Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Danger of Rewriting Anne Frank

I have argued against fictionalizing nonfiction before.

When discussing Dave Eggers’ The What, I said the schism between Valentino Achak Deng’s life and Eggers’ novel distracted me.

So you can imagine how I feel about what has been described as a “sexed up” version of the Anne Frank story.

But, the thing is, this one bothers me a lot less after having read an interview with the author.

For those who don’t know, Anne Frank wrote what may have been the most important autobiography ever. As a teenage girl of Jewish faith and descent, she kept a diary while hiding from Nazi soldiers in an attic.

Sharon Dogar has now written a coming-of-age story titled Annexed from the perspective of Peter van Pels, a young man who shared the attic with Anne.

Peter is a real person. In her diary, the 16-year-old boy gave Anne her first kiss, though the relationship ultimately waned when Anne questioned whether her affinity for him was genuine or the result of their proximity and confinement.

I haven’t read Annexed yet. It doesn’t come out until October. But news reports have said that it includes scenes of “Peter yearning for and having a physically intimate relationship with Anne.”

The Sunday Times accused Dogar of “sexing up” the Anne Frank tale, but Dogar protests the implication that she’s exploiting Anne Frank or using her to tell tales of ribaldry.

In an interview with the Guardian, Dogar says of Peter and Anne’s relationship, “in the book the reality of just one truly intimate touch was enough to stop them.”

However, the criticism keeps coming. Anne Frank’s only living relative, Buddy Elias, said, “Anne was not the child she is in this book. I also do not think that their terrible destiny should be used to invent some fictitious story.”

The executive director of the Anne Frank Trust, Gillian Walnes, said, “I really don’t understand why we have to fictionalise the Anne Frank story, when young people engage with it anyway. To me it seems like exploitation. If this woman writer is such a good novelist, why doesn’t she create characters from scratch?”

Both of these criticism are fair, and I might be inclined with them had Dogar not made her own case so well.

In the aforementioned Guardian interview, Dogar said, “The problem is that a writer doesn’t always choose what they write. The idea of this book plagued me for 15 years. I tried quite hard not to write it, mostly because I had similar concerns; I couldn’t do it justice, I wasn’t sure it was legitimate, I didn’t believe I had the talent to portray the horror of the Holocaust. But sometimes stories just come and you can’t stop them.”

The Guardian also published an editorial defending Dogar’s decision:

Do what you like, only do it well – and don’t expect the relatives to approve...

The question of whether authors have the “right” to write about living or real people is not one that should be answered by the caretakers of historical reputation. Fiction is a free-for-all, and as long as an author can find someone who’ll publish what they write (or these days, publish it themselves), there are no actual rules about who or what can be tackled, give or take a few libel laws.

I don’t know if I agree with Dogar or the Guardian’s arguments. (I do think writers should have more standards than libel laws, and writers self-censor all the time.) But they are persuasive enough that I am willing to reserve judgment until I have read, at least, a portion of the book.

That having been said, the standards are raised when you deal with such respected source material. If Dogar succeeds, she’s a genius. If she fails, she’ll be remembered as the person who sexed up Anne Frank.

-Jason Lea,

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Anonymous Joe said...

very good info

June 23, 2010 at 1:13 PM 
Anonymous Kim said...

very good info

June 23, 2010 at 1:13 PM 

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