Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest post: Novelist Anthony McCarten

I am delighted to host today a guest post by prizewinning New Zealand novelist, playwright and filmmaker Anthony McCarten, whose new novel, Brilliance, will come from Alma Books in March. (See below the article for his biography.) Brilliance is a fascinating exploration of the Faustian bargain struck by Thomas Edison, inventor of electric light, with 'the world's banker', J P Morgan, a moment which McCarten sees as 'a point of embarkation for the modern world' with its powerful corporations and bankers 'greater than governments', and answering Occupy Movement. Interestingly, McCarten provides an Author's Note concerning the fictional treatment of a factual subject, similar to that in Andrew Miller's Pure which was discussed recently by Robert McCrum. Picking up on a phrase in my own post (below) on the matter, 'fast and loose', McCarten argues here that, rather than the 'loss of heart' McCrum sees in such Author Notes, they offer something quite other:


Fast and Loose: sounds like a cricket term for a ball badly bowled.  It derives, actually, from a medieval cheating game, where something seemingly stuck 'fast' becomes, in an apparent act of magic, 'loose.'

Fast and Loose: how often the term is now used by writers to warn the reader or viewer to be prepared for a healthy disregard for historical fact in the story they are about to read or witness.

And the reason we need such a term? Because of the inbuilt tendency of life to not ever quite conform to a well-told story, hence the temptation for the writer to extemporize, to play, to invent, to
conflate, to even falsify events and finally, by an act of apparent magic, apply the angled cricket bat of fancy to the hard, straight ball of fact, sending it rushing on some surprisingly new trajectory.

New: the critical word here. Newness. To introduce the unforeseen into the foreseeable. To surprise. To take what we know, or think we know, and present in a fresh way. To make the wise, unwise. To make the learned ignorant. When applied to historical fiction the writer wishes to get away with murder, and be praised for it.
But praise is not always forthcoming. Should the writer take too many liberties with famous facts
then await the backlash. In anticipation of this backlash "The Authors Note" is born. In this half-page apologia, the author readies the reader for quite a bit of fastness and more than a smattering of looseness.

I wrote such a note for my new, upcoming novel, "Brilliance" which does small injury to virtuous fact as it pertains to the lives of J.P.Morgan and Thomas Edison. Fortunately both men are dead — no small detail, as writers (and their lawyers) meddling with the lives of living entities will tell you — and so they cannot admonish or sue me for setting them in rooms they never entered, spoke lines they could never speak, committed crimes for which the evidence is only circumstantial at best.  In his piece in the Observer, Robert McCrum, suggested that the Author's Note seemed proof of a lack of inventive gumption in modern literature. Why the need to explain, to apologize for anything? Wasn't literature's charter to invent, at all costs, to take no prisoners while doing so? Only wimps feel the need to explain. Publish and be slammed. 

I have a slight problem with this. If you've ever, as a writer, had to face your audience, at a Q&A session, after a reading or the screening of the film adaption of a story based on historical record, then you'd realise that everyone simply wants to know where the facts end and where the fiction begins. "Mr McCarten, can I ask... how much of this story is true?" It's as if the audience has put on hold their emotional reaction until confirmation is delivered that the key scenes that moved them — the key ones, the ones that depict the hero taking up a knife and stabbing, or opening the vault to steal millions, or sending the telegram that will alter the world — whether they actually happened. If they did, then the reader/viewer is all yours: you have a devotee at once. But if you reply, as on occasions I have had to do, "Well, I have played slightly fast and loose with that bit"  the moan in the crowd is pronounced and prolonged, I can assure you. The gumption is not lacking in the writer, I would claim, but in the reader. To address their lack of gumption - for the writer has already proved his licentious credentials by writing of the unhistorical historical in the first place - the Author's Note tries to embolden the reader. It's not an apologia, it's an analeptic. I argue here that the Author's Note is a courtesy to the reader, no more, and that Mr McCrum is bowling something of a wide ball, and I plead for the referee to raise a judicious finger and award one meagre run to the lonely batter.

Anthony McCarten.

Anthony McCarten’s novels have been translated into fourteen languages. His collection of short stories, A Modest Apocalypse, was shortlisted for the Heinemann Reed Fiction Award in 1991. Death of a Superhero won the 2008 Austrian Youth Literature Prize and was a finalist for the German Youth Literature Prize. He has published five novels to date and also written numerous stage plays, including co-writing the world-wide success Ladies Night, which won the prestigious Molière prize, the Meilleure Pièce Comique in 2001. While most of his novels have been turned into successful feature films by other film-makers, McCarten directed Show of Hands himself, as well as his adaption of his stage-play, Via Satellite.
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