By Misha Grunbaum
Image: Rene Magritte's Perspicacity (1936),
Image: Rene Magritte's Perspicacity (1936),

Since it turns out that writers aren't all that influenced by past writers, what goes into novels then? The author's own life? I realized that every author was getting asked the same thing, and I started worrying about the assumptions behind the question, “Is your fiction autobiographical?”

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, gave an eloquent, but direct reply in The Guardian, looking at the relationship between actual, real events and how much his writing relates to the things he’s seen:

In 30 years, I don't think I've published more than 20 or 30 pages of scenes drawn directly from real-life events that I participated in...What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka's, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer's work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer's actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer's life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.

And this is why writing good fiction is almost never easy.

It’s a good answer, but Franzen’s colluding with the interviewer. Both of them are propagating the idea that fiction is necessarily rooted in the visible world, and that once the relationship between experience and fiction is established, then anybody can put a pen to paper and make a masterpiece.

But fiction is not always based on the world we see around us. Sometimes things have to just be made up wholesale—with more logic than a dream. Genre fiction in particular depends on this fact: science fiction and historical fiction fixate on details that for the authors only exist in the imagination. A recent bestseller in France, Hate: A Romance, is about two men during the AIDS epidemic, and was written by a man born during the last years of the political activism related to that. Tristan Garcia’s book landed like a hand grenade amid the piles of monotonous French autobiographical fiction. And when asked why he didn’t write from his own life and experience, he said:

I wanted to write about something far removed from myself, which has nothing to do with my existence, even my nature—I’m too well-behaved, my soul is too well-adapted to the world, in a sense.Autofiction doesn’t interest me, and I’m not very interested in myself either. For a time, it was believed that because people were writing to tell their stories—as if to a psychoanalyst or a confessor—literature was self-expression, first and foremost, and, sometimes, the fictional expression of self: speech, a voice, the voice of the person writing. For me, it is the contrary. Writing is a refined form of empathy through which man extends his ability to be an Other, to feel what someone else feels, to trade his sensibility and voice with others without losing his soul.

There you have it. Fiction as a form of negative capability. This is why the question “Is your fiction autobiographical?” is so useless. When you have to imagine someone else’s life, you do so by ignoring the details of your own life. A correlation between the two is simply a coincidence. And, as we all know, correlation does not imply causation.

It’s best, really, not to worry about the parallels between fiction and life; the author writes to keep his soul whole. He’s not a memoirist. Those writers pay dearly for aestheticizing their lives, as in the case of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of the record-breaking bestseller My Struggle. He openly admits:

I wrote this in a kind of autistic mood. Just me and my computer in a room, by myself. It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn't I? But I was also being very naïve. I sent a copy to everyone involved before the first volume was published, and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell ... I couldn't have done it any other way. I will never do anything like this again, though, for sure. I have given away my soul.