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The Fiction That Fiction Is Fiction Is Fiction

03/07/2012 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2012

A friend once published a novel that detailed the struggles of a 15-year-old girl, her dysfunctional family, hysterical pregnancy, and doomed teen love affair. The story also revealed her struggle against emotional and physical violence and exposed a tormented family dynamic -- a dynamic that was at best unpleasant, at worst demented. As one reviewer put it, the family was like a beautiful piece of fruit that, when bitten, was utterly rotten. The novel was, in fact, a thinly disguised -- although embellished -- tale of the author's youth.

When the novel was published, her mother read it -- experiencing at once pride in a daughter who published a novel and then revulsion at its content.

The reality my author friend (and many novelists) quickly realized is that the notion that fiction is fiction is often fiction.

Novelist Philip Roth understands that fiction often isn't fiction. Today, Roth is a great American treasure -- a novelist who exploited his heritage and family to construct one of the 20th century's most wickedly funny and controversial novels, Portnoy's Complaint.

Consider a passage from Portnoy's Complaint in the voice of the novel's protagonist, Alexander Portnoy:

These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! The very first distinction I learned. . .was not night and day or hot and cold, but goyishe and Jewish. . . Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jew! I happen also to be a human being!

More than 40 years later, the passage still reeks of familial betrayal.

Roth explains the novelist's predicament: "I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you... it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists."

Discretion likely was not on Kathryn Stockett's mind when she wrote her bestselling novel, The Help. Obviously, The Help might offend Stockett's family, friends, and community; her novel painting an unflattering portrait of an elitist, racist Southern society in the 1960s, a time when blacks were often treated with animosity. For example, Stockett describes how some of the town's white women installed separate toilets for their black domestics. Stockett also paints distasteful images of white women lounging poolside at their fancy segregated country clubs while maids, sweating in white uniforms, stood by.

Soon after her novel was published, Stockett was sued for $75,000 by Abilene Cooper, a black domestic, who had worked as a maid and nanny for Stockett's brother, Robert Stocket III. Cooper claimed that Stockett's character, named Aibileen Clark, was based on her life and appearance. Abilene Cooper has a gold tooth and a deceased son; so did Stockett's Aibileen Clark. The brother sided with Cooper, agreeing that the novel had sullied her.

In her defense, Stockett maintained that she used a name close to Cooper because it was "handy" and that Clark's character was actually inspired by a loving black nanny, Demetrie, who died when Stockett was 16.

Cooper's lawsuit against Stockett was dismissed in August 2011, the judge ruling that a one-year statute of limitations had elapsed.

So the question is: Must a novelist, whose task often is to mine the jumble of life's experiences, disguise plot and characters so that no one is offended?

My answer is an emphatic "no." A novelist must be absolutely untethered to write the truth while knowing, always, that to others a novelist's truth may wretchedly distort the truth. To be true to the craft, a novelist is duty bound to scour for every flagrant and fragrant crumb, wherever they fall, whatever the consequences.

As Philip Roth said, "... discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists."