I don’t like world-building board games: the games I like can be played on car trips. They are games that require no apparatus bar a minimum of two people and two open minds—and a willingness to submit to an arbitrary hypothetical remit.
My taste for such games developed during the bi-annual six-hour car trip my family and I would make down the coast in my childhood, from suburban Sydney to the sublime wilds of Bermagui, New South Wales. My father was the game-maker, my sister and I the competitors. Battering the steering wheel to the beat of whichever Roy Orbison song was playing, Dad would play at quizmaster. The game? Dad’s Choice.
Dad’s Choice is not as nefarious as its title would suggest. Dad’s Choice is a quiz game, and every question is just something Dad knows the answer to. What I liked about this game is that it made the time pass, and that it was a fascinating insight into Things Dad Knew.
As I got older, and I made the trip down the coast with my own friends, and without Dad, I took up his mantel. ‘Maddy’s Choice’ veered more toward books, gay celebrities, and Roger Federer facts, but the premise remained largely unchanged. The thing about being quizmaster, though, is that it is draining. You soon realise you don’t actually know that many facts, and the facts you do know are essentially a searing psychological self-portrait that you might prefer to keep in the attic. I had to innovate. I had to create a game that put the onus of invention and self-revelation back onto the players. And this is how I came up with my piece de resistance, my submission to the games hall of fame. It’s called ‘Which One Are You?’
Under a different title, you have likely also played this game. Which One Are You’s central conceit is that people are obsessed with themselves, and that they can project their personality or life-force onto any object, person, or image with which they are presented.
The most common way this game is played is while watching television or a movie. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You appears onscreen. You turn to your co-watcher and ask: which one are you? The number of possible self-identificatory options must match the number of contestants. No two contestants can pick the same option. Further, this game is not aspirational: you must pick the character or object you truly are, not the one you would prefer to be. Which one you are must also correspond to which one the other person is: the dynamics of the choosing are central to the decision. For example, while watching Broad City, I sprung the question on my friend Jaclyn. Immediately we both knew the indelible truth of it: that despite whatever self-imaginings we both had, in our friendship I am Ilana, and she is Abbi. Would that it were different, that we could just agree that we each have bits of both character in us. But that is not how the game works. You must make a choice, and you must mutually agree on it. If I played Which One Are You re: Abbi and Ilana with my friend Brendan, I would be Abbi and he would be Ilana. I don’t make the rules, except that I literally do.
The game works just as well with inanimate objects. Passing three garbage bags on the side of the road, the game begins again. I say to my two companions: which one are you? It is eerie how often a group consensus will quickly be reached if the group knows each other well. I’m the crumpled bag on the side with the bin juice swirling into the gutter. Georgie is the one standing upright in the middle, with a jaunty empty Gatorade bottle poking out from the top. Jen is on the right: bin bag handles tied up decisively, a certain je ne sais quoi in the way it faces off into the distance, away from the throng.
Novels! You say. What about novels? And you are right: I’m getting to it. The theme I’ve been developing, however, is that novels are not alone in the self-identificatory impulse they stir in us. That impulse is always there. The characters in novels are simply more objects ripe for the picking in the game of Which One Are You?
But while we often individually identify with characters in novels, mentally and emotionally aligning our own experiences with her or him or them, the nature of the novel is that it is generally read alone. We don’t have to bargain with anyone else for our right to identification with one character over another when we are idly self-narrating, sitting in our solitary armchair. There is a whole sub-genre of English Literature academia devoted to thinking about this—I do not pretend that I am the first to consider that novel-reading is a game of psychological self-insertion. Lisa Zunshine uses the framework ‘Theory of Mind.’ She writes about how we attribute minds to fictional characters and looks particularly at how
Fiction presents a challenge to people with autism because in many ways it calls for the same kind of mind-reading as is necessary in regular human communication—that is, the inference of the mental state from the behavior.
But the inference can also double back on itself: ie ‘the character is likely thinking this – if I acted that way, is that what I would likely be thinking?’ There is a happy egotism to this: eg. I prance around in silly outfits with an unearned air of self-importance and therefore I am obviously the Dad in Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy and no one will convince me otherwise.
