Lisa Fray: 'Authenticity and the Author's Intrusion into Fiction'
Some of you might remember the amazing guestpost that Lisa Fray did for Universe in Words a while back. Well, I have good news: she's back, this time with a piece about fiction and authenticity.
Authenticity and the Author's Intrusion into FictionIt is difficult to forget what you know about an author when you are reading one of their books, but the sorts of authorial intrusions that can occur when you know all about an author's history or opinions can have a big impact on your experience of their work. Sometimes, it can enhance the experience, by giving us a sense that we are hearing from someone who really knows what they are talking about, but in other cases, it can prevent us from valuing the work for its own merits. It can also leave us searching for "authenticity" in fiction, rather than allowing authors to live separate lives from their creations. We can end up expecting authors to prove to us that they can give us better insight into that fictional world than anyone else. They are required to show their qualifications before we will suspend our disbelief.
Authenticity and VoiceMany authors tend to write about people and subjects that are close to their own background, but if we required authors to prove that they have real life experience matching the lives of their characters, we would limit creativity too much. Writers do often write about writers, but we shouldn't feel that this is the only subject they can cover, and we need to be wary about questioning how and why authors write across cultures, nationalities and sexes. There has been a nasty tendency in the past to believe that the Western middle class male norm is universal, while everyone outside it must be limited. Writers can then be attacked for writing outside their own experiences, but devalued for sticking to them because they aren't the traditional material of "great" literature.
Authenticity and the AutobiographicalReaders seeking authenticity don't just want authors to speak from their own real-life background, they also search for specific autobiographical elements in their works. We often believe that we see the author in their characters, particularly when books blur the lines between fiction and fact. When we read David Copperfield, we want to see it as a sort of autobiography of Dickens. It is a tendency that authors often play with, suggesting that they are recounting true histories, presenting real diaries or letters that they have only edited, or creating characters who are very similar to themselves. Many authors write about people who live in the same city, who are part of the same culture, or who resemble the public persona they cultivate. Some even indulge in metafictional games, introducing themselves as characters in their own books. A few authors have gone even further. They make their books explicitly autobiographical, or pretend that a fictional work is based on more truth that it actually contains. This is where the fun of playing with the line between the real and the imaginary can leave readers feeling cheated.
Cheating at Authenticity
The problem with the quest for authenticity in literature is that it makes us judge books by how much expertise and authority an author has over a particular topic, rather than by the quality, or even the actual accuracy, of the work. It doesn't matter how realistic a novel about drug addiction and poverty is, or how well it enables readers to empathize with its characters, it just matters whether the author has ever been a drug user. The classic example of a novel that was suddenly re-evaluated when its author's authenticity was challenged is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, which was accepted by publishers only after the author stopped describing it as a novel and started suggesting it was his true-life story. When it was later revealed to be fiction, readers suddenly felt that their experiences with the book had been cheapened. If the author hadn't actually struggled with recovery in a rehabilitation centre, then his readers suddenly couldn't believe in his characters anymore. Frey is not alone in having lost his readers' confidence after his true relation to his narrator was unmasked, but when readers are begging for more authenticity, it is easy to see why authors would fall back on the time-honoured techniques that convinced readers that Robinson Crusoe was real, or that The War of the Worlds was coming true. Asserting that fiction is true is all part of the game between author and reader that makes fiction work, but it only works as long as we all know that we are playing.
When Authenticity Goes Too FarThe desire for authenticity in fiction can be linked to our need to feel that books can make us better people, by giving us insight into the lives of people who are completely different from ourselves, but in looking for this kind of "reality" in an author's relationship with their creations, we risk limiting both our own interpretations of literature, and the scope which we will allow our authors to cover. It can be interesting to learn that the author's childhood resembled that of the main character, or that their former career has been turned into fiction, but we should be wary of placing too much importance on this type of authenticity. Authors do write from their own experiences, but they don't have to write autobiographical fact. Imagination and empathy allow us to use our own experiences to understand the people we encounter in both real life and fiction, and this means that there are no boundaries we cannot cross when reading or writing literature.
So, what do you think? I think authenticity should only matter to a certain extent. Sure, I want my fiction to be realistic, but we read books because we want to escape and maybe enter a world we thought impossible.
Here are some links to other articles Lisa has written: