Essays

In Defense of Autobiography

By posted at 6:00 am on May 7, 2012 15

When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction — a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career — or lack thereof — was a disaster.

covercoverEventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”

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. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.

coverBut if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief — that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”

So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order — but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”

Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”

coverBut do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books — and which books, by the way? — into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.

And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.

coverSome writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’ experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)

When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”

And the transformation is key. 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. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.

covercoverThe literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.

Literature is an art, of course — though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. 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. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.

coverWhether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is IlluminatedThe Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and There is No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel — have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.

That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.

coverBut there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.

But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.

Image: Streveo/flickr





Share this article

More from the Millions

15 Responses to “In Defense of Autobiography”

  1. Matt
    at 6:27 am on May 7, 2012

    Interesting article. Although I must say that I think the author’s back story is seen as more important than ever nowadays, on the part of both PR departments and consumers. Hence the James Frey debacle, for example.

  2. elle
    at 9:23 am on May 7, 2012

    I think of the Frey debacle as well. And I think it influenced Dave Eggers when he wrote his superb example of truthful autobiography + fiction, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, more memoir, but with the hyper-aware caution to the reader for fictionalized aspects.

  3. Johanna van Zanten
    at 10:09 am on May 7, 2012

    Hi, Thanks for that great article. I felt better having written my own first novel at age 60 in fiction using my life experiences as inspiration, as you are supposed to write about what you know. So, no, On Thin Ice is not an autobiography, as I didn’t think my life was all that interesting to others, but I created a person, Adrienne, around whose life interesting things and people happened. I was also after the fact of having decided to use this structure when I read the novel Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout that dealt with a similar structure of short stories combined into a novel, and dealt with a similar population. I hope I avoided much of the mistakes of a first novel, but thank you for making it so clear what those might be.
    Johanna van Zanten

  4. Writing What You Know (Part 1) | Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art
    at 6:31 pm on May 7, 2012

    [...] Millions posted an interesting essay this morning called “In Defense of Autobiography” by fiction writer Jennifer Miller. She writes: This is perhaps the the greatest hang-up of [...]

  5. Facebooks unlimited | literalab
    at 8:34 am on May 8, 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 [...]

  6. Marjorie Hakala
    at 11:01 am on May 8, 2012

    Interesting essay, especially in a time when memoir has come into its own. It seems worth pointing out that Dickens, who’s used here as an example of an author quite divorced from his subject matter, did write his own autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. He said it was perhaps his favorite of his own books. It’s not his first book, but it’s a much better novel than the one he started with, Pickwick Papers.

  7. Edmond Caldwell
    at 12:21 pm on May 8, 2012

    I strongly recommend the Literalab piece (follow the link a couple of comments above this one, “Facebooks unlimited”) as a riposte to Miller’s ‘defense’ of autobiographical fiction. In particular it nails Miller’s rhetorical strategy — unfortunately very common in much literary journalism — of depicting a very conventional, mainstream opinion or approach as the last redoubt of a beleaguered minority.

  8. ellie jade
    at 1:24 pm on May 8, 2012

    I don’t think stories about writers should be avoided, or that writers should feel less of a writer for writing them. The last story I read — Austin Nights — was about a writer and his life with his girlfriend and cat. It kept me engaged throughout, and the fact that I always knew the MD character wanted to be a writer only added to its strength because I could identify with the theme of failure/making dreams come true.

  9. Andreea
    at 3:52 pm on May 8, 2012

    I second the recommendation to the literalab piece.

    What bothers me most about this essay, though, is the assumption that ‘there are a finite number of experiences in the world’ (really? and presumably these are shared by /everyone/ and have already been recorded in books?) and that ‘the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique’ (but the ‘trick’ for what, exactly? for making a sellable book?). If your experiences are far away enough from ‘universal experiences’ / ‘human condition’ / ‘white Western life’ etc etc etc, everything you write will be called autobiographic even if you had no clear intention to make it autobiographic.

    Also, erk, another thing that makes me want to stab myself in the eye is the way books about Central Eastern Europe written by people who’ve spent very little time in the region, if they’ve visited it at all, are considered unquestionably truthful as long as the author’s family came from that region. It does not work like that. It would be nice if occasionally Americans would stop claiming the experience of horrific violence that people in C E Europe went through in the last century as a universally ‘relatable’ yet ‘unique’ story they have the right to author. It’s not a story and it’s not ‘relatable’. Other people’s painful history should not serve as entertainment to white Westerners so that they can pat themselves on the back and think they’ve participated in it too – and this applies not just to C E Europe, but to all non-Western cultures / peoples.

  10. Pauls Toutonghi
    at 7:34 pm on May 8, 2012

    While I agree with your comment, Andreea, in a general way — I wonder about the specifics of what you mean. Is there a particular book that frustrated you more than others?

  11. Literary roundup: reading material for the rest of your life | literalab
    at 10:23 am on May 9, 2012

    [...] of them being translated for those of us who don’t speak Estonian and other languages, why bother reading about an artistically-inclined youth in suburban Connecticut whose parents get divorced and …? I just don’t get [...]

  12. The Year of the Gadfly « Pauls Toutonghi – Evel Knievel Days
    at 5:07 pm on May 9, 2012

    [...] — is struggling to take her place in the literary marketplace. Today she had a long piece on The Millions, about autobiographical fiction, and the benefits of autobiography for the first-time novelist. Her [...]

  13. What I Read This Week – 13th May - A Literal Girl
    at 5:12 am on May 14, 2012

    [...] In Defense of Autobiography (Jennifer Miller at the Millions) I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started [...]

  14. Shelley
    at 2:57 pm on May 18, 2012

    Joyce and Hemingway are way far from autobiography.

  15. Is Memoir a Dirty Word? « Bookbilly
    at 12:26 pm on June 3, 2012

    [...] In The Millions, Jennifer Miller writes “In Defense of Autobiography.” [...]

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.