Saturday, April 26, 2014

More on Authors' Writing about People They Know

Today I am following up on my post of 4/11/14 on John Updike’s use of every little scrap of his life in his fiction, sometimes to the detriment of his family members and others, according to Adam Begley’s new biography, an excerpt of which I read in New York magazine. Now a Louis Menand review of that book in The New Yorker agrees with this point (“In the world around him and inside his own head there was very little that he couldn’t spin into a rich and intricate verbal fabric”), but has a somewhat more positive perspective. Menand points out that such writers as Proust and Joyce did the same thing, and that is part of their greatness. Further, Menand says, “Updike wanted to do with the world of mid-century middle-class American Wasps what Proust had done with Belle Epoque Paris and Joyce had done with a single day in 1904 Dublin.” Menand’s review is thoughtful and revealing in other ways as well about Updike’s life and his work; it could serve as a good very brief introduction to his life and work for those who can't or don't want to read Begley's book or other longer pieces. Another piece that comments on the same issue as Begley does, but without mentioning Updike specifically, is a short essay by Francine Prose in the 4/27/14 New York Times Book Review, in reply to the following question posed to her: “What do you make of mining actual relationships for literary material?” She replies, “Write what you want – but be prepared for the consequences.” She points out that it would have been a great loss if Proust had not written “disguised versions of people he knew,” and lists other examples of good fiction that do so. Her caveat, however, is the topic of children: “Writers need to be careful about putting their children in memoir or in fiction….We’re their custodians.”

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