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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

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Categories: Essays


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19 Comments on “Facebooks unlimited”

  1. paulstoutonghi
    09/05/2012 at 1:50 am #

    This is an interesting take on Miller’s piece, but it feels too hostile. I appreciate the reference to Kundera’s under-appreciated text — especially his idea that novels should, ideally, add something to the ‘conquest of being.’

    But I also think that it’s not wrong to wonder about the vagaries of the marketplace, as a writer. Because I think that this is the hope of many artists: They want to figure out a way to support themselves from their art.

    Or maybe this has something to do with the high cost of a college education in the United States, which routinely leaves writers (such as myself) over 100,000 dollars in debt before the age of 22? Unless something unforeseen happens, I doubt I’ll ever make anything close to a living wage from writing. This fact — and the utter lack of public funding of art in America — are far more responsible for the conservatism of literature, for its woefully large mainstream.

    Yet, in this piece, I think that Miller isn’t defending conservative, narcissistic writing — rather, she’s fighting a critical establishment that seeks to label and categorize books according to notions that are, more often than not, based in marketing decisions.

    I actually think you’re both on the same side of this debate.

  2. 09/05/2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Thanks for the comment Pauls. I didn’t mean to be hostile (I think) but the hyperbole of “the greatest hangup of the modern novelist” is too ridiculous. Actually, I think Kundera, in this and other writings on this subject, is much more hostile. I also understand thinking about the marketplace but then wouldn’t that make her essay like a romance or thriller writer complaining about not getting any critical respect. And I definitely disagree about American lit conservatism. There’s hardly a windfall of funding for Czech literature, and no abundance of MFA programs to make a living, yet writers have a different sensibility, one that has much more to do with the books they read and the writers who came before them than their own experience. Complicated issue,
    Here’s hoping something unforseen happens and you can make a living wage by writing. I’m still just trying to reach the living wage part of that problem and hope to add the writing part later on.

  3. paulstoutonghi
    09/05/2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Thanks, literalab.
    This is a great site, I have to say.

  4. 09/05/2012 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks, glad you like it

  5. 09/05/2012 at 9:38 pm #

    Autobiographical writers: Dostoyevsky, Wiesel, Munro…

  6. propjen
    09/05/2012 at 9:53 pm #

    Hi guys! Both Pauls and I know that you exaggerate a bit in these kinds of pieces. I mean who really knows what the “greatest” hang up of the modern writer is! But it’s still a hang up that many of us grapple with. Anyway, I’ve never written anything that someone responded to with their own essay before, so this is super cool. Thanks!

  7. 09/05/2012 at 10:28 pm #

    Dostoevsky? Only House of the Dead, otherwise pretty far from it. And Wiesel is one of many obviously who wrote about their experience of the Holocaust. Siberian prison camps and death camps are not exactly the Connecticut suburbs and Mom and Dad’s divorce.

  8. 09/05/2012 at 10:30 pm #

    My pleasure, and as someone who can spend months to write a short essay I appreciate being stimulated to write something off the cuff. Thanks.

  9. 09/05/2012 at 10:35 pm #

    + The Idiot + The Village of whatever it was. I do agree about suburbs. But I will see you and raise you my divorce. 🙂 (I’m not exactly sure how poker works.)

  10. 09/05/2012 at 11:06 pm #

    Re: poker – I would have to call you with a divorce of my own or fold (Give me some time to think over my options). And though the Idiot has an epileptic it also has a sinister murder an even more sinister near murder that, among many other characters and events, was made up. Love it, and you reminded me I have a 1958 Russian film of it to watch. Thanks.

  11. 09/05/2012 at 11:08 pm #

    I do get your point and essentially agree with it. Next crusade: comic books. Why are they so pervasive in American fiction? A few years ago circuses or circus freaks had to be in everything. Now we have to have comic book characters or zombies. I can’t think of anything less interesting.

  12. 09/05/2012 at 11:22 pm #

    I don’t have enough time to read much American fiction though I couldn’t get through the one ‘comic book characters in a novel’ I picked up. Before you know it there will be a new, possibly stupider trend to take its place.

