Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 5 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part one)

In the opening paragraph from the preface to what became the first volume of his 'autobiography', Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James has this to say:

Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people's feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point.

What surprises me somewhat is that he didn't opt to use the, to my mind, now-clichéd expression "thinly-veiled autobiography". "Most … first … novels…" It's one of those sweeping statements that we hear all the time and mostly take for granted. It is an assumption many people make that the aspiring novelist, having little life experience to draw on, will automatically plunder what life he or she has had to construct their first go at literary fame. Like I wrote in The More Things Change:

Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research.

I'm reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's film Hannah and her Sisters where Hannah corners her sister, Holly, in the kitchen and berates her over the script Holly has just written, her first. Hannah objects to just how much of her and her husband's private life Holly has incorporated in it; their mother, on the other hand, is over the moon with the 'mother' character's presentation despite painting her – accurately it has to be said – as an unfaithful, loud-mouthed, alcoholic. It is noteworthy that Allen would include this element since he has often been accused of making thinly-veiled autobiographical movies. He lampoons this at the end of Annie Hall where we see a couple of actors playing the roles of 'Alvy' and 'Annie' in a play Alvy has written; the 'play' also provides the happy ending the film does not.

The thing that gets me about the expression "thinly-veiled autobiography" is that it is usually a disparaging term, the subtext being, "Oh, he couldn't be jugged to think up a decent story so he wrote about himself."

As a precocious fourteen year-old Elizabeth Browning wrote in her autobiographical essay, Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character:

To be one's own chronicler is a task generally dictated by extreme vanity and often by that instinctive feeling which prompts the soul of man to snatch the records of his life from the dim and misty ocean of oblivion.

So, that is the crux of it, a "thinly-veiled autobiography" is regarded as an act of vanity, perhaps a greater act of vanity even because it does not have to pretend to be faithful to the truth. When she had grown up a bit (she was Barrett-Browning by this time, she wrote an epic poem (9 books) called Aurora Leigh that charts the life of its titular heroine and it's tempting to look for autobiographical elements when you read it. The opening stanza is worthy of note:

OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.

The expressions 'story for my better self' and 'paint a portrait' suggest that the following nine books are going to present an air-brushed picture of Aurora Leigh rather than a warts-and-all character study and I think that is why critics can't help but being just a little disparaging about "thinly-veiled autobiographies" because they feel perhaps they are being short-changed in some way.

I wrote an autobiography when I was about sixteen. I still have it. It's in two brown hardback jotters I bought from Woolworths. I let my wife read it a few years ago but I've never looked at it in a very long time. It begins:

I was born, or so I'm told because I can't actually remember much about it. 'Snot the sort of thing you care to remember much about (messy business).

It's not that it's inaccurate but it was written for a girl and so presents cherry-picked moments from my life, whatever I hoped might impress. It was nothing more than an exercise in vanity. And yet, at the same time, I was privately embarrassed by it because it simply wasn't me.

There is a plethora of authors who have been accused of strip-mining their lives to fuel their writing: Charles Dickens (David Copperfield), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), F. Scott Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar), Charles Bukowski (Ham on Rye), Monica Dickens (One Pair of Hands), Leonard Cohen (The Favourite Game), Philip Roth (Portnoy's Complaint), Carrie Fisher (Postcards From the Edge), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) … just to mention a few. You can find a longer list of you check out the Wikipedia entry under Autobiographical novels.

As an example let's consider David Leavitt's oddly-titled novel Martin Bauman: or, A Sure Thing where the protagonist is a young gay writer (not that dissimilar to David Leavitt) who studies with a flamboyant creative writing teacher (which from all accounts Leavitt's teacher, Gordon Lish, was) and who has to cope with the mixed blessings of early success (a lot like Leavitt had to). I suspect only the famed lawyers from Crane, Poole and Schmidt would have any chance of arguing that was not "thinly-veiled autobiography".

