“I was reviewing a novel. Then I found myself in it.”
April 22, 2019 12:09 AM   Subscribe

Who Owns a Story? is an essay by Katy Waldman in The New Yorker about the experience of reviewing a book, Trinity by Louisa Hall, and finding that an essay she wrote about her anorexia and family [previously] has been mined by the author.
posted by Kattullus (34 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I... don’t know? I think, that, once you put your work out into the public eye, you have to be ok with others scavenging what they want from it. They won’t necessarily read or use it the way you intended, but you released it, and that’s the contract. I’m a little more sympathetic about friends and family who find parts of themselves in authors’ work, but the author has to get material from somewhere.

Fay Weldon talks about this at length in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:07 AM on April 22 [5 favorites]

Holy shit. So look, it's first thing in the morning. I scanned across that whole thing trying to figure what exactly Waldman is accusing the writer of, because honestly, I feel like that's the important thing here. It's wildly self-indulgent and the (I pray!) exaggerated claim that this article has been rewritten 84 times does not put me in a good place regarding what I am reading. I don't know what happened, and if someone could tell me, I would appreciate it. Were parts of Waldman's article duplicated in the novel? Unless they were, this just seems bizarre. No one owns the concept of [checks notes]....anorexia?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:42 AM on April 22 [15 favorites]

Maybe the Pale Fire stuff is meant to suggest the intriguing possibility that Waldman, Hall and Osgood are all actually the same person.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:09 AM on April 22 [7 favorites]

I thought the Pale Fire scene was supposed to be funny, as in, Shade was thinking "how in God's name am I going to get away from Kinbote again", while the latter thinks he is having some artistic epiphany, which he then attempts to symbolize with a banal memory from childhood.
posted by thelonius at 5:31 AM on April 22 [6 favorites]

The narrative is definitely twisted up by bouncing back and forth between timelines without much signaling, and some of the prose is so deliberately confusing I have to assume it's part of the same intentional aesthetic (eg did the author Choi somehow edit the Slate essay about Waldman and her sister? That's the only available antecedent to "she" but it's only possible through later deduction -- Choi read the essay and enjoyed it -- to figure out that the editor was either Waldman's sister or the unnamed editor of the NY Times review).

Not being able to follow what seemed like a possibly straightforward story really bugged me so instead of dropping it I read it four times (so, uh, does that mean Waldman won?)... I may still be confused but I believe the narrative is:

Pre 2015: Choi writes book, Waldman reviews positively in Times
2015: Waldman writes very personal essay in Slate about idolizing her sister's anorexia
2018: Choi writes book in which a fictional narrator's backstory involves admiring their sister's anorexia. Waldman is assigned to review it and apparently flips out in an 84-stage process, the final result of which is inexplicably published as the "meat" in what is otherwise a pretty standard New Yorker "book review sandwich" format.

All of which is to say that it's extremely unclear to me if Waldman is even really making a case "against" Choi -- at first at least she seems to have had a strong response to seeing a version of her story in Choi's novel but it seems self evidently ridiculous to feel an ownership claim over what is ultimately a sadly-not-uncommon eating disorder story. It seems like the essay uses the form and structure of an accusation to not make an accusation. Maybe that's the point. Or maybe it's an honest portrayal of feeling confused and not knowing what to think (mission for sure accomplished).
posted by range at 5:33 AM on April 22 [17 favorites]

Hall wrote "Trinity", not Choi.

This would have been an amazing essay if none of the books referenced had actually existed.
posted by phooky at 5:36 AM on April 22 [18 favorites]

It's trivial, I know, but I found myself sighing very early on in the piece, when she quotes the phrase from Pale Fire, "a conjurer . . . quietly consuming a vanilla ice", and then later tries to spin it into A Meaningful Image with "Shade is a writer, a surrogate for Nabokov, and he is also a ghost, a memory dining on shadows—the glitter and impermanence of ice."

And I'm like, uh, settle down. "Vanilla ice" is ice cream--neither particularly glittery nor more impermanent than anything else you might eat; in fact, creamy and unctuous and sweet and delicious.
posted by theatro at 5:50 AM on April 22 [7 favorites]

Hall wrote "Trinity", not Choi.

Damn. I knew I was going to screw that up and did it anyway. All Chois in my earlier post are actually Hall. Rats. And yes, agreed that this whole thing makes more sense as a work of fiction itself.
posted by range at 5:52 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

I thought "the impermanence of ice" referred to the limited shelf life of Vanilla Ice's oeuvre. Clearly I need to revisit Nabokov in light of this development.

