Got an axe to grind? Don’t do it in print.
Is our writing enhanced or denigrated when we use our personal grievances and prejudices to inform our work?
Plenty of prose is fuelled by a desire to describe and share experiences that are often tragic and disturbing. There is something cathartic about reading this type of book. More often than not, by the end of the piece, the author’s traumas (usually childhood) have been successfully overcome and you are left with a sense of hopefulness or, at the very least, a feeling of relief that none of the dreadful things catalogued happened to you.
But what about writers who fictionalize their own experiences and use their novels to have a dig at their enemies? This device has been used many times in the form of political satire. Probably most famously in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ where the leading figures of the Russian revolution were so cleverly parodied through his apparently simple farmyard tale. Individuals who are prominent in public life seem to have to accept parody by writers and artists as simply a hazard of the job.
So what about the rest of us? Should we be nervous when someone we know we have wronged at some point decides to start writing novels?
I have considered this question carefully myself since beginning to write my books. Of course, you must use your own experiences to inform your work otherwise it wouldn’t be convincing. But should you exercise the old maxim that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ by lambasting an old enemy in print?
My answer would be no. An incident which is too raw or sensitive is probably going to translate into poor writing. The example that springs to my mind is Evelyn Waugh’s novel ‘A Handful of Dust’. It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong, but Waugh wrote it just after his wife had left him for another man and the story outlines the very same scenario being played out between the two main characters; Tony and Brenda. Unfortunately, because of Waugh’s sensitivity to the subject matter the character of Brenda is utterly cold and unsympathetic and this makes the novel fall short of what it might have been.
A little hindsight on an event could improve the standard of the storytelling, but I still have my doubts. You don’t want to become known as a writer who works out their frustrations in print. As an author, you can’t afford to alienate your friends, or, indeed, to make them feel that they must watch how they behave when they are in your company. Otherwise, you may find that your nearest and dearest begin to avoid you altogether- for fear of how they might find themselves portrayed in your next bestseller!
So, my advice would be to make good use of your own experiences to inform your writing, certainly- but just ensure that you keep your stronger emotions very firmly in check.