When I pick up a novel, the author and I have entered into an unspoken and unwritten contract, in which we agree upon at least three subjects.
1. The author agrees to entertain me with a story and characters that are compelling. The story will present a conflict where I come to care about what will happen next. The characters need not be likeable, but they must be fascinatingly disreputable (Humbert Humbert) or endearing (Marley the dog) or someone with whom I can relate (Edna Pontellier). As a reader, I agree to give the author a chance to present the story and characters to me, which necessarily takes an investment in time on my part.
2. The author agrees to enlighten or otherwise satisfy me with an appropriate resolution. This doesn’t mean that all conflicts and issues need to be tied up in pretty pink bows; in fact, I like stories that have open endings. But the character and story development need to be in the form of an arc, to some degree, and there needs to be a sense of closure on some level. Also, the ending needs to be what author David Long calls unpredictable but inevitable, and it certainly cannot be contrived. As a reader, I agree to invest my time and energy into the story, suspending my tendency to disbelieve and ignoring my list of other things I could be doing, to find out what’s going to happen in the end.
3. The author agrees to educate me through her own adequate research regarding the time period, setting, character traits, or other information necessary for that story, and to stick to factual information when it’s available and pertinent to the story. As a reader, I agree to accept the author’s need to fictionalize people, places, and events to support the story so long as those fictionalized elements are necessary and do not contradict fact (unless the purpose of the story is clearly a what-if? approach to rewriting history). In other words, I agree to trust the author.
Last month, I attended a book club meeting where this idea of a contract between author and reader was discussed. Specifically, we were talking about Sue Monk Kidd and her recent novel, The Invention of Wings.
Let me make it clear: I’m a fan of Ms. Kidd’s work. She’s a talented writer, and I have always enjoyed the stories she weaves. Her latest novel is a moving tale about an early abolitionist named Sarah Grimke and a slave named Handful. The two lived in the pre-Civil War South, and the story begins with Handful being given to Sarah for her eleventh birthday. It follows each of them into mid-life, exploring their challenges with society’s mores and also exploring their complicated family relationships, particularly with their respective mothers and sisters.
In general, this is the type of narrative I’m usually drawn to. There are good people to root for and flawed characters to despise. There are tyrants and underdogs. And there are families of varying degrees of functionality that are formed not only through blood relation but through circumstance. Tension runs through the chapters, the language is exquisite, and there’s a solid historical foundation to make the novel both believable and educational. I was completely willing to live up to my side of the contract I had with Ms. Kidd.
But I’m not sure she lived up to hers.
Story and Character
First, the question of character. I was certainly drawn to Handful, the black slave–the underdog. She was not only good-hearted and grossly mistreated, but she had a colorful personality that came through such expressions as these: “This ain’t the same Sarah who left here….She’d been boiled down to a good, strong broth.”
But I wasn’t all that interested in the protagonist Sarah, a white girl raised in an affluent family. Even though she grew up opposed to slavery and in support of women’s rights–two values I also wholeheartedly support–she didn’t have the verve that Handful, or some of the secondary characters, did. Aside from a stutter, she seemed too ordinary, too plain perhaps, to draw me in. Too perfect. Even after her father and brothers ridiculed her desire to become an attorney, and her mother showed cruelty to slaves and others, and the men Sarah fell in love with rebuffed her, and even the Quakers, to whom she’d turned in part because they were abolitionists, shunned her, she retained her composure and her goodness. Like Pollyanna, she didn’t waver. Even as her childhood hometown hurled public insults at her and an officer of the law told her her presence was unwanted, she worried for her sister more than for herself. She wanted “to keep her from wading into waters that were becoming increasingly treacherous. Strangely, I felt no compunction for myself.” Was this noble and remarkable? Yes, of course. But was it realistically human? Of that I’m not sure. Even great leaders have found themselves, in their most private dark hours, questioning their goals or cursing their enemies or wondering about their sanity.
What is interesting about this is that Sarah was a real person, whereas Handful was largely fictional. Was this Ms. Kidd’s doing? Did she intentionally make Sarah less compelling than Handful? Maybe, maybe not. But I did read, after the fact, an interview with Oprah, in which Ms. Kidd said she was “drawn to tell” Handful’s story because she’s a “on a mission to deeply engage with the world.” It made me wonder if her strong feelings about Handful carried through on the page to me, and whether she thus biased me.
Furthermore, Larissa MacFarquhuar of The New Yorker said in her essay “The Dead Are Real,” that a writer’s relationship with a fictional character can be more intimate than with a historical character because “the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them.” I’m not sure if Ms. Kidd actually broke a contract with me here, but I do feel unsettled that I felt so ambivalent toward the protagonist and I believe that, one way or another, Ms. Kidd might have been able to develop Sarah’s character to be more compelling, for better or for worse. It might have even been better if she hadn’t fashioned the protagonist after Sarah.