But what happens when a text is popular enough that its characters become public domain, or at least public domain within one’s circle of friends, for a time? This I am more interested in, because playing Which One Are You? in this circumstance requires a knowledge not just of oneself but of the other people that make up one’s life. It requires an openness to shared self-apportioning, a willingness to engage in group psychology, and to reckon with the potential actuality that the character you immediately connect with might not be the character you play. Luckily for me, enough of my friends have not read Priestdaddy to make a game of Which One Are You? with it plausible. I will continue to see myself as an idiosyncratic Catholic priest and bizarro family man.
But there are other texts: there are always other texts.
Perhaps you knew this was coming, and I apologise: Sally Rooney. The stage has now been reached where basically every one of my friends, and in fact, most of the people that I know, have read Beautiful World, Where Are You.
Which. One. Are. You?
Rooney’s novels are popular for many reasons, and unpopular for just as many, and I’m not going to go into all of them here. Suffice to say, for a certain milieu of readers, reading S-Roon’s books is basically a prolonged and involved game of Which One Are You? Malavika Kannan is correct in her observation that Rooney’s novels hinge on the assumed generality of white female characters for all female readers: ‘white characters are viewed as individuals, rather than representatives of an entire community, and yet their experiences are meant to speak for all of us.’ However, the novels’ intense psychological focus on a small number of characters whose lives intersect does makes them easy fodder for the self-identificatory impulse.
In Conversations with Friends, I immediately adjudged that I was Bobbi, the family-money gay who calls out the bullshit of others all the while hoarding her own. When I discussed this with friends, it became apparent that everyone else assumed I was Frances: the bisexual writer with a chip on her shoulder, who engages in an affair with an older man and refuses to go to the doctor for so long that she faints from endometriosis pain. My kneejerk reaction was that this was an unfair comparison, but I was willing to act on the feedback. I have a Mental Health Plan now, so take that, friends. With Beautiful World Where Are You: again, the presumption from friends is that I am the writer character, Alice, whereas I think of myself more as an Eileen: doing drudge work, making the guy I like have phone sex with me and then saying it was a joke in case feelings aren’t reciprocated.
This is all very self-indulgent, I know, and thank you for sticking with me this far. In the words of Elle Woods, during her in-court perm-care diatribe: ‘I have a point, I promise.’
Bad Art Friend! Here’s where the game gets more complicated. The thing with Dawn Dorland is, she pitched that piece to the New York Times herself. This is what really gets me about the whole ordeal.
If you have not yet caught up on the discourse, let me explain. A wannabe writer who clearly longed to be in with the cool kids of her MFA program and never quite cracked the formula for doing so, divests herself of a kidney as a gift to an unknown recipient, as part of a donation chain. She invites her past MFA acquaintances and faux-friends to congratulate her on her selfless act, and when some of them don’t, she gets tetchy. She emails them, she direct messages them: ‘Did you not see? I donated a kidney??’ Into the hornet’s nest! Many of these acquaintances are writers! She is practically drip-feeding them content.
One of these writers, Sonya Larson, does the predictable thing: she turns Dawn’s pity party into a short story. She writes a kidney-donor character who is pathetically self-aggrandising, and she publishes this story and eventually it gets distributed to 30,000 punters as part of the Boston Book Festival. Dawn is upset. Sonya has taken her noble deed and made a mockery of it: what’s more, she’s directly appropriated the wording of a personal letter Dawn had written to the eventual recipient of her kidney. Litigation ensues, accusations of plagiarism are bountiful. I am less interested in whether or not what Sonya did was plagiarism than with why Dawn thought that, in the narrative of this series of events, readers would assume that she was the wronged party. I fear that Dawn did not grow up playing Which One Are You?
Whose story is okay to pinch? What life content can you appropriate into fiction? Is there a line that can’t be crossed, and what is it? Again, these are not new questions, but I’m asking them anyway.
