Katy Waldman's "Who Owns A Story?" in The New Yorker

In a fascinating review of Susan Choi’s new novel Trust Exercise, The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman explores the thorny ethics of making art from life. Waldman recalls the destabilizing experience of “opening a book and finding yourself in its pages,” before delving into questions of appropriation, truth in fiction, and what happens when a reader begins to see the characters in a novel as real people.  

—Antonia Angress

Then something happened to change my thinking. I realized that the real world is full of people who, presumably, have feelings about being appropriated for someone else’s run at the Times best-seller list. In drafts five through seventeen of this essay, I was mostly concerned with them: with the experience of opening a book and finding yourself in its pages, and with comprehending the precise nature of that violation. In drafts eighteen through eighty-four, I realized that the stakes of this piece are less aesthetic or ethical than metaphysical. When an author plants a made-up character in a novel, that character gains breath, agency, life. But when an author plants a real person in a novel, she metes out a kind of death. Reading lightly autobiographical fiction—which is to say, most début fiction—or its cousin, autofiction, or really any and all fiction, becomes a matter of parsing degrees of realness. It’s sticking your hands through ghosts. I suppose one could reintroduce both ethics and aesthetics here. Is moving someone down the existence scale from “human person” to “character” anything like murder? Is moving someone up the scale anything like art?