By Doron Gil, Ph.D.
What is fact and what is fiction in novels and stories
In literature, the line between fact and fiction is sometimes blurred. In Fiction it often happens that the writer claims to not consciously intending to include autobiographical elements in the novel/story. But doesn’t he/she? And does it make any difference to us, the readers, and/or to the quality of the book?
In any case, when you read a novel or a story, you probably rarely ask yourself what in the book is fiction, and what is based on the author’s autobiographical elements. And why would you? Would knowing one way or another makes any difference? Does knowing, for example, that some of the book’s plot or characters are based on some aspects of the author’s own life give the book more credibility? More attractive powers? Or does a book stand on its own merit, whether or not it is based, in part, on the writer’s autobiographical elements?
Does knowing that fact and fiction are blurred add any value or credibility to the novel/story?
It is a well-known fact that the Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989), who has published about 500 novels and short stories, has based many of his characters on people he knew.
It is also known that many of the short stories of the American writer Raymond Carver (1938 – 1988) have some autobiographical elements in them (i.e., drunkenness, divorce, and couples’ fights).
A similar case we find in Jonathan Safran Foer’s comment about his latest book (“Here I am”, 2016). Eleven years after Foer published his last book (“Extremely Loud & Increasingly Close”, 2005) his new novel is about relationships.
When questioned about whether the book is based on autobiographical elements, Foer answered that he often asks himself the same question. He admits to having divorced his ex after 10 years of marriage, and also says that during the last 11 years he has been writing constantly about issues related to marriage and divorce.
So, without having received a clear answer, we see that, once again, facts and fiction seem to be blurred, intermingled and intertwined.
And once again, knowing that to be the case, does it give any added quality to Foer’s book?
What if the author wouldn’t have told us what the description of the rape has been based on?
Jessica Knoll’s debut novel”Luckiest Girl Alive” (Simon & Schuster, 2016), describes, in a very credible manner, a group-rape of a 14-year-old girl. Some of the critics asked Knoll about the research she has done prior to writing the book, which helped her describe the rape in such a credible manner. Several weeks after the book has been published, Knoll has admitted in an interview that the rape scene has happened to her (as Knoll explained in “Lenny”, a newsletter and website for young women, on March 29, 2016)
If Knoll should have not told us, would this have made any difference? How often authors don’t tell us? And does it really matter whether the “fiction” is based, in part, on some of the author’s autobiographical elements?
Can an author write passionately about love and eroticism without having had a personal experience?
The novel of the Israeli author Judith Katzir “Dearest Anne” (the Feminist Press, 2008) tells the erotic love-story between a 14-year-old girl and her 27-year-old teacher. Apparently, their love is “unique” to the two of them. But would it been possible for the author to describe love and sex in such a detailed, yet aesthetic way, without having had a (similar, to say the least), personal experience?
Could it be that an author who devotes pages on pages to describe, in much detail, an erotic love between two; their longings for each other; their “sexual games”; their addictive, forbidden love, hasn’t based it, at least in part, on her own experiences (even to the point of “using” the writing process as self-therapy)?
Upon reading Katzir’s book, one might wonder how many autobiographical elements the book is based upon. Such lovely, vivid, explicit, emotional descriptions of love and attraction – is it possible that they all have come only from the imaginary mind of Katzir, or is it possible, just possible, that she must have experienced at lease some (similar) level of love and attraction to be able to write about it so convincingly?
Katzir’s “Dearest Anne” is only one example, of many, showing that in literature it is not always possible to differentiate between the author’s imagination and elements based on the author’s life. The two are often blurred.
Does knowing that Nabokov had synaesthesia make a difference?
It might not be known that the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977; famous for the novel “Lolita”, 1955) – had synaesthesia (a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense produces experiences in a totally different sense. For example, people with synesthesia might see colors in letters; or can see colors in the food they taste; or might associate colors with emotions).
Knowing that Nabokov had synaesthesia might explain why some of the characters in his books are afflicted with synesthesia (including in the novels “The Defense”, 1930 and “The Gift”, 1952).
Nabokov used to tell how having synesthesia helps and enriches the characters’ lives (as well as the readers’: Synesthesia can be used by the writer as a literary device, describing people, places, events, and emotions in terms of multiple senses [which is often the case in poetry]. This “technique” makes the reader feel more “in touch” with the story/poem).
Yet the question again is: does it make any difference to the reader, knowing that the writer has had similar experiences to those of his characters? Does it add any value to the novel/story?
We don’t know. However, having had a similar experience might enable the writer to “get into the head” of his characters and describe them in a more credible way (which, in the long run, can give the novel better credibility and maybe makes it a “better” novel with a broader universal appeal).
Between fiction and fact: where does the quality of the story lie?
Getting into the mind of someone else – even of a “normal” person – is a difficult enterprise. Not even psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists can do so without doubt and difficulties.
When it comes to “unconventional” persons – murderers, crazy people and the like – it might even be harder to get into their heads.
When it comes to literature, there are those who claim that good writers, who have a keen eye to observe and record, can indeed get into the head of their personalities, be they “normal” or “deviant”.
Still, this is a no easy task, and we often don’t know whether the writer has had any “close encounters” with a similar case or not… Often, when the fictional work attracts and impresses us, it doesn’t make any difference.
Or does it?
Doron Gil, Ph.D. is the author of: “The Self-Awareness Guide to a Successful Intimate Relationship: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Awareness-Guide-Successful-Intimate-Relationship/dp/143925141X/