Monday, April 13, 2009

Is it (merely) autobiographical?--Part III

A few interesting reads on the issue of autobiographical fiction, which I've written about previously here and here and here.

Maud Newton makes a point similar to something I've come to realize when she says:

Even small changes of timing, circumstance, and location create different narrative logic and evoke distinct moods, and cumulatively these alterations can be so significant that it’s misleading to speak in terms of a story diverging from fact at a single point . . . .

It's like the cliche in movies about time travel--be careful when you go back not to change any little thing because it will change everything.

To understand this, imagine a meaningful episode in your teenage years. Now choose one family member who was not terrifically active in that episode. They clutter the episode, so you remove them from your life entirely. Imagine they never existed. Would you still be you? Would everyone else close to you be the people they were and that they became? Would that episode have unfolded the same way? Would it have had the same emotional meaning then and later? Now make it happen on a snowy day instead of a rainy day. Make it happen when you were one year younger. Picture yourself wearing your new tennis shoes your mom splurged on for once instead of the hand-me-downs you typically would have been wearing. How would that episode be different then?

These are the kinds of small changes that a novelist, inspired by autobiography, might make just for the sake of plot sense and flow and simplicity, and those changes quickly accumulate until it's not autobiography at all. The characters become nothing like the real-life counterparts that may have been on scene in the real-life event. And, vice versa, if the people are different it stops being the same event, so the characters in turn become less like the real-life people and so on. Then how these different people respond leads to different, new episodes that have no correlation to your real life.

Rodes Fishburne (What's with all the literary names lately that are also places or things?) rolls his eyes at the "is it autobiographical" question.

I wonder why this is such an evergreen question. It must be because people who don’t write novels are trying to figure out how to reverse engineer the novel writing process and the first and easiest way to do this is to suppose that in the search for a main character one need look no further than oneself! But the truth is that the least interesting character in my head is me.

That doesn't sound quite right. The MOST interesting character in my head is me, and, fellow writers, j'accuse--you know it's true.

Rabih Alemeddine commands you to "ignore that autobiographical novelist behind the curtain."

Which begs the question, why do novelists get so anxious about the question anyway? I know it keeps me up at night preparing an elegant little answer for when Oprah interviews me. I think it has something to do with feeling like it discounts the novel--like people will think I'm cheating somehow if they think it's "merely" autobiographical.

1 comment:

Richard C. Lambert said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, big fan. Keep up the good work andplease tell me when can you publish more articles or where can I read more on the subject?