The other big ‘life-plagiarism’ story doing the rounds in popular literary discourse over the past few years has of course been Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’, published in The New Yorker in 2017. ‘Cat Person’ is a short story whose twenty-year-old protagonist, Margot, meets a thirty-four year old man, Robert, at the cinema where she works, and they proceed to flirt over text, and then have consensually ambiguous sex. The story went viral for all the resonances it stirred in women the world over. Many women felt that they had shared a similar experience to the protagonist’s. In the game of Which One Are You?, every female reader was Margot.
But what if all women are not Margot? What if Margot is one woman, a real-life person called Alexis Nowicki, whose story Roupenian ‘stole’?
In mid-2021, Nowicki penned a first-person essay for Slate, entitled ‘‘Cat Person’ and Me’. In the Slate article, Nowicki claims that Roupenian based her story off a version of Nowicki’s real-life relationship with an older man named ‘Charles’ (the name ‘Charles’ Nowicki says, is a pseudonym). Nowicki adds a caveat that ‘Some of the most pivotal scenes—the sexual encounter and the hostile text messages—were unfamiliar to me. But the similarities to my own life were eerie.’ She goes on to detail these similarities—that she, too, had worked in a cinema while at college. That she, too, had dated a man in his thirties. That this man’s physical and sartorial signifiers, as well as his bedroom aesthetic, were the same as how Roupenian had described Robert’s. While many of the narrative details of ‘Cat Person’ do not apply for Nowicki’s relationship, she counters, ‘so much of the central dynamic in the story rang true to me: Charles’ cryptic communication style; the way I had to work to impress him; the joke rapport we created between our cats early on.’ Her main conjecture as to definitive proof for life-plagiarism is that the cinema where she and Charles had shared their first date IRL is literally named in ‘Cat Person’.
Eventually, Nowicki emails Roupenian, asking Roupenian if she stole Nowicki’s relationship for a story. It turns out Roupenian did know the real Charles, and, having once been told some bare facts about his previous relationship, had proceeded to write ‘Cat Person’ using these facts as a jumping off point. Roupenian acknowledges that she should have removed some of the specific geographical markers and other idiosyncratic elements true of Nowicki’s real life from her story, but essentially, she defends her work as fiction.
The online reactions to Nowicki’s piece were telling in terms of whose side public discourse was coming down on. On Twitter, the most common reactions were joke variations of the original tagline for Nowicki’s piece, which was ‘Kristen Roupenian’s viral story draws specific details from my own life. I’ve spent the years since it published wondering: How did she know?’ Writer Sarah Brouillette tweeted for instance: ‘Karl Marx’s Capital draws specific details from my own life. I’ve spent the years since it was published wondering: How did he know?’ [This is not the point, but my favourite response to this tweet was a reply titling this hypothetical Capital-inspired story, ‘Coat Person.’] People felt that while ‘Cat Person’ did appropriate some facts of Nowicki’s life, not enough of these appropriations were specific only to Nowicki, or specific enough to justify an accusation of auto-plagiarism.
On a broader level, however, thinking about the online reaction to Nowicki’s claims in terms of the Which One Are You? mentality (which I argue structures almost all of our responses to cultural texts) I would add this: perhaps another driving factor in the reticence to sympathise with her is the feeling that when a fictional story is revealed to be biographical, or when an autobiographical piece is revealed to have been ‘stolen,’ it ceases to feel as ‘general,’ or as hypothetically pliable, for the purposes of readerly identification. When Margot is a fictional character, she is a vessel into which every woman who has experienced sexual and romantic unease with an ultimately misogynistic paramour can pour their own emotions and remembrances. When Margot is an indignant Alexis Nowicki, it’s more difficult for her to be me, or you.
