The Dangers Of The Semi-Autobiographical Novel

There are quite a number of relatively successful novels that I find to be nothing more than thinly-veiled autobiographies. Surely there are others out there who share my sentiment when they come across some book that smells like nothing more than the re-imagination of the author’s life.

Anis Shivani says, “Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself,” that it is “characterized by…narcissism.” Some fashionable novels that have garnered quite a measure of praise are guilty of just that. For instance, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated begins with a narrator who is automatically positioning the protagonist as some great guy; not to mention that the protagonist is actually named for himself. In The Extra Man, Jonathan Ames’ suffers from the same autobiographical undercurrent—in fact, he even had a show made starring himself as the main character, proof of his narcissistic lack of imagination. How much more attention can a writer draw to him or herself than making the main character yourself? How much more narcissistic can you get?

It wouldn’t necessarily be such a crime against my literary sensibilities if these writers would do better work: it’s the disgustingly self-indulgent lack of creativity that horrifies me. The authors couldn’t even be bothered to invent a name. By virtue of such self-centeredness, I am inclined to close the book with contempt on my lips. There are few human beings in this world whose stories I would read about, namely because there really aren’t all that many people on this world who are such numinous beings that I should read about their lives. That is not to say that I do not believe that people should keep their stories to themselves. I believe that many people have lived lives in such a way that can offer all of us something that we can use to better understand our own lives. But when the author presumes to give us a fictional story about him or herself, I cannot help but frown in disapproval. There is already a genre for telling stories about yourself: its called the memoir, the autobiography.

I often say that the writer should be left out of the picture, that a work should stand on its own. But, with bad writers, there is some intangible quality that seeps into the writing that makes you question: am I simply reading this person’s diary? I value good fiction because you get a strong sense of authorship: there is meaning behind each scene, and each sentence feels crafted. In thinly-veiled autobiographies, you get the sense that what you are reading is merely a projection of the author’s fantasies, that it is in some way an exercise in wish fulfillment. It is as if the author is saying, “Here, read about my life, see what I wanted, read about my deepest desires.” And to that, I must ask, “Why?”

When I read the words of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye, I don’t get the sense that there is a self-conscious writer behind those words. Many say that Holden might’ve just been J.D. Salinger himself, but I never got the sense that Salinger was stroking his own ego. I felt like I was listening to Holden Caulfield, I didn’t feel like I was reading Salinger. Catcher didn’t seem anything at all like an exercise in navel-gazing.

Writing a semi-autobiographical novel is an easy trap to fall into. I’ve already written about self-indulgent writing, and I’m well aware of the dangers. After all, as writers, we are told to write what we know, and what more can we know than ourselves? But because of this advice, many writers end up writing about a certain place and time in their lives, and creating a protagonist based on themselves. Whenever I hear that a novel is, for instance, is set in Chicago in the 1970s, I immediately suspect the writer to be of a certain age and who came from Chicago. And many times, I am right. The writing doesn’t do anything to alleviate that feeling because the setting is not inherent to the story. In other words, I often feel that the story could’ve taken place during any year in any city. So why should it be set in 1977 in Chicago? I get the feeling that it is only set in said time and place because that is what the writer lived through.

THE CURE FOR this is to make the time and place intrinsic to your novel. Can you simply transport your story into another time and place without altering the meaning and the structure? If so, then you’re doing it wrong. Roman Palitsky, an old professor of mine, once commented on a paper I did relatively poorly on that I must use the most distinctive ideas of each of the thinkers I was comparing. In the same way, when writing a novel, you must use the most distinctive elements of each and every thing that features in your story. What is distinct about the time? What is distinct about the place? What is distinct about the characters? Nothing should be left to chance. Nothing should be there “just because,” nothing should be written on a whim. And it is not good enough that you are just describing what you are seeing. For instance, if you saw a girl with a pink carnation in her hair, don’t simply parrot reality. Fiction is all about creating a heightened reality. As such, if you specify that a carnation is pink, it better damn well have meaning behind it.

All in all, I believe that there may be a simpler explanation for this trend of facile fiction in contemporary times. Perhaps it is just that people have nothing urgent to say. A writer without substance can produce beautiful sentences and dazzle us with linguistic delight. But in many books, you get the sense that the author just doesn’t have anything urgent to say. Many times, you just get a sense that they wrote what they did out of self-examination rather than a strong desire to express some truth about the world. Rare is the book that is truly art. Edward Norton discussed movies in an interview with Dan Rather in The Big Interview. If I remember correctly, he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the best movies change your world view, or make you feel like someone else out there is going through what you are going through. And I believe that such art can only be birthed when you are looking beyond yourself. In which case, perhaps it is this modern culture of narcissism that combines with existential anxieties to create facile creative works that lack substance.