This article by Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison originally appeared on The New York Times Sunday Book Review on 4/22/14.
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. When Robert Lowell used his ex-wife’s letters for his poetry, Elizabeth Bishop told him, “Art just isn’t worth that much.” This week, Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison discuss what they make of mining actual relationships for literary material.
By Francine Prose
Writers need to be careful about putting their children in memoir or in fiction. We’re their custodians.
I’ve been asked this question so often I’ve begun to assume that the world is teeming with aspiring writers wondering what Thanksgiving dinner will be like after they publish that lightly fictionalized exposé of Mom’s actionable parenting skills and Dad’s affair with the babysitter. When asked, I usually reply: “Write what you want. People rarely recognize themselves on the page. And if they do, they’re often flattered that a writer has paid attention.”
Do I believe this? Yes and no. I’m reasonably certain that John Ashcroft didn’t recognize himself disguised as the evil high school guidance counselor in one of my novels. But like so much else, this thorny matter requires consideration on a case-by-case basis. In Mary McCarthy’s story “The Cicerone,” Peggy Guggenheim, the important collector of modern art, appears as Polly Grabbe, an aging, spoiled expatriate slut who collects garden statuary. Guggenheim did recognize herself and was definitely not flattered; it took years before the two women were friends again. Write what you want — but be prepared for the consequences.