The line between author and story

EW.com has an interesting article today. They asked Stephen King, in the wake of the worry over the Virginia Tech shooter’s writing, “Where, exactly, does one draw the line between imagination and disturbing expression that should raise red flags?”

I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately, in a broader context than that of violence. I suppose the question I’ve been thinking is along the lines of “How much of what you write is who you are?”

I asked Jay Lake that question a while ago in a chat, and he replied that he didn’t think you could tell much about a writer’s beliefs at all from what they write and pointed to himself as proof. But I don’t know. I look at Jay’s novel Mainspring and I would feel certain, even if I didn’t know Jay, that despite the misogyny of the culture as a whole in that book, Jay is not chauvinistic–that shows through the overarching themes and the way the characters play out.

However, I would also suspect, reading that book without knowing Jay, that Jay was a religious man, and I’d be wrong in that regard. That’s only one book, though–not a whole body of work where you’re likely to see recurring themes–and any decent author can write on a theme they don’t believe in. Within a single book, it’s not the blatant themes that lead me to suspect I’m seeing the author’s worldview; it’s the more subtle ones that I suspect are unconscious. (Though, yes, I know authors can consciously manipulate subtle themes too! I just have the ego to fancy, having worked with books so long, that I can tell the difference. :-)) I’ve been working hard on trying to define more accurately how, but it’s extremely difficult to do…especially when you need to be politic. :-)

I recall a novel I read years ago, though, in which not a single female character filled a role other than servant, mother, or evil bitch, and where homosexuality was always associated with evil. :-/ It’s difficult to this day for me to assume that I would like that author.

I guess that part of what is bringing this subject to the forefront of my mind now is that the story I plan on posting for Monday’s Technopeasant Day is erotic and disturbing. Do I worry that people will view me oddly because of it? Well…a little, yeah; I’m pretty new to this side of the writing gig.

I think most people in publishing know there’s a line between author and story, but I’m curious where you draw it.

4 thoughts on “The line between author and story”

  1. I read King’s comments and I think he has a point.

    In terms of my own experience, several people I know personally read my first published short story and believed it was entirely autobiographical, which it wasn’t. I have had other people react to me strongly based on some of the stories I have written and how I have portrayed characters’ behaviors and choices. Though to say that there was no piece of me or my experience in my stories would be dishonest, I can say with all honesty that there is a huge line between my stories, my characters, and myself.

    I have known a woman online for several years now. We were in a critique group together for a while, and have stayed in touch. Last year she had a brutal, horrifying short story published. (And it was a fine short story — a distinction that will matter in a moment.) I do not believe she is a danger to anyone.

    Robert Cormier (author of such YA classics as The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, among many others) told the story of how when one woman met him she was surprised to find him a mild-mannered, kind man; based on his books she had expected him to be a monster.

    I think one could go through and list all kinds of authors who have written stories where horrible things happen to people, and yet are not going to go out and hurt people. Some of these authors are some of the kindest people anyone could ever meet. Art reflects life, and awful things happen in real life. Authors would be doing a diservice to their readers if they only wrote happy-cotton-candy-ain’t-life-grand stories. And who would want to read that? (Okay, some people do, but that’s another discussion entirely.)

    Maybe one question to ask (and I could be completely wrong here; I’m new at this) is are these stories that have been written by people like Cho real actual stories (or plays or what have you), or are they what many would call “wish fulfillment stories”? I haven’t read Cho’s work, but I did once read a story that sounded similar to what he wrote. I would have called it wish fulfillment, and not an actual short story. But, of course, to apply this experience to all such stories would be faulty.

    Certainly a tangled discussion, and I admire you for bringing it up.

  2. Hi, Deanna,

    I think this is a very interesting topic. I’ll muse on it for a while and then post something on my blog.

    This topic has come up a few times in my past. I’ve always maintained as a truism that you can’t write about a thing without thinking about a thing.

  3. I suspect that it depends on the author and the story — some authors will only write about what they really feel. Some can put themselves into a perspective. Some can write about something where the characters think X is normal, but you can get the creeping sense that no, these are *messed up characters*, and the situation/behavior is not normal at all.

    I’ve creeped myself out a time or two, writing some stuff that’s on the borders of my own comfort zone. I can imagine worse, but the only reason I could think of to write down what’s in the very sewers of my mind would be for the shock value, and that’s not reason enough to revolt myself. (I’ve drawn a couple images just to get them out of my head, but only a couple.)

    If I had a reason to write some of that gutter, I suppose I could. I rather hope I never feel the need to write a scene that disgusting.

  4. I really don’t think you can tell too much from just the themes in the writing alone. You have to look at the whole gestalt of the person.

    For example, much has been made of the fact that Seung-Hui Cho sometimes signed himself as “?” But I don’t recall hearing about the lead singer of the seminal 60s band ? and the Mysterians ging on any rampages, even though he did a similar thing in terms of his name, one that didn’t end when he was offstage.

    And in the writings of Bret Easton Ellis, one can find the most violent revenge fantasies. Whatever one thinks of the author, I don’t believe he’s ever been anything but a law-abiding citizen.

    The thing about Cho is that he presented a whole constellation of disturbing behavior. It went far beyond his writing. Yesterday I was talking to a woman who was trying to blame it all on violent video games. If that were all it took, the U.S. would be largely depopulated….

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