Fictional autobiographies

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.


12 thoughts on “Fictional autobiographies

  1. My sentiments exactly. I remember there being a similar brouhaha about James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, and I remember wondering why on earth he tried to pass it off as a memoir. Clearly there is a huge element of voyeurism involved which contributes to the sales of these books, and this element is completely missing in a “mere” work of fiction.

  2. there is Norma Khouri’s ‘forbidden love’ as well – and i remember wondering the same thing after read it.
    Maybe its narcissism, maybe they can ride on ONE book if it is a ‘real story’ as opposed to fiction. If they can write a book, presumably they have SOME talent.

  3. First books of novelists can draw on the writer’s personal life and background extensively but at the same time the good ones have what is sometimes called “artistic distance.” As examples, one thinks of Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist,” Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” and R.K. Narayan’s “Swami and Friends”. Having “unburdened” oneself of this autobiographical material, novelists often go on to transform other people, feelings, circumstances, although the autobiographical element seldom vanishes entirely out of sight.

  4. Kamini: You are right. As this post mentions, Frey claims he initially wrote the book as fiction, but after it was turned down by 17 publishers who clearly preferred non-fiction, he decided to call it a memoir instead.

    A Cynic in Wonderland: Yes, they are clearly talented if they can write a good book. They have also put in a lot of hard work to write the book, so I wonder why they spoil it all by deception.

    Srivalli: That’s an interesting thought. Do you think people are more likely to relate strongly if a book is a memoir rather than fiction? Why do you think this is – do people think fiction tends to be unrealistic?

    Candadai Tirumalai: I love the “unburdening” idea. I was thinking along the same lines recently – a new author has many stories within him, all rushing for the exit at the same time. The story he can write best is the one based on his own life, so he has an incentive to get it out first before turning to the others 🙂

  5. Much ado…

    But then, if you see how books are being marketed today in America, it’s all about celebrating the underdog and the survivor, it’s about giving everyone something to dream about. We live in a country that is obsessed with self-improvement.

    What can you say?

  6. km: So you are saying it’s not about voyeurism, but the feel-good factor of reading the memoir of a survivor, about someone who battled the odds and so on, is what sells these books? That’s very possible.

    But does the hero(ine) have to be a real person? What about fictional underdogs? I mean, I would root for Frodo Baggins even if he’s not real, even if he’s not even human…

  7. I think it may have something to do with the pervasiveness of ‘selling’ the authors on current media. TV talk shows, online chats and interviews have now given the publishers unparalleled marketing power and they demand of their authors that they be willing to go out and actively engage in selling their books, unlike in the past, when only a few major cities might receive book tours.
    Reclusive authors in the current times stand little to zero chances of their books being published, no matter how outstanding their writing.

  8. sometimes i think a story which is otherwise ‘yet another hard luck tale’ can seem more interesting if you thought it was about an actual experience. atleast there are a few movies that would have left me cold but for the fact that it was based on a true story

  9. Sujatha You are right, even though the idealist in me wishes that this were not the case. But yes, now it’s all about selling the author, right?

    I guess authors are also very savvy. They are looking beyond the book to movie rights, merchandise marketing and other possibilities.

    Perhaps that is why current authors are less like Harper Lee and more like Ms. Defonseca, or J K Rowling.

    anita You are saying sometimes people relate better to real people than fictional characters. That’s funny, isn’t it, because fiction is never completely imaginary, and good fiction should sound believable. Plus, reality is always wackier than fiction.

    But your comment raises a good question – does a writer of bad fiction (that no one would find interesting otherwise) have an incentive to peddle his stuff as a memoir to make it more interesting?

  10. The woman who wrote about the War might have done it somewhat lightheartedly. I mean, c’mon if people believe someone was raised by wolves, it’s not her fault. It’s like that Coen film Fargo. The movie starts with a message saying the events actually happened and the names have been changed and so on and so forth when in fact it was all fiction. The brothers had grown up in a similar small cold town in Minnesota, but that’s all. I thought it was a hilarious gimmick.

  11. I guess some writers try to pass off their works as autobiography rather than a fiction coz the amount of curiosity it may arouse among the readers may be more than vice-versa as it is more real.

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