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True Lies

August 20, 1995|ZENA COLLIER

"Tell me, is your novel autobiographical?"

Breathes there a novelist, renowned or obscure, who has not been confronted with this inquiry? I took it cheerfully in stride after my first novel was published, well aware of the bromide that first novels are often thinly disguised autobiographies. But when it happened after my second novel came out, I began to feel puzzled. And something else, too: For reasons I couldn't define, the question left me feeling oddly diminished. Not so much put out as put down.

I didn't object to the query as an invasion of privacy, although, of course, it is. Nor did I care that it was sometimes prompted by purely--or impurely--prurient interest. ("Did what happened to Evelyn on Page 53 happen to you?" Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.) And as writer and reader, I certainly believe that readers are entitled to ask questions about the work.

But an inquiry as to whether a work presented as fiction is in fact autobiographical isn't a question about the work: It's a question about the author's personal life. As such, it's not only intrusive but irrelevant, because a work of fiction should stand alone. The question is justified, it seems to me, only when it comes from, say, the writer's biographer, or from writing students who find it instructive to note how life experience is transmuted effectively into fiction.

So there was the reason for my increasing perplexity. But what about the feeling of put-down? Why did the question seem to disparage my efforts as a writer?

The answer came when I happened to catch novelist John Irving on television, discussing readers' reactions to his work. He said that when "The World According to Garp" appeared, readers kept asking him whether certain sections were autobiographical. When he said no, he expected them to say: "Then you did a very good job because you made it seem so real, so true to life." Instead these readers seemed disappointed, skeptical, even insulted that he expected them to believe him. He found this attitude difficult to understand because imagination, after all, is the novelist's stock in trade.

Hearing this, I understood the source of my discomfort. When a reader suggests that a work of fiction is actually autobiographical, this implies that no skill was involved because the writer only had to write an account of something that actually happened. Anyone could have done it, given that kind of life.

Now it's true that fiction writers use life experience in their work. Eudora Welty has said that the dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion that first gets it going. But while that initial impetus does get the story started, it cannot generate an entire work. That requires a sustained act of artistic creation.

Detectives, reporters and historians deal assiduously with the facts, or so we hope. But as Albert Camus put it: "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." It's a crafty trick, this business of writing fiction, this conjuring up of lies that read like truth. It's a deception, just as a stage performance is deception. But it's an honorable trick and a laudable deception, for it offers us the keenest truth about how we live.

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