Stolen Stories introduction

November 6, 2008 § Leave a comment

Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.

—Pablo Picasso

 

Fiction is, by definition, that which is ‘made up’. Unlike biography, reportage, or booklets that purport to explain how to assemble your washing machine, fiction makes few claims to ‘truth’, not even the limited variety present in these genres. Which begs a couple of questions— how does a writer ‘make up’ something? and what is the relationship between this construction and the truth? —the first of which we’ll try to answer, the second of which we’ll try to ignore.

When we, as writers, begin a story, most of us do so with an event, image, or psychological question we wish to explore. Sometimes there is only a title (‘Richard and His Excellent Bears’), a first line (‘Melanie refused to discuss her penchant for being inverted’), sometimes a last (‘And with that the boy entered the deep, dark, dripping tunnel that led to the mine of adulthood’). All the above could be placed under the heading ‘An Idea’. These are what people ask us about after we have given a reading. They march, totter or are pushed to the mike, then after clearing their throats, croak, “Where do your ideas come from?” Usually we offer the same response given by Henry James in his 1908 preface to The Portrait of a Lady.

 

As for the origin of one’s wind-blown germs… who shall say where they come from. We have to go too far back, too far behind, to say. Isn’t it all we can say that they come from every quarter of heaven, that they are there at almost any turn of the road? They accumulate, and we are always picking them over, selecting among them. They are the breath of life— by which I mean that life, in its own way, breathes them upon us. They are so, in a manner prescribed and imposed—floated into our minds by the current of life.

 

Whilst this is enjoyably grand (not to say suitably mystifying), James’ response, like our talk of first lines and images, is a form of evasion. To say that ideas come from ‘every quarter of heaven’ is little better than saying they come from the faeries, our ‘collective unconscious’, or a tiny green shoulder weasel that whispers ideas only we can hear.

The main items in ‘the current of life’ are people, who, as characters, are usually the main parts of a story. So a better question may be, ‘Where do characters and their actions come from?’ James suggests that ‘life’ gives them to us, but comes closer to the truth when he speaks of ‘picking them over, selecting among them’. Our ‘made up’ characters and events are thus not so much given as taken from life. The writer’s task is to select those parts of life he or she feels can be satisfactorily assembled into something as pleasing as a washing machine that not only makes one’s clothes smell mother-laundered, but also never leaks in a manner that seems downright sorrowful. These range from the individual detail— a pencil-drawn eyebrow, the heft of a breast —to a particular face or way of speaking— pedantic, hectoring, a boiled sweet in the mouth —up to a sketch of a person remarkable in its verisimilitude: one that captures the manner in which they laugh, dress, breathe, eat and fall down stairs[1].

None of this can be avoided. Writers are, after all, not God. We cannot create something from nothing.  We are also not all-seeing: the majority of us are probably no more observant than average; certainly no more than policemen, pimps, or psychiatrists. When one considers the daily life of most writers—sitting in a room, perhaps the kitchen, often alone for most of the day —it becomes clear that the sphere from which most of us draw our ‘wind-blown germs’ is fairly limited. Those events and people that interest us most are often drawn from family, friends or colleagues[2], perhaps because we think we understand why ten-year-old Adam throws stones at dogs, why our friend has yet to cheat on her husband, why Polly works so late, so often, what she is avoiding at home. It may be that given our emotional connection to these people, their stories have a greater resonance for us, that they seem more deserving of being written, or at least included in our narratives. It is certainly easier than devising the inner lives of people who do not quite exist.

Which brings us to the nub of all this. For whilst there is nothing inherently problematic about placing one’s girlfriend’s nose in a story, fitting it, as it were, on another woman’s face—not unless said nose is so malformed it resembles a whelk more than an organ of scent, such an inclusion calling further attention to an already sensitive matter—it is an altogether more fraught endeavour to place your actual girlfriend in a story, even under another name, with auburn hair rather than brown, but still with the same issues about your relationship, such as, for instance, her fear you’ll leave for her someone with a shapelier nose.  Although it might be an excellent story, one of your best, it will cause her great suffering[3]. Amongst the many accusations she might later hurl as the two of you stand in the kitchen, you pressed against the washing machine, she leaning against the wall with the spice rack, the main point she might return to, as her hand sweeps the sage to the floor, would be that it was her nose and that you had no right to just take it and put it in a story for fucking strangers to gawp at. And though it was only a nose, for God’s sake (and a horrible, mollusc-like one at that), by no means the most intimate detail you could have borrowed—not her baby-talk during sex; the way she snored like a vagrant; her habit of opening her mouth to show you the food she’d chewed—you would have to concede she had a point. You had taken, you had stolen something that did not belong to you.

