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The Bones of a Story: An Alleged Affair and an Author

Often times, we don’t get the whole picture. We aren’t privileged enough to get even a glimpse. Instead, we stare at the bones of something and try to determine what it is, what it was, and what it means. But meaning a tricky thing, like perspective. It is fluid, and it never falls into a straight line. There is literal meaning and figurative meaning — the first being the chalk outline of something, the second being the soul of it.

I’m looking at the bones of something, hefting them in my hand. Someone has cleaned the off nicely, but left them in a heap. It looks remarkably like a puzzle, and I cannot help but wonder about the authenticity. Something does not have to be true to be authentic, just like a story can be made of lies and be brilliant. The best fiction is stitched together as such, with enough shades and shadows of truth to give it meaning. In the world of a story, things merely have to feel true to be true.

Stories are grey things, a collaborative act in two parts — the first part being the author putting the words on the page; the second part is a interaction between text and reader, specifically the meaning that the active, close reader can draw from the text. Without the author’s vision, the text does not exist — but without the reader’s interpretation, it does not live.

Consider Sylvia Plath much lauded The Bell Jar , which is a loosely based autobiographical work. It is not entirely a work of fiction, neither is it a tale of merely facts. Plath deftly blends the two.

A more recent novel would be Alice Sebold‘s jarring, stunning, and brilliant The Lovely Bones. It is a work of fiction, yet it is fueled by a personal life experience (which you can read about here). Writing, of course, comes out of a person and not a hat; there can, certainly, be crossover (deliberate or otherwise) between an author and his/her writing. Personally speaking, there are certain parts of myself that have wormed their way into things I’ve written — occasionally without my knowledge or consent. But these are, generally, pieces of things, not the bones or musculature of a story.

What, then, does one make of You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik? According to Jezebel.com, there is talk of an alleged affair between Maksik and a student of his, back when he taught in Paris. (See here for the full article. It is an interesting read.) Again according to Jezebel.com, the novel seems to be a roman a clef, based on Maksik’s actual experiences at the American School of Paris. He was, supposedly, dismissed from his teaching post for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know the female character (Marie) in Maksik’s novel is a real person, or even a composite of real people. The book has garnered a lot of praise, and judging by a cursory look at it, myself, it is well-written. Jezebel wonders if the book’s acclaim would suffer if the novel has elements grounded in reality (i.e. if the story about the affair is true).

This leaves me feeling squicky, first of all. Second of all, it leaves me a bit at odds with myself. There are a billion ways to look at a novel — a bunch of different lenses of critique, from Feminist to Reader Response to Deconstructionism. Extracting the story from the supposed circumstances, one would presume (as Roland Barthes stated) that the author is effectively dead. That the words on the page are all that matter. Yes, texts act as artifacts for any given time (Dickens would probably write VERY different novels if he lived in present day England — the same goes from Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Mitchell) — but they are also, at their core, STORIES.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know if the novel loses merit, depending on its inspiration or genesis. I am, as I write that, extracting my personal feelings regarding the author. That is not easy to do, because my gut reaction is something akin to: EWWW. (The reaction might be censored, for fear it would only contain curse words and garbled mumbling.) I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it curious that the editor was Sebold, given her literary history. Then again, that could all be coincidence.

Like I said, before, I’m sitting here staring at the bones of something. I cannot tell what it is, just by eyeballing the various parts. I can point to something and say, “I’m fairy certain that is a skull,” but I can’t tell you specifics. I can say that it looks as if it’s made of bone, but I cannot say with certainty that is actually bone.

Authors work very hard to remind people that they are not their stories. I do. I’ve heard other writers talk about this, too. You can write a story about a serial killer, without turning into Darkly Dreaming Dexter (or assuming that Jeff Lindsay hacks people up as a hobby). There is potential, yes, with Maksik’s book that it is unfortunately grounded in personal experience — but I’m not sure that I can say that potential would detract from the praise being given. (Note: For clarity’s sake, that doesn’t mean I think such actions would be conscionable. I do not.)

Does a story have to be real in order to be true? No. It merely has to be believable. Additionally, I think it is dangerous to confuse the author with his/her story. However, personally speaking, I’ve having a tough time wrapping my head around this entire discussion. What do you think about this?

Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things.” ~Neil Gaiman

““Literature is without proofs.” ~Roland Barthes

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  1. Kate
    November 30, 2011 at 1:42 am

    As a former student of his, I can tell you that that Jezebel article is being widely spread between us and a lot of us feel … justified in a way.

    Personally, when I first heard that our old English teacher was coming out with a book about “a teacher at an international school in Paris,” I wondered, only jokingly, if it had anything to do with his time at ASP and his affair with the girl, her abortion, etc. After reading the book, I was incredibly shocked after recognizing him describing himself, the school to a T, a lot of students I had known, teachers, situations, and of course, the girl.

    Mostly we’re a bit upset that…well, everyone who knew him at this school would certainly see through the false names. And we’re a bit upset that he’s making some money off of this story that he refuses to acknowledge his real role in. We’re upset that this book is being sold as a work of fiction, and he’s never even mentioned in his interviews that he was a teacher at a high school in Paris, and is implying that this book is a work of his imagination.

    And I personally was upset to see that in the book, like in real life, he didn’t take responsibility or feel any remorse for what he did.

    • November 30, 2011 at 8:06 am

      Thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts on this — and for giving me a bit of personal background. I appreciate that, and your thoughts are very well-articulate. I have read a few interviews (in doing some background reading) where Maksik does mention his time as a teacher. I can give you a links, if you like. Here he talks about his time in Paris, but not his teaching — and here he briefly mentions being a teacher. If I find anything else that might be illuminating, I’ll post it here.

      Again, thank you very much for taking the time to write me a comment. I appreciate that you did, and what you said has given me a few things to think about.

  2. A parent
    December 1, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    As the parent of a child who was in one of Alexander Maksik’s English classes when he was fired from ASP, I wonder that people haven’t commented on the wider effects of his inappropriate behavior with female student/students at ASP. Maksik abused his position as a teacher. In power relations, the one with the power–and that was Maksik–is responsible for the relationship. His inappropriate behavior affected many, if not all, of his students. They were left to wonder his real criteria for grades were. And what of Maksik’s co-workers at the school? What about students who weren’t in his classes but knew him? And the young woman in question? Why should he profit from harming her? What right does he have to upend her life? Again.

    My impression of him as alarmingly self-absorbed seems to have been accurate.

    • December 1, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      You raise some excellent questions — and those same questions are ones I have asked, as well. Undoubtedly, for anyone directly involved with the situation, there is a level of personal knowledge and experience that most don’t have. I appreciate you taking the time to share your views and thoughts, as someone who has firsthand knowledge of ASP and Maksik.

      As someone outside the situation, without any firsthand knowledge, I can’t speak to what went on at ASP or didn’t. For the purposes of this post, I was discussing the novel and how the possibly circumstances affected the story. This would be a very different post if I were writing about my personal feelings about the scandal itself, as well as Maksik.

      Again — thank you very much for taking the time to write your thoughts. They are very well-articulated, and I’m glad to have read them. I appreciate you allowing me some personal insight into things.

  1. April 1, 2012 at 11:47 am

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