Fact or fiction?

On long road trips with my six-year-old, as parents have from time immemorial (or, okay, since cars and freeways were invented), we often while away the minutes between bathroom stops with games like “Fiction or Non-fiction?” and its first cousin “True or False?” What’s interesting to me about this exercise is how hard it sometimes is to explain to a child how certain things can be true/non-fiction, even if we haven’t experienced them ourselves. Case in point? Dinosaurs. Literal minded kids (or kids under a certain age) think that because they don’t exist now they must be fiction or part of a great left-wing conspiracy.

Anyway, my point, rambling though it might be, is that gray areas exist when trying to categorize fiction and non-fiction. Certainly, this is something that is daily evident in my line of work. You have only to read an artfully crafted memoir to wonder how much is true/non-fiction and how much is the author’s imagination/ambition/skill/lousy memory at work and, therefore, false/fiction. As far as I’m concerned, as long as things are clearly labeled—i.e., “I remember it this way but I confess the years may have dimmed my powers of recollection”—I’m okay with narratives that are more well wrought than truthful.

For me, in fact, the thornier issue is fiction, where anything goes. Right? Or does it? This piece in Jezebel about Alexander Maksik’s much lauded novel skeeves me out precisely because it raises uncomfortable issues about what and how much is allowed when an author puts on his/her novelist hat. Using fiction to tackle difficult subjects is de rigueur in literature, accomplishing creative expression while avoiding legal liability. But what about the collateral damage? Is it okay for Mr. Maksik to exploit his alleged experience with a student for literary fame and success? Must we defend his right to do so as elemental to the whole concept of creative freedom? Or do we just call a sleaze a sleaze?

Help me out on this one folks. I don’t want to condemn Mr. Maksik out of hand but given all the recent headline grabbing scandals about authority figures abusing their power over kids, I wonder if instead of praise for his artistry, we should be censuring his alleged behavior. What do you all think?

9 Responses to Fact or fiction?

  1. Josie says:

    Ick. Legal age (in the US) or not, the teacher is still in a position of power over the student, which puts any relationship out of balance.

    People aren’t supposed to be able to profit from crimes they’ve committed, and using your position to influence someone over whom you have power skirts that line a bit too closely for my taste. The “non-profit” laws should apply.

  2. jane says:

    Josie, any Son of Sam laws only apply to people who have been convicted of a crime, and my understanding is that that’s not the case here, though of course that doesn’t settle the moral question.

    In my opinion, at a minimum, good taste and manners would require that if one does in fact exploit a power differential in a relationship with a teenager, one not then parade that execrable exploit around for public consumption in the guise of either memoir or fiction, and that one certainly not, as Jezebel suggests Maksik did, use one of your few bits of fiction to construct a fantasy in which the girl you exploited still secretly pines for you. That is simply authorial wish-fulfillment at its absolute grossest. Whether or not that’s what actually happened here – I don’t know.

    I am in favor of everyone having the right both to say whatever it is they want to say AND to bear the consequences – social, financial, legal, criminal, whatnot – of saying it. But as a writer I don’t believe it’s appropriate to, as the article accuses Maksik of doing, borrow or steal wholesale from the lives of actual people and call it fiction, especially without their consent. (I don’t write memoir; I don’t know where the lines are or should be there.) I have no way of knowing whether Maksik has done any of the things, literary or otherwise, that he is accused of doing. If he has, any public censure he experiences is certainly deserved, in my opinion.

    Were I his publisher, and I discovered he had done these things, I would feel ill-used and ashamed of being the instrument of what amounts to glorifying his exploitation of a young girl over whom he held significant power (and of the other young people in their orbit, apparently, to a lesser degree). I do not think I would choose to publish such a book with foreknowledge. I am enormously sympathetic to the pain that it might cause anyone to have their high school self exposed to public scrutiny, even in fiction, even absent an exploitation of the type described in the book. Still, I am not at all sure that that means no one should have chosen to publish this book if they felt it worthy of publication. What I am sure of is that if the allegations are true, Maksik should absolutely not have written it.

