Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Autobiographical Fallacy

If this makes any sense: all my characters are exactly who I'd be if I were them.

It's a little like the tricks actors use of summoning up emotions from their own lives, so that the grief their character feels at the loss of a lover is fueled by the grief they once felt when Fluffy was hit by a car. Characters are vessels, and we pour ourselves into them, but the vessel is still shaped like the character, not like us.

Oh, well. This silly confusion of fiction with memoir has come up in two recent posts elsewhere: Aliya Whiteley's discussion with her writing group, and Emma Darwin's musings on the topic. Go check 'em out.

(Emma's post was spurred by articles by Linda Grant and Melissa Benn. It seems a whole lot of writers are increasingly chafed by this issue...)

14 comments:

Janet said...

If anybody sees autobiography in my book...

Tall, dark, lean, laconic, intense male witch in an alternate Earth.

Yup. That's me all over.

OK, so I'm sometimes intense. When I can find the energy.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, but I'll bet you based that character on tall, dark, lean, laconic, intense male witches from an alternate Earths in your childhood.

C'mon, fess up.

Janet said...

Oh rats. You figured it out.

To be fair, we do share a couple of character traits. It would be hard to write a novel about somebody who is totally different from yourself, I suppose. I might try it, just for the fun of it.

OK, maybe a short story.

Janet said...

In all seriousness now, I really don't think these authors should be getting their knickers in such a knot. They have been paid a supreme compliment. The worlds they have created in their books are so intensely real to their readers that they can not conceive of them as being fictional.

If I ever find myself in that situation, I shall say thank you.

Faye L. said...

This is one of those things that for me started out as a mild irritation and progressed to a big festering pustule of loathing, because of some of the incredibly personal questions I've been asked (with varying degrees of subtlety) about my own life. I'm not sure why, but some people do seem to think that in creating Molly I've already hung my own dirty washing out for the world to see, so I might as well be asked about it. Christ knows what they'll ask me when Trades of the Flesh comes out...

Tim Stretton said...

A significant proportion of the UK population thinks soap operas are real: some soap actors are routinely abused in the street because of their character's actions.

As a fantasy writer I'm largely immune from the "is this autobiographical?" angle. Wrongly, as it turns out, because it did all happen to me - but in my head. That's the essence of creating an imagined world (in the widest sense), surely?

Faye L. said...

As a fantasy writer I'm largely immune from the "is this autobiographical?" angle.

Tim: you'd think the same would be true of historical fiction, but I've discovered it ain't!

Tim Stretton said...

Faye, your picture certainly doesn't lead to the impression you were alive in the 1850s..but such literalism underestimates the mania of readers to find the 'truth' behind the fiction!

Faye L. said...

I just use a really good moisturiser...

Sam Taylor said...

Closely related to this, there's also a tendency to judge an artist/writer based on the type of work they do.

For insance, a certain painter that does cute, glowing cottages is thought of as an angel (when in fact he is a notorious crook and completely narcissitic).

Horror Writers and Surrealist Painters also have gotten a bad rap -- as if because they write horror or draw strange things, they must be bad people. Some of them like to play this up for advantage (Salvadore Dali, Stephen King). But most of them are distressingly normal.

I worry about this a lot because I have a successful corporate career, and a few of the best short stories I've written are surrealistic and border on horror. A large proportion of my coworkers would be "wierded out" by these stories, and they could -- theoretically -- put my job at risk, simply because of the short-sightedness of others.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Faye, Hi Tim--

Yeah, I admit I would have thought both of you were fairly safe.

No one has ever hinted I might be Carla Smukowski. A lot of people do, however, assume I'm an ex-military gun nut (instead of a weaponless ex-hippie. Well, okay...we did buy a sword in Thailand once.)

I think people nowadays are just confused. Soon I'll have a post on American politics that will go further into this topic.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Sam--

Yeah, you're right. A lot of people were shocked to find out Lawrence Block was a vegetarian. How could he write those violent novels and be a vegetarian? (I never saw any logical connection there, but people imagine some odd dotted lines.)

I wouldn't worry too much about it on the work front, though. Colleagues may congratulate you on publications, and may even intorduce you to people as a writer, but chances are they won't actually sit down and read anything you've written.

Sam Taylor said...

"but chances are they won't actually sit down and read anything you've written."

*chuckle* I suppose you're right.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Well, that's been my experience...!