January 9th, 2012 / 1:43 pm
Author News


Speaking of Egon Schiele and “Adrien Brody,” Jezebel ran an exclusive exposé in November about the novel You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik.  You Deserve Nothing is about a thirty-something teacher at an American international school in Paris who has an affair with, and impregnates, one of his seventeen-year-old students.  Turns out (according to Jezebel) Maksik was a teacher at an American international school in Paris who had an affair with, and impregnated, one of his seventeen-year-old students.

We can all probably agree that sleeping with a student at the high school where you teach is a significant ethical fail.  (Although apparently not illegal; the age of consent in France, according to Wikipedia, is fifteen.)  However, the Jezebel writer also seems to take the position that it’s reprehensible for Maksik to have written a novel about events based on his own life without asking his former student’s permission first.

I strongly disagree.  Would the former student need to ask Maksik’s permission to write her own novel about the experience?  Of course not.  (I’d like to read that novel, actually.)  That said, if I were her, I’d be upset too.  I’m very happy that no one has ever turned trauma from my personal life into fiction and gotten praised by the New York Times for doing so.  I might pick apart the motives of a person who did something like that, but I would never make the argument that they didn’t have the right to do it.  It’s worth noting that You Deserve Nothing is fairly self-lacerating, and in no way reads like a celebration of or excuse for the protagonist’s behavior.

In any case, I finally read You Deserve Nothing recently.  It’s terrific, rich in language and character, thoughtful and perceptive, sometimes beautiful.  The prose reminded me of James Salter; the characterization and dialogue were more modern and the most apt comparison I can make is maybe to Francine Prose at her best (Blue Angel, for example).  It’s probably the best novel I’ve read in the last couple months.


  1. Jonathan Safran Foer

      How long have you and Alex been friends? Sounds like a solid debut novel

  2. Nathan Huffstutter

      If you click on the first page of the book on Amazon, along with the copyright info is the standard disclaimer: “All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.”

      No one actually expects novelists to pull all of their material from the clouds, and I don’t even know the legal implications of that boilerplate disclaimer, but I assume they put it there on the first page because at some point you do need to ask permission.

  3. Old Complaining Dude

      What ever happened to fiction writers just making stories up?  You know: fiction.

  4. Mr. Ian M. Belcurry

      Are you the REAL DUDE, or being postmodern or something? Just wondering :-)

  5. s.c.u.b.a.

      To be fair, our best, and also our most famous/wealthy fiction writers have no problem doing so.

  6. Nick Antosca

      Never met or communicated with him in any way

  7. Roxane

      It seems like there’s a penalty for being involved in any way with a writer. I’m all for artistic freedom, and I write from my life regularly. I don’t want to ask for permission, and I don’t. There does need to be some kind of consideration though, some level of respect for the intimacies of others. I certainly discuss it with the person in question if I know that I’m going to write something that borrows heavily from our relationship. I just struggle with the idea that creative freedom supersedes respect.

  8. Tyler Christensen

      Fuck permission. If I want to use my own life as source material, I sure- enough will. However, I really admire writer’s like Jessica Anya Blau who markets her writing as fiction, but doesn’t hide behind some sort of fictitious veil. She comes right out with the fact that her writing is clearly about her own life. In her latest book, “Drinking Closer To Home” she even includes an interview with her family in the back of the book, all of whom are written about in the book, and asks them how they feel about their respective portrayal’s. An instance where an author is using creative freedom with some dignity. However, I don’t see why Maksik needs permission to write about the events in his life, from anyone. 

  9. deadgod

      responsibility = privilege = right

      it’s easy!

      and it’s all free

  10. deadgod

      Should a bank need no “permission” to tell me a “creative” story about your money?

      Should a doctor need no “permission” to tell an insurance company – or police department – a “creative” story about your health?

  11. 09654a3

      As someone who has lived with painters, musicians, poets, and novelists, and has numerous times been portrayed – directly and indirectly, idealistically and unflatteringly, I have to say that there is something especially nauseating and troubling about this new-hat-on-an-old-pig kind of “Oj Simpson – “If I Did It” ‘confessional’ ‘fiction’: a completely predatory genre in which the writer seems to be trolling his or her life for “victims”. 

