How to read an “autobiographical novel”

April 15, 2008 | 27 comments
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I have no idea. You tell me.

When I heard that Coke Newell’s new novel On the Road to Heaven won several awards, I was excited to read it.

But then I read the little subtitle thingie: “an autobiographical novel.” And I knew I was in trouble.

How, pray tell, do you read an autobiographical novel? I wasn’t sure but I dug in anyway. As I started to read, I felt like I was looking at one of those optical illusions where it first looks like a vase but will look like two faces in profile if you focus differently. And then you get a headache.

But I tried to stick with it, reminding myself that there has never been a novel without some elements of autobiography and there’s probably never been an autobiography without some tarted up parts, so we all might as well act like grown ups and admit it. Perhaps this work would force me to confront my unexamined assumptions as a reader and draw out of me some complex realizations on the conveyance of truth (or not) and my role as a reader in aiding (or not) the writer in constructing reality.

Nope. This did not work. I couldn’t make it through a page without feeling like I was in a foreign city without a map. Because the rules are different. From a novel, I expect things like well-developed characters, well-paced plotting and a nice, lush narrative arc. In an autobiography, not so much; the power of an autobiography comes from its truthiness (I know, I know).

So I just couldn’t read it. I don’t know how to read it. But I’m open to suggestions.

27 Responses to How to read an “autobiographical novel”

  1. Latter-day Guy on April 16, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Like a novel. If the story isn’t interesting enough to stick with as fiction, then why stick with it even if it’s true? OTOH, if it is engaging, then it’s being factual is gravy.

  2. Latter-day Guy on April 16, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Oooh, pet peeve. Used the wrong “its.” *Burning shame*

  3. TMD on April 16, 2008 at 8:23 am

    Perhaps the greatest british novel of the First World War is an autobiographical novel–Sigfried Sassoon’s Sherston Series (of which the most famous is the middle novel, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer). (Sassoon ways always clear about this.)

    You certainly can’t take quite as an autobiography-indeed, not at all. But nevertheless you can understand it as communicating something more than a mere work of fiction, as something that is communicating essentially true things about the world, essentially true responses to it. In this sense I think of it as being an interesting and valuable genre.

    Of course, my only significant experience with it is through one of the classics of British literature; a run of the mill book may not address the issues and peculiarities of the genre as well.

  4. Dave on April 16, 2008 at 9:31 am

    I spent five minutes in the book at the bookstore — it struck me as a loosely autobiographical essay expanded to novel length. Which might make the book open to the charge of throwing too many genres in the blender, but unless he’s just making stuff up I don’t see how this really presents a problem for the reader. After all, “loosely autobiographical essay” describes at least half of all blog posts.

    There’s also the issue that Deseret Book reportedly refuses to carry the book. Maybe DB just can’t figure out whether to shelve it as a novel or an autobiography?

  5. anon on April 16, 2008 at 10:21 am

    I couldn’t quite get into this novel either, Julie. I gave it a few early chapters and bowed out. I wasn’t a huge fan of the narrative voice, which bobbed around too much for my taste. Autobiographical stuff, as you say, pops up in fiction all the time, but craft can move a reader from a consciousness that the material matters deeply to the author (designated by the marker “autobiographical fiction”) into a smooth, almost unconscious immersion into material that affects the reader him/herself deeply (plain old “fiction”). Not every novel will capture every reader, of course, but it’s a shame when something like this label obstructs your view and keeps you from what sounded like interesting (and was, in fact, award-winning) subject matter. I felt the same way about the writing style.

    (I wonder if the label “autobiographical novel” was intended as a marketing move to reassure skittish Mormon book purchasers that the protagonist of a Kerouac “homage” [the Zarahemla Books webpage's words, not mine] was not intentionally, gratuitously ‘edgy’; that the ‘authenticity’ of the protagonist’s pre-Mormon lifestyle [culminating in an authentic later conversion] made it OK to read about. I didn’t require this reassurance–don’t know what that says about me–but maybe that was their thinking. Perhaps Coke himself and/or Chris Bigelow will pop up to lend some insight.)

  6. fifthgen on April 16, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I have not read the Road to Heaven, but it is on my list. I think an autobiographical novel needs to have a compelling story, or else why tell the story? Turning the story into a novel should be consciously and carefully done to provide the more pleasing elements of fiction that you identify. I guess I appreciate the “heads-up” that the story is a mix of fact and fiction (unlike recent “non-memoirs” that have been in the news).

