This post concerns these two approaches when it comes to fiction. (I like to think that writers of non-fiction don’t resort to invention.) It is also restricted to my own view on this subject without prejudice to what any other writer might do.
I have written six novels, two of which I have not attempted to publish. In one case the reason was that the book might have been deemed defamatory, though had this happened my defence would have been accuracy. Despite the fact that the subject is now dead, I would follow the same principle. I don’t consider it acceptable to defame someone, even if they are dead, for the purposes of fiction. There are no doubt many examples of this, but one which comes to mind (my mind, at least) is Antonio Salieri. This poor man has been traduced several times, for example, by Alexander Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov (after Pushkin) and most egregiously in the play Amadeus by Peter Schaffer, later made into a film.
There was undoubtedly some rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, but there is also evidence of Salieri’s support for Mozart on several occasions, and also much evidence of Salieri’s kindness to others. When it came to teaching his speciality was singing – not an area Mozart ever entered – and it is known that he gave tuition free of charge except to the wealthy. Then there was his reaction to the death of his student, Marianna von Auenbrugger, at the age of 23. Marianna composed as well as played and when she died Salieri, at his own expense, published her Sonata in E-flat as a memorial to her. He was obviously deeply affected by the death of this talented young woman.
Making things up is clearly a contentious subject and very much with us today. When the film Titanic aired, relatives of the first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, took exception to the portrayal of this gentleman, apparently with some reason.
But in case this has been forgotten, there are more recent examples. Over the past few years, a series called The Crown has been aired on Netflix. Unless the writers were flies on private walls, grouse moors and many other places on numerous occasions, the dialogue between members of the monarchy and those associated with them is invented. Okay, so the exact words were made up, but perhaps they bear accurate witness to the thoughts and feelings of those involved? For the most part, there is no way of knowing. And some of these people are still with us today, notably Charles and Camilla who, I read, will shortly hit our screens in the forthcoming series of The Crown. The fact that some of us don’t consider this a good idea does not make it illegal: if it were, injunctions would surely be flying. For my part, it amazes me that writers can legally put words into the mouths of living people like this.
And what do we make of the series, Blonde, based on the biography of Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates? I could, of course, follow the fashion of the times and insert an image of Marilyn at this point but prefer not to do so. What would it add? Most people already know what she looked like.
To me this subject raises a number of question. For example, when we die, does our reputation die with us or is everyone free to trash it? Or how about this: can novelists and screen writers just make us up?