I'll get to that right after I pitch an essay about why some narratives are fascinating as fiction but less interesting as truth. Seriously, I'm kind of weirded out by my reaction to this.
posted by phooky at 6:04 AM on April 22 [13 favorites]

I guess that I think that it's pretty likely that Hall did mine Waldman's essay for the backstory to her character. Hall told Waldman that she read the essay when it came out. It's a fairly specific story. I'm a recovering anorexic, and it's definitely not my story. And I'm not sure that I think it's necessarily a problem if she did. Writers are magpies: they borrow from all sorts of sources, and then they transform those bits of narrative into something new. Obviously, there's some point when it crosses the line into plagiarism, but I don't think anyone is alleging that Hall did that. So what if she did read the essay, think "this is an intriguing backstory for a character," and then create a completely new character who shared the basic outlines of Waldman's history? I think it would be completely unnerving to be the Waldman person in that scenario, but once you put something out there, it's out there. You can't control how it bounces off of other people's imaginations.

I find Waldman's writing style to be annoying, but I might be interested in an essay by someone else about what happens when you find your biography in someone else's novel.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:12 AM on April 22 [13 favorites]

Semi-Relevant: Susan Choi's "Trust Exercise" is one of the weirdest, most unsettling books I've read this year. I keep trying to push it on people so I can find someone to talk about it with me. Because I have questions and thoughts.
posted by thivaia at 6:14 AM on April 22 [7 favorites]

Yeah, that actually made me want to read Trust Exercise. I'm going to have to put it on a list for sometime in the future, when I hopefully will have forgotten the spoilers.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:15 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

If you take away that the characters are twins and that one of them is a writer--both things that if you put them into fanfic OCs are going to seem horribly overdone--then what you're left with is some really obvious sibling dynamics in their eating disorder and a fairly trite mythological reference. I don't think it's everybody's actual narrative of having an eating disorder, but I think it is very much the standard written narrative of having an eating disorder. I thought a big chunk of the original essay's point was supposed to be that that stuff was all overwrought and unrealistic and trite: "At the same time, they are constantly soliloquizing about their sacrifice, their nobility, their ethereal powers." Okay, great, but once you've identified that, yeah, you are going to cringe when you see that story over and over again.

I thought that might have been the point of this essay, originally, but by the end I was very unsure if it was intentional or if Waldman genuinely isn't free of that particular spectre.
posted by Sequence at 6:24 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]

I'll be honest -- if I wrote a novel and was accused of plagiarism or...whatever the hell is going on here, I would be really mad at how unclear and self-referential this piece is. Maybe this is all a weird game between the writers? I'm sure glad I was invited to it, and don't feel at all like this should be a long post on an easily ignored personal WordPress blog and not a long essay published in a major magazine read by tens of thousands of people
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:33 AM on April 22 [9 favorites]

I’ve been working on a lit non-fic essay in two timelines and I workshopped it and my workshop crew said “great raw power but...where are you going with it? It’s rough and the structure is unclear.”

I sort of feel like this either needed that or is some kind of literary tour-de-force that I would need to read Trust Exercise to get.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:36 AM on April 22 [7 favorites]

I once went on a management training course( a jolly really).
One of the example situations presented was about how a girl with no knowledge of computing managed to keep a "know it all" talking for over half an hour when nobody else would talk to him.
What he didn't realise was that the girl he was talking about became my wife and that I was there in the group watching with amusement. I let him dig his hole and only interrupted when he started embellishing the truth.
posted by Burn_IT at 6:38 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

I don’t read this as an accusation of plagiarism, misconduct, or anything approaching it. It’s a musing on the ethical calculation inherent in writing—that, as Joan Didion said, “writers are always selling somebody out.” Waldman is examining her own discomfort and anger with her nonfiction being used as grist for another writer’s mill, and whether that’s hypocritical given the fact that she used her family (and more specifically, her sister’s eating disorder, not just her own) as copy.

I took a few nonfiction writing classes in grad school and was always surprised there wasn’t more discomfort with this issue. The things I always felt driven to write about were so personal that I would have felt like I’d betrayed some people if they ever became public.
posted by sallybrown at 6:57 AM on April 22 [28 favorites]

I haven't read Trust Exercise but I read the article and found it fairly incomprehensible. About halfway through I realized that the author was probably doing something structurally that mirrored Trust Exercise in some way that went entirely above my head, because I haven't read it. So to me this piece reads like a muddled advertisement for that book, like some kind of weird viral marketing. But even this read is confusing, because the review is supposedly about a different book, Trinity, about which I learned very little.
posted by sockermom at 6:59 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]

