I read once that fanfiction is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to write. The part that makes it the easiest also makes it the hardest: you have a universe and a set of characters established for you, and while you don’t have to create these elements, you are also stuck operating within the parameters someone else set. As someone who spent an embarrassing amount of time in high school madly scribbling stories about characters I had not created, I can attest to the truth in this observation.
This is also a challenge of writing fiction based on real people and real events — especially when those people are still alive. Curtis Sittenfeld has her work cut out for her in American Wife, a book based on the major events in the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush, as one of my colleagues pointed out recently, was a bit of a blank slate during her eight years in the national limelight. What is she actually like? We’re not sure. Thus, it is at once easier and harder to buy Ms. Sittenfeld’s portrayal of the fictional Alice Lindgren Blackwell than it would be of a sketch of a more well-known First Lady, because any baggage we (at least, I) carry about Mrs. Bush is actually that of her husband. Easier because any details Ms. Sittenfeld paints on that blank slate don’t contradict what we already know, because we know very little; harder because we know so few things, there’s very little framework to build on.
I can’t imagine anyone writing fiction from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton or of Michelle Obama, and it’s not just because they’re married to Democrats, or because their stories are less interesting than Mrs. Bush’s. No, I simply can’t imagine anyone feeling the freedom to step into Mrs. Clinton’s or Mrs. Obama’s minds, as Mrs. Clinton’s and Mrs. Obama’s approach to being First Lady seems much more public than that of Mrs. Bush. This is not a criticism of Mrs. Bush — the role of First Lady is one to play as one sees it — but rather an observation that she left a lot more blanks to fill than either Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama. I can accept the idea of fiction about Mrs. Bush much more readily, as my image of her in my mind is much more shadowy than the fuller characters I see of Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama. I can’t call foul on Ms. Sittenfeld’s characterization as I might a characterization of Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama, because I don’t feel that I know Mrs. Bush well enough to see where the real person fades and the fictional fills in.
As the book is mostly about Alice Blackwell, it hangs on her being a compelling character, and I don’t feel that she is. Even with the liberties Ms. Sittenfeld was able to take, the restrictions of the real characters don’t make this extremely interesting reading. I don’t think this book would stand on its own if it weren’t based on the Bushes, and at the same time, the fact that it is based on the Bushes isn’t enough to drive it forward. Specifically, Mrs. Blackwell is so convinced of her own ordinariness and her own reservedness that she can’t quite convince us that she is worth spending over 500 pages with.
Anyone reading this looking for insight into the relationship between the real George and Laura Bush based on the fictional Charlie and Alice Blackwell is going to have a hard time as well, as Ms. Sittenfeld never quite convinces me what it is that Alice sees in Charlie. Truly, one of the hardest things in the world is trying to figure out what makes other people’s relationships tick, but it is generally easier in fiction than in real life. Not in the case of Charlie and Alice Blackwell — Ms. Sittenfeld paints a man who is so difficult to take seriously that you wonder if she was still trying to figure the attraction out herself.
Perhaps it is in part the amount of time I spend reading about actual accounts of presidents and first ladies that the fictional bothers me. Anyone who checks in on this blog from time to time will see that I spend most of my time complaining about the problems of reading fiction that is based on someone or something real, and you, like I, probably wonder why I keep reading it. I think I keep hoping that fiction will allow me to understand a more personal aspect of things that are real (as fiction is supposed to), and all it does is make me long for the solid certainty I feel when I read good non-fiction. My next goal is to read Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History by Kati Marton, and maybe that book will give me what I’m looking for.
(Originally written August 20, 2011)