  3. Andrea says:

    Can´t “Marie” sue him? I´m no legal expert, but it looks like she has enough witnesses to convince a court that this is not fiction.

    I don´t see any moral ambiguity by the way, as I think one of the reviewers said (sorry, I read the article rather quickly). A teacher having an affair with a minor student abuses his position, no matter how seductive a student is. The teacher is a professional and should know better. It makes me feel sick that someone who has abused his position actually has the nerve to write a book about it and harm the girl in question even more.

    I need to stop thinking about it now… I´m a teacher myself and people like this make me very, very angry…

    • This was my first thought as well, but I wonder how much legal ground she has to stand on, with the number of countries involved, legal definitions of libel, etc. She’d have to prove her reputation/credibility/etc was substantially hurt by her portrayal in the book, and that the character in the book could be identified as her without difficulty. I’m not sure it would hold up in court.

      It should. That this man wrote this book is sick. But I’m not sure there’s any legal recourse.

  4. Tamara says:

    A sticky icky gray area, for sure, and as much as I want to condemn the man for being a sleazebag, there’s a larger issue that I don’t want to be so quick to draw the line on. Let me think outloud about it for a minute. Sorry for the rambling.

    First of all, the main ick factor comes from his behavior. He did something way out of bounds, and he violated a trust. It doesn’t matter what she did or said ~ he was the one in the power situation, and it was up to him to act responsibly.

    A couple of test cases. If Nabokov were a pedophile, would we view Lolita differently? Certainly, the subject matter was condemned at the time, but now it’s a classic. So there difference here is that the author didn’t actually do the things narrated ~ “pure fiction” if you will. He could use the excuse of the label of fiction, and the pure beauty of his language makes you forget (and hate yourself later for that forgetting).

    How about Hemingway? Everyone loved to attribute his works to his life. Some of the things he wrote about were illegal, though not with the ick factor for most people of this book. (Gender issues aside.) I guess most people agree, though, that it’s fairly close to his life and let’s call it “fiction based on life.”

    Then there is memoir, which purports to be the truth.

    However, I would assert that a well-written memoir is decidedly not fact. You cannot remember dialog like that. Things are conflated and based on memories that are faulty. It’s not “fact” but rather one person’s faulty recollections spruced up a bit by their talent. It’s point of view. So, in order to make effective well-crafted fiction, it would have to be even farther from fact. IMHO Even if whole lines of dialog are close to what is spoken in a classroom and incidents are what people agree happened, there are other parts that are hugely made up. Life is not fiction.

    It’s very interesting to me that if you label something fiction everyone is so busy trying to find out what is true, and if you label something nonfiction or memoir, they’re so busy trying to find out what you lied about. In truth, well-written fiction and nonfiction is not that far apart in many ways.

    Part of the problem is the “profit” part, and ironically by raising this issue and giving it so much publicity, we contributing to the author’s profit because inevitably a bunch of people will go out and buy the book.

    Also, is the problem that it’s a “good” book? One that other people have endorsed and so they now feel complicit and dirty and therefore want to condemn him?

    And (not having read it) what if it were framed as a moral tale meant to teach kids a lesson? Or a tale of debauchery in which the main character repents in the end? Or his love letter to her? Would that change things?

    And does a society that idolizes youth as beauty (girls as young as 10, 11, and 12) have any responsibility?

    What really makes me shy away is this edges into the territory of: You can’t write that because I don’t like the content. Or, you can’t write that because you as a person are not that (him writing her POV). What is writing if not an act of empathy?

    So a) Is it wrong to use other people’s experiences in fiction or nonfiction? No, but not categorically. There are some moral gray areas, like writing about the Holocaust and this particular instance. It all depends on how it’s handled. a) Is it wrong to profit from other people’s experiences by using them in fiction of nonfiction? No (this is the basis of publishing), but not categorically. Convicted criminals can’t profit from their crimes by writing about it, right? c) What if you write a nonfiction book that the subjects object to? Happens all the time. d) What if you write a fiction book that the purported subjects object to? You have even more leeway.

    So, I don’t know … I guess I’d say that the problems in this instance is a) what he did and b) that he might profit from it. For me, the fact that he wrote it is not the issue.