  13. 10/05/2012 at 6:21 pm #

    Wait, so autobiography=events lining up one for one? What if everything is from life except, say, a murder or two? I wouldn’t be so literal, but for the sake of this conversation, I’m willing to concede re D. I wonder what you’ll think upon the re-read, and what language you’re reading in and what the translation is like for you. Despairing here. I think D is a good author to read when you’re in high school/college. He hasn’t been holding up for me on the re-reads.

    I’m finding it interesting that while I’ve been writer-in-residence this year the students have all wanted to know exactly how much of any sample of my work they’ve seen is “true.” They want me to break it down for them, what I made up, what I didn’t. They only piece about which they asked none of those questions is the novel, set between 1890 and 1964, nowhere near where I grew up, among people who do things for a living completely unrelated to anything I’m familiar with, first-hand. But that’s the most autobiographical project of all.

  14. 10/05/2012 at 9:29 pm #

    That’s interesting that they don’t suspect where the autobiographical writing is, though I think delving into the ‘real’ sources of fiction is ultimately futile (educated guesses at best) and less interesting than focusing on the fictional aspect of fiction.
    Obviously there’s no strict border between an autobiographical element and invented/imagined, especially since we all reimagine our memories in a way. But the reason I wouldn’t call Dostoevsky an autobiographical writer is that the focus is never on him or a stand-in writer character, and where he seems to be included as a character/chronicler like in Demons, he’s a mediocrity who blends into the background. I also thinks he’s so amazing because he picked out the characters, incidents and especially ideas that most interested him and used them in books that are very far from the personal autobiographical typical in American writing. Because besides his own life he drew from newspaper murder cases and historical figures who represented what he wanted to write about.

  15. 10/05/2012 at 10:52 pm #

    I am trying not to keep bugging you… thought I’d unchecked the notify button. BUT. One more thing. I was was just talking with someone who has been reading Gorky’s and Turgenev’s memoirs and apparently when they write about themselves they write instead all their memories about other people. Such as Tolstoy. Some people might call that gossip, but we were reflecting how interesting it seems that in at least some non-American traditions even memoir is outwardly focused and character-oriented.

  16. 10/05/2012 at 11:02 pm #

    It doesn’t surprise me. For one thing people here have a very different concept of privacy and can seem closed off and reserved. What might be bad for life (or uncomfortable for an American who thinks it’s not a big deal to invite an acquaintance over to his house) can be good in writing, especially since a lot of these seemingly outwardly-focused writing reveals a lot about the writer whereas an inwardly focused memoir or diary often doesn’t reflect outward as well – though Gombrowicz’s diaries are an exception (big favorites of mine).

  17. 12/05/2012 at 6:32 pm #

    I’m definitely in sympathy with the spirit of this article, but I can’t help but feel that you make your case a little too vociferously — are confessional, autobiographical authors really comparable to Mitt Romney’s campaign advisors or wall street bankers? Moreover, hasn’t autobiographical writing been explored in very fresh and experimental modes in recent years, in Europe even more so than stateside? I’m thinking of French autofiction (which, aside from Edouard Leve, I honestly know very little about, but it sounds interesting). Two of my favourite authors of recent years, Sheila Heti and Lars Iyer, have both mixed fact and fiction in quasi-autobiographical novels that felt very much like discoveries to me — Iyer himself has written eloquently about surviving the end of literature and escaping the stifling volume of conventional, middlebrow novels that afflict the present landscape of writing.

  18. 12/05/2012 at 7:01 pm #

    I wasn’t comparing autobiographical writers with Republicans but the essay’s rhetorical strategy of turning an accusation into an obstacle, which is one way of avoiding the question of whether it’s true or not. That said, I might have made the point too vociferously but the sheer amount of American novels whose main feature is that they represent their author’s lives is so over the top that I feel the balance has to be set.
    As to your examples I think the difference (w/ the French at least) is that the literary qualities of the books are usually emphasized over the autobiographical (not always by the publishers) whereas in the US the tendency is to downplay the artificial aspect of writing to emphasize the lived experience behind it.


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