Friday, 21 August 2009

A New Ian Rankin mystery!

I'm so excited, I'm so excited, I'm so excited: Ian Rankin has a new book coming out next month! Guardian preview here, "Rankin Reveals Details of New Detective", and it's a new detective since John Rebus is now retired (sob). His name is Malcolm Fox, and I can hardly wait!!!. Joy!!!

Also from The Guardian, here is a list from Marjorie Blackman of 10 of the best graphic novels. For anyone looking for some of the best graphic novels - the classics in the genre - this might be a place to begin. Which would mean myself, also, since I'm so new at reading the genre!

And here, because the Guardian seems to have some good sections for this Saturday, is a review of the very first Patricia McKillip book, the one the won the very first World Fantasy Award: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. I read this book over 20 years ago and gave it to the only person I knew then who read fantasy, I loved it so much! It's one that's due for a reread soon, too. This is a fabulous review of a fantasy classic that I think everyone should read.

And, one of my favourite Canadian fantasy writers, Guy Gavriel Kay, has a wonderful piece on what using real-life figures in fiction might actually mean, and how fantasy is better at imagining the truth of another's life, in "Are Novelists Entitled to use Real-Life Characters?" That's the question I've been thinking over lately, wondering why I'm not drawn to the same mystery series that Bride at Bride of the Book God has been reading, Nicola Upson's new series starring Josephine Tey using her real name, Elizabeth Mackintosh. Her post is here. Kay asks, what right do we have to put words and thoughts in real-life figures' mouths and minds, when we don't know what they were thinking or feeling? I wonder, why use someone who was once alive, who doesn't really have anything to do with the story? It seems to me a failure of imagination, of cheating - it's one thing to write a biography, and make educated guesses, based on events in the person's life, their own words and possible letters etc. It is quite another to take a real person, and make them into fiction, without using them to create a new figure, which is what fiction is about. Writers take bits and pieces of the people they meet, the phrases they use, mannerisms, and put the bits together to make a new whole. To take a real person, and give them fictional thoughts and dreams - I find that disturbing. Yes, I agree with what Kay says in his article!

What about you, dear reader? Are you drawn to books that feature real people in fictional settings? Do you think this is an honest way to tell a story? And yes, that means I am criticizing Joyce Carol Oates' book Blonde, without ever having read it. And it does bother me that I am even forced to make this kind of choice in my reading.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy biographies and history! I think I am concerned about the invasion of the person. Unless a writer specifically aims his arrow at a person by making them into a badly-disguised character, which we all know has happened! - I think that people are entitled to their privacy. I really enjoyed Josephine Tey's most famous work, The Daughter of Time, but I'm not sure I like her as the star of a mystery series she isn't writing herself. It's the continued line of blurring of reality that James Frey laid wide open with his biography that turned out to be a little bit untrue. Somehow, Kay says, we are left with almost no privacy at all. I would add, we don't know what is true any more, not really, not if we are putting words and ideas in people who were alive once, ideas they never would have had. And to be honest, this is the reason why I haven't picked up Laurie King's reworking of Sherlock Holmes with Mary Russell. I read most of Sherlock Holmes while a teenager, and I must have imbibed a sense that Sherlock Holmes was wary around women, and didn't think of them as equals. I have tried to imagine Sherlock Holmes sparring with a woman, and while I can see the appeal - he is so darned intelligent, and wouldn't we love to be the woman who is intelligent enough for him? - I don't see him as ever in domestic bliss. I can't read the Mary Russell series (even though I really like anything else Laurie King has written!) because she has changed a literary figure into something he's not. She may have made it better, but that wasn't how Doyle originally wrote him, and so he had something different in mind. I can't help asking, why didn't Ms King make a character similar to Sherlock, invent a male character that was better than Sherlock?

So what right do writers have to change other works, and what right do they have to use real people in fictionalize works where their words and actions are not real?

Let me know if you have any thoughts, or if you care - I'm curious, and very interested to see if I am the only one (well, other than Mr Kay!) who does think it's important. (Sorry here to Bride, who really likes what Upson has done to the real-life people Josephine Tey and her friend Archie Penrose in the series!!!) See? It's not an easy topic, and no one will agree completely, but I'd really like to know if it's important to you or not, dear Gentle Reader.

I hope you have a happy Friday with a good book!


Table Talk said...

I must go and read the Kay article now. I had real problems with the Upson book. I know it said that she had talked to Gielgud about it before he died, but I wonder if he had any idea how she was going to portray him? But then I have a friend whose parents were in the book and she loved it.

As for the new Rankin, I'm really glad he's setting out with a new detective. I think he needs something to focus on that he can grow. I definitely felt the last 'one-off' was weak.

Susan, I'm going to put a sticky post up later today about a Shakespeare discussion group that you might be interested in. It would be great to have you along if you were.