      It’s about power. In the case above has the author has merely double-victimized his “victim”?
      As an artist myself I must ask: of what real matter is it that it’s legal and you can do it? You can. Yes we can! But, really, should you? Why are you? Has it contributed to art, or merely to your bank account and pathetic ego? Has your ‘confession’ shallowly ‘redeemed’ you to the public – is ‘art’ your alibi? The question is insincere. This is no real mystery. From the outset we all of course know “you did it!” “I did it!” – an AmericanWe all work from our experience, and fact is cleaved to fiction, but, really…imagination – look into it. The greatest writers always have.

  12. Jonathan Safran Foer

      Happy to autograph whatever you want, bring it along to my next reading

  13. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      making characters out of people we know. you know: composites. 

  14. Nick Antosca

      You should read the book before making an argument like that. 

      For one thing, the book is not presented as confessional fiction.  It’s presented as pure fiction.  No one would know that it was inspired by real events in the author’s life if the other people involved hadn’t called attention to that; it’s in no way an OJ Simpson-esque attempt to profit from notoriety.  As for “Has it contributed to art, or merely to your bank account and pathetic ego?”… I seriously doubt the author made much money for this novel, and if your implication is that works of fiction heavily influenced by the author’s life experience do not “contribute to art,” there are countless examples that would seem to refute that, among them many/most of Bukowski’s novels, many/most of Fitzgerald’s novels, Tao Lin’s fiction, Orwell’s early fiction, and a ton of other stuff.

  15. William VanDenBerg

      The writer, based on the decisions presented here, comes off like an awful human being. Are you arguing that the work justifies the actions? Can art do that?

      Or are you claiming that the ethics of the behavior are unrelated to the art? Can an artist do something wrong, base art on it, and then expect people to not consider the act?

      Also, the argument that the former student wouldn’t need permission to publish her account seems flawed. There is a big difference in power between him and her; we have to acknowledge this when considering the morality of the situation.

  16. 09654a3

      Simpson’s book was also presented as ‘pure fiction’. He was acquitted, remember.

      I’m not going to read the book, and I’m still going to make the argument. You said it yourself: “I’m very happy that no one has ever turned trauma from my personal life into fiction and gotten praised by the New York Times for doing so.”

  17. lmn

      the Jezebel article aside, I think what readers, including to an extent myself, took issue with was the fact that Maksik never once acknowledged the fiction’s basis in reality, despite plucking the contents of entire conversations both personal and private that he had as a teacher with his students and dumping them into a narrative that, while certainly not gracious to the protagonist, didn’t strike me as being entirely self-lacerating, as Nick describes it: we’re still meant to see the protagonist as a tragic figure, so much more so for his inability to live up to his touted ideals. of course, nobody says you can’t do that, fictionalize your “real life”, and fiction would be greatly impoverished if we flatly refused to replicate within it moments from our everyday lives. but that he did it with such a sensitive subject in such a blatant fashion doesn’t put Maksik in the best light. and I understand completely why the real-life “Marie” felt so betrayed by what seems to be her use at Maksik’s hand, whether for fame, “profit” (though of course as Nick points out any profit that might be generated by a novel is probably nowhere near large enough to be consequential), or artistic recognition. the thorniest question for me when it comes to ‘You Deserve Nothing’ regards the authority with which Maksik chose to inhabit “Marie’s” consciousness, that he took it upon himself to decide how her fictional incarnation thinks, feels, and worst, regards him. I think of her final line in the novel, talking about how she misses him and still dreams of him, and while I don’t want to say that others in these situations don’t feel affection for or ambivalence toward those with whom they are romantically engaged, I can understand why the real “Marie” was upset at having her experience in a sense co-opted by Maksik’s invention and authority.

  18. Ken Baumann

      Your first paragraph is great.

  19. 09654a3

      And are you serious when you say” “I seriously doubt the author made much money for this novel”? This accolades from this book will I’m sure lead to teaching positions, public appearances, awards, future book deals…in short, his entire livelihood.

