Many times, first-time authors of fiction are asked whether the book is entirely fiction. Is it at least partly autobiographic, they are asked. Is the main character, or one of the other characters, based on you?
It’s true that first books can be somewhat autobiographical. But in any work of fiction, you cannot divorce the author from the book. Authors’ imaginations are not unlimited – they do base characters, incidents and descriptions on people have known and places they have seen.
But what about the reverse – what if an autobiography turns out to be pure fiction? This happened this week – twice.
First, there was “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca. This book, translated into 18 languages and adapted for a French feature film, talked about how Misha survived the Warsaw ghetto, how she was adopted by wolves and how she trekked 1,900 miles across Europe searching for her parents.
It turns out it was all untrue, all of it, as the New York Times reported this week. A magnificent work of fiction, except that it wasn’t supposed to be fiction.
Then came the second revelation. Margaret B. Jones’s book “Love and Consequences” is described by the New York Times as about “her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.” Again, all of this, starting with being half-white, was apparently a figment of Ms. Jones’s imagination.
My question is – if these books were works of fiction, why did the authors not try to sell them as fiction? Why try to pass them off as autobiographies?
Both these authors obviously possessed imagination in abundance. At least one of them was also able to write a very successful bestseller. Why not simply write the book as a fictional account?
As a reader, I can always read a good book and imagine that the story could have happened to someone somewhere. The author does not need to fool me that it actually happened to her.
Does it all come down to marketing then? Is it because the authors felt it would be much easier to market the book as the author’s life story, especially if it was such a unique, strange story? After all, it’s not so much about the book these days as it is about the author. I do not know much about Somerset Maugham or Thomas Hardy, but I know all about how J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series in coffee shops while her daughter slept beside her in the stroller. I don’t know exactly how she likes her coffee, but that’s probably because I wasn’t paying attention.
But isn’t this somewhat short-sighted? While curiosity about the author may prompt some readers to buy the book, it will not become a bestseller unless it is actually readable…
Or am I missing something here? Does a good book become less compelling just because it is fiction? Does every book have to have many stories behind it – the story of how the author got the idea to write this book, the story of how and where the author wrote the book, and the author’s life story?
Come to think of it, I know all about J.K. Rowling. I know very little about J.R.R. Tolkien. I am well on the way to forgetting Harry Potter. But I know I will re-read Tolkien many times in the future.
If the book is a classic, strangely, the author is irrelevant.