    Please argue with me and help me clarify my position.

    • I feel like I’m taking almost the opposite side of what I posted to Andrea, but I think it all comes down to whether Andrea could prove that the book was damaging to her (i.e. her reputation, credibility, etc.–not sure how much emotional damage would hold up in court). That’s what would distinguish it from books like LOLITA to me. Lolita (the character) is fiction and cannot be hurt by anything written in the novel, whereas a real person could be. Of course, so could anyone painted in an unflattering light in any memoir, so it remains a sticky issue.

  5. ryan field says:

    I have over 84 distinct works of published fiction…all erotic romance and none have ever exploited anyone, especially, most especially, not a minor. And all are pure fiction, not roman a clef.

    I say a sleaze is a sleaze.

  6. ddelano says:

    I can appreciate an artist attempting to show through his work a disturbing/immoral incident in a manner that causes us to think deeply about the issues involved – seeing those issues through the lense of art allows us to be challenged in a variety of ways. But taking the disturbing/immoral behavior of the artist and then packaging is as “art” smacks of a scam.

    For some reason, two past incidents pop into my head – first, quite a number of years ago, a bruhaha over whether Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs should be exhibited because of what some saw as the reflection of his homosexuality in his photos (which I felt was silly – exhibit them of course); and secondly of OJ Simpson’s book “If I Did It” (which i would never have purchased because the idea of him capitolizing on this terrible crime -even if he didn’t commit it – was “icky”).

    I don’t know that there are any bright lines here, but I agree with everyone else who is really turned off by the idea of an author trying to cash in on his abusive conduct by packaging it as “art.”

  7. sharonapple says:

    If the book were pure fiction it would be fine. Read it. Not for a bad debut novel. Read worse. After going through the Jezebel article, the buzzer in my head started going off (“Ick”).

    For example, in the copy I have, one of the opening chapter headings is “Marie Twenty-Two Years Old.” This is apparently the actual age right now of the person Marie was based on (seventeen years old, five years ago). (Seriously, dude?)

    And the ending does seem to want to minimize what happened, especially with respects to Marie’s ending. Unlike most of the story, this is most likely the work of his imagination since Maksik probably broke all contact with her after the affair was discovered by the school. Afterall, that’s what Will, the teacher/lover in the novel, does with Marie.

    Anyway, before Will leaves the school, he leaves Marie one last message telling her she’s braver than he is and that the end might be a relief for her. And surprise, it is and she is.

    “I suppose in the end the way he left was as good as any other. I like to think he did it for me, that he thought it was the best way.”

    As everyone else seems to be falling apart, Marie holds it together. When she is asked if she hates Will, her former lover, she stands strong and says that she does not. Marie is so loving, in her final chapter, she dreams of Will, wondering where he is. (Will’s last chapter just has him walking off, no final thoughts of Marie.)

    This isn’t to say that a person couldn’t have an affair with a teacher and have it end without falling to pieces, but the ending doesn’t jive with how Marie was portrayed in the book. She’s depressed after the abortion. Would she really be so stoic after the man she was desperately in love with walks out of her life. Or is this how Maksik would want her to be.

    And was Maksik trying to score points against people in the novel? Whomever Ariel is based on, Maksik seems to have a major hate for her.Not surprisingly, Ariel, one of Marie’s friends, disapproves of the affair between Marie and Will. She’s also one of the few characters who openly challenges in him the novel. Twist, she also wants to have sex with Will — a number of characters point this out. And even though they’re friends, Marie really hates Ariel. Did I forget to mention that Ariel’s dad is also a scumbag? Oh, and so is Colin, Marie’s former boyfriend. Colin, not coincidentally, also hates Ariel. (Ariel has to be based on a real person. The hate just drips off the page. And Ariel doesn’t really seem to deserve any of this.)

    The book illustrates one of the problems of a writer basing something too close to their actual lives, especially when they haven’t taken a stepback from the situation. It’s too easy to tweak things to make yourself seem a bit better, and other people a bit worse. Beyond the moral questions this situation stirs up, it also doesn’t make for great art.

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