    Right now, my wife and I are reading an auto-bio novel, “What is the What,” the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys” (Sudanese, not FLDS). My wife was skeptical when she saw the “little subtitle thingie,” and I have not asked her what she thinks. I, however, find the story amazing and the literary quality good. Significantly, the book begins with a preface that addresses the very topic of the auto-bio novel format, and attempts to explain what it means, at least for that particular work. I thought that was helpful in navigating the real/true from the “story.” To me, What is the What has a compelling story and great writing, and is a good read. I am comfortable with the idea that not everything is always “true.” I wonder what my wife thinks? I will have to ask.

  7. Ellis on April 16, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Jack Kerouac said the way he developed character was to describe his friends but change the names so no one would recognize them. That I suppose is what made it what it was. So autobiographical fiction must be a more or less true story full of known persons with the names changed to protect the author from lawsuits. He identified some of those friends and where they fit into his work in an article in the Atlantic some years ago.

    How do you read it? With a huge grain of salt.

  8. Just me on April 16, 2008 at 11:38 am

    κ—- Soooo hopeful there’ll be further batting back and forth of some of the enthralling ideas put in the air here!

  9. John Mansfield on April 16, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Wallace Stegner’s great novel Angle of Repose started out as a biography of Mary Hallock Foote, but Stegner decided Foote wasn’t interesting enough, so changed it into a novel about Susan Burling Ward and added what suited the novel. Granddaughters were uncomfortable with the degree to which the fictional Ward resembled their grandmother. In particular, letters that Foote had written appeared verbatim as letters written by Susan Ward. To add to the fun, the novel is written in first person by a historian assembling material for a biography of Susan Ward. The fictional historian has an annoying son named Rodman; a year after Angle of Repose was published, a conventional biography of Mary Foote appeared, produced by Rodman Paul.

    The playwright Sand Hall took it to another level with her work, Fair Use, in which the characters “Playwright”, “WS”, and “MHF” argue over what Stegner did to produce his novel. Incidents and words from Wallace Stegner’s life are used by WS, but then have additions. WS complains about the additions that never happenned, but Playwright explains that in her play it suits her purpose that they did.

    LA Times

    Fair Use

  10. Bob on April 16, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    #11: You beat me to my favorite writer who uses this style, Wallace Stegner. His novel “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, leaves it unsaid that it is a “autobiographical novel”. He lets it stand on it own. In his writing book, “The American Novel”, he explains why he does this. He also is clear, the writing, must be based on Truth, not just fact or fiction. True events in one’s personal life is the best source of good Fiction. His book “Crossing to Safety” is another example of this style.

  11. liz b on April 16, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Just wanting to add my two cents about Wallace Stegner. His “Recapitulation” is also in the same genre of being autobiography turned into fiction (and it can be argued that “All the Little Live Things” and “The Spectator Bird” fall into that category as well. For me, Stegner’s works are the ultimate example of taking part of one’s life and turning into a classic human story that resonates in all the best “fiction” ways–the well-developed characters, lush narrative arc, etc., that you mentioned.

    I haven’t read Newell’s book–it’s on order–and I’m interested to see if he’s successful in some way as well.

  12. BHodges on April 16, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Perhaps the best way to read the book is to explore how the writer used history in weaving his own story. As you said, historians do this anyway, but maybe it would make for an interesting read regarding method rather than substance.

    I have a hard time with autobiographical novels.

  13. kevinf on April 16, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    I’m reminded of the uproar over Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”, a memoir that turned out to be not completely true. Julie, I think you make a good point. A novel is supposed to be well written, engaging, and fun to read. Non-fiction can be so as well, but to label something as an “Autobiographical Novel” sets up problems for the writer and the reader. Change the names, tell the same story, and call it a novel, or tell it as it happened, and call it a memoir. Trust your story, and trust the readers. Hire a ghostwriter. Otherwise, you are left as a reader, wondering, is it chicken, or is it fish?

  14. Bob on April 16, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    #13: More on Wallace Stegner and this genre: Stegner took his first writing class from Vardis Fisher at the U. of Utah. (1925 ?). Fisher also used this ‘style’ in his “Children of God”. A fictional epic novel of some Mormons from Joseph Smith through the end of Polygamy, (Think ‘Roots’ ). ( Personally, I see this book as an early ‘sea change’, in ‘Mormon writing’, as important as Bodie’s book ).

