait based on him. He was furious. Salman Rushdie did not deny that the character was a fictionalized version of his parent—“In my young, pissed-off way,” he later explained, “I responded that I’d left all the nasty stuff out”—but he objected to his father’s wounded reaction, which he thought betrayed a crude understanding of how novels worked. “My father had studied literature at Cambridge so I expected him to have a sophisticated response to the book.” But in Rushdie’s case he never rescinded his “kidnapping.”
This making use of—even making off with—someone else’s life seems to me to be what a plagiarius does. But it is, simply, what writers do. In an endnote essay in The New York Times Book Review the novelist and playwright Roger Rosenblatt put this well:
For the wolf of a writer, the family is a crowd of sitting ducks. There they assemble at the Thanksgiving table, poor dears—blithering uncles, drugged-out siblings, warring couples—posing for a painting, though they do not know it.
The objects of a writer’s scrutiny may be entirely blameless, but the writer will infuse his family with whatever characteristics suit his purpose, because “defects make for better reading than virtues.”
Literature is littered with stories of how novelists have taken the lives of people they have met and used them for their fictions. The family is just the nearest ammunition to hand. Friends and enemies, lovers and ex-lovers, all are grist to the artist’s mill. The celebrated society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938) was the inspiration for Mrs. Bidlake in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, for Hermione Roddice in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, for Lady Caroline Bury in Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield, and for Lady Sybilline Quarrell in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On. (In the first two instances at least, she felt betrayed by authors she regarded as friends.) Zelda Fitzgerald complained of her husband that in The Beautiful and Damned she could “recognize a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which sound vaguely familiar. Mr. Fitzgerald seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” A novelist I edited wrote of a main character whose father had murdered her mother—a situation taken from real life by the novelist from the pillow talk of a onetime lover, whose own family had experienced exactly that tragedy. Only when the book was in proof did he show it to her, and she was outraged. Chastened, he rewrote the novel. Many writers do not behave as well—or, if they do, not as late.
In 1872 a neighbor of Tolstoy’s cast off his mistress, Anna Pirogova. The railroad had recently been extended into the province, and in her despair Anna rushed down to the tracks and threw herself under a train. The corpse was taken to a nearby engine shed, and Tolstoy, hearing of the tragedy, rode over to view the remains, even though he had never known the woman. We do not object when we learn that he used Anna Pirogova as the inspiration for Anna Karenina, or when an otherwise anonymous Madame Delphine Delamare, after numerous adulteries as the wife of an inattentive country doctor, in 1850 poisons herself and becomes the model for Emma Bovary. When, in The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, for his portrait of Mynheer Peeperkorn, borrowed some of the features of Gerhart Hauptmann, at that time Germany’s foremost dramatist, a scandal ensued, and Mann was forced to appeal to Hauptmann directly: “I have sinned against you. I was in need, was led into temptation, and yielded to it. The need was artistic.” And there the matter rested. These are just three examples, when in truth hardly any imaginative writer doesn’t borrow from people they know. Even so, when the instances come closer to home, we may justifiably feel that our person has been kidnapped.*
Most writers acknowledge the destructive, even self-destructive element in their chosen profession. “As a younger man,” admitted Peter Carey, “if anything was worth stealing I would steal it.” Whether it is in fiction or nonfiction, most writers take that “right” for granted. “The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel,” Milan Kundera wrote in Art of the Novel, not as apology but as a description of the way things are.†
Most writers acknowledge the destructive, even
self-destructive element in their chosen profession.
John Updike confessed that fiction is “a dirty business.” His art had “a shabby side. . . . The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life.” In his book Self-Consciousness, he exempts himself from “normal intra-familial courtesy,” adding that “the nearer and dearer they are the more mercilessly they are served up.” Interviewed for a 1982 TV documentary, he bluntly states: “My duty as a writer is to make the best record I can of life as I understand it, and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations.” After Updike and his first wife told their children they planned to divorce, he composed a story about the episode (“Separating”) a mere two weeks later, a “way of hiding,” he put it in a 1968 interview, “of too instantly transforming pain into honey.”
The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-part memoir/novel My Struggle is extremely revealing about his close relatives, has said that the question of whether a writer ought to use his family as material is like asking: Would you save the cat or the Rembrandt from a burning house? His answer is that we must save the cat, choosing life over art—but he portrays his own family in intimate, hurtful detail.
Graham Greene has famously written about the “ice chip in the heart” that allows novelists to plagiarize the lives of friends—an image he took from Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen, in which a sliver of glass from a shattered magic mirror lodges in the heart of a young boy, Kai. For Greene, that chip of ice is essential equipment. Nearly all writers have to ask whether they possess such a splinter, and to what degree.
* This leaves plenty of room for error. Around 1999, a woman librarian brought a case against Joe Klein and Random House since she believed that she was the model for a character who has an affair with the Clintonesque presidential candidate in Klein’s Primary Colors and was thus defamed. It was said that the woman cited as evidence the description of her character’s shapely legs in the novel being an exact description of her own. In fact, Klein had used as inspiration the legs of his literary agent, Kathy Robbins (my wife). When Kathy was required to make a formal deposition, she made sure she wore a short skirt and high heels. The claim duly failed, a New York court ruling that a depiction “must be so closely akin” to the real person claiming to be defamed that “a reader of the book, knowing the real person, would have no difficulty linking the two.”
† In an extreme case, David Graham Phillips, early hailed by H. L. Mencken as “the leading American novelist” of his day, was fatally shot in 1911 by a man overcome by rage at what he believed was the depiction of his family in one of Phillips’s fictions. The author, on his way to the hospital, said that he had no knowledge of his assailant or his family. See Peter Duffy, “Character Assassination,” The New York Times Book Review, January 16, 2011, p. 23.
Excerpted from HOW TO WRITE LIKE TOLSTOY by Richard Cohen. Reprinted by permission of Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Richard Cohen.