The Stories We Tell of Other People’s Lives

Image from the Guardian.

Kathleen Hale has mostly avoided talking publicly about her Guardian article in which she admitted to stalking a blogger who gave her book a negative review. Other than a few tweets and deleted Tumblr posts, her silence has left the rest of us to fill in the gaps in her story, which many bloggers have done with great detail. One comment she did make was that those who criticised her piece did not understand “investigative journalism”. It’s no surprise that the woman who didn’t know what “catfishing” was wouldn’t know the real definition of journalism, but I digress.

Hale’s piece acts ostensibly as a memoir of her exploits, but in the process she also reduced the blogger she stalked to the status of plot point. We know for sure that details were changed, crucial facts omitted and a narrative was constructed that saw Blythe become less than a fully fleshed person. She became a character, a lesson to be taught, a creature of myth and fable.

This isn’t an uncommon tactic in the world of non-fiction. The Atlantic revealed that, as a rule, non-fiction titles aren’t fact-checked. In a world full of Kathleen Hales, James Freys and politically driven columnists, it seems not only patronising but intellectually dangerous to allow such basic issues to go unfixed.

Frey’s memoir was riddled with inaccuracies and outright lies as well as leaving the reader with questions over how much authorial control one person can have over the telling of other people’s stories. Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author whose 6 autobiographical novels entitled My Struggle became a publishing phenomenon both in his native country and overseas, encountered this problem as his ex-wife, who features prominently in his work, had to deal with becoming unwittingly famous thanks to his portrayal of her. Her life, and many others, became his story, and for some readers the lines between the two became increasingly blurred. One needs only to turn to The Social Network for proof of how fiction can shape our perceptions of real lives.

Not even the dead can escape this problem. This year, Joanna Rakoff published My Salinger Year, a memoir of her time working at the publishing house of JD Salinger. While Rakoff never met the famously reclusive author, he still plays a crucial part in her story and acts almost as a metaphor. Granted, figures such as Salinger are used frequently as such. He’s a figure about whom not much is known beyond fragments of truth and a whole lot of rumours, plus he’s the author of some of the most influential work of all time. So while Rakoff may not interact with him during the period My Salinger Year takes place, he (or at least his image) is a piece of her narrative, and indeed the reason the book was published. The synopsis of the book focuses on that, declaring that through Salinger’s fan-mail “she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s”.

Even the seemingly simple act of the biography can become one mired in agendas and inaccuracies. You need only look at the countless works, both fiction and non-fiction, written about Anne Boleyn to see that. Depending on the author, Boleyn is either a shrewd political genius, a feminist hero, an incestuous witch or the biggest train-wreck to hit the British monarchy. The passage of time means many crucial facts have been lost to contemporary academics so we’ll never have the full story of Boleyn, but we’ll certainly have seemingly endless assumptions made about her motives and character by writers looking for a new spin on well worn material.

The question of boundaries is one that comes up constantly regarding this subject. Whose stories are you entitled to tell? Can you even tell your own story without dragging someone else’s life along for the ride? Is the hurt and possible exploitation of others really a worthwhile means to an end when it comes to making good art? When it comes to situations like Knausgaard’s, one wonders if he understands that his approach to his own life is not the one necessarily right for the people who surround him. The power dynamics at play are difficult to ignore. Regardless of the authenticity of the content, the very fact that it has been published in such a legitimate manner and lauded by readers and critics alike gives it a kind of authority that can be difficult to refute. We saw this issue play out thoroughly with Hale’s Guardian piece. Even after numerous writers provided evidence that disproved her claims, it was tough to change the overall narrative because for some readers the Guardian carries with it a validity mere blogs cannot match. How can one hope to combat this phenomenon when faced with a millions selling book?

History, it is often said, is written by the victors, but it’s also written by the writers, the creative minds who craft tales that are assumed to be true by their very nature of being classified as non-fiction. For writers looking to spin a good yarn, I suggest caution before borrowing from real life. Some stories may not be yours to tell, and it’s always handy to remember that human beings are not tropes waiting to be exploited.


  1. Excellent article! I totally agree with you. I did a whole module on non-fiction at uni last year, and it’s alarming to see just how much pap gets put out there as ‘fact’ when a lot of the time it’s seriously embellished or completely erroneous.


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