This brings me to another question: if the icky sexual encounter described by Margot had actually happened to Nowicki, would we, as a reading audience, be as quick to dismiss Nowicki’s claims? Is re-narrating someone else’s specific sexual assault, without their consent, fair game for the creative writer? Or is there something about trauma, and sexual trauma in particular, that makes it a no-go zone for fictionalisation by anyone other than the assaulted party? What is it about sexual trauma that makes us claw to it like a cat with a ball of string, yelling: ‘mine, mine, mine!’ Why might we be okay with an author using mundane or happy elements of our life for a story, but not a really bad thing? It is certainly connected to our current societal imagining that trauma defines us more than the good or boring things that have happened to us. As Charlie Markbreiter has written, in our neoliberal contemporary hellscape ‘details of your personal life are constantly required (by doctors, by administrators, by the internet) and performing your life is a form of labor.’ If performing one’s life is labour, and the labour with the biggest pay-off (in cultural discourse terms) is performing your trauma, then it makes sense you’d want to get first dibs at performing it.
I don’t suggest that I am somehow immune from this way of thinking, or even that it is wrong, necessarily. I know in my bones that if another author heard about and then wrote the story of my biggest heartbreak, that author would become my sworn enemy for life.
Even as I write it, this knowledge gives me pause. I am confronted by my own ego. As a writer, I must admit that part of my hatred for this imagined life-appropriator would have to do with jealousy. I suppose my thinking is that, because I had to live through the hellish quagmire of gaslighting and fuckery that was my relationship with my ex, I should at least get to be the one who owns that narrative, the one who gets to share it and shape it from my own perspective.
But in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if I write it or someone else does? I still lived it. Which one am I? The one who was gaslit and dumped. Which one am I? The one who still enjoys car-trips with Dad. Perhaps another writer might even write my relationship better—insert some nuance where I am unable to see it. If they wrote well, they would hopefully still get readers to think critically and creatively about emotional abuse, power dynamics, and devastation; they’d write my story differently than I would, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There is more than one way to tell a story.
This brings me to a particular novel that’s been making me think long and hard about all of this: debut Sydney novelist Diana Reid’s Love & Virtue.
Reid’s novel is set on the campus of Sydney University, at an all-female residential college called Fairfax. There are two women’s colleges at the real University of Sydney: Sancta Sophia and Women’s. Diana Reid attended Women’s College—and so did I, briefly, for a semester, before I got the fuck out. Reid’s and my own time there did not overlap. When Reid describes the ‘Fresher’ wing that her protagonist, Michaela, lives in, she directly describes the Langley building of Women’s College, which I also dormed in: ‘a brick octagonal structure from the seventies, which jutted out from the original Victorian building with thrusting, unapologetic ugliness.’ In the novel, the all-male college next to Fairfax is called St Thomas. In real life, it is St Paul’s.
Reid’s Michaela is from Canberra, and is boarding at Fairfax on an academic scholarship. Reid herself studied at Ascham School, which in 2021 was the third most expensive school to attend in Australia (but I digress). At college, Michaela is an outsider, in that she does not already know all her new college-mates, having not attended private school with them. Michaela’s counterpart frenemy at Fairfax is Eve—a confident, private-school educated wannabe thespian/journalist, who we are told from the novel’s beginning will turn out to be a minor celebrity in the world of Australian public intellectualism.
Reid studied philosophy at university, as does Michaela, so throughout the novel, Michaela explicitly considers all major plot points through the framework of Ethics with a capital ‘E’. For a time she has an affair with her Philosophy professor, which is morally ambiguous, but the major philosophical crux of the novel is as follows. In Orientation Week, Michaela has blackout sex with a boy from St Thomas’, and it is only later, in an embarrassing social situation, that she recalls which boy it was. The details of the night are fuzzy to her, and although she was extremely inebriated and therefore could not have affirmatively consented to the sex, she also does not think of the encounter as rape. Soon enough, Eve, a budding journalist and Public Feminist, writes a first-person essay for the university’s student newspaper about the night of Michaela’s non-consensual sex, except she writes it as though this experience actually happened to her: to Eve. Michaela is understandably upset that Eve has appropriated her sexual experience and pretended that it was her own, and she confronts Eve. Michaela can barely remember the night: Eve, meanwhile, purports to have been the one who found Michaela splayed out and vomit-covered in the doorway to the boy’s room. Eve says that the boy kept yelling at Michaela that she was a ‘stupid bitch.’ Subsequently, Eve finds Michaela’s reluctance to confront the boy or take further action remiss. To her mind, she writes the personal essay because someone had to, and if that someone was not going to be Michaela, it may as well have been Eve.
