Mar 022003

Will Duquette, proprietor of a fine blog of mostly book reviews, recently praised The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland by saying that when he was finished he knew the main character “like a friend.” That never seems like praise to me. I know dozens of fictional characters far better than I know any of my friends. I talk to my friends maybe twice a week; an author has direct access to his characters’ thoughts and actions 24 hours a day, plus, presumably, psychological insight and talent. He ought to be able to do better than I can. I would not testify, in advance, that any of my friends was incapable of committing some ghastly crime; I would take the stand for Newland Archer or Caspar Goodwood without hesitation.

Artemisia is a historical character, but still, you devote a few years to someone’s life and you ought to have a pretty good idea what makes them tick. “Like a friend” seems like a pretty abysmal standard.

  6 Responses to “Like a Friend”

  1. Actually, that particular review was from my co-blogger, Deb English. The "like a friend" line is one I wouldn’t have thought to write–though I’m not sure I agree with your point about it. If she’d said, "I felt I knew as much about her as I know about my friends," I might agree–though I’ve known my best friend since I was twelve, so it’s still a fairly high standard.

  2. Perhaps I should clarify the meaning I give to the word "friend." Most people I know are acquaintences, coworkers, neighbors, etc. I also have family which includes husband and kids. Between those two realms are my friends. They are men and women I know deeply, understand and love. I have known them either many years or short months but they are people whom I can talk to about anything and not feel abashed. They are not buddies, pals or girlfriends. They do not come and go. So if I refer to a character in a book, like Artemesia, as a friend, I am not using the word loosely or sloppily. However, obviously, you didnt get it. Perhaps I should choose my words more carefully or at least define them more fully. Abysmal? Really?

  3. I too have known most of my few friends for a very long time. I just have far less confidence that, lacking the tools of the novelist or biographer, I really know them than either one of you do. Surely you’ll agree that, well as you may know them, you’d know them still better if you could read their thoughts or if you sat down to research their lives for a few years.

  4. Ok, I will concede on that point with fiction. I am not omniscient. I cannot know another human being completely. My husband, who is surely the closest person in my life, is still at times a complete mystery and, honestly, it is probably a good thing I don’t know what he is thinking all the time. This is also delving into a philosophical debate that I am not sure I am equipped to argue. However, I am not sure about whether that holds true with biography. Writers are limited by available material, the current political, for lack of a better word, climate of the time and their own bias about their subject. They still cannot know in the fullest sense.

  5. My remarks were mostly directed toward fiction. I picked on your review of a biography because it happened to be around. But one marvelous advantage of the biographer is hindsight. All coheres in retrospect.

  6. I agree. Unfortunately, "The Passion of Artemisia" by Diane Vreeland IS fiction. With a historical subject.

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