The American compulsion to write autobiographical novels is a literary dead end
Almost exactly a year ago, with the PEN World Voices Festival of international literature taking place I used the occasion of reviewing Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2011 to prop up the Berlin Wall I thought of as separating European and American fiction. Working on my review of this year’s BEF 2012 I had no intention of revisiting that debate. But then I read an essay on The Millions titled “In Defense of Autobiography” and all my animosity welled back up towards, if not American fiction as a whole, then towards the often sheltered and provincial terms in which it’s discussed.
The essay starts off with a rhetorical trick that wouldn’t be out of place in the current US election campaign. You forestall a legitimate accusation (e.g. rich people/companies are greedy, autobiographical fiction is usually extremely boring) by making it sound like an unfair, illogical obstacle – not the result of empirical evidence but a harmful preconception that has caused unnecessary suffering.
I can picture Mitt Romney telling a crowd of supporters “We’re supposed to feel guilty for being successful, as if making money is a crime and not an achievement.” The same effect is achieved when the essay’s author Jennifer Miller writes “This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist — that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar.”
Among the writing teaching clichés I’m most familiar with there is the “write what you know” imperative at the top of the list, with “show don’t tell” a close second. I have a harder time picturing the head of a writing workshop telling his or her students to “invent entirely new worlds” and “find drama in the unfamiliar,” though it might not be a bad idea to remind them that it’s within the realm of possibilities.
Miller makes the autobiographical fiction writers she mentions sound like renegades for facing up to the literary critics who are bored by reading novels whose chief significance is the fact that they were born out of its writer’s life. Maybe these critics don’t have an irrational prejudice, but are sincerely fed up reading coming of age novels equipped with the requisite amount of personal suffering and rural, urban or suburban background detail.
So it turns out that doing what so many other writers do is not unimaginative conformism, but a kind of heroism, like all those brave portfolio managers who pass the jeers of Occupy Wall Street protestors on their way to work, unruffled, and with their thoughts fixed on the profits of the day ahead.
And profit, not surprisingly, turns out to be a factor in the case for writing about one’s own life. Miller: “Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable.” So not only do these brave souls forge ahead where so many have gone before them, but they are well-paid for doing so. And I always thought it was the individualists, the Kafkas and Bruno Schulzes, who made the big bucks. Silly me.
Speaking of Kafka, I’ve always thought it would be a brilliant scam to unearth a previously undiscovered Kafka novel that would be a major departure from the rest of his work. Instead of labyrinths of courts and bureaucracies stifling the aims of characters without full names let alone biographies, this manuscript would tell the story of a German-speaking Jewish writer growing up in Prague (a name which doesn’t appear in Kafka’s fiction). It would be highly personal and full of realistic details – the broken engagements, frustrations with Mom and Dad (the main character would live at home well into adulthood!), cobblestoned streets and day-job woes. Then a new romance and the way to freedom is made clear to the timid, boyish-looking protagonist when illness strikes and the beautiful dream of living as a writer is extinguished.
If I were able to write it in Kafka’s handwriting on paper from 1912 or so I have no doubt it would become a bestseller. Suddenly all the people who reference Kafka in conversation, having been assigned some of his work in college, would have a book of his they could truly relate to. I would become a millionaire.
In The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera explains how a totalitarian state, by definition, excludes what he defines as the spirit of the novel: “But aren’t there hundreds and thousands of novels published in huge editions and widely read in Communist Russia? Certainly; but these novels add nothing to the conquest of being. They discover no new segment of existence; they only confirm what has already been said … By discovering nothing, they fail to participate in the sequence of discoveries that for me constitutes the history of the novel; they place themselves outside that history, or, if you like: they are novels that came after the history of the novel [his italics].
Miller unintentionally echoes Kundera’s sentiment when she says: “Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism.” And America’s literary self-exposure industry shows that totalitarianism isn’t even a necessary part of the equation.
One of the 63 words Kundera defines later in the same book is “Graphomania.” He distinguishes between wanting to write for oneself or one’s family (memoirs, family chronicles) and writing for a public: “The mania not to create a form but to impose one’s self on others. The most grotesque version of the will to power.”
Miller writes “There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique.” Replace experiences in that sentence with love stories or legal dramas and you can see the degree to which autobiographical fiction has become a full-fledged genre in American fiction.
Maybe Francis Fukuyama wasn’t so far off in congratulating Americans on having reached the end of history. He just neglected to add that it was literary history that was over.
Photo – Vanitas Still Life by Anonymous, c. 1700