You Deserve Nothing

Not you, dear query writer. Not you.

I just finished Alexander Maksik's new novel, You Deserve Nothing, in almost one sitting--in a moral vacuum, I found it a delightful mix of highbrow sentences with lowbrow subject matter (rather like Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal--which is, by the way, far better than the movie). In this novel, Paris gives the reader just what the armchair traveler wishes for--cafes, croissants*, idealism, beauty, romance--and existentialism, moral ambiguity, disillusionment, and heartbreak.


I had a vague notion that people had claimed this story was true--after all, it'd be such a neat, fitting scandal, tied up a bow, if it were--so I didn't give it much weight.

And then I read this: How A Teacher’s Alleged Student Affair Became His Acclaimed ‘Novel’.

And now I feel ill.

Did any of you have the same reaction? Did you like the book? Do you believe the rumors? (I have a hard time imagining the real life Marie would make such a thing up--and can only imagine how she feels.)

Is this better than what James Frey did--or worse?  How much of a work needs to change from the original (or real life) version for it to be considered, by the well-researched public, fiction--and to what extent does this need to be provable? Should we assume all first novels are, to some degree, autobiographical? And, if so, when do we assume they're harming others? Should he have taken a pen name--and would that have made it better?

See footnote about croissants in this novel.

This image is taken from Pastry Paris: In Paris, Everything Looks Like Dessert, which is a great gift book for the Francophiles in your life.

Regardless, if I were his agent or his editor (and he hadn't told me, or I hadn't noticed, the fact that he was fired from the same school as the one in the novel), I'd be very upset.

And would be somewhat annoyed with his way of describing the teacher (or, er, himself) as so charming, attractive, doted-upon, brilliant, sophisticated, talented, sexy--even if morally flawed. But that's a minor point.

What do you think?  Have you read the book? Did you like it? And can we enjoy fiction even while knowing that it is, likely, true?

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* There are at least twelve croissants in this book. I would count, but I'd rather spend my time eating them. Several were filled with chocolate.

13 comments:

Rowenna said...

After scraping my jaw off the keyboard, and attempting to think objectively about this...I am still queasy. To be fair, I havne't read the book, but I suppose that, for me, the reaction comes down to the girl involved. How is it fair to her to "ficionalize" a story that is very much hers, and to claim credit for it? I guess I do assume that all novels have kernels of the author's experience in them, but this takes things a touch too far. It makes me wonder what the author *really* thought the story was--how he portrayed it in the book, how the girl describes it, or something else entirely?

I suppose I'd feel a touch better about it if far more digging was required to get at the fact that this was, ahem, "inspired by real events." If he'd used a pen name, changed the circumstances, set it in Botswana or Brooklyn instead of Paris, whatever.

Thanks for the thinking fodder on a cold morning!

Amber said...

Wow, I hadn't heard about this book or the article, but that's very interesting. I think knowing it might be true will definitely weight my reading of the book now. And, as you mentioned, if he's claiming he's so charming, etc, then perhaps that would be annoying.

But just to play devil's advocate, a novel can be autobiographical to an extent without being noted as such. For example, someone whose husband was murdered may write about the experience. But they may pump it up, giving the protagonist sleuth skills to solve the case or something like that. Maybe some of the characters would be loosely based on people they know. At what point do you need to disclose that?

At the very least, it's better than the alternative - to claim something is real when it is fiction. In this case, claiming something is fiction when it is real...well, parts of it are probably fictional. Very interesting, though.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Rowenna,
I'm with you. How hard could it have been for him to change the details? He could have easily set it in another city, or even (if he was stuck on seeing in Paris) another school--could have changed more details about the girl (what if even his physical descriptions of her body were accurate?!), could have, in short, done more to protect her. If he cared about her at all.

Dreadful man. If I hadn't liked the book, I wouldn't care so much.

But then I wonder if--as he notes so often in the story--for him, it's not a matter of right or wrong, but about doing or not doing.

In short: grrrr.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

And imagine if a woman had done this? The book, if it was sold at all, would come with a warning label.

E.Maree said...

I've only read the Jezebel article, not the book, but the way he gave the story a 'happy ending' and the way he twisted the personality of the girl made me so very, very angry. She was a victim, and he portrayed her as if she 'asked for it'. (That's going by the Jezebel description: Maksik's "Marie" is all warmth and flesh and assumes the role of the seductress while still maintaining a youthful innocence. Will, on the other hand, is cautious and becomes more and more stoic as he assumes the role of the seduced.)

I just feel for Marie so much - not only did she have to go through the real event, but then she's 'fictionalized' like that? The poor soul.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

E. Maree,
It's a bit more complicated than that--it's implied that he would have done nothing with her if she hadn't (kept) texting him (an infuriating implication, that).

I'm sure the writers of He's Just Not That Into You would take this as "See? See what can happen if you pursue a guy? Bad Marie!" proof.

But yes. It's typical "blame the teenager, who's clearly a cunning seductress" fare.

It does get slightly better, though, in showing that Marie (fictional Marie) sees the events differently than he does.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Amber,
You know, it's strange--though the author is very persistent in describing the teacher as this brilliant hunk, none of it feels fake. I can completely believe the reactions of the other characters to him. Maybe that's part of his (former) charm as a teacher and (present) charm as an author.

And as far as disclosure--it's a gray area with fiction. Which is, of course, what makes it so interesting.

Franziska said...

