Fiction or Autobiography?

fiction n. 1 prose literature, especially novels, describing imaginary events and  people. (1.)

I’ve read that the questions authors most hate are those that suggest their work is autobiographical. Questions such as, ‘To what extent is your work autobiographical?’ or, ‘How much of yourself is in this character?’ can be seen as a bit of an insult, implying that the author is writing about themselves and their life, rather than creating something new. First time novelists are likely to be more sensitive than established authors, who have already proved themselves. You could argue that all fiction must to some extent be autobiographical, because however much the writer tries to create something out of nothing, their writing still comes out of their mind, and so is subject to their way of thinking, their influences, their perception of the world.

Conversely, inexperienced writers are often advised to write about what they know. And there are many established authors who use their own lives as source material. I recently watched a documentary about Colm Toibin. He was talking about his latest novel, which is loosely based on the life of his mother. There was no suggestion that this might make it any less worthwhile; no sense that there was any shame in this. It probably helps if you’ve had an interesting life (if you haven’t, you really do have to use your imagination to come up with something people will find interesting). I suppose that if an author can draw on their own life experiences to tell an interesting story, and put across how events affect people and circumstances in a way that is engaging, interesting, and thought provoking, then their readers will be persuaded that they are reading a story about fictional characters. The author’s own experience gives the characters credibility. But to do this successfully an author needs the ability to be objective.

A book I read recently by another well respected author concentrated extensively on music; on the importance of music – and a particular type of music – to the main character. Pages and pages of description of the music, great long lists of artists; intense, poetic prose describing the emotional effects that the music had on the character. And at the end, in an appendix, an essay by the author about their love of the exact same music. I’d guessed as much. If they’d said that they hated that music I’d have been much more impressed. To have created such an intense and loving description of music they didn’t actually have any interest in would have shown the power of their writing. The way this author wrote about music made me unable to continue suspending my disbelief. It made me think I was reading about the author themselves, and that the character was a sham. I could probably write just as intensely about the music that I play, listen to, write. I could, but I haven’t written about music to any great extent, and when I do touch upon it in my writing, I always have my characters extolling the virtues of music that means nothing to me personally. Maybe the cynical criticism of autobiographical writing has gotten to me. But I see it as a test of my ability as a writer of fiction – if I can make my character’s passion about music convincing when I don’t share that passion, it proves I can write.

Would you be happy to use your own experiences, your own life, as the basis for your stories and your characters? Would you say it’s a measure of a writer’s talent that they can use their imagination to create something outside of themselves and their world? Are both approaches equally valid? Does a really great writer need to be able to both?



(1.) Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

About literarylad

Graham Wright is a freelance writer and author. His first novel, Single Point Perspective, is set in and around the city of Manchester, where he lived and worked for more than fifteen years. His second, Moojara, is set in and around the world, but mostly centres on Perth, Western Australia. Both are works of dramatic literary fiction - imaginative, serious and thoughtful, but with a sense of humour. Graham is currently living in north Shropshire, where he is busy working on novel number three.
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