Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

WRITERS AS LIARS: EXPERIENCE + IMAGINATION

Share |

Do authors have the right to entirely imagine a story, even if they haven't personally experienced anything to do with the subject? Of course they do. Will it have anything to do with the truth? Well, that depends on what kind of truth we're talking about - factual, poetic, assumed, imagined or some other kind. It's the reader who ultimately decides...

I saw a video on openbooktoronto.com recently, a poet reading about the terror of drowning while a couple of musicians quietly played an accompaniment of jazz. The reading was grim and powerful.
However, as an 11 year-old kid I very nearly drowned in the Aegean and it wasn’t like that for me. The terror was not in the drowning - it was the rescue. I remember being surprised at how quickly I gave in. After a brief, panicked struggle a kind of immutable logic took over and I realized there was no sense fighting the sea. I was being caressed and all the clichés were true - the warmth, the boundless love and euphoria. It's also said near drowning can cause brain damage. Maybe that's been my problem all this time.
Either way, it was after being saved the nightmares came and they went on for years and still return sometimes, and they're always about being ripped back to the stark screaming sun, the hysteria of women's voices, men yelling, strong hands and arms hanging me by the ankles - which was the accepted manner back then of dealing with near drowning victims, to hang them by the ankles and let the water run out of their lungs. None of that fey pumping of the legs and knees while the victim's on their back.
The problem is no amount of metaphor, adjective or other artistic wordiness has ever done that particular experience justice. Others who've been there tell me of a similar reaction - the sobbing and trauma are about the rescue, not the drowning. You can try to describe that without going through it and you might produce some very good work but in the end, it's just too big for words, for art, for anything. We're are talking about the sea after all.

A book I read recently that brings this issue to mind is Toni Bentley's paean to sodomy, The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. The book purports to be drawn from deeply personal experiences. It’s funny in parts, awkward and pretentious in others, but it can be pretty smart, sexy and titillating yet ultimately it feels imagined. The fellow who teaches her about this "holy fuck", whom she christens "A-Man", is so perfect he has zero personality and zero real impact, which is fairly ironic.
Toni describes an incredible lover who can go on for hours and hours, a pure sensualist, constantly attending to her most sublime whim. He makes the authors of the Kama Sutra seem like rank amateurs. He profoundly grasps every wince and twist of her sexual awakening, often before she does. Without demeaning Toni, he teaches her the exquisite art of fellatio. He's gorgeous but not vain, he's sensitive but not weak, he experiments but he's not flaky, he's worldly but not snobbish, he's brilliant but not stuffy or academic, he’s manly but not macho. In other words, he doesn't exist and that fact pained Toni Bentley enough she went ahead and created him.
Throughout the book, she revels in the surrender, in her submission to his power, to always be beneath him every time they perform “the act”, which she carefully enumerates. But Toni, darlin', you can be on top - that works too and in fact, puts you in better control of the actual movement and it's even politically neutral. However, under all this Cosmo mag style naughtiness is something sadly reactionary. Toni Bentley's need to become submissive to a male, to “reclaim what was lost to the bitter gains of modern feminism.”
But how to do that without coming off like some brainless neo-con housewife? I know, sez Toni. I'll make him into a man so perfect, so in tune with a woman's needs he's practically a woman himself, except for his "lusciously sculpted manhood!"

A novel by GG Award winner David Gilmour called A Perfect Night to go to China has a similar issue. This time the narrator, a young father, slips out for a quick beer and his son is abducted. When I read it, something seemed deeply made-up about the premise: Father loves son, father puts son to bed. Father dashes to corner pub to see all-girl band and have one quick beer, just one. Father returns, father checks on son, son is gone.
Okay, so the protagonist gets home and sees his son has disappeared. What happens next is very strange. Rather than describe this crucial scene - how the father reacts to realizing his son has vanished, Gilmour writes this: “I’m not going to go into all the details of what happened next. I simply can’t go through it again and I’m sure you don’t want to hear it, either.”
Gilmour actually hadn’t described it earlier since the above quote comes just a few pages into the novel. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the scene. But I would like to hear all about it. I do want to know what goes through a father’s mind and heart and body. Yes, I want to know all the precise details, beyond the obvious.
It made me wonder if Gilmour realized there is no way he could know the deeper truth of what he would have to describe. His avoidance made me think of an entire novel where all pivotal plot points are ratcheted up with breathless tension, only to be quickly deflated with lines like: "Well, you know how it is, you get it."
The editor of Gilmour's novel told me the consensus was it didn't sell very well because women are the vast majority of book buyers and women don't want to read about an unresolved child abduction, they find it too depressing. That seems pretty condascending. Perhaps these book buying women realized some things cannot be fully imagined, regardless of how much research you do.

Another book in this vein - but which was a best-seller - is Room by Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue. It's written from the perspective of a five-year-boy being held captive in a small room along with his mother. Sound familiar?
Donoghue wrote it after hearing about the bizarre Josef Fritzl case in Austria. This monster kept his daughter as a sex slave/prisoner in a concealed basement apartment. She was 42 when the story broke in 2008. Among the seven children she bore by him, one was a five year-old boy called Felix, the “inspiration” for Donoghue’s novel.
Room has won several awards but there's something hideous about the whole thing. The level of exploitation seems brutal. Can any of that story be truly imagined? Who has the right to tell it? Yes, Donoghue's book is very well crafted, very sympathetic and very poetic but that's beside the point. She could write it like Shakespeare but that doesn't change the fact she used the horribly traumatic experiences of this boy, his mother and his siblings to write an award-winning novel.
The problem is that Donoghue does not tell the truth. She can't. She imagines the truth and she might be right but then again, she might be completely wrong. I can imagine being sent to a concentration camp and write about it. Perhaps I could write something very moving and very skilled but it cannot be the truth because I did not experience the truth of the subject, not directly nor peripherally. I have no frame of reference and neither does Donoghue - other than the one she acquired through the media. Is something like Room a media-driven narrative posing as the truth? Perhaps that's why it's so popular. The language is familiar, an acceptably benign dialect which can distance the rationale reader from the truly irrational and truly evil.

So are Toni Bentley, David Gilmour and Emma Donoghue liars? Is any writer who totally imagines a narrative a liar? Well, strictly speaking, yes, the are making it up. Research will help bring some veracity to their writing and so will talent and ability. Perhaps you don't need to experience an actual event to write about it but then what are you writing about? Yes, it's the reader who will make that judgment.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Basil Papademos

Basil Papademos is the author of MOUNT ROYAL: There's Nothing Harder Than Love, published in the spring of 2012 by Tightrope Books, also available as an ebook in all formats from all digital retailers. His earlier novel, The Hook of it is, was published by Emergency Press. His upcoming novel, How To **** Your Psychiatrist, will be published in the fall of 2013.

Go to Basil Papademos’s Author Page