Is Reimagining History Through Biofiction Ethical?

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Jeffrey Davies


Jeffrey Davies is a professional introvert and writer with imposter syndrome whose work spans the worlds of pop culture, books, music, feminism, and mental health. In addition to Book Riot, his writing has appeared on HuffPost, Collider, PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and other places. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @teeveejeff and Instagram @jeffreyreads. He is also the co-host of a Gilmore Girls podcast, Coffee With a Shot of Cynicism.

You’ve likely heard of the literary genres autobiography and the semi-autobiographical novel, in which an author either recites their life story or inserts parts of themselves and their life into a work of fiction. In film, an increasingly popular genre is the biopic, a big-screen account of a public figure’s life. Also popular are the “based on a true story” films, which range from any number of genres. But while such a genre does exist in fiction, called biofiction, the moral and artistic ethics surrounding its execution are often called into question.

What is biofiction, exactly? Well, it’s shortened from biographical fiction, which, in short, means works of fiction that draw from biographical fact. This concept can work wonderfully in film, in which Hollywood can get away with taking any number of creative liberties in relaying the real-life story of a celebrity—or anyone with a story that will sell, really. But in order to make that very story sell, the writers and producers of a movie will often need to bend the truth to fit a certain artistic vision. Of course, skewing history can be messy, no matter what medium you’re dealing with. But when it comes to literary fiction, readers and critics can often hold authors to a higher standard than filmmakers, in my opinion.

It’s just as easy to write a novel about a celebrity as it is to make a film about them, in the sense that there are always going to be public figures who will resonate in the public eye and culture. Take Marilyn Monroe, for example, whose life has been so intricately picked apart by biographers to the present day that it almost feels disrespectful to keep on digging up a woman who deserves nothing more than peace.

Writing a work of non-fiction about Monroe is one thing. But when Joyce Carol Oates wrote and published Blonde in 2000, her novel of biographical fiction in which she took it upon herself to imagine Monroe’s life and innermost thoughts, it felt like crossing a line. Especially when the novel was adapted into a feature film by Netflix over two decades later. It was the first film on the streaming service to receive an NC-17 rating. Why? Because of a particular scene in the film drawn from the novel, in which Monroe is brutally raped. While no one can say definitely that the star was never sexually violated in her lifetime, the fictionalization of such an event reads as violating in a different sense.

“Admiring Marilyn feels less trivial than the adulation of any ordinary pin-up because the love – or the lust – is mixed with pity. And the moral high ground of compassion makes us feel special, more sensitive, nicer,” wrote Cressida Connolly in her review of Blonde for The Guardian in April 2000. “It also bestows a license to snoop, allowing us to inquire into the most private reaches of her life without charges of prurience.” She referred to the novel as a “shabby piece of work” and remarked that its problems stem from the form of the book. “Fictionalizing a life is a dodgy business, because the only thing which separates it from biography is conjecture, and, by extension, untruth. When the facts of the subject’s life are as copiously recorded as Marilyn’s, only the wildest invention can heave such an enterprise into fiction.”

Maybe it’s because it’s written on paper for anyone near and far to see that makes us hold a novel of biographical fiction to a different standard than a biopic. That new Marilyn Monroe film gravely fictionalizes things? Meh, they had to do what they had to do to make a movie. An author puts that story down on paper for the general public to read, analyze, and pour over? That’s a horse of a different color. Perhaps we should hold all works of biographical fiction, whether on the screen or on the page, to the same ethical standard of whether this contributes positively or negatively to the lore of its real-life subject.

On the other side of the argument, the popularity of biofiction in the digital age, where information about the past lives of our favorite celebrities and public figures is available instantly at our fingertips, speaks to an appetite for the comfort and familiarity a fictionalized account of our favorite famous people offers. Take Daisy Jones & The Six, for example. While not considered biofiction because Daisy Jones and her friends are entirely fictional, no one can deny that they bare a remarkable resemblance to Fleetwood Mac.

Sure, Daisy Jones is a rip-off, but don’t we like it that way? Doesn’t some part of us crave a new adventure surrounding characters we pretty much already know? It’s like rewatching a movie you haven’t seen in a really long time, but you remember enough of it that it’s not asking your brain to continue engaging with new material at the end of a long day. The same can be said for Lucy Holliday’s A Night in With Audrey Hepburn, also not quite biographical fiction, but the same effect.

Then there’s Elizabeth Letts’ Finding Dorothy, a biofiction novel following L. Frank Baum’s wife in the present (1938), witnessing the production of the MGM film adaptation of her husband’s most famous novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It then flashes back to the late 1800s, imagining the historical events that led to the inspiration for Oz. Because the author treats its history with respect, it’s a joy to read and fun for any fan of Dorothy Gale, big or small, even if some aspects of the narrative can be fictionalized.

The same kind of respect for history is seen in Amanda Flower’s series of mystery novels following Emily Dickinson and one of her maids, Because I Could Not Stop For Death and I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died. It would have been totally easy to fictionalize cozy mystery novels about one of history’s most famous poets, forsaking biographical fact for the objective of selling paperbacks. Instead, the author puts her Dickinson knowledge to use, making similar fans of the poet revel in the little details that only we could pick up on.

Ultimately, the ethics surrounding biofiction is left up to the culture to dictate what’s acceptable and what is not. It sure would be easier for the film and publishing industries to ask themselves these types of questions before giving the green light, but perhaps the hope for profit overtakes a sense of morality. If biographical fiction is a genre that you read or perhaps now want to seek out, it’s pivotal that you as a reader consider these ethical questions before diving in because, like it or not, one of the best ways to learn is through feedback.