Resolution of the Story
The second issue comes down to the satisfactory, inevitable ending (SPOILER ALERT HERE). Handful and her half-sister escape from the South in the final scene of the book. You knew it had to happen; this wasn’t the type of story that would end in tragedy for the main underdog. But the escape didn’t feel plausible to me.
The black slaves disguised themselves with white flour on their faces, hidden beneath veils on a steamy South Carolina day. Sweat “rivered” down their necks, flour fell from their skin, and Handful’s sister’s “slave shoes” stuck out from beneath her dress, yet the guards inspecting travelers on the ship failed to catch on. This, in a time when Charleston was heavily patrolled to catch any black folks, free or enslaved, and send them to the Work House or worse. The guards were especially on the alert for runaways. Wouldn’t they have noticed the flour being sweat from skin? Would a guard so readily, and gullibly, dismiss a woman wearing a mourning veil who refused to answer his question? While the last scene was written with plenty of tension, and I certainly wanted the slave women to get away, the circumstances didn’t feel true.
What might Ms. Kidd have done differently? I don’t have a good answer. Maybe slaves really did escape successfully that way. It just didn’t feel right to me and thus I question whether she really offered a depthful, inevitable ending.
Fact vs Fiction
The real clincher for me came when I read the Author’s Note, after completing the novel. It was then that I first learned that Sarah Grimke had been a real woman, and I felt let down that I hadn’t known she was real. That, it seems to me, is an inherent problem with historical fiction. When you’re reading something that’s supposedly 100% fiction, you know it’s all made up so you go with the flow. As author Mark Willen wrote (based on John Gardner’s wisdom), we readers are happy to do that “without questioning every action as long as the characters are consistent, the plot makes sense according to the rules the author has established, and any departure from the rules is adequately explained and fairly presented.”
Should Ms. Kidd have presented the Author’s Note in the beginning, to let the reader know Sarah was real? Would that have changed my view of the character or the story? Might she have at least included this information in a preface? Yes, I think she should have done just that. That’s exactly what Barbara Kingsolver did with her historical novel, The Lacuna, which is prefaced by A Note on Historical References in which she writes, “Historical persons are portrayed and quoted from the historical record, but their conversations with the character Harrison Shepherd are entirely invented.” Ms. Kingsolver doesn’t list out all of the characters who are real; in fact, I found it fun to research various names as I read to find out who was real and who wasn’t. What I appreciated was the heads up and the caution to be prepared for this investigation, rather than to find out after the novel. I also appreciated knowing from the get-go that the protagonist was indeed fictional.
But even if Ms. Kidd had set her Author Note in the beginning, what really made me question whether our contract had been broken was the author’s own admission that she “created and extrapolated numerous …events in Sarah’s life, grafting fiction onto truth in order to serve the story.” Clearly, contract terms are different when the story is historical fiction, meaning the story is somewhere between 0% and 100% imaginary. All readers understand that some of it will be true and some won’t, and there are no rules that say how far you can go. But in Ms. Kidd’s case, she actually “occasionally…borrowed something Angelina said or did and [gave] it to Sarah,” including an anti-slavery pamphlet appealing to women and clergy of the South. In other words, she took what she knew to be factual for these women and changed it.
Although I appreciate Ms. Kidd’s honesty, I don’t believe writers should re-write history in order to serve the story. This is not to say that writers of historical fiction can’t imagine dialogue or articles of clothing or other details that cannot be known and that are consistent with the research they’ve done and the facts they have unearthed. But I think it’s completely inappropriate that an idea conceived by one real individual should be transferred to another, even if the two were sisters. Just to make the story better.
Ms. MacFarquhuar calls historical fiction a hybrid form without fixed laws, and she maintains that writers of this genre presume to know the secrets of the dead, coming off as experts on the mechanics of history. “The dead are real,” she says, “and have power over the living.”
And, by toying with the dead, writers can wind up violating an implicit contract between writer and reader.
In summary, this contract breach isn’t exactly a cause for legal action. And it’s not even cause to dismiss this novel or the author. But it does give all writers and readers something to think about. As a reader, I need to live up to my end of the contract and give the authors I choose to read my time and trust. As an author, I need to keep these contract elements in mind: present a compelling story and characters, offer a satisfactory and credible resolution, and stick to the facts as appropriate.
I guess I can thank Ms. Kidd for bringing these concepts to light. As it turned out, The Invention of Wings was far more thought-provoking than I originally realized.