Literary Hub

On the Impossibility of Locating the Line Between Fiction and Non

Raise your hand if you, too, might sometimes curse Madeleine de Scudéry, sitting preciously in her 1652 literary salon, blithely inventing the roman à clef and ensuring all future novelists will be forever suspected of masking autobiography with a slim veneer of fiction. I know she isn’t entirely to blame. There is a long and marvelous tradition, both Eastern and Western, of muddling the boundaries of non-fiction and fiction. It’s likely a bad idea to insist that one’s work sits firmly on either side of that line. I write realist fiction, I can say, and it’s true. But even the term carries a whiff of the oxymoronic; despite its accepted status as a literary term, realist fiction can also sound like a more palatable reversal of the bolder non-fiction novel.

Novelists are often asked: “How is your novel based on your life?” Unless you’re a writer who openly embraces the blurring of life story with character/plot event—and there are many who do—the question is a fraught one. Ask me what’s autobiographical in my fiction and the answer I want to give is, “No.” Just no. It always feels like a shockingly personal question, like something you wouldn’t ask someone unless you’d known them for years and had once had to care for them during a stomach flu. And even then! But I don’t want to be rude, so in the past I’ve tried to sidestep the question. I’ve tried not to angrysplain the difference between memoir and fiction, and the techniques used to blur the two, none of which I currently adopt even if I admire contemporary writers like Rachel Cusk and Nicole Krauss who do this so well. As a reader and a writer, I have never been interested in the life of the writer behind the work, only in the work itself, whether it integrates autobiography or not. I only care about how it makes me feel when I read it, and then, secondly, how it accomplishes that from a technical perspective.

My latest novel, Unfurled, is about a family dealing with a long trail of pain and confusion brought on by a mother suffering from mental illness. The novel is about the line between imagination and delusion, and it’s about family secrets and the devastating effects of shame. It’s partly a childhood story and it’s set in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, which happens to be where I was once a child and a teenager. The questions about autobiography have already begun, and I know they will continue. In many ways also, fiction like this that is tightly focused on interior lives instead of on larger external sociopolitical or historical landscapes may elicit more of these comparisons between author and story.

Is Unfurled my story? Definitely not. Is Unfurled my story? Definitely. I’m not trying to be coy. I find it almost impossible to locate the truth with respect to this question. I’m also not trying to avoid discussing the novel’s difficult subjects. I’m hopeful the book will join other books with similar themes that inspire discussions about grief and shame and motherhood and especially about mental illness and homelessness, and I’m looking forward to participating in those discussions.

“As a reader and a writer, I have never been interested in the life of the writer behind the work, only in the work itself, whether it integrates autobiography or not.”

It’s taken me some years to even approach this question of the self in one’s own fiction, meaning me in my own fiction, but I’m gradually working toward a first answer. And it comes from my love of slippery words. My love for how words become words. The Proto-Germanic verb wandijaną (to make something twist or to wind) eventually became the Old English verb wendan (to change, to alter, to change direction). We still use the only modern remaining form of wendan when we say, “She wends her way through the city.” But wendan was also used up until the 14th century in the context of shifting words from one language to another, and then English speakers adopted a new word for this last nuance—we took the word translate, which had its origins in Latin (translatus) and Old French (translater) and as such was infused with its own list of figurative meanings to add to those from wendan: transfer, transport, carry over, lead along, make a show of, even spend time.

That’s a lot of slippery for one little word. That’s a word that wends. Most people would agree that translation is about moving words from one language home into a new language home. That’s what I do for a living. But all of us engage in an act of translation every time we open our mouths or pick up a pen and employ words to express our thoughts. We translate our thoughts—which are not real in any material way—into something sensibly tangible. This is such a natural and commonplace event, we forget how incredible and even magical this action really is. And just like linguistic translations, there is no exact replication from thought to expression. The words become a pathway, a workaround, a symbol, or an attempt. What can be thought can be expressed. So any writer, and yes me when I’m writing fiction, is engaging in that same act of translation.

If you want an example of the marvelous interpretive and imaginative possibilities in translation, go compare some existing translations of classical texts. There’s a great website of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, which gives five or six translations of every poem from Baudelaire’s 1861 collection. Some are as different as night and day, the result of the interpretive choices by their different translators. If you want to really get into this idea, look at any of the websites which provide comparative English versions of the Bible. From a purely linguistic perspective, you will find a feast of transfer, of change, of display and alteration.

So ask me again now—what is autobiographical about my novel—and I will talk about fidelity to emotional effect and contextual variance. About level shifts and category shifts and the impossibility of exact equivalencies. I might discuss the translatability of the source material and then take you through the reconstruction of sound or image or structure. I will mention how inner becomes outer, how sometimes all you can do is convey meaning or form but not both. I will talk about the tension in word choice and metaphor, the gift of plenty and the risk of nuance. I will invite you to wend with me, to wander through the words. Because I am always in the work and outside of it. I am and am not the story.

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub2 min read
Can Digital Activism Solve the Information Crisis?
In this episode of Keen On, Andrew talks to Eli Pariser, author of the iconic book The Filter Bubble and founder of Upworthy, about digital activism, the contemporary crisis of information, and why we need to build a better Internet. From the episode
Literary Hub6 min read
Lit Hub Recommends: Hadestown, Ling Ma, Madeline Miller, Jean Echenoz, and More
Two months ago, I recommended The Mushroom at the End of the World, and this month I still can’t get enough stories about things that grow in strange, disturbed, sometimes-ugly places. William Bryant Logan’s New York Times essay on Fresh Kills Landfi
Literary Hub5 min read
Why Do I Recite the Same Paul Celan Poem to All My Dates?
You were doing it again, my roommate Renee accused me one morning, turning off the hairdryer, sticking her head out the bathroom like a hand-puppet. I heard you Corona-ing last night through the wall. We all have material that works; sparkling coming