Thursday, February 06, 2014

Is fiction better?

As readers of the 'fiction is better' tag here know well, I see fiction as kind of magical. OK, not magical, but the place where the personal writing it can be tempting to do about yourself or your loved ones - tempting, that is, both because of the market for confessional writing, and because it takes less creativity - can be channeled. I tend to think it's impossible to ruin someone's reputation with fiction, because of the giant umbrella over it saying it's made up. You can certainly offend your relatives with fiction - either because they think they see themselves in it, or even just because, horrors, they now know that you know about whichever seedy situations, or it's humiliating to be in any way associated with someone whose mind came up with that.

There's sometimes some iffiness when the "fiction" is very amateur, and where it's not clear the person writing it has a sophisticated enough conception of genre to even intend for the document to be fictional - the obvious example being when a high school student's creative-writing assignments are all about shooting everyone in the class, and the teacher alerts authorities. But in general, at least with published work, we at least try to believe fiction is not fact.

Well! There's now a burgeoning movement to declare Woody Allen guilty (which, to repeat myself, I suspect he is, in part for the reasons Ann Friedman does) on the basis of his movies and writing. This kind of relates to the other movement - to announce that you never liked his work anyway - insofar as that's about making it clear that you are in no way tainted by any of this. (As if, if you liked "Annie Hall," it's because the movie contained subliminal pro-molestation messages you approved of, and not because it's an excellent romantic comedy about adults.) And it also subverts the whole you-can-like-the-art-but-not-the-artist conversation - is there any ethical way to like art depicting something horrible, created by someone very plausibly accused of the horribleness in question?

And... what to do with this? Some of what's 'revealed' is that, if we're blurring fiction and fact, Allen finds 18-year-old women attractive. It's my understanding that most men do - not to the exclusion of somewhat older women, and not as exclusively as some would have us believe (as the attention most women well over 18 get attests). But yes, if a really good-looking late-teens, post-pubescent woman walks by, many men appear aware of this. Such men are not pedophiles. What stops most middle-aged men from getting involved with them is a mix of their lack of interest in men their age who aren't rich and famous; the great likelihood that any 18-year-olds a man actually interacts with would be taboo for some other reason (students, children's friends, etc.); and the fact that they'd have nothing in common.

But other writing dug up (via) does seem to point to an interest in... things far closer to Dylan Farrow's accusation. What do we do with this? A strict 'fiction doesn't count' approach is highly sophisticated, but somewhat devoid of common sense. And yet you don't want a witch-hunt situation, where anyone who's written about something skeevy or illegal can then credibly be accused of the act in question, because it came up in their art. But then the idea that if someone's self-expression is Art, they get a pass, has its own messy implications - those who qualify as Artists (generally rich/old/white/male etc.) can discuss whatever, through their Art, whereas everyone else is held to a different standard. Point being, I have many questions here, but no answers.


Nicholas said...

Perhaps it's just me, but I begin with the assumption that people who create fictions are not the people in the fictions themselves, and, weirdly, everyone seems to recognize this except when they forget it. I would imagine there's overlap between people who think the 'Woody Allen' character in a movie is Woody Allen and the people who insist (correctly) that Hannah Horvath is not Lena Dunham. (To choose an example: the narrator of "The Whore of Mensa" has the most Allen-like voice imaginable, but is obviously not Allen himself.) Roberto Bolaño had an alter ego in his books that borrowed from his life but was not him; Javier Cercas has a whole backstory of Bolaño in the (fictional) Soldiers of Salamis whose entire purpose is to sound as credible as possible while being fake. Or My Dinner With Andre, etc etc.

I have a strong reaction to this in part because in my evangelical church attending formative years, there was a lot of emphasis on collapsing this distinction in order to discredit lots of things: if a musician sings about something untoward, it must be him singing about his life and views. It also came up in college in one of my art history courses: we see a painting that is powerful and touches something real, emotionally, and so want to assume there is something in the biography of the artist to explain it. But any explanation along the lines of "Caravaggio was sad about this and so made this beautiful religiously-themed painting" is reductive and speculative.

Which is to say: there's certainly some kind of link between who a person is and what they create (there was certainly a link between who I was and the dissertation I wrote, for example), but all the crucial parts of the transition happen in someone's head, so apart from them specifying, we'll never know. I suspect, in Allen's case, this has less to do with a specific application of a general theory about art, and more to do with trying to clear someone out of respectable discourse.

Phoebe said...

Hmm. There's definitely the straightforward issue of protagonist/persona/person conflation (which happens even to actors just playing a character written by someone else), but what I'm talking about is something a bit broader. As in, not that we're assuming WA is Alvy Singer, but rather that if whichever situation appears repeatedly in the work of WA, whether involving a WA-like character or not, whether the character is played by WA or not, it clearly came from his brain, and speaks to what he's fixated on. This is a much tougher art vs artist question than whether a protagonist *is* the artist.

Nicholas said...

But I think there has to be more than even this to make the WA case work, because it seems there are instances we'd be disinclined to think that repeating unpleasant situations in someone's work imply anything about the person themselves. To choose an example we might also both know enough about to discuss: Zola's novels tend to have a lot of murder, suicide, and discussions/depictions of how sex is like violence. He's pretty obviously fixated on these for psychological and storytelling reasons (I was reading The Earth over the holidays and, when no major character had died 3/4 of the way through, assumed the end would be a bloodbath, which it more or less was), and this might perhaps tell us he had a mental predisposition to those things, but it's still a long way from there to acting on any of them.

Phoebe said...

I see your point. But let's say - separate from whatever Zola was accused of by anti-Dreyfusards after J'Accuse - that Zola had had a furious ex-partner, or someone else with a grudge, legitimate or otherwise. Accusing him of something that he'd represented would maybe have worked? I suppose what I'm getting at is, it's not that writing X means being accused of X. It means that *if* you end up accused of X, you're that much more likely to be presumed guilty.

Nicholas said...

Oh. I missed that point--I totally agree.

My point was more that having something you wrote be used as evidence of having done something you're accused of works with no actual general theoretical approach to art; it sort of announces itself as an unserious claim.