Later, much later, after she had moved out, you might begin to question this notion. Although a person clearly ‘owns’ their own nose, can they be said to have the same rights of ownership when it comes to things they have said or done, especially if you were also present? What about your rights? After all, these were things you saw and heard. Surely that gives you the right to use them? But regardless of whether a person can truly ‘own’ their words, deeds and thoughts — in the way you still ‘own’ that Captain Beefheart record she took, even if you said it was a present—what is far more germane is that people feel they do. And it is they, rather than any abstract ethical or legal code, who matter. They are, after all— pace James —the proverbial hands that feed us.

The main issue is thus one of permission. This is the difference between borrowing and theft (at least when it comes to records). There is nothing to stop a writer from asking their partner, their colleague, or the girl on the no. 47 bus telling a long and impressively detailed account of what she did with a Cypriot waiter on Mykonos if they mind themselves or their actions being included in a work of fiction. Nothing, I suspect, except the prospect of being told ‘no’ (and several other things besides[4]). Ideally, these people would instantly contract some baffling perceptual disorder unknown to clinical science, rendering them physically unable to read any story in which they or their actions appeared. Given the likelihood of this scenario, most writers instead pile wigs and sweaters on the people in question, change their sex, nationality, and religion, or even split them into two or more characters, especially if they are writing something that shows the person (or their nose) in an unfavourable light. This, of course, does not always succeed. Some people are surprisingly acute at spotting themselves in fiction.

The other, somewhat safer option is to portray the person in a manner unlikely to cause offense. Many of the stories in this anthology portray their subjects in a sympathetic manner, though this by no means guarantees a favourable reception, the most common accusation being ‘that-isn’t-how-it-was’. There are, however, several stories in the anthology (‘Applesauce’, for example) that gleefully announce their lack of shame at what amounts to a violation of trust, of telling a story those involved might prefer not to be shared.

We wish we’d been sent more stories like that.

Malice aside, perhaps what is most important is not a story’s provenance, but how its author deals with the ‘stolen’ material. We were sent (and rejected) many stories that did little more than reproduce anecdotes, some of which were so enjoyable—children whose glass eyes fall out; women who publicly insult each other’s genitalia on a London bus; a man who claims to have ‘built’ the robot known (to the rest of us) as Naomi Campbell —we believe we could be forgiven for making a further volume of doubly stolen stories, if only because some of the ‘wind-blown germs’ we inhale seem to demand they be allowed to burgeon into a sickness (even when its prognosis is likely to be terminal[5]).

But however enjoyable or compelling the anecdote, what ultimately mattered to us during selection was how it had been transformed. How something overheard in a bar had been expanded into a structured narrative that did not merely tell you what happened, but gave you ways to think about it you did not expect; a piece of writing which, through its control of event and language, might affect you in some lasting manner— in short, how it had been made into a story[6].

Before we began putting this anthology together, few of us had doubted the ethics of appropriating from others’ lives, probably because we never gave it much thought. A good story is all that matters, as journalists may still say. But in the end, if you write enough stories, someone will eventually say J’accuse. They will stand in your kitchen and ask by what right you took something private, something shared, and turned it into a story. They may be crying. So may you. But as you stare at their face, their unbelievable nose, you will realise that they will stand there as long as it takes. That they deserve— and you may need —some kind of answer to this.

 

 

 

 


[1] Booming; badly; from their diaphragm; messily; with grace.

[2] Even Henry James, who had a remarkably wide circle of acquaintance—in London during the winter of 1878-9, he admitted to accepting 107 invitations—based many of his heroines on his cousin Minny Temple (e.g. Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, and Milly Theale).

[3] Whilst this is probably not among most writers’ higher aspirations for their work, revenge as a guiding motive cannot be entirely discounted (cf. Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist; Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar).

[4]Though let’s face it, how many writers are going to take ‘no’ for an answer? It is as rhetorical a question as, “Do you mind if I have the last scone?” Or, “Do you mind if I take another breath of air?”

[5]The question of why we are sometimes compelled to use a person, event or nose is one that warrants further study. We would like to think that this urge, while not entirely philanthropic, is at least as public-spirited as the donation of one of those benches with a memorial nameplate. That we only use such material because we believe that its inclusion is fundamental to the world-improving quality of our work. We would not like to think of it as a piece of arch-selfishness, one wholly typical of us and our deceitful, treacherous, spiteful, self-centred and thoroughly writerly ways.

[6]The other main reason we rejected stories was that they took the ‘stolen’ theme as an excuse to make free with the writings of already-famous authors. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this—William Burroughs used to write ‘GETS’ in the margins of books, when he felt something was Good Enough To Steal—if you’re going to tinker with the canon, it needs to be done not only outstandingly well (e.g. J.M. Coetzee’s Foe or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea) but also with a better legal defence than we would be able to muster.

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