DesLily said...

om'gosh.. lessee now.. first off I too read The forgotten Beasts of Eld so many eons ago I had to look it up to remember what it was about!!! It feels strange when a book title jumps out of you from the past and you go, "oh! I read that!".. and then go.. "but dang if I remember the story!".. it's called old age, but hey.. I did read it once!!

Wow, sorry that you can't get into the Mary Russell books.. i loved them all and although I can't say I read all the Holmes books when I was young, I did see all the Basil Rathbone versions of the movies and I had no problem with Laurie R Kings books. Maybe because she really didn't change Holmes. Yes he was married in most all of her books, but this was after he was older and "retired"... so it is written as another chapter of Holmes AFTER all those other mysteries he solved. I wish you could like them, I found they added to my liking of Holmes and even made me go out and by a "complete sherlock holmes" book with all Doyles stories!

as for taking a real person and using them in a fiction setting.. I guess it wouldn't "totally" bother me.. I mean, knowing the whole thing is fiction you already know it's "not real". I think much of fan fiction does this by using well known characters and they write their own stories using them.. I think it's much the same. It could well change how you see the character/ person but only if you choose to not think of the story as fiction. but it wouldn't be my first choice to use a real person.. and you are right most writers used pieces of people they know to make up a character "but change the name to protect the innocent"..heh.. (hadda do that)..

Rebecca said...

Fab news on a new Rankin, although I suppose I must read the last Rebus, which I've been putting off. I look forward to making the acquaintance of Fox.

Coincidentally, I have just discovered Kay and am reading Tigana. I generally steer clear of books that use real life characters, and books that use fictional characters outside their original scope. It just never works for me (and also I think, hey author, create your own characters).

Gavin said...

Very thoughtful post Susan. I am so excited about the new Rankin book! I haven't read Doors Open yet but it's sitting on a pile of books across the room. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a favorite of mine as well. I'll hop over and read the review.

As for authors using real people in novels I have qualms about it, just like I have qualms about someone continuing a series after the original author is dead. I started reading Drood and had real problems with it. Had to put it down. I will read the Kay piece.

Stephanie said...

Is it bad that I have never read either an Ian Rankin novel or a Guy Gavriel Kay novel? I'm feeling pretty embarrassed right now!!

Truthfully, I HATE fiction novels that use real people. First of all, it seems like a cop out to me. If you don't have enough creativity to come up with a NEW character then you shouldn't be writing!! (I know that sounds a little harsh, but i just can't help it).

This summer I started reading the book American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I didn't really check it out carefully enough because I didn't realize it was based on Laura Bush's life. Fictionalized, but still based on that person. I just couldn't finish the book.

I also don't really think it's fair to the person you are writing about. I know I'm not really vocalizing myself very well, and I'm sorry for that. But thank you for having such a thought provoking topic today!!

brideofthebookgod said...

No apologies necessary Susan, the fact that we all look at things differently is what makes the whole book blogging discussion thing so fascinating.

The thing for me is how well written the book is, is the fictional version consistent with what we know of the real person, and does their involvement in the story illuminate something about their life and times that we otherwise wouldn't have seen?

I don't think using a real person as a character is a cop-out; if anything it takes more skill to do it well because of wjat's in the public domain.

Not sure I've expressed myself teribly well but hopefully you can see where I'm coming from.

And as a huge Sherlock fan I can say that I love Mary Russell and am just about to start The Language of Bees....

Susan said...

Table talk: I know, my post has gotten some interest, below, some for using real people, some not! I didn't know the author used other real people too. I think I am coming down on the side of not using real people! Does the author say why she used so many real people in her work of fiction?

I just sent you an email about the Shakespeare group, thank you so much for inviting me!

Pat: I have the same problem, I know I read the Forgotten Beasts of Eld, but I can't remember the story, just that it made me cry. Reread time! lol

fan fiction is about created characters, not real people, so I don't really have a problem with fan fiction - some good authors have come out of that! but I don't read much of it, because I want the original authors - I know, I sound all prissy here! and I see your point too about Holmes. It's just that how Doyle wrote him isn't how he ends up in King's books, and I prefer the original author. I do wish King had invented a character instead of building on an existing one, though.

Becky: Tigana is one of the few I haven't read yet by him! Please let me know if you like him - I think I left that comment on your blog this morning....I think I am coming to agree with you, about hey authors, use your own characters; I am an author, even though unpublished, so I have a bit of an inside view! lol

Gavin: I have to read Open Doors still, I think I'll get to it shortly. I hope the new book is here on the same day too!!

Interesting what you say about Drood - it's gotten mixed reviews so far. I have been saving it for RIP, but now I'm afraid it will take up the whole challenge time!

I'm glad you liked Forgotten Beasts of Eld. It is beautiful fantasy, isn't it?

