Don’t worry, this is not a lesson, I just want to think out loud a bit about why fiction which may or may not be a direct transcribing of the author’s journals is my favourite type of writing. My starting point will be Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I have just read – or re-reread, a lot of the situations seemed familiar – but where will we go from there? Rooney’s other works, An I-Novel, Miles Franklin, Eve Langley, Jane Austen (why not?).
Even before going on I realise I’ve left out Justine Ettler and her discomfort with the reception of The River Ophelia, paralleling Franklin’s discomfort with the reception of My Brilliant Career 90 odd years earlier, and with the same consequence. Sales were suspended.
Let’s say autofiction is a work where the author bases her – I seem to have only offered female examples – protagonist on herself but puts her in situations which the reader cannot know are real or fictional. By all means improve or dispute my definition, but that is where I’m starting.
The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compoundNew York literary critic Christian Lorentzen, 2018 (Wiki)
And the reason I like autofiction so much is: writers whose objective is to be writers don’t bother with too much story-telling, they just put themselves on the page with all the skill they can muster; the protagonist subjects herself to intense introspection; the writer is writing what she knows, no energy is spent on invention (where this leaves my other love, Science Fiction is a question for another day).
Sally Rooney (1991- ) has now released three works: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), Beautiful World, Where are You (2021). In Conversations Rooney takes her third year at uni (Trinity College, Dublin) and explores friendship, sex and love through the protagonist, Frances, her friend and lover, Bobbi, and an affair with the married, older actor Nick. I’m guessing she uses an ‘affair’ because she wishes to avoid the clumsiness of young love/first sex, though this is the first time Frances has had sex with a man.
Normal People I’ve lent to someone, my daughter probably, but basically Rooney offers an alternative coming-of-age (to Conversations), starting at the end of high school with Marianne and Connell, taking them to Trinity College, and then taking Marianne through some masochistic relationships without ever losing sight of Connell. One day a literary biography well tell us (or my grandchildren more likely) what truths, or not, this is based on.
Beautiful World, Where are You reads like a transcription of Rooney’s diary now she is a wildly successful writer, though no doubt she has just taken her present position and around that woven four different ways of dealing with being 30.
Minae Mizumura (1951- ) is a Japanese-American writer whose An I-Novel (1995) is mostly the thirtyish Minae and her sister Nanae talking on the phone about their life in America wishing they were in Japan. The I-novel is a Japanese form of autofiction dating back at least to the early 1900s. Of the novelists I’ve named only Mizumura and Justine Ettler used their own names for their protagonists, which for some (not me) is a necessary part of autofiction.
Justine Ettler (1965- ) wrote Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996) and then The River Ophelia (1995), though you can see they were published in reverse order. Marilyn is a straight autofiction first novel, but The River Ophelia is an astonishing exploration of Justine’s subjection to sadism. Ettler became so upset about the assumption that it was autobiography that she stopped both books being sold (see my interview with her).
Miles Franklin (1879-1954) wrote My Brilliant Career (1901) when she was a teenager, probably writing chapters and reading them out to amuse her friends as she describes in her subsequent works. Sybylla is Miles and Possum Gully is Thornford, the small farming community near Canberra (then a village) where she grew up, but the story is just a story, or sequence of stories, as Miles who was very prudish, imagines ‘love’ or more often the disagreeableness of ‘love’, and caricatures her family and fellows without thought for their reactions on seeing themselves in print.
Following MBC’s success, at least with everyone who didn’t know her, Miles wrote two follow-ups, The End of My Career (1902) and On the Outside Track (1903) both re-presenting the same ‘facts’ but framing MBC as a spoof autobiography written by a fictional author who just happened to have the same name, Sybylla Melvyn, as the protagonist of the new work. Very postmodern when Modernism had hardly got under way. Sadly, both were refused publication, and so Miles withdrew MBC from sale “until ten years after her death”.
The End was subsequently revised and published as My Career Goes Bung (1946) – more in my next post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge (13 Apr.) – and On the Outside Track was re-written as Cockatoos (1954), the best of her autobiographical works in my opinion, to fit in with the Brent of Bin Bin series (which is based on generations of Miles’ mother’s family).
Eve Langley (1904-1974), probably the most lyrical Australian author ever, wished to live in the Bush as a character out of a Henry Lawson story, and so she and her sister ‘Blue’ famously adopted men’s clothing and went out into eastern Victoria as itinerant farm workers. Eve kept a journal for every year and when, in dire straits in New Zealand during WWII she heard of the upcoming Prior Prize she wrote up her first journal as a novel, The Pea Pickers (1942), the story of a woman wanting the love of a man but determined to preserve her independence. One of Australia’s great novels won one third of first place, £100, promptly spent by her husband.
Her second journal became White Topee (1954) and the New Zealand journals (no.s 6 -12) were edited down by Lucy Frost from about 3,000pp to the 300 page and tremendously sad Wilde Eve (1999).
Ok, we’re nearly at the end and it’s reading a bit (a lot) like a lesson. Sorry. Let’s consider Jane Austen (1775-1817). I’ve loved Austen’s writing all my adult life. She doesn’t exactly write autofiction, and her works, brilliantly written of course, are not introspective. But I suspect that her first work, Love and Freindship, and also Sense and Sensibility, arose out of her time at boarding school, 1785-86. Silly girls telling each other stories of ‘love’. Pride and Prejudice is clearly Jane and (older sister) Cassandra given the romances that life (or their own preferences) denied them; the Austen parents lampooned affectionately as Mr and Mrs Bennet, and love sought, found, withdrawn etc. Then as Jane matures so do her heroines.
Re-reading, as you must when you’re your own editor and proofreader, suggests this conclusion: that earlier and many current writers, eg. Rooney, base characters on themselves, but that autofiction is the self-conscious placing of a character representing the author into a fictional setting, resulting in a close interrogation of the author’s character.