I dug this. (Though I always took the ‘vanilla ice’ to be explicitly banal mis-read as profound). And at the same time I really found the leap between Choi’s novel and then Hall’s to be a little unclear. Then the sms exchange with her sister - though, I dunno, a touch facile maybe, was also a nice illustration of what I took to be the central point: you put it out there, it’s no longer exclusively yours and that’s sometimes emotionally complicated. A by ‘it’ that sometimes also means your life in all its spontaneous artless glory.
The point of the essay seemed less an accusation (she mentions a referenced author asking _her_ to more clearly credit her work - that is she owns her own culpability, if ignorant/unwitting) than a delineating of the situation itself. A situation completely foreign to me and most in my circle as we are not writing about one another... ymmv
posted by From Bklyn at 7:01 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

As someone who has had the weird experience of disliking a piece of writing and then being told, "the character is based on you," I have a lot of thoughts about writerly borrowing, but in the end "writers are always selling somebody out." I'm like #65 on the waiting list for Trust Exercise, so I'll have opinions on it later this year. One of the problems with getting to books "late" is that I can't write complaining letters to The New Yorker, which is probably my true calling in life.

(On preview: sallybrown, I'd be willing to bet that Didion quote was in one of the early drafts of the essay and was deleted.)
posted by betweenthebars at 7:04 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]

(On preview: sallybrown, I'd be willing to bet that Didion quote was in one of the early drafts of the essay and was deleted.)

And some reference to Janet Malcolm’s “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
posted by sallybrown at 7:08 AM on April 22 [5 favorites]

Kelli Pryor used Jeannette Walls’ story of her childhood (told to Pryor in confidence) for a trashy romance, written under a pseudonym.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:34 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

Anyone who has other things to do with their day can start with paragraph 19, where the first mention of the headline topic is made.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:52 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

For me the best part is that she herself was boldly ripping off the myth of Persephone.

All writing is derivative.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:56 AM on April 22

I like to think that somewhere in the previous 80 drafts there was a clear, succinct essay that addressed the concerns with clarity and wit, and then Waldman read Dhalgren on a dare and thought “this essay really needs to mess with time.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:10 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

I don't get the hate. I thought it was a fascinating essay, with a structure set up to be complex and contradictory in the same way that the ideas that it discusses are complex and contradictory.

I loved the ending.

To me the criticisms here are tinged with a flavor of woman-doing-it-wrong.
posted by medusa at 8:14 AM on April 22 [10 favorites]

It’s a musing on the ethical calculation inherent in writing—that, as Joan Didion said, “writers are always selling somebody out.”

Yeah - and I like what she did at the end as well. Is she including texts from her twin? Is she not? Is she a reliable narrator when saying she's going to make up some? What if the one she made up is the consent? Who owns their lives?

The stuff that's fascinating is like, authors including parts of other people's heartbreaks, without consent. How does consent play into narrative? Do both participants in a story get to tell?
posted by corb at 9:56 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]

It isn't really automatically sexist to dislike something a woman writes. I don't even think it's bad writing, I just feel like it's all some weird in-joke I don't understand. I hate it, but I think it's very well-written.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:42 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]

I have to admit not being a fan of The New Yorker — I'm generally down with long-reads, but so many TNY articles seem like this where it's something that sounds like it might be interesting, but I am left screaming at the screen "JUST GET TO THE FUCKING POINT."
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 1:53 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]

I didn't read it as an accusation, didn't find it particularly incomprehensible (but maybe I just have a more forgiving idea of what qualifies as "comprehension" than some people here; I might be generally a bit too quick to think I got the gist of something and be too easily satisfied with that) and liked it quite a bit.
posted by sohalt at 2:39 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]

Huh, I can understand why someone might dislike it but I thought this was pretty good for the form. It mostly just made me want to read Trust Exercise though.

Can't tell whether to add or subtract points for "sororally," although since it seems like a double-entendre in context I'm leaning towards add. Definite points for "metafictional clowning" regardless of how the author's sister felt about it.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:51 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]

Also the 84 drafts thing is definitely meant to be a humorous overstatement, and the whole essay is meant to be taken a little less seriously than people seem inclined to take it.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:52 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]

Just finished a pretty engrossing John Boyne novel that explores this theme of who owns a story in a pretty chilling way. "A Ladder to the Sky."
posted by Plafield at 4:02 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]

Jesus. Reading that piece was exhausting and confusing and annoying. It was too clever for its own good, or maybe I’m not clever enough to enjoy it.

It felt like so much name checking and since I’m not a part of that literary world, trying to make sense out of which author may have cribbed from another was impossible. Did it need so many references and quotes and fancy words to convey...whatever it is she was trying to convey?

Trust Exercise does sound good though!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 4:52 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]

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