Since we've invoked popular culture I'm reminded of the TV programme Dragnet. The show's opening narration went:

Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

In The Case of the Thinly-veiled Autobiography this is more often to protect the guilty I fear.

In 2004, author James Delingpole cut to the chase and published a novel wittily entitled, Thinly Disguised Autobiography, which one Amazon reviewer described as a "bildungsroman without the bildung". In his column, British Journalist Toby Young had this to say to him at the time:

The thing is, mate--and I know this isn't what you want to hear--I don't think it's quite ready for publication. For starters, I don't quite get this is-it-or-isn't-it-an- autobiography thing. It comes across like you're trying to be all tricksy and post-modern, like Martin Amis including a character in Money called "Martin Amis", and, well, to be frank, it's a bit irritating. I mean, it's basically a memoir, right? This Josh Deveroux character, he's you, isn't he? It reads like you've essentially written your autobiography, but you don't want to name names for fear of embarrassing anyone who might be in a position to harm your career so you've decided to make a virtue out of your cowardice by pretending it's a deliberate, genre-straddling bit of literary experimentation. My advice is to drop all that poncey stuff, come clean about the fact that it's a memoir and name the guilty men. Whatever ill-will you attract will easily be offset by the yards of column inches you'll generate in Londoner's Diary. Stop being such a wuss. –

Doesn't miss the barn door, does it? Neither does our next contestant.

In 2007 the chief judge of that year’s Orange prize, Muriel Gray, a typically forthright Scot, caused a bit of a kafuffle when she launched the prize’s long-list with a controversial speech about how contemporary female writers were failing to write imaginatively. In an article at the time she wrote:

As a judge in this year's Orange prize, it's hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It's called making stuff up. – The Guardian

Not all writers it has to be said have immediately hurled themselves on the "thinly-veiled autobiography" bandwagon. Alison Gresik has this to say about her first novel:

With my first book of fiction, Brick and Mortar, I deliberately avoided thinly-veiled autobiography, because

1) I didn't want to be a typical author whose first book is a kunstlerroman about a girl growing up to be a writer;

2) I wanted to be a better writer before I dealt with personal material, so that the work I produced would do justice to the importance of the subject matter; and

3) I wanted to experiment with writing from many different characters' points-of-view, as a sort of apprenticeship. – Wrestling The Angel

It's a commendable stance, not to take the easy option.

There are writers it seems that rightly (or not) get up in arms at any suggestion that what they're pedalling as fiction is remotely autobiographical. Philip Roth finds the critics impulse to describe his novels as thinly-veiled autobiography downright offensive. He told philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host Alan Finkielkraut once, "You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can lead … My autobiography would consist almost entirely of chapters about me sitting alone in a room looking at a typewriter." Roth insists he has "nothing to confess," that his fiction is his attempt to "invent" "selves" not to expose his own self. This hasn't stopped the Encyclopaedia Britannica describing his writing as being "marked by thinly-veiled autobiography and a sardonic sense of humour about Jewish life in the United States."

I'll come back to the "invent" "selves" bit in a second. In the meantime consider how one young author and her publisher cleverly turned the expression "thinly-veiled autobiography" into positive selling point. Melissa Panarello grew up in a small Sicilian town near Catania in Italy. She became famous as the author of the erotic novel One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed about her extreme sexual life during her teenage years, which was based on a diary that she kept. She claims that everything in it mirrors her experiences as a fifteen and then sixteen year-old in a suburb of the Sicilian city of Catania. "It's a very realistic picture," she says.

I've not read the book so I can't comment.

Now the inventing selves bit. Jonathan Ames in an interview in The Modernist, had this to say about the use of autobiographical material: "A long time ago Joyce Carol Oates gave me the advice that you can take a character and give that character an aspect of yourself, and build a whole character of that aspect." I think this something that more novelists will feel comfortable admitting to. Lois Lowry doesn't mind:

Without the exception of the autobiographic books, all of my characters are made-up ones; but of course everything we imagine comes from everything we have ever known or experienced. Most of that is subconscious, of course; but when I "create" a character, he or she is really being born from the fragments of every similar person I have known, seen, or read about.