  20. Nick Antosca

      Do you think it would be more ethically defensible if he said sold and promoted the book by saying, in effect, “This is a fictionalized version of something that really happened; I did what the protagonist does”?  It seems to me that that would call attention to “Marie” in a way that writing a fictional version and selling it as fiction does not.  Seems like it would be callous and opportunistic of the author to have handled it that way. 

  21. Nick Antosca

      “Are you arguing that the work justifies the actions? …Or are you claiming that the ethics of the behavior are unrelated to the art?”

      No, I didn’t say either of those things.

  22. Nick Antosca

      OJ Simpson’s trial was the “trial of the century,” and everyone in the world associated his name with the details of the murders. 

      No one not directly related to the events fictionalized in “You Deserve Nothing” had any knowledge of them prior to the Jezebel exclusive.

      A reader picking up “You Deserve Nothing” would be reading the novel from a very different perspective than a reader picking up “If I Did It.” 

      The two situations are radically different and the comparison is bizarre and thoughtless.

  23. 09654a3

      It’s a quite apt comparison and metaphor, thanks. Granted, it takes a bit of imagination – Makesik didn’t actually murder anyone, he just traumatized them. 

  24. lmn

      good question and good point. still, the book as Maksik chose to write and present it seems even more callous to me, as far as “Marie” is concerned.

  25. deadgod

      Of course you don’t need “permission” to betray trust.  That the ethical texture of praxis is (somehow) chosen is what makes relationships between people something that can be betrayed (and not a matter of, say, mathematics).

      –and in terms of its ethical dimension, as well as conducting health and vitality, art is also predatory.  No artist worth the title is going to be pusillanimous enough preemptively to let go of that privilege.

      But it’s the very fact that Makesick doesn’t need “permission”, for example, to transform a sleazily exploitative promotion of his own interests at another’s expense (in their ‘real’ lives) into an artful story might be reason to read, in addition to its technical facility, the ethical quality of the backstory back into the novel.

      An argument in Makesick’s favor that I find strong – stronger than that his writerly skilz are high and much stronger than that he’d not have been likely–none of us are!–to make much money from writing the thing – is this rhetorical question:  what difference would it make if someone who’d never been sexually involved with a student of theirs had made up this story from their imaginative interaction with the world?  Is it okay ‘to make up’ weird stories to tell, but not to fictionalize weird things that one has done oneself?  That doesn’t sound rational–to rule in, for two examples, Nabokov and Harington, and to rule out Makesick.

      A favorable comparison to Salter – whoa.  To me, that’s pretty high praise–it encourages me at least to start reading the novel.

  26. deadgod

      It was – if it’s true that he did – callous and opportunistic of Makesick to exploit the trust of a student in his putting her interests before his (were there any conflict between their interests), and perhaps unusually callous and opportunistic of him to novelize the affair (of all the stories he might have had the wit to tell).  Whether he puts the story forward as “fiction”, “fictionalization”, or “creative non-fiction” wouldn’t diminish the callousness and opportunism of the latter, would it?

  27. 09654a3

      One could also make the argument that all humans are predatory, and they’d be right. It isn’t some special privilege of artists. Thought terminating cliche.

  28. deadgod

      Eh–I mean ‘exploit the trust in his putting her interests first’, not ‘callous and opportunistic in his putting her interests first’.

  29. deadgod

      All human relationships are predatory.  If that were universally acknowledged – which is what you might mean by your clumsy “[t]hought terminating cliche” – , your “But, really, should you?” wouldn’t obtain.

      The point made was to defend the idea that, because predation is ineradicable from human relationships and so from art that flows from and re-enters them, its presence is an occasion for assessment (as you’ve reckless done on this very thread), and not for the rote dismissal of ethical concerns in art (which Nick hasn’t done, but which looms as a ‘conversation terminator’ over this discussion).

      “Special privilege[s] of artists” are not only nowhere suggested by me, they’re explicitly denied by phrasing like ‘read the ethical quality of the backstory back into the novel’.  Try harder at least to read your own posts.

  30. Nick Antosca

      “what difference would it make if someone who’d never been
      sexually involved with a student of theirs had made up this story from
      their imaginative interaction with the world?  Is it okay ‘to make up’
      weird stories to tell, but not to fictionalize weird things that one has
      done oneself?”

