Tuesday 26 June 2012

Is Your Fiction Autobiographical?

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s article in the Guardian’s Review section (May 26th, 2012) has inspired me to explore what some of the ideas that he offered mean to me.
        The article is trying to answer the four most unpleasant questions (Franzen’s words) that novelists often get asked.  The first three questions and his answers to them you can read up yourself, I am concentrating on the fourth one:  Is your fiction autobiographical?
        When I was interviewed in Turkey for the launch of the translation of my first novel this was one of the most asked questions.  I meekly answered NO, before conceding, almost apologising, that the novel was emotionally autobiographical, and also was partly set in a city that I knew very well, Vienna, where I had studied.
        Franzen says that he experiences this question as the most hostile of questions.  I can sympathise.  Although I wouldn’t go as far as to call it hostile, it is a question that can’t be answered with a straightforward Yes or No.  It makes me nervous.  It feels invasive, as if people want to judge me according to the characters in my book.  Did you really do all that?  If you asked me which of the scenes in the novel had really happened in my life, I could point you to two or three.  However, if you asked me whether I experienced any of the emotional turmoils that my characters went through I would tell you that all my characters have benefited from my own life.
        If I agreed with Franzen’s statement that “the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life” I can honestly claim that I am progressing steadily on the way to becoming the most autobiographical writer.  The novel I am working on at the moment is set in seventh century Arabia, and the characters’ exterior lives have nothing in common with my life whatsoever.  And yet, their inner world is the world of human beings; and by the time I will have finished writing the book I might well recognise and admit that it is my most autobiographical novel so far.
        Franzen wants the novelist to take risks when she writes, to take an adventure into the unknown, to solve a personal problem.  Coming from a spiritual tradition I would say that the writer has to find out something about herself while writing the novel, has to go through an inner transformation, move on a step on the way to self-unfoldment.  Let me quote Franzen,  ‘And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing.  And what this means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book.  The person you already are wrote the best book you could.  There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.  Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life.  Which is to say: your autobiography.’
        Franzen then goes on to tell us the story of The Corrections, and that the first thing he had to do, to free himself for writing it, was to get out of his marriage.  That may sound cruel and selfish, but when you read the article you will not judge him harshly.  It was the right thing to do for him.
        Yet most of us, or maybe I should speak for myself here, do not want major upheavals in our lives before embarking on the next novel.
        I am working on my fourth novel.  The first one was probably the one that resembled my actual life most, although when I started to write it, I was writing about a character over ten years younger than myself, a fictional version of a self that I had definitely outgrown by then.
        My second novel I wrote as part of my MA Writing course.  The story of its heroine was far removed from my own, until she ended up struggling with three young children in a foreign country, away from family and friends.  These were my struggles at the time, too, in a different context and with a different outcome.  Writing the novel helped me explore my own ambivalence about being a stay-at-home mother, and ultimately may have helped me to find out that this was what I genuinely wanted, rather than what had happened to me because I gave birth to three children in less than four years.
        The third novel focused on a middle-aged couple, whose only daughter had left for university.  My two daughters had left for university around the same time.  Although my son still lives at home, I missed my daughters when they moved out.  In the novel I followed the father’s and the daughter’s story.  The fictional daughter has nothing in common with my real-life daughters.  I think I used her to work out the relationship between parents and children in that time of semi-independence, when one minute they are adults, the next minute children in need of money and emotional support, and utterly oblivious to the needs of the parents.
        I am fascinated by these last two paragraphs.  I have never before looked at my novels in that light.  I certainly wasn’t aware when writing them what I was doing.  I think this is a good sign.  If you were aware at the writing stage it would be too easy, too dishonest.  Your conscious self probably would want to censor and manipulate events.  Even if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what I am working through in my current novel.  It is a true journey of discovery, and I am confident that it will turn out that change has happened somewhere in my life.  A new chapter of my life must have started without me realising it.  This gives me great motivation.  For somebody who can’t produce a book every year, not even every two or three years, it is a great consolation to know that a book worth writing may have to wait until your autobiography has caught up with your writing, until there is something new that will be the starting point for your writing.
    I am aware of a paradox here.  On the one hand I believe that the author has no real power over the story of her life.  We may think that we are in charge of our lives but in truth nobody has ever chosen illness, grief, disappointment, failure in relationship or career.  We have some kind of freedom how we deal with what life throws at us, that’s all.  On the other hand I am asking the writer to work on the story of her life before writing her next novel.  It is as if I were asking for difficult times to come her way to enable the next book.  That sounds clearly too extreme for my taste.  I shall assume that it must be enough to have experienced an inner change, an emotional growth spurt, a change of how we look at the world, to justify the start of the next novel. 

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