Each family is unhappy in its own way

Lionel Shriver has written an interesting piece on the way her family reacted to a novel in which they felt they’d been portrayed unjustly. As someone who’s currently working on a story that draws on my parents’ early life together, I found the article fascinating and, to some extent, admonitory. But what’s really interesting when reading the comments, apart from a visceral dislike of writers, is the number of people who are unhappy that Shriver’s motive for writing the piece isn’t clear. Is it an apology or a defence, they cry? They don’t seem to want to acknowledge that states of the heart and mind might occupy neither of these positions, or might want to draw on both; might, in other words, be ambiguous in both motive and result. If that weren’t the case, work like this would be rather dull, and private, however comfortably it might sit on the misery memoir shelf. What’s clear is that Shriver’s relation with her family, for better or worse (and it’s interesting that her black sheep brother loved the novel) will never be unmediated by the fact that she writes. But surely this is obvious from the way Shriver herself, not only through her writing, is the long-term, ongoing work of someone else, the girl born into a deeply religious family in North Carolina, according to Wikipedia, who chose a man’s name at the age of fifteen and now lives in London, after spells in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast. I wonder what Margaret Ann would think of it all.

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5 Responses to Each family is unhappy in its own way

  1. nmj says:

    Mmm, I read the article too – I must say I am not sure why she published it (the article). It's between her and her family if they were aggrieved about her novel. I have no judgement re. her using her family, it sounds as if she did not do so maliciously, she disguised everyone, or she thought she had. I think only writers can truly understand that process of fictionalising characters from real life, and even the need to do so. The fact that her family were so negative about the novel – apart from one brother – is surely much more to do with those family dynamics than the actual novel, and that stuff should stay private. Also, from a reader's point of view, you want the novel to speak for itself, you don't want a pre-analysis by the writer of who is fictionalised and who is not!

  2. Well, yes, but the relationship between truth and fiction is particularly current, with the Frey business and the idea of 'real' having more value than 'made up', so anything that addresses this is actually quite interesting. Besides, if you have written something, for whatever motive, it would be hard to resist publishing it, especially when the damage seems to have been done already… As far as the novel goes, Shriver would presumably prefer us to read it after having read this article than not to have read it at all, which might otherwise have been the case.

  3. nmj says:

    I agree, the real/made up thing is always interesting! Also, I was mistaken in thinking that A Perfectly Good Family was just being published here, and that she was promoting it with this juicy gossip about her family being offended – and I felt it kind of churlish that she was dragging them through it all again with this article… But I now see her new novel is a different book altogether, and that enough time has probably passed for her to write so honestly about her family's reaction to the other book. And she is honest enough to say that the book was more important than anything. Still, I'm not sure I would be brave enough to sacrifice – or want to sacrifice – my immediate family for that. But then again maybe they overeacted in the first place.

  4. Great article (thanks, Charles). Reminds me (trasversalmente, as they like to say in Italian) of All The Hoopla that accompanied Kathryn Harrison's _The Kiss_ in 1997 (which, if you go looking for it on the 'net, is characterized sometimes as a novel and sometimes as a memoir — in the title of the book it's a memoir — which serves as sort of a semi-unconscious poll on how people view the book). And I can't help but think of Capote's calculated surprise when all his "swans" snubbed him after he aired their essentially mundane laundry in public. As blogging and social "networking" render our private lives less so, I wonder how all of this will shake down in years to come. Though I tend to be convinced that negative reactions have much less to do with "invasion of privacy" than they do with the unpleasant sensation of being observed, catalogued, and typed. And as someone famous probably once said: "If you don't want to be kept under surveillance, don't keep writers for friends."

  5. petal47 says:

    Alan Bennett talks about more or less having wrung both his aunties dry for material, in one of his auto-biogs. Surely any writer, especially those who are prolific, is bound to use the characters he has at hand for good copy? First books particularly are often thinly-veiled autobiographies, as the cliche goes. Though this was not Lionel's first. And thanks, I had wondered where she got that name!

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