      That’s a great point.  One which, I would argue, illuminates the absurdity of condemning Maksik.

      I do encourage you to read the novel and see what you think about it then.  I think you’ll understand the comparison when you read it.

  31. Trey

      “Are you arguing that the work justifies the actions? Can art do that?”


      Haven’t read the book, but, yes, art can do that.

  32. Nick Antosca

      No, it’s a silly/dishonest comparison.  The comparison you made was not between murder and the abuse of a teacher’s power (degrees of ethical transgression, far apart but on the same scale), but between a famous person exploiting the public’s preexisting knowledge of his alleged crime by writing a book that’s mostly memoir but contains hypothetical description of the crime (it was not, in fact, presented as “pure fiction”), and a person about whom the public knew nothing writing a novel presented as complete fiction.  As far as I can tell there’s been absolutely zero effort on Maksik’s part to exploit the fact that the novel’s central relationship was based on life.  The whole purpose of OJ’s book was to exploit preexisting notoriety.  The two situations are simply not analogous.

  33. 09654a3

      Well, I think humans are PREDATORY, and yet my “but, really, should you?” still obtains. There are degrees, and differences in situation, obviously. The [t]hought terminating cliche I was suggesting you were (perhaps [t]houghtlessly) veering toward was within your statement “art is also predatory.  No artist worth the title is going to be pusillanimous enough preemptively to let go of that privilege.” It’s too easy to shut down any conversation about ethics by saying ‘all humans are predatory animals’ or ‘artists are all the lizard king. they can do any thing’ ‘their privilege as special sentient beings’ etc. Not saying you explicitly said these things. Yes, you explicitly said the opposite as well. As you tend to do.

  34. Nick Antosca

      Also, regarding the question of whether it’s okay to “fictionalize weird [or bad] things that one has done oneself”…

      A number of comments below play the “whatever happened to imagination??” card, a question which seems to me absurd or willfully ignorant of the writing process.  Virtually all fiction writing draws heavily on personal experience, even when we’re writing “genre fiction” or “experimental fiction” or anything else that’s far from “realistic” fiction… it’s all on the same spectrum and it seems to me very dangerous and weirdly oblivious that people here would make the argument that it’s sometimes not okay or even reprehensible to use your own life experiences in your fiction writing.  Everyone has the right to write about what they’ve lived. 

      I can hear the counterargument now, some form of “but you can’t allow criminals to exploit their crimes… what about a murderer on a death row?”  (Yes, I know there are laws preventing murderers from profiting by writing books about their crimes.)  But I think if you follow a principle, you ought to follow it to the logical extreme.  There’s a reason the ACLU defends the right of the KKK and other repugnant types to freedom of speech; they’d be hypocrites if they didn’t.

  35. 09654a3

      They are both descriptions of hypothetical crimes (‘crimes’) that actually happened. In one case we knew about the crime before, in the other, after. Both were presented as a fiction. In both cases a woman was murdered/exploited, then doubly murdered/exploited in a book. One book is called “If I Did It” the other “You Deserve Nothing.” Lovely things, they are.

  36. Nick Antosca

      And you haven’t read the novel in question, don’t know what you’re talking about, and keep repeating a factual inaccuracy in order to make a false equivalency.

  37. 09654a3

      All of your comments appear to be written in wingdings.

  38. 88888888888888888888888

      It’s so postmodern to ask that question

  39. William VanDenBerg


  40. William VanDenBerg

      Yeah, the word “claim” was too strong there. The article only says that you believe the author doesn’t need permission in this instance and that the book was excellent.

      I’m mainly curious to see if you think that there’s a connection between the ethical content of an action and the art that it produces. I’m holding out the button of “rote dismissal of ethical concerns in art” as deadgod puts it (I think; I have a low batting average understanding deadgod).

  41. Nathan Huffstutter

      I consider the act of choosing which words to put on the page and which ones to leave off as profound an act of the imagination as dreaming-up a narrative premise; someone who writes a monster story based on a childhood trauma, someone who writes a trauma story based on workplace observations, I’m not prepared to judge who’s using what degree of imagination.