That, of course, has to include herself.

The novelist David Mizner finally cuts to the chase though:

I guess it's a cliché that all your characters are you, but it’s true for me.

Great, someone's admitted it but I think what the playwright Christopher Shinn said in response to a similar question is worth sticking in another quote before we move on:

Nobody else writes it, so it all came from inside me. The question is why? I think that all the time. Why did I write this? Whether it happened to me or not. Why did I put this on the stage? What are the real reasons?

"All fiction is autobiography and all autobiography is fiction," is a popular aphorism. Do you tell the reader more about yourself when writing about other people's lives than when you write directly about yourself? I was very interested in a small chunk of an interview with Paul Theroux that appeared in The Guardian a while back because it touched on an area close to my heart:

Obs: You seem to be wanting to say in your work generally, but in this book [Hotel Honolulu] more than ever before, that all fiction is in some way autobiography and that all autobiography is fiction.

Theroux: Well, I think that's true. Everything is fiction. You only have your own life to work with in the way that a biographer only has the letters and journals to work with.

Obs: What's fiction for?

Theroux: For telling the truth. And I think it's a version of the truth which is made up of...

Obs: Lies?

Theroux: Speculations more than lies, but it really is the most truthful thing at its best. That's why people still read it and why we still need it.

The face we see in the mirror is not the same face our friends see. Truth, reality – it’s all a matter of images, and images by definition are elusive and ephemeral. The act of remembering is the act of fictionalising – there are always gaps, things we don't remember perfectly. Back in January I wrote a poem about it in fact:

Handle With Care

Unremembered things stay true.
Every time we recall the past

we risk spoiling it and it
becomes harder to believe in.

The cost of remembering
is the loss of memories.

I still dream you now and then.
At least I expect I still do.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

I call my blog The Truth About Lies for a reason. It's a cool title. Okay, two reasons: I think it is incredible how a writer can make up something that never happened to people who never existed – in essence a lie, because it's not true – and yet that 'lie' can contain the most profound of truths and I took this perspective to its most obvious and logical conclusion, by actually making one of the characters in my first novel the personification of truth.

Pat Schneider says in her book Writing Alone and With Others:

Fiction is the dream of the writer, made visible on the page. It may be the writer’s lived experience or it may be entirely imagined.

She then remembers a television interview given by Pulitzer Prize-wining novelist Eudora Welty in which Welty was asked if the source of her fiction was autobiographical or imagined. Welty replied, "If I tell you it is autobiography, you will be embarrassed. If I say it is imagined, you will feel cheated. So I will tell you the truth: It’s a mixture."

Schneider continues:

All fiction is autobiography, because even that which we imagine is a collage of images and meanings that have come into, and have been transformed by, our minds. Fiction is an autobiography of the imagination.

Hold that thought. I think this last point is worth a whole post to itself but you'll have to wait till next time for that.


Tam said...

Brilliant post. I have to say that Murial Grey is my new hero today..

"These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It's called making stuff up."

I've always seen fiction writing as a way to to give form to my daydreams, that they may last longer.

Anonymous said...

Another great post, Jim. The first time I saw the name of your blog I thought, "That's a good title for a blog about fiction writing." It really is.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the creative non-fiction genre, using fiction writing techniques to tell a true story.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the very prompt comment, Tam. Yes, I really loved what Muriel Gray had to say. It cuts through all the posturing and pretentiousness. My mother was the same. She had no time for fiction. It was just something someone had made up out of their head. It's not real.

Allen, I really have no knowledge of non-fiction writing other than this blog. I've written training manuals before but there wasn't much scope to infuse them with my own personality. I did write a database once for trainees to use for exercises and all the characters were out of Star Trek but that's about it. I read very little non-fiction. It takes me all my time to get through a novella these days.