Which one are you? Which one is Reid? Which one is my ex-partner? Which one am I?
First off: did someone ‘have to’ write about the night in question? Well, no. But are tales of sexual assault more believed when they are attached to an actual person who is testifying than rather than if they are referenced rhetorically, in the abstract? Well, yes. We don’t believe women, but it is hypothetically possible that we might (maaaaybe) believe one woman. It seems to me that Eve wrote the article for two main reasons, which I recite now in no particular order.
Number one: a culture of toxic masculinity and misogyny is rampant in institutions of higher learning, and perpetrators of sexual violence and sexist behaviour in these institutions are very rarely chastened, let alone held accountable. Knowing that individual accountability is seldom achieved, Eve reasoned that the best way to change the culture was with a narrative, even if it was not ‘hers’. Eve took Michaela’s story and played Which One Are You?, and between the boy, and the assaulted woman, she was more the assaulted woman.
Number two: self-interest. Sex(ual assault) sells—particularly when it is framed confessionally, and by a white woman. In the current moment, a white female student journalist defiantly writing about sexual assault and structural gendered inequity within the ‘elite’ ranks of higher learning in Australia is far likelier to garner media interest and a subsequent book deal than if she wrote about, say, anything else. I don’t really have a problem with this, in the scheme of things: the more people writing and reading about the way misogyny structures our world, the better. Another important, connected point is that it would be even better if the diversity of those being published on this actually reflected the diversity of those affected. But for the character of Eve, let’s face it: writing the essay is a smart career move.
The title of the Dawn/Sonya/kidney debacle article is ‘Who Is the Bad Art Friend?’ The implication is that, depending on your reading, it could be Sonya, or it could be Dawn. Both women clearly think the Bad Art Friend is the other person. In the Bad Art Friend case, I tend to side with Sonya, even though she is a ‘life plagiarist.’ Sue me, but I simply believe that asking people to congratulate you for donating a kidney, getting annoyed when they don’t comply, and then chucking a tantrum when a short story is written about you being entitled is kind of like … hubris. My feelings are less clear-cut with Eve and Michaela. I think that despite all the good it might do for public discourse on institutionally protected sexual assault, it could also be that writing you were raped when really it happened to your mate is not a chill thing to do?
Every woman I know has a story to tell about sexual assault—either it has happened to her, or it has happened to someone she knows. It’s hardly necessary to claim someone else’s story as your own. There are plenty to go around, and you don’t have to be the protagonist in it for it to matter. If you really feel that your mate’s particular story needs to be told—perhaps check with her first that she’s okay with it. Just an idea. But I’m getting distracted in fictionality.
Having attended Women’s College myself, here’s what I know. Whether Reid’s book was based on her own personal experience or not, writing Love & Virtue, Reid has written someone else’s story. In fact, she has written many, many other people’s stories. This is not a specific accusation of life-plagiarism. It is testimony to the fact that in my first week at college, I had been sexually assaulted, and so had multiple young women in my building. Young women were constantly hollered at by boys from other colleges, who repetitively alluded to events the women would rather forget/would vastly prefer never to have happened, but which, for the boys, were a badge of honour. That I was assaulted was normal and I never once thought about reporting it. I didn’t even tell my friends. My silence was not because of the internalised shame you might expect: I didn’t tell my friends because it was so totally mundane to be sexually assaulted in that context that I thought talking about it would make me seem like an attention-seeker. I know that this is true for a lot of women in a lot more contexts than residential colleges: this merely scratches the surface.
Playing Which One Are You? with Love & Virtue, then, I am Michaela. I am obviously Michaela!
But here I am writing about a time I was sexually assaulted, and as I do so I am certainly occluding the voices of other women or non-binary people whose similar stories are less likely to be listened to than my own. So maybe I am Eve.
Could it be that fiction matters because in it—if it is good—we are given license to imagine that we are more than one thing?
Absolutely not. That would ruin my game. The trip to Bermagui is so long.
Which one am I, and which one are you?
Image: Joan Puigcerver