      In addition to rights of free speech and expression, however, we also recognize an individual’s rights over their own image. You may believe Erin Andrews is a beautiful woman and a fantastic sideline reporter, and you may believe that via composition, framing, editing, etc. that you can present peephole camera footage of her as erotic art, but even though she’s a “public figure,” her rights over her own image are going to supersede your rights as an artist. On the mundane end of the spectrum, if you want to write an essay about the dull-as-hell afternoon you spent at the DMV with four complete strangers, if you choose to recreate those strangers with a high degree of verisimilitude (physical likeness, exact conversation, personal histories, etc.) and you intend to publish the article with a well-circulated, professionally edited publication, you need to have obtained waivers or releases from those total strangers.

      There are certain artistic traits I happen to preference: empathy (where if you truly feel you’ve done someone a wrong perhaps you opt not to compound that wrong by exploiting their life for your art); honesty (where perhaps you don’t use a lie of omission by handing your editors a book of fiction that recreates precise characters, conversations, and episodes); and problem-solving (where perhaps you try to figure out how to take a dramatic, compelling episode from your own life and resuscitate those concerns in a different city, within a different profession, with composite characters who, paragraph by paragraph, grow away from rather than toward existing individuals). But those are personal preferences and I’m prepared to accept that on those we just might disagree.  

  42. Tyler Christensen

      I would like to read the “books” of all of the people that are arguing their case in this debate. Oh wait, none of them have published anything (well maybe the Foer poser… seriously? Is that you?), aside from their self-masturbatory comments on this literary blog and, I’m certain, a litany of others. We’ll be sure to hold their novel next to their lives, and scrutinize it for similarities. The only way I can make sense of all this kerfuffle is that these folks are jealous, for lack of a better word, of Maksik’s execution. Maksik played his hand, he wrote the book, it got published, and now he’ll enjoy a long and prosperous career as a writer. So what? Isn’t that what we all want? Good for him. He went to Iowa, he was bound for success either way. And what say we of the book that Lan Samantha Chang recently published about students in an MFA workshop? Writer’s draw from the headlines of their lives. Check out the podcast, “Other People with Brad Listi” their is an episode with Maksik. It’s great. He’s an interesting guy. I celebrate his work. I celebrate Marie Calloway. I celebrate any author who does the work of writing and gets it out to an audience. Stop being literary naysayers. 

  43. Nathan Huffstutter

      It amuses me when someone types comments on a lit-blog that call out commenting on a lit-blog as “self-masturbatory.”
      It amuses me when one of the individuals bringing a combative tone to a discussion then refers to that discussion as a “kerfuffle” which they are somehow above participating in.It amuses me when someone attempts to attribute a single group motivation to a diversity of voices.(If it helps you “make sense of all this kerfuffle,” my own motivation for engaging in the discussion comes primarily from the fact that the original post brought up issues I find interesting and I happened to have time to kill. As far as “jealousy” goes, there are no terms under which I would choose to switch personal or professional places with Maksik, which isn’t a judgment on a human being I don’t  know or the quality of a book I haven’t read – I just happen to be doing what I want to be doing).

  44. deadgod

      quit laughing man this shit is some serious shit

  45. Nathan Huffstutter

      Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

  46. Afternoon Bites: Diane Williams, Glen Campbell, Alexander Maksik, and more | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

      […] in recent literary debates: Nick Antosca weighs in on the Alexander Maksik debate at HTML Giant. (Ms. Gay makes some astute points in the comments section as […]

  47. ThisGUy

      Privacy is assured by legal strictures in the case of the bank and the doctor. Also there is the issues of maintaining a client base that values its privacy. If under French law what occurred is not construed as a crime, if that is the case,  then there is no legal compulsion to maintain that privacy. Unless the law has a another statue which would guarantee it. The situations aren’t related, unless you assume that there is a moral compulsion, which assumes that there has been an ethical crime. That is a matter public opinion, and the author is open to having his ‘clientele’, of whatever sort, withdraw their patronage.

      But there’s nothing to suggest that he should have asked for permission, other than moral feeling, which is not binding. 

  48. c2k

      JSF is inimitable.

