Autobiography in Fiction

Autobiography in Fiction (when the author isn’t quite dead)

            An old friend of mine recently read one of my short stories and noted how I had used my own first name as the narrator’s, the only time I have ever done so. “Did this suggest that you saw yourself in his role, or that part of the story was something that happened to you personally?”, he asked. These are two intriguing questions, and admittedly, they put a flea in my ear to examine my entire corpus of fiction in response. The perduring question that backdrops them is of course, ‘how much reality is there in fiction?’, and that in general. The source-point of such reality, however much of it may or may not be present, is itself problematic; personal memory. Asking if the reader can trust the writer is not so different than asking if the writer can trust his own experience. Indeed, my experience of writing fiction is that it is a form of waking dream, so there may well be as much of the unconscious life in the text as there is conscious memory of waking experience.

            However this may be, such questions remain, and each author, in her desire to become a discursive label rather than a mere person, must confront them in some manner or other. For myself, I began by listing each of the moments where I had quite calculatingly borrowed from my life experience. This kind of material is specific, at first not metaphorical and not to be interpreted as anything but the most convenient of plot devices. Such an overview produced more than I had imagined, and while I have never written the much-vaunted ‘autobiographical novel’ – D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, for example – I am guilty of pilfering autobiographical memory in a lesser sense – along the lines of, say, H.G. Wells’ Tono Bungay, by way of contrasting case. My early novella used a setting from my childhood that I knew well. My first novel used two outré experiences I actually had to help set its partially phantasmagorical tone. Certain characters in short fiction were gently based upon this or that person I had known, more or less well. In others, I placed a part of myself, named or unnamed, in the role of observer, or principle actor. In one short, I was an aspiring writer who lacked commercial success, for instance. In my first mainstream novel, About the Others, many dream-sequences were personal memories, and the protagonist is a retired professor who is too sure of his own profundity. Hmmm, all this sounds vaguely familiar. In my second such effort, the novel The Understudies, one of the three principles is, once again, a retired professor and philosophical author, though this time one full of self-doubt rationalized by a nostalgic sexual swagger. My blushes, Watson.

            Suffice to say, that after such a cursory examination of the presence of the author in his work, there was much to be accounted for, even at the level of plot. But what of that of metaphor and meaning? Dare I ask, given the lay of the lexical land thus far? That youth figure prominently in most of my fiction, that their task is one of coming of age, of confronting injustice, of working through their own conflict and building character quite literally, might suggest that I myself am yet undergoing a similar self-understanding. Youth becoming adults is a veritable leitmotif in my corpus. Youth learning to live, to love, to gain community, encountering danger and death, are recurring themes. Youth unjustly treated, even ill-treated, at the hands of adults, and that same youth becoming political, dangerous, engaged in self-styled campaigns of justice, thinking little of parricide or what-have-you, on their road to a higher freedom. The pre-Barthes literary critic would pause in wonder at it all; does this author desire to relive his youth in a more noble manner? Or is he yet still a youth in vital areas of his own character?

            Far more so than general non-fiction, let alone scholarly work, does fiction expose the reader to the writer, and that for better or worse. Some authors manipulate this dynamic in their favor, by posing as far more experienced or worldly than they actually are or ever were. There may well be a vicarious element to fiction that is more the act of the writer than that of the reader, though we do not as often think of it this way. And it is the case, perhaps tellingly, that writing fiction allows the author to purvey not only his desires upon a public, unsuspecting or no, but also, more radically, his vision. It is this latter that dominates my own fiction; not desire vain so much as perhaps demythology in vain. I generally write agenda fiction, so by that standard alone, it can never be understood as art, that aside from not being myself an artist. Such an agenda could be interpreted, however, as giving voice to much that is absent in my own existence, more pointedly than even the wider reality of its lack in our shared world. If Nietzsche, somewhat self-effacingly, tells us that, after all, ‘the philosopher has only his opinions’, then what mere fiction author could say more?

            Such a two-front examination of fictional narrative, on the one hand, deliberate borrowing from reality for plot decoration or device, for character sketch or place setting and, on the other, the inveigling of the authorial unconscious into the very fabric of the literary textile, has one further insight of note: that we ourselves as human beings live a dual existence. At once, we are waking selves charged with the socius’ diktat to perform as normative a set of roles as we can muster to ourselves, and somewhat in spite of this or even because of it pending circumstance, we are as well all that which social norms seek to deny. It is through fiction, literary or no, that the writer explores the fluid dynamic which exists between these existential states; the one attempting to be graceful but the other perhaps approaching grace itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.