Any human heart

I’m at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, in Orlando, where Guy Gavriel Kay delivered yesterday a very interesting Guest of Honor speech. I’m going to try to try to paraphrase it from memory and sketchy notes, but please bear in mind that he spoke for half an hour, and I’m not going to get nearly that much text down here. Moreover, it was a speech carefully couched not as absolute rules or prescriptions but as questions to be thought about: I’m concerned that a summary will sound more categorical than the author intended. With those provisos, read on…

Kay began by talking about the notion of privacy in the abstract, particularly referring to the Talmudic condemnation of invasions of privacy as “the unwanted gaze”. Even, he argued, in our internet age, we should regard privacy as a right, to be given away only by an individual’s choice. However, he suggested, recent trends in culture (and in particular celebrity culture) have introduced a “toxic” element into how we treat privacy. We feel a sense of entitlement – a word he returned to again and again – to knowledge (sometimes the most intimate knowledge) of public or historical figures. This, he suggested, was corrupting for us (would we want our own lives exposed in the same way?) and intrusive for the person concerned.

The core of the speech was a discussion of the use of real people as characters in fiction: a trend that he regarded as different in extent and depth now to, say, Shakespeare’s depiction of then-recent events in his history plays. He specifically cited E L Doctorow’s Ragtime as a turning-point in fictionalising real people, and also mentioned Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, with its astonishingly intimate depiction of Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Without issuing an outright condemnation, Kay made it very clear that he regarded such use of historical figures as morally and ethically dubious, by the most basic standard: would we, as readers, want the same done to ourselves? He also dispensed with the argument that, just because the law says the dead can’t sue for libel, such depictions are exempted from censure. Legal standards are not moral ones, and we should be guided by the moral before the legal.

Kay concluded by talking about ways in which the fantastic allows a way out of this trap. Far from being “escapist”, that old shibboleth, the fantastic can allow description of the issues at play in history without claiming to know the inner workings of real lives. Thus, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, his fantasy novel based on medieval Spain, Kay features a character based on El Cid. Even when he was writing the book, El Cid was a figure hugely contested by historians in Spain and elsewhere, partly for political and nationalistic reasons. So creating a character based on him rather than a direct portrayal allowed Kay a way out of the moral quagmire described above, but also made a statement about how he viewed history: it never allows us final answers, and fictionalisations of real people claim, in their literalness, an authority, a definitive perception of truth, which is simply not attainable.

End paraphrase. Several things to say. Firstly, Kay’s concerns with privacy here are obviously cognate with those he expressed in his recent Globe and Mail article on fantasy fans demanding their sequels NOW! . Second, the opposition he set up between the fantastic and the mimetic doesn’t quite pan out: if we were to take his strictures to heart, we’d have to dispense with almost all of the work of, say, Neal Stephenson, Howard Waldrop and Tim Powers. (That’s leaving alone the entire genres that would have to go – all of “literal” historical fiction featuring real characters, and I’m passing over [because I don’t want to take another thousand words] the use of real people in fan-fiction.) Third, I’m sympathetic to the axiom Kay is starting from – basically Henry James’s line that you should “never say you know the whole truth about any human heart.” I share his disquiet at the entitlement with which we sometimes feel we have a right to the private lives of public figures. That said, I think even the qualified way in which he made his case has some problems with it. There is, surely, a moral difference between writing about the living and the dead, and not just because the dead can’t sue. The dead are, in a sense, beyond being hurt by our words – though, as someone pointed out yesterday, plenty of living relatives of dead Titanic officers were offended by James Cameron’s 1997 film. What’s needed, with writing about the dead, is not abstinence but respect. (It will, of course, be to the individual’s own taste what “respect” entails – hypothesizing about someone’s sex life, or the reasons for their suicide? I’d say probably not, though that puts me in a bind since unlike John C Wright I do think sex and sexuality are central subjects for fiction.) One also has to recognise that history – real history, not history refracted – is an increasingly important subject for literature, presumably because writers and readers feel it’s something they need art to make sense of. Of course, “importance” doesn’t outweigh morality, but nor can it be ignored: why does our culture need to understand itself this way? Lastly – and I want to use Kayesque care in saying this – if one is a public figure, one has to accept that the public’s scrutiny may not always be something one’s happy with. You can’t opt out of that, any more than a politician can ask the people only for praise. The question of what we, as readers, are content with in depictions of the historical is, I suspect, quite closely related to what we’d be happy to see in our journalism. I’m putting words into Kay’s mouth now, but I think he was saying that we should draw a line between the National Enquirer approach and the New York Times approach in our fiction choices as much as our non-fiction ones. The catch, of course, is that a book isn’t branded by its approach in the same way as a newspaper: you have to read it to know what you’re reading.

3 thoughts on “Any human heart

  • March 23, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Fame is the ability to attract attention. One cannot hope to attract only positive attention any more than one can expect to push on an object and not be pushed back….

  • March 24, 2009 at 5:26 pm


    You and I did not hear quite the same speech, and the devil is as usual in the details.He made some further distinctions between public and private, and between the representation of acts versus the representation on inner feeling and motives, I recall, which would at least in part alter your summary and conclusions. I suggest that you obtain a copy of the text from Guy Kay (which is I think to be published in JFA) before further comment.


  • March 31, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    All: apologies for the late reply, but Blogger's comment facilities have been flaky lately.

    Womzilla: Yes, indeed, within reason and limits. (Libel, hate speech, etc.)

    David: I registered the distinctions you describe when GGK made the speech and I have a copy of the text, which I've read with some care; I don't feel that I would materially alter anything I've said above to reflect those distinctions. It's not quite that GGK, in separating out "known acts" vs "hypothesized acts" or "public statements" vs "private/internal states", is making a distinction without a difference – the distinctions clearly do matter when describing privacy issues as a whole. They are, however, distinctions that scarcely matter when you consider the texts he mentions, or the authors I mention. I find it hard to think of any representation of a historical figure in fiction (including those texts) which doesn't give some account of their internal states – and, indeed, which doesn't purports to gain its power & uniqueness from such representations. The hypothesized acts, and the private/internal states, are 99% of the ballgame – the rest being cameos like JFK shaking Tom Hanks's hand in Forrest Gump. Even in a case like Oliver Stone’s Nixon, where Antony Hopkins is literally reciting words captured on the Watergate tapes, Hopkins (by his performance, by the context of everything else he does in the film) is purporting to offer an account of Nixon’s internal states. So I still think that some version of the Golden Rule is the appropriate way to judge the use of historical figures.

    There is one separate issue, raised with me by Guy Kay at ICFA, where I would modify the summary above. He was not as crude as I’ve been in separating out mimetic approaches=bad and non-mimetic ones=good and would, I think, have chosen examples of “good” and “bad” practice more widely had he had more time to speak.

    And yes, people should subscribe to JFA to get the whole speech in due course.


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