  49. Nick Mamatas

      Nah, that’s just an anti-libel warding spell. Permission isn’t required–after all, nobody would give permission for anything but the most glowing portrayals.

  50. Nick Mamatas

      Not actually familiar with the publishing industry, eh?

  51. lmn

      “I would like to read the ‘books’ of all of the people that are arguing
      their case in this debate. Oh wait, none of them have published anything” : sounds dangerously close to that good old critique of criticism, the ‘I’d like to see you try it’, though that might not be how you intended it

  52. barry

      the juice is innocent. also. fuck kanye west.

  53. deadgod

      Ha ha – you’re right:  guilty, guilty, guilty.  I qualify “predatory” with “conduc[ive to] health and vitality” not to have it both ways, but because artists are both ways.

      I take your warning:  you want not to go down the ‘we’re all “predators”, so anything goes’ slippery slope.  –but that logical consequence doesn’t follow logically from not needing permission.  It’s artistic ‘freedom’ that makes artists responsible for whatever betrayal of trust they indulge in.  Not legal trouble, necessarily – but the public opprobrium of, well, people like you and me saying ‘man, this “artist” is a shitbag’.

      I mean that ethics begins when one can get away with sleazy shit.  –which is not the same as saying that people don’t need “permission” to be sleazy.

  54. deadgod

      Fuck.  I mean that it is the same etc.

  55. deadgod

      Let me add only that (imaginitively) permitting a writer to betray the trust of their ‘friends’ is no argument against (imaginitively) condemning them for doing so.  Indeed, the former implies the latter (in the case of such a betrayal).

  56. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I hope that Ezra does this to Aria on Pretty Little Liars. That would be entertaining.

  57. deadgod

      Your distinction between “legal” and “moral” is okay, though I wonder whether, ‘age of consent’ aside, French criminal law or tortious action don’t protect students from predatory teachers, as our criminal law and institutional self-regulation do.

      But, of course, “legal compulsion” misses the point of the questions.  Let me try again:  What is the reason for bank and health providers being forced legally to protect your privacy?  Why is there this exclusion from an absolute First Amendment “right” to speak in these cases?

      You get it, right?  Does having “permission” mean ‘anything goes’?

  58. Trey

      none off the top of my head that exist, I can only say what I would be willing to accept.

      like if faulkner had actually castrated a mentally handicapped guy in order to write TSATF, and it couldn’t have existed without that action, then I’d be totally fine with that.

      I guess me not having examples that are actually real doesn’t help. it’s sort of an idealistic belief, huh?

  59. ThisGUy

      I aslo wonder about what protections they have, like this did guy get fired or whatever.

      The suspension of the right to speak is guaranteed because the relationship between person and doctor, or person and lawyer, or bank, is socially structured to protect the individual from what is deemed and obvious vulnerability in regards to sensitive information held by the other party.

      It would seem that french law doesn’t doesn’t construe the relationship between a seventeen year old girl and a thirty year old man the same way. The age of consent means that after that age she has the same right to privacy as anyone that that enters into a consenting sexual relationship. It would be no different if she had been older than him.

      Having permisssion does literally mean that every possibility described under ‘permission’ does indeed go. Though the rightness or wrongness of it is up for discussion. 

  60. deadgod

      Again rephrasing:  in the case of Makesick’s book, why should the “sensitive information” of a patient, legal client, or depositor or borrower be “deemed” more worthy of protection than that of an equally “vulnerab[le]” student?

      (You understand, the point of this and the earlier questions was not to cast doubt that there is such greater “sensitiv[ity]” legally, but rather, to challenge Tyler’s apparently (maybe only to me) cavalier attitude about the increase in responsibility that flows from rejection of “permission”–what I think you indicate by “up for discussion”.)

  61. Thidguy

      I see now what you mean in terms of an expected increase in responsibility, in regards to the original comment, which I didnt read closely the first time around. But this seems to me to indicate what I called moral feeling: feeling less squirmy because she included the family  interview, or something like that, which has nothing to do with the right to expression.

      What I’m saying is that the student not as vulnerable as the patient/client/depositor. And that this is reflected in the attitude of the law.

      But yes, I see what you were getting at.

  62. Lilzed