I’m reasonably certain that John Ashcroft didn’t recognize himself disguised as the evil high school guidance counselor in one of my novels. But like so much else, this thorny matter requires consideration on a case-by-case basis. In Mary McCarthy’s story “The Cicerone,” Peggy Guggenheim, the important collector of modern art, appears as Polly Grabbe, an aging, spoiled expatriate slut who collects garden statuary. Guggenheim did recognize herself and was definitely not flattered; it took years before the two women were friends again. Write what you want — but be prepared for the consequences.

Francine Prose, with Leslie Jamison in The New York Times, on the questions a writer asks when using real people and real experiences in fiction and nonfiction. Read more on writing from the Longreads Archive.


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