people walking

Occasionally in my reading I come across a statement that the author presents as truth, but with which I disagree.

I pride myself in being a resistant reader. Why take anyone’s word for it? Even if an idea is enshrined in print, it could be wrong.

As I was reading The Journalist and the Murderer (check out my book preview), I encountered a passage—Malcolm quoting the novelist Philip Roth—that Malcolm insists states the truth. She uses the quotation to back up a point she is making about the difficulties of writing about living people.

The trouble with writing about living people, according to Malcolm and the character in Roth’s novel, is that living people are not original. They are not interesting. They are not going to provide a writer with the quirky depths that fictional characters tend to have. Here is the quotation in question. Note that Roth’s character, whose opinions are described here, is an author attempting to write about a living person.

“People don’t turn themselves over to writers as full-blown literary characters—generally they give you very little to go on and, after the impact of the initial impression, are barely any help at all. Most people (beginning with the novelist—himself, his family, just about everyone he knows) are absolutely unoriginal, and his job is to make them appear otherwise. It’s not easy. If Henry was ever going to turn out to be interesting, I was going to have to do it.”
—Philip Roth, in The Counterlife, as quoted by Janet Malcolm, in The Journalist and the Murderer

I disagree. In my experience, each person is unique and quirky. Everyone I have ever met seems to have peculiar personality traits that they display over and over, never returning to a state of “normality” or uninterestingness, and occasionally veering off into the radically weird. I’m not saying that transforming someone’s quirkiness into an interesting and readable piece of writing is easy, not at all. But to claim that this is the fault of the outside world seems wrong to me.

It’s more likely a failure to notice the quirkiness, or else a failure to translate the quirkiness to the page.

What do you think—are living people original?

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