Stephanie: I agree with you! Though i think it can be interesting to use a real-life figure in a fiction book, I think the limits should be to what is known about the person; that is Kay's point too. What Upson has done - though it seems to depend on who is reading the book to whether she was true to the people - is take real people, and change them - which, is ok if it's a fictional character, not a real one. At least I think so! And I think you vocalized it quite well - I don't think I could read a fictionalized book of Laura Bush unless she wrote it herself!! I mean, she's still LIVING, why would the author fictionalize her/her life? what is the point? I think that's laziness on the author, and insulting to Mrs Bush, at the least, if not downright infringing on her life as her own personal space, at least while she's alive, unless she gives permission for it to be used. So thanks for your thoughtful comments, too!

Bride: well, even the Upson book has its supporters and detractors! Very interesting!

I don't think real people ARE in the public domain. At least, not until they die. But they/we are moving into it, and I think we have to be careful what we do here in this space that other people's private lives are. I don't mind fictionalizing a real person if it's clear it's fiction. It's when it's blurred - when a real person is used, and changed by the author, and portrayed as real that I find wrong. I think that's the problem. In Upson's book, according to Ann, Gielgud is portrayed as differently than just about anyone knew him as, but she prtrays it as the real man. Why is that right for the author to take creative liberties with a real person? Why not invent one based on a real person? I think that's the question I have....

anyway, it has led to a very interesting discussion! and everyone who reads the Mary Russell mysteries really really loves them!!!I still think Sherlock Holmes would never have married though....

brideofthebookgod said...

An interesting discussion indeed! I think I get more concerned about how real people are portrayed on TV and in movies than I do about their appearance in novels. And possibly it's to do with the amount of time that's lapsed since the person has died?

I suspect that if I think too much about this my head may just explode (it's a very warm evening here in London and I'm recovering from a summer cold so not at my intellectual best....)

Go on Susan, try The Beekeeper's Apprentice; I didn't think it would work, but it does....

Susan said...

Dear Bride: see my post I just put up! You're in it! lol I think it's a great debate, and it's a coincidence (I wonder what Jung who didn't believe in coincidences would say about all this) that Kay wrote his piece at the same time as you were reviewing the book, so I wasn't picking on you! It just seemed something we could all relate too...I don't mean to make your head explode! Please don't, I still have to meet you one day!! But I know what you mean, I don't think we're going to come up with the definitive answer if better heads than ours can't! lol

And between you and Pat (Deslily) and most everyone who loves the Mary Russell books, I'll have to give it a try and see how badly Holmes is changed. Plus i need to see who would possibly kill a parrot in the other book you reviewed today *sigh* :-D

Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic, to be honest I had not given much thought to the use of real people in novels or the use of established fictional characters. Historical fiction is riddled with real figures and I find I will happilly read a variety of books both fiction and non-fiction on a particular topic, all of which feed into creating an imagined construct of people and events. On Josephine Tey her book Daughter of Time combined with novels like The Sunne in Splendour, Shakespeare's Richard the Third and numours biographys and historical accounts of the war of the roses all seem to work together to create an imagined sense of both the time and the person of Richard the Third. I think I actually kind of enjoy fictionalised accounts of real people but I don't make the mistake of taking them as gospel truth, they seem to form a part of a web of reading where one book leads to another, it can spark a need for further information, and that can be found in both fiction and non-fiction texts. I do enjoy and value the imagined world.
I have read some very enjoyable novels featuring real people, I am thinking of Julian Barnes' novel Arthur and George, a fascinating fictionalised account of events in the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, a book that can be equally enjoyed with or without knowledge of Doyle's life. I wonder if perhaps it is not harder to imagine and place words into the mouths of legendary figures than it is to create characters from scratch.
As to the question of originality, so many great works seem to have originated in other stories or from the real lives of historical figures, Shakespeare certainly used historical figures as fodder for his immagination. Jane Austen seems to be constantly re-hashed with varying degrees of success, I recently read a crime novel that utilised the characters and elements of the plot of her last novel, a work which seemed to be an affectionate homage to a great author as well as an entertaining work in its own right, so I think the utilisation of real people and established fictional characters has a legitimate place in fiction, but when it is badly done, just as any poorly written work it is a pointless excercise. This is a fascinating topic, one on which I had not given much thought previously, so thanks for such a stimulating discussion.
The new Rankin is indeed something to look forward too. And thanks for the link to the graphic fiction article.

Stephanie said...

I haven't read anything by this author. You've piqued my interest!

Unknown said...

I have been reading your blog for awhile I love the mix of books you look at. Like Gavin I also had trouble with Drood. I finished it but I was upset with the characterization of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens-- both beloved in their own ways to many. It is really unflattering to the both of them and felt like a blow. I was actually glad to read someone else felt the same way.....

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