What gets me is how brazenly he talked about her (Marie) as though she wasn't real. Check this excerpt from a Q&A from his own website:

Question: One of the three central characters, Marie, is an adolescent girl. What difficulties did you encounter in trying to create an authentic voice for her?

That the first draft didn’t include Marie’s perspective at all is probably an indication of how apprehensive I was at the prospect of writing her. What’s strange is that once I started, those sections came more quickly than any of the others. It took me three years to write the novel. It took three weeks to write her. I can’t fully explain why that happened except that it was a very instinctive process, unchecked because I felt I had nothing to lose. I’m not saying it was easy. To write from the vantage of any vulnerable person requires distance and yet a deep empathy for that individual. I worked hard to get that balance right, and I hope I did.

Of course, during the process of assembling the whole novel, I had it vetted by as many female readers as I could. I remember going over an early draft of the manuscript with a friend who is also a writer. We were in a stuffy cafĂ© in Montparnasse and she was emphatically (and perhaps a bit too loudly) encouraging me to write more specifically about Marie’s sexuality. She insisted that I not shy away from that element of her character. I took her advice and I think the book is better for it.

Franziska said...

What gets me is how he brazenly talked about her (Marie) without ever mentioning that she was a real person. On his website Q&A – http://alexandermaksik.com/novel/q-a-with-the-author – he says,

One of the three central characters, Marie, is an adolescent girl. What difficulties did you encounter in trying to create an authentic voice for her?

That the first draft didn’t include Marie’s perspective at all is probably an indication of how apprehensive I was at the prospect of writing her. What’s strange is that once I started, those sections came more quickly than any of the others. It took me three years to write the novel. It took three weeks to write her. I can’t fully explain why that happened except that it was a very instinctive process, unchecked because I felt I had nothing to lose. I’m not saying it was easy. To write from the vantage of any vulnerable person requires distance and yet a deep empathy for that individual. I worked hard to get that balance right, and I hope I did.

To not mention that she was a real person at this stage seems outrageous to me regardless of how well he represented her. He makes it sound as though he came up with her from his imagination but clearly that's not the case.

Kerri said...

I enjoyed reading this book, but was also disturbed learning that it was a true story passed off as fiction. Then I thought maybe the author saw the book not as exploitative but as an exercise in empathy - trying to see events from Marie's point of view and giving her a voice. But if that's the case, then he should admit it!

In one interview, when asked about his inspiration for the novel, he said, "My parents were both teachers and school administrators. In fact, in high school I had the distinction of being the headmaster’s son. As a result, from a young age I was sharply aware of both sides of school life and so I had a level of sympathy for my teachers that perhaps my friends did not."

That made my blood boil. The guy's a total coward. But then we already know that from the contents of his book. I just don't like the idea that he'll sell more books because of this controversy. And I keep thinking how horrible it must be for the real-life Marie, to relive this all over again.

Sorry for the rant, but I'm glad you raised this issue.

Lucy said...

I'm tempted to write a lengthy rant, but I think this author can be damned sufficiently in two words: poor taste.

Or if you like something in French: mauvais ton.

JK said...

I was interested in the book when I saw this blog post. I hadn’t heard of it before. I thought the book well written, however, I wish he had stuck to his instincts and not gone third person with Marie’s perspective. I think this was the only thing that detracted from the novel for me, and it doesn’t help his case with the scandal.

Although Marie had a POV, it didn’t strike me as particularly authentic. Sure she might have had a jealous/competitive friendship that propelled her actions, or became smitten with someone who was genuinely nice to her, but it bothered me that he got to make moral parallels to great works of literature, and so did his students, especially the third voice Gilead, but she didn’t get to have the same philosophical ponderings – as if she just wasn’t that deep. Plus, you think they would have had more intense conversations about ideas or situations as a couple, but that wasn’t detailed either.

Full disclaimer: I wrote my first novel about a senior/junior taboo romance and kept it first person, from the girl’s perspective. I started in first person, changed it to third person, was unhappy with the results and midway through, and changed it back.

With novels of this subject matter and with novels that are fictionalized truth, I think they are stronger if they just stay in one voice. You protect in some way the perspective of the other person by letting the reader come to their own conclusion about the other character’s motivations. If he had done that we wouldn’t be having quite the conversation we are on whether the work was fair to the real life Marie.

JK said...

I was interested in the book when I saw this blog post. I hadn’t heard of it before. I thought the book well written, however, I wish he had stuck to his instincts and not gone third person with Marie’s perspective. I think this was the only thing that detracted from the novel for me, and it doesn’t help his case with the scandal.

Although Marie had a POV, it didn’t strike me as particularly authentic. Sure she might have had a jealous/competitive friendship that propelled her actions, or became smitten with someone who was genuinely nice to her, but it bothered me that he got to make moral parallels to great works of literature, and so did his students, especially the third voice Gilead, but she didn’t get to have the same philosophical ponderings – as if she just wasn’t that deep. Plus, you think they would have had more intense conversations about ideas or situations as a couple, but that wasn’t detailed either.

My own disclosure/disclaimer on what influences my opinion: I wrote my first novel about a senior/junior taboo romance and kept it first person, from the girl’s perspective. I started in first person, changed it to third person, was unhappy with the results and midway through, and changed it back.

With novels of this subject matter and with novels that are based on true events, I think they are stronger if they just stay in one voice. You protect in some way the perspective of the other person by letting the reader come to their own conclusion about the other character’s motivations. If he had done that we wouldn’t be having quite the conversation we are on whether the work was fair to the real life Marie.