First, two unrelated holiday notes. Walter Jon Williams has asked me to remind anyone interested that applications to Taos Toolbox, which he and I are co-teaching this summer, are now open. Second, I got a Kindle for Christmas, and I love it. Thank you, Jack!
Now onto the meat of this column. Every so often I get some variation of this question from a student: "If I base a character in my story on my Aunt Millie or Tom Cruise, can I be sued?" The short answer is yes to Aunt Millie under certain circumstances, no to Tom Cruise under most circumstances (in fiction), which is not really a satisfactory answer. But if you're going to do it, you might look first at a current wildly successful novel to see if you want to.
Curtis Sittenfeld's AMERICAN WIFE is based on Laura Bush. Sittenfeld, the author of the bestseller PREP, is not out to write scandal. This is not a cheap roman a clef, but rather a serious look at the question of why people end up in the often unlikely places they do. In this case, a school librarian who is serious, reserved, devoted to books, and with mildly left political leanings, finds herself in the White House, married to an exuberant, often profane Republican president who sends troops to a war she personally opposes.
Sittenfeld -- herself only thirty-four -- is at her best writing about young people, and the earliest sections of this novel are far better than the later ones: richer, more detailed, more vivid. Like Laura Bush, Sittenfeld's Alice runs a stop light in high school, hits another car, and inadvertently kills a classmate driving that vehicle. AMERICAN WIFE then builds a complicated character around that incident, giving Alice a fledgling romance with the boy who died, graphic guilt-sex with his brother, an illegal abortion, a lesbian grandmother, and several other appurtenances that seem wholly fictional. The author builds a complex psychological case for Alice's attraction to the Charlie Blackwell character: “He was all breeziness and good cheer; when I was talking to him, the world did not seem like such a complicated place.” She marries Charlie, who comes from a political family but is drifting job-wise and drinking too much. Eventually he quits drinking, runs for governor using his father's political machine, and goes on to be elected president in a disputed election settled by the Supreme Court.
This book left me torn. On the one hand, it is undeniably good fiction. On the other, the graphic and violent fictional inventions, attached to a living person, left me queasy. On the third hand (it's that kind of book) the novel raises genuine and worthwhile questions about marriage in the public arena: How far can one go in disagreeing with a public-figure spouse on critically important questions like war or abortion or gay marriage? Where is the line between wimpy abnegation of self and publicly undermining a spouse because of personal failures?
To Sittenfeld's credit, she has no easy answers. Neither do I. But if I were Laura Bush, I would hate this book. The portrait of her is sympathetic, and no public figures can expect the privacy allowed those who do not seek national prominence. But readers -- including me -- will have trouble separating the factual (because there is so much of it) from the invented, and the invented is often really, really distasteful. Should writers do that to people, especially to people whom -- and Sittenfeld has said this in print -- they profess to admire? Where is the line between courageous fiction and crass exploitation?
Laura Bush reads a lot. Did she read this? I find myself hoping she did not. And I'm a Democrat.