Dave King said...

A fascinating post, Jim. When I was studying for a diploma way back, I took as my special study, "The Development of the Self-Image", meaning the ways in which the self picture grows, is modified or reinforced by the events of one's life. I took a lot of my "evidence" from biographies, autobiographies and novels ("thinly-veiled autobiographies", on occasions). What became absolutely enthralling, not only to me, but to the other students and the professor overseeing it) were the ways in which each form was more reliable or unreliable than the others. This had mainly to do with the depth of knowledge possessed by the author and the degree and type of spin being applied to serve private agendas.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dave. I have to say I got really caught up in this one. One post was simply not enough to work it out of my system. There are another three in this series and, even then, I think I've skimmed over the material.

Rachel Fox said...

Being typically forthright and all that is all very well (and I like what I know of Muriel Gray generally speaking) but I hated that quote about women writers then and I still hate it now. In fact possibly the worst thing about literary prizes for women only is how they give some people (men and women) so many opportunities to make huge,naff generalisations about women. I can't speak for men (sadly) but I would have to say that (for me) one of the many annoying features of a woman's life is constantly being told what women are like (still!), how crap women are at this, how sentimental when it comes to that... Plus read that quote through motherhood really a 'small-scale domestic theme'. Really? In Hamlet, for example? In more stories than I care to think about? There's nothing wrong with any of those themes per is more to do with how they are approached or used.

I'm not saying women can't be unimaginative writers...but if there are books coming out that Gray (and others) don't like isn't that more to do with publishers and agents and what they choose and think will sell? And also if there are a lot of unimaginative writers about aren't some of them men too? Every time I read one of those stupid 'women writers' quotes I want to create a whole new drama called 'strangle the idiot who came out with that crap'. But I don't. I have some control. And I know the media like to use quotes like that so sometimes they can be taken out of context (I seem to remember some story like that with Ali Smith).
Here's a generalisation: we women have to get used to that kind of thing all the time (are we all whores or virgins, I forget?).
Sorry, I'm ranting. I'll go...

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, first all of let me state that the views expressed by the writers, artists, editors, journalists and bloggers should not be assumed to be views I necessarily support, believe in or even understand that well. I included the quote by Gray purely for the effect of her punch line. I really wasn't looking to take issue with womankind; I've been an honorary woman for years.

I think your point about editors' choices is a good one mind. There are always going to be writers who pander to stereotypes both male and female and as long as they have market support them these stereotypes are going to be perpetuated.

As for whores or virgins… I think Madonna pretty much got that covered back in the eighties.

Did you notice incidentally that, with the exception of a fleeting nod to his father, all the people Krapp remembers are women? I'm a little surprised that he didn't call the dog a bitch because, in other texts, he does.

As for ranting… Feel free. But bear in mine that although I may be an honorary woman I'm stuck inside a man's body with the attention span of a gnat.

Rachel Fox said...

I didn't for a moment think you were in any way attacking womankind! Your honour is in tact...unlike Madonna's...and mine, I'm quite sure.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I could write a novel based on my life! Then I wouldn't have to do any research. Research is boring and takes a long time, especially when it gets interesting but then it distracts you from the actual writing and dishes do that and dinner too so one more distraction is too many. But every time I've tried, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, to try to capture a story that's my story even if only slightly different, I get bored (again! bored!) or irritated ... then I get afraid I'll hurt people's feelings over something that I'm only doing because it's easy and I can't justify it. But really that's an excuse, the hurting other people's feelings. Mostly it's that I lose interest. My life is not one of adventure and transgression and brilliant insight. And it wouldn't be if led by a guy named Gary or Greg. I've written autobiographical poems but they never take up much space.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Glenn, I get rid of the need to write about my life in poems. The irony is that very few people would have a clue what the poem was really about. It's as if I need to discharge the energy, clear my head and then I can get on with the rest of my stuff. Poem are good that way.

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