Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you’ve probably read the recent New Yorker profile of Dan Mallory AKA A. J. Finn, author of the phenomenally successful psychological thriller The Woman in the Window. The profile alleges that Mallory lied to friends and colleagues about having cancer and implies that, amongst other things, he also lied about having a doctorate from Oxford, about his mother’s death and his brother’s suicide, and about ‘discovering’ Robert Galbraith (the crime writer also known as J. K. Rowling).
The article raised some worrying questions about gender and perceived employability in the publishing industry (for more on that, see this excellent piece in The Conversation), but also raises some interesting questions about what sort of truths we expect from authors of fiction. To what extent does an author have the right to write a fiction of their own life?
A follow-up article by Leo Benedictus in The Guardian prompted me to write this post. In the article, Leo considers the recent history of authors who have, for varying reasons, lied about their identity. From reclusive Asian teenager Rahila Khan turning out to be an Anglican vicar called Toby, to embellished memoirs such as James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’, the tradition of the literary liar is, it seems, a long one. And if we start to consider writers who, for various reasons, have elected to write under a pseudonym in order to secure publication (hello, the Bronte sisters and George Elliot), then the list stretches back to the very beginnings of the English novel.
But does finding out the ‘truth’ about an author’s identity alter their work? Were Rahila Khan’s stories of British Asian life any less affecting when it emerged that their author was, in fact, a middle-aged white guy? Did ‘Jane Eyre’ become less brilliant when it emerged that Currer Bell was, in fact, Charlotte Bronte? Is ‘The Woman in the Window’ a less accomplished thriller because of its author? To what extent does an author’s fiction stand on its own?
This is not a question with an easy, or even, I think, a definite answer.
On the one hand, surely the job of fiction is to be just that – fiction. Setting aside for one moment the valid debate about the very real need for own voices narratives, the job of a novelist is surely to imagine a life outside of their own; to be able to craft worlds and characters that are beyond their own lived experiences. Hannah Kent has not lived in nineteenth-century Iceland but does that make ‘Burial Rites’ a lesser novel? I would say no – to say otherwise would be to argue that fiction can only be written in, and about, the present moment. Crime writers do not, one hopes, have to kill anyone in order to write about serial killers, and I don’t think many science-fiction authors have actually been to space.
But when the author is declaring that the validity of their lived experiences informs their work, then I can understand why readers feel angry and misled. Benedictus’ article mentions the disturbing phenomena of the fake or exaggerated Holocaust memoir. To exaggerate or fake a life, or life events, in order to elicit publicity, reader sympathy, or praise for your work is different to imagining yourself in another situation. These authors have stepped away from the stage of their fiction and are moving amongst their audience. For me at least, it is at this point that a fiction becomes a lie.
As I said, this is a multi-faceted and complex debate, but I think ultimately this is a question of expectations. Personally, I have no issue with an author creating a fictional experience outside of their own lived experience. This is the art of fiction and I appreciate being able to revel in the scope of their imagination. But if I am being sold a book on the basis that it reflects the author’s life experience, it has not been sold to me entirely as fiction, so my expectations are altered. As a reader, I would expect an element of ‘truth’.
Which brings me back to Dan Mallory/A. J. Finn. I reviewed ‘The Woman in the Window’ on the blog and, for the most part, enjoyed it. Amidst an onslaught of psychological thrillers, it was a compulsive page-turner and I liked the way in which it played with the plot of ‘Rear Window’ in order to subvert expectations.
Having read the New Yorker piece, does my opinion of ‘The Woman in the Window’ change?
Having thought long and hard, I don’t think it does. I still think the book is a compulsive and entertaining psychological thriller. From a distance, and with more reflection, it’s probably not quite as unique or original as my review made out, but I still enjoyed the experience of reading it. It was, and remains, a decent thriller.
Has my opinion of its author changed? Undoubtedly. But whether I like, or agree, with the actions of an author – and whether this prevents me from reading any more of their books – is, I think, an entirely separate debate.
I’d be really interested to hear other thoughts on this and would highly recommend reading Leo’s Guardian piece (and the original New Yorker profile) linked above. There’s also another Guardian article on literary fakery that informed my thoughts in this post. As with any ‘Discussion Time’, this is just my thoughts on a current literary/reading debate so be nice and respect each other in the comments.
I’ll be back soon with another book review and a great author Q&A with writer Alison Morton but, until the next time, Happy Reading!