Is Fiction Autobiography?


Death of the Author QuoteI just posted a book review, of Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles. See it here.

I didn’t mention in the review that Jane and Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky) were married for decades while they lived in Tunisia. Their marriage was unconventional, both of them having relationships with other people (often homosexual), even while they remained married, for convenience, at least. I thought that autobiographical fact might help to understand the restless, hollow characters that appear in both Jane’s and Paul’s books. I decided I didn’t know enough about them to make that claim in my review.

And that got me thinking about whether it is legitimate to invoke an author’s biography in evaluating a work of fiction. I imagine some future reviewer of my android novel saying, “Oh, yeah, that Bill Adams was like an android himself – emotionally unexpressive.” I wouldn’t like that. “Just read the book,” I want to say, “and leave me out of it.” I admit I have always been amygdala-challenged. But is that a fair interpretation for a book I wrote?

To some extent, all fiction is autobiographical. How could it not be? But should that matter? These days, we’re not supposed to care about the author’s intention because once you publish a book, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It becomes fodder for reviewers, who do with it what they will. The author is silent (or worse, “dead.”) So sayeth the postmodernists (e.g., Roland Barthes).

I don’t think an author’s biography explains a novel but I confess I still think in terms of the classical rhetorical triangle, in which a work of art is one part of an ongoing cultural conversation. The other two corners of the triangle are the author and the audience (from Aristotle, and per Art Danto’s The Madonna of the Future). In this view, it is an error to view a novel as a stand-alone object. An author’s life and times are always germane to the conversation involving it.

So while I like a novel to speak to me on its own, and I rarely am interested in the author’s biography, I admit that bringing facts about the author’s life and times to a review, while perilous, is a legitimate approach to analysis.


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