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It has become a truism that writing in first-person offers more intimacy than third-person. But any mention of intimacy in writing raises the question, How is it expressed and in what genres or types? Some candidates are straight autobiography, fictional autobiography — also known as autobiographical fiction — as well as memoir and biography. All can offer intimacy of different kinds and in varying degrees.
A biography is generally more objective than an autobiography, especially the autobiographies written by the ghostwriters of famous Hollywood actors, or pop musicians, or national political figures. Should one be written, the veracity rating of an autobiography of the current U.S. President would be lower than that of Charles Ponzi.
In the past year, there have been several muckraking books written on Donald Trump by apostates including former cabinet members, and, more recently, a biography within an autobiography written by his niece, Mary, or, most likely, her ghostwriter. This could be the beginning of a new genre, an autobiographical biography of a person written with the aim of showing the world what a despicable scumbag that person is.
Memoir is a very flexible genre and is by its very nature intimate. This doesn’t mean the writer reveals their innermost secrets, on the contrary, they’d be advised to expose the foibles of a friend, and, in the process, tell the reader things about themselves and their relationship with that person.
There are two nice things about memoirs: the material is already there just waiting to be put to use, and, since everyone likes gossip, memoirs sell. It’s not surprising that they are one of the most popular genres at CC.
A novelist can write about historical events of which they had first-hand knowledge and not mention it, or write about historical events of which they had no first-hand knowledge, and not mention that.
In his accounts of the Peloponnesian Wars Homer relied on what he had heard, and so could be viewed as a stay-at-home war correspondent with a knack for poetry and embellishment — it is likely he never witnessed war at first hand, so his account was fictional.
3,000 years later an aspiring young American writer named Norman Mailer decided to write a novel about the end phase of the War in The Pacific, and, even though he was a Harvard graduate, he joined the U.S. Army as a private so he could avoid being assigned a desk job — he wanted battlefield experience to ensure his work would give a convincing description of the war against the Japanese. He was twenty-five when it was published under the title The Naked and the Dead in 1948. A Hollywood movie followed ten years later, so his dedication to veracity paid off in a major way.
In spite of Mailer’s war experience, the book was not biographical, it was written in third-person. This may have helped sales of the book because it gave it immediacy rather than intimacy — Hemingway had probably cornered the intimacy market by then.
The success of The Naked and the Dead showed that real events written about by a first-hand witness can make for a successful novel, thus refuting the notion that novels are intrinsically fictional narratives. It’s tempting to argue this led to the New Journalism, but that term had been in use since mid-Eighteenth Century; better to say it led to a rebirth of New Journalism in the form of novels written by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Terry Southern, Gay Talese, and Tom Wolfe, among others.
Capote’s approach to In Cold Blood is in ways reminiscent of how Mailer went about writing The Naked and the Dead. He read about the murders that took place in the village of Holcomb, Kansas in the Manhattan papers, and immediately set out for Kansas with his childhood friend and Mississippi boyhood neighbor Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame — the world of literature is much cozier than one imagines.
Capote visited the site where the two ex-convicts Perry Smith and Richard Hickock killed an entire family, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon, with shotguns. In conversations with the killers, Capote learned they were motivated by the belief Herb Cutter had a safe stuffed with money; in reality, there was no safe and no money, Cutter paid with checks, so he had no need for a safe.
Not content with relying on the forensic details provided by the Holcomb sheriff, Capote decided to cultivate Perry Smith by paying regular visits to his cell. It was pure exploitation of a man who was destined to hang. Smith talked freely about the murders because he thought Capote would save him from the noose. When the time came for him to hang, while Smith was watching Capote watch the noose put around his neck tightened and tightened still more until it was taught, before he fell through the trapdoor, Smith might have consoled himself with the thought that he would be the most written-about mass-murderer since Adolf Eichmann.
Relying on his memory of his experiences in war, Mailer’s third-person novel was a shadow autobiographical novel even though he never used the first-person pronoun. However, the novels of most new-journalists, especially Joan Didion’s, were pure journalistic narrations with the writer in the foreground.
Tom Wolfe was more versatile; he was sometimes a true new journalist, sometimes an iconoclastic, idiosyncratic essayist, sometimes a lewd one, and at other times a skilled writer of fiction who exploited societal themes as, for example, in The Bonfire of The Vanities. But he was always the man-about-town in his emblematic white suit walking the boulevards of Manhattan.
This bestselling novel dealt with racism in New York and the greed and atrophied consciouses of bond dealers on Wall Street. It was in the process of being written by Wolfe long before the stock market crash of 2008, so Wolfe had an acute sniffer for scandals-in-the-making. He later chided writers for ignoring the world around them, pointing out that the daily newspaper can be full of themes a writer can exploit. This is truer than ever today — if he were still alive, Wolfe would say, “Writers, pull your finger out and start typing.” I’d loved to see what he could have done with Trump.”
Regardless of which comes before which, pairing “autobiography” with “fiction” sounds bizarre. One of the strangest specimens of this genre is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Modernist author Gertrud Stein. Toklas was not an invention of Stein’s, she was also Stein’s lifelong partner, which put her in an ideal position to tell readers everything about Toklas and, using Toklas as a surrogate, everything about her own life.
One way of looking at this is that Stein has written her own autobiography under the pretense of being Toklas’s partner — in a way, the real-person Alice B. Toklas has been fictionalized by Stein, a sort of living pseudonym.
This is not the customary use of a surrogate. If I were writing a novel and wanted to include experiences and views of my own in it without using a pseudonym, I could create a character — it could be the narrator or the main character — to present myself to the reader.
Such artifices are normally employed by well-known people who want to remain anonymous, or by an author who wants to write under their own name but doesn’t want to identify themselves with the views expressed by a character because they are too controversial.
A writer of first-person fiction can not only fictionalize their own existence, they can turn people they know or knew into characters without anyone suspecting it — this can be especially productive if the people are eccentric. It can also be very expensive if the fictionalized people are no longer friends and have predatory lawyers, so savvy writers are careful not to leave telltale clues that could identify themselves.
A vast amount of autobiographical fiction has been published, going all the way back to Tolstoy — two of the most famous works of this genre are Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — but many readers, including myself, thought they were reading an autobiography because of the author’s skill at hiding their tracks.
The protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest And Relaxation is a nameless young woman who is the first-person, present-tense narrator. Her parents are deceased and she lives off her inheritance; until she was fired for falling to sleep on the job, what little work she did was at an art gallery in Chelsea.
For reasons that are only vaguely explained, but have something to do with the need for rejuvenation or escape from reality, she has decided to sleep for an entire year. Her female psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, who is portrayed as a classic flaky Manhattan shrink, supplies her with a battery of pills that keep her sedated for most of the time — the protagonist reels off the names of the pills she is taking at the moment, giving the novel at times the ring of a Merck catalog. She manages to persuade her psychiatrist to give her ever-more-powerful pills by claiming she suffers from insomnia.
When the protagonist gets out of bed, or, more often, falls out of it, she usually walks to a nearby pagoda and brings back some food to her apartment. When she ordered something before going to sleep, and it’s delivered, she can’t remember doing it.
To break the monotony, Moshfegh has arranged for her protagonist’s former college roommate, Reva, to visit her regularly. The protagonist’s boyfriend Trevor drops in occasionally to tell her about his latest girlfriend acquisition.
The plot can only be described as supermundane, and the writing as extremely amusing, not to mention technically excellent— The New York Times called Moshfegh “superabundantly talented.”
In parting, I mention she also has some excellent insights into the nuts and bolts of writing which she revealed in a talk available as a youtube video ♦