Henry James: prolific American-born writer, bachelor and… main character in Colm Tóibín’s novel The Master? And James is a character in this novel– Tóibín builds James as he would any other character. He is written with a personality, thoughts. James has goals, beliefs and failures. He’s a complete and fleshed out into a three-dimensional character with family, with friends, with a history. But. James was an actual person, he lived, published a lot, probably wrote even more, and died; he had family, friends, and a history. How does this work, if it even does work?
Well, it’s simple. There’s Henry James the real-life author and Henry James the fictional character. In some ways, they are the same – same family, same friends, same birth and death date and place, same time period, authorship, residence. Their similarities are only in the facts. Henry James the real-life author and Henry James the fiction character don’t have the same thoughts and feelings or reasons for choosing to do whatever action they chose to do. Mostly because Tóibín can’t know the personal inner workings of James’ mind – he can only infer conclusions from what James penned and left behind. The fictional is built around the factual.
This isn’t that hard to rearrange in your head though – these two different Henrys. But what if I were to tell you that I have written a novel in which Perez Hilton and Zac Efron finally declare their undying love for each other and elope to Hawaii and that this novel is in the process of being published? Aside from the fact that this is ridiculous and it’s also kind of scary to think of Perez married to anyone, I think it makes you wonder – why is a fictional account of Henry James’ life accepted and not a fictional account of a current celebrity’s life? Actually maybe that example was far too ridiculous for you, let me try again; hitting the shelves tomorrow is a fictionalized account of Stephen King’s life (not really). This novel in question works in the same way that Tóibín’s novel does – it builds a fictional life, however, it is about a living author. Is there a difference in the way you would view this novel as opposed to your view on The Master?
If yes, why the difference? There’s a question of morality and of privacy. When does a story stop acting as a story and cross over into libel? To refer back to The Master, Tóibín writes James as a closeted homosexual; there are some interesting facts about James’ life that suggest this, so Tóibín is not completely out in space with this view. There are other points of contention; in The Master, James’ major mistakes and failures as a friend and an artist are taken out and examined by Tóibín and the reader. I’m sure that James would take offense to this candid look at his life. But he’s dead and has been for quite awhile, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter what is said about him. Or does it? Again, at least for me, it’s not quite the same as a novel about a contemporary person.
This issue is about different specific perceptions on what is acceptable. So, my questions for you, amazing reader, are: why aren’t there novels about current celebrities? Do you think it’s immoral and an invasion of privacy to write a fictional account of any real-life person, alive or dead? Should there be a line that an author cannot cross, and if so, where should it be drawn?
I’m interested in reading your thoughts.