  15. Just me on April 16, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Preceding “A Million Little Pieces” was the Oprah Book Club selection “Leaving the Saints,” that is narrated in an often hyperbolic voice.

  16. kevinf on April 16, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Just Me, # 17, good point. I was not aware of that. Oprah seems to have a trend of, as you cleverly call it, “hyperbolic voice”.

  17. Martin Willey on April 16, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Re: 15 and 17. I find the “autobiographical novel” much preferable to the memoir that turns out not to be a memoir. At least with the atuo-bio novel you know there is a weaving of fact and fiction. I don’t find the weaving problematic, as long as I know that’s what’s going on.

  18. Ken on April 18, 2008 at 2:07 am

    “Preceding “A Million Little Pieces” was the Oprah Book Club selection “Leaving the Saints,” that is narrated in an often hyperbolic voice.”

    Leaving the Saints was never an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

  19. Just me on April 18, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Oprah.com features Leaving the Saints as an Oprah’s Books “Reading Room” selection” ( http://www.oprah.com/obc/omag/obc_omag_200503_room.jhtml . Is this a distinct honor from that of her Bookclub?) :^)

  20. Just me on April 18, 2008 at 8:11 am

    How many times do you glance at a movie’s DVD box and read “based on a true story”? Wouldn’t “autobiographical novel” indicate something similar to that?

  21. John Mansfield on April 18, 2008 at 8:52 am

    I recall an Isaac Bashevis Singer story where the narrator brings up another writer who would take events from newspapers and fashion interesting stories from them, but the writer always denies any connection between his stories and the news events, because he fears that takes something away from his standing as a creative artist.

  22. East Coast on April 18, 2008 at 8:52 am

    I don’t know that the “autobiographical novel” is anything new, even to Stegner. Dickens used the format. (Name the book….)

    Of course that doesn’t mean that any book in the format is worth reading.

  23. Marianne on April 18, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    I think that a big problem with the label “autobiographical novel” is that it acknowledges that it is neither inventive nor developed enough to be a novel, but it’s not true enough to be a autobiography.

    Memoir is another tricky category, which I think has led it to be abused lately. By labeling something memoir it clearly isn’t autobiography in that it relies on memory rather than historical fact for recreating an accounting of a life’s experiences. Authors trying to sell their books as “memoir” who just make stuff up to make whatever factual framework more interesting are betraying the genre. For an example of good memoir, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is about the inner experience of her childhood, not a litany of fact. But when the facts aren’t even true then the emotional truth that is embodied in a memoir isn’t true either. And that’s not good reading.

    Wallace Stegner may have mined his own experiences as foundations for his novels, but they were still really good, well-written books.

  24. Bob on April 19, 2008 at 10:54 am

    #23: Even more on Stegner (will he never stop?). Don’t miss his two non-fiction books on Mormons.( He also wrote Sunday School manuals for the Church). I also have a old set of tapes by him (What a voice!). In them he explains his bonds to the Church, and “Why I call Salt Lake City my only hometown.”.

  25. Terry Finley on April 19, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Just read and let it \’speak\’ to you.
    That is how I read anything.

  26. Chris Bigelow on April 22, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Sorry, I don’t have any help for you. I don’t really understand the problem, tell you the truth. Either you find it engaging and interesting to read, or you don’t. Coke says that all he did was change some names and it’s otherwise factual, but I’ve tried to write enough novels and memoirs to know that there are a lot of gray areas. So I don’t really care that much how a story is labeled; for me, either the story and the writing work, or they don’t. Personally, I don’t have one way of reading a story that’s labeled a memoir and another way of reading one that’s labeled a novel, and I don’t see why that should affect the reading experience at all.

  27. Just me on May 18, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    The New York Times says about Dreams From My Father: “In the introduction, Mr. Obama acknowledged his use of pseudonyms, composite characters, approximated dialogue and events out of chronological order. He was writing at a time well before a recent series of publishing scandals involving fabrication in memoirs. ‘He was trying to be careful of people’s feelings,’ said Deborah Baker, the editor on the first paperback edition of the book. ‘The fact is, it all had a sort of larger truth going on that you couldn’t make up.’” Which sounds similar to Newell’s approach…..the principal difference being simply that Obama’s publisher terms Obama’s story memoirs while Newell’s terms Newell’s an autobiographical novel?