venerdì 13 agosto 2010

Real-life tragedies for real-life cash


Writing books based on actual atrocities like the Holocaust or the Josef Fritzl case can lead to fame and fortune. But is it right?

Objectively, Emma Donoghue's Room is an excellent book. The idiomatic voice of her narrator – five-year-old Jack – is brilliantly controlled and maintained. The story takes a firm hold and imparts a tremendous emotional kick. It asks unsettling, important questions: about morality and society, the human mind and our black hearts, and the unbreakable bonds of familial love. As a work of art it's beyond reproach.

et it left a sour taste in my mouth which lingers several days after reading. And that wasn't just because the subject matter – a woman and child imprisoned for years in an 11ft by 11ft converted shed – is so horrific.

There's an inevitable queasiness attached to books inspired by actual atrocities – in this instance, the Josef Fritzl case. What is their purpose, beyond shocking the public or making them feel guilty, and accruing sales? Do writers use true horror because they've run out of inspiration or ideas – and because they know it will sell?

Of course, authors have the right to address any subject they choose, but as readers we have the corresponding entitlement to question their choices. What moral right has Donoghue, or anyone, to tap actual, terrible events as a source for fiction? Is there not something cynical, exploitative and opportunistic about a book in which the subject is the abominable things – in this case abduction, imprisonment and rape – that happened to real people in the real world?

Basing works of fiction on infamous criminal cases is undeniably a good career move; the book is guaranteed a sympathetic audience and huge sales. By her own admission, Donoghue's literary earnings were modest until now; with Room she earned a chunky advance. Publishers know there is a vast audience of ghouls out there, keen to wallow in others' misery – and pay for the privilege.

It's a similar story with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne's tale of children and death camps which was described by one leading rabbi as "not just a lie … but a profanation". Boyne, whose endorsement appears on the cover of Room, had previously written a few novels with unexceptional sales. But abracadabra: children die in a gas chamber and the author becomes a millionaire with a Hollywood movie.

There are others. Irish author Kevin Power based his – admittedly very good – Bad Day In Blackrock on a notorious Dublin killing. Inevitably, the subject matter generated huge publicity, resulting in sales, awards and a reported film deal.

But the Holocaust, of course, remains the nadir. The amount of fiction produced about the concentration camps led a books editor to describe it to me, crudely but accurately, as "Holocaust porn". This year, for instance, after a long hiatus, Yann Martel published Beatrice and Virgil, a woefully reductive, clumsy and disrespectful allegory.

Does anyone have the moral right to address such grave subjects? Perhaps. Art Spiegelman's seminal graphic novel Maus is a brilliant reimagining of the Holocaust. But, more importantly, his father survived the death camps: the book is also a testament and a tribute to him. Personal connection and filial obligation validated that book. (Martel, to compound his sin, referenced Maus in interviews – which made his novel seem even more redundant.)

My argument is best summarised, I think, by Paul Bailey's introduction to Primo Levi's If This is a Man, in which he writes caustically of "artists who use the terrible fact of the camps for emotional and aesthetic effect". This can be applied equally, I believe, to others who recast real-life outrages as stories; who use "innocent" narrators to win readers' sympathies; who reduce the messy unbearable reality to digestible slices of sentimentality; who dip into the horror suffered by others to cut off a slice and sell it at a profit.

These things – Fritzl, the Holocaust, child murder – are the literary golden tickets. And that really is horrible.

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