An article in today’s Observer praises the poet Sharon Olds for waiting 15 years before publishing a collection of poems about the end of her marriage. It struck me that Olds was and is comfortable enough financially to be able to park good work for decades, whereas most of us authors and poets are not; furthermore, the writer of the article, Catherine Bennett, decries the ‘constant media exposure’ sought by other authors and poets — but, again, I don’t hawk my authorial mutton by choice but because I need to survive like everybody else.
Anyway, it prompted me to leave a response in the comments section, which I republish below.
I use real life all the time as source material, including people. My first novel has many situations and characters some will see aspects of themselves in but everything and everyone is fictionalised, blended, remixed. They’re like fast food burgers—you know, how one burger contains meat from hundreds of cows (and maybe a bit of horse too, it seems)? You shouldn’t be able to track back to one source and call it fiction, though, for that would be deceitful. Biography and autobiography, declared as such, are very different.
Every author uses him or herself, ultimately, in terms of experiences and memories and ideas, ahead of ‘using’–such an emotive term—anyone else. But yes, always, to some degree, writers can imperil the reputations of others and wreak creative revenge. A jilted author could easily deal with an ex by having the unfortunate lover killed on a distant moon by a many-tentacled space octopus. Or they could get syphilis in Victorian England. Allow us some boons specific to our craft, please.
Still, I had just one stinker of a review on Amazon among many good ones and it puzzled me: it seemed personal to the point of being passionately hateful, abusive even. The reviewer claimed the book (WOOF!) was autobiographical, which it is not, the entire narrative never having taken place in my life: no car chase, no crash, no neighbour done for having sex with a dog…
It was months after the hissing and spitting review was posted, it struck me the name the person used was a perfect anagram of an ex-boyfriend’s full name. I dumped him eighteen years ago but he must’ve got a copy of the novel and recognised shards of himself here and there—this or that comic episode—and then vented on Amazon, such was his fury.
Yet truly, it’s not a revenge novel. It’s not about him or anyone. It’s an adult comedy, written to make me and others laugh. The point is, as a writer, I could constantly censor and inhibit myself in order to try to avoid ever offending or even hurting people I have met. However, I can’t remember all my past lovers, or the details of every friend, can’t say if real elements pop up in my prose purposefully or subconsciously. And besides, I’m not shackling myself. Cock it. I write. End of. If you think my profession makes me dangerous to be around, try dating anyone in the media.
I’ll include the link and to hell with false modesty. Besides, I’ve bills to pay before I worry about other people’s feelings. Sharon Olds had the luxury of bring able to afford to keep great work in a drawer for 15 years. I, and many other writers, do not.