‘The Cat Person debate shows how fiction writers use real life does matter’

From The Guardian: “It was Graham Greene who wrote that every writer has a splinter of ice in their heart. I think he was right: you have to have it, otherwise you would spend all your time worrying about the impact of your work on others and you would never write at all. At the same time, it cannot be easy to find yourself and your dead ex identifiable in a spectacularly successful piece of writing, when it would have been so easy to change some of the more recognisable biographical details (for which Roupenian apologised). Writers can only hope that the people they use as fictional fodder are as gracious and mature as Nowicki has shown herself to be.”

I remember one Friday afternoon in 2008. I got a phone message from Amy Klein saying she was publishing a Modern Love column about me in the New York Times the next day. I thought turnabout is fair play. I’ve written about Amy. She was my pinata. It was time for Amy to write about me.

Amy Klein was a character on the sidelines of my life. As the managing editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, she was almost a public figure in the Jewish community, and as she wrote first-person pieces, it felt right to give some occasional commentary. I felt freer to write about her as she also made her living writing about others. If she was important to me, I would likely not have written about her. I never thought about any kind of relationship with her and so I felt free to write whatever went through my head.

I’ve rarely written about family and relations. I’ve rarely written about girlfriends (except when I understood they wouldn’t mind much). I’ve rarely written about employers. I’ve rarely written about all sorts of people important to me precisely because I don’t want to hurt those relationships.

I don’t think non-writers realize how little writers often feel about people they write about. You don’t have to be triggered or upset or be filled with yearning to write about someone. I’ve written about thousands of people, few grabbed me intensely.

Most football players don’t think deeply about the people they hit on a football field, and I don’t think trial lawyers think deeply about the feelings of opponents in court. Similarly, most journalists don’t think deeply about the feelings of people they describe.

We don’t own our reputations. They reside in the heads of others.

Jack Shafer writes for Slate Aug. 27, 2007 about New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt's Aug. 26 column:

One of the flaws in Hoyt's thinking is his belief that one's reputation is a possession –like a car or a tennis racket — when one's reputation actually resides in the minds of others. A person can have as many reputations as people who know him or know of him. Positing that the top link in a Google search of a name equals somebody's reputation is silly, and Hoyt's column only encourages that notion.

If Google users conclude that an individual is guilty of fondling a child just because a Times story reported his arrest, that says more about their gullibility than it does about the inadequacies of the Web or the Times. The Times is wonderful, but it's not a vaccine against stupidity.

Whatever their shortcomings, search engines are a million times superior to human memory, which they are rapidly replacing. 

The Web also offers those wounded a variety of ways to manage their reputations and mitigate the offenses of the New York Times (and of other publications). 

By exaggerating the absolute power of the Times and Google to determine reputation, Hoyt's column encourages people to think of themselves as technopawns. (It also damages Hoyt's reputation in the process, but that's his problem.) I'm all for getting the Times to correct meaningful errors of fact in a decent interval, but if you want to secure a better reputation than the one that Google currently spits out, get busy and build it yourself.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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