There is a prejudice today against genuine autobiographical writing (I'm not talking about the relatively new literary genre auto-fiction); the assumption that writing about events that may have occurred ‘in reality’ is worth less than those that have not; I presume because people believe it requires less skill, less imagination, the sine qua non of being a writer. As we get older, however, the very notion of reality itself becomes to seem a lot less concrete and certain; I have written about certain life events and the very act of writing about them seems to have partially erased the memory of them, so that I can't be sure particular things happened as I felt that they did when I wrote them down, so that to read the account I wrote of them now seems more like fiction. Life begins to seem, at least for me, sometimes dreamlike. An air of deja vu and unreality waft by. Time itself, and hence our identity, also becomes more amorphous - and certainly more fleeting - as we age. And any depiction of a person or place, however 'true', necessarily veers away from the mark, if for no other reason than that all perception is an act of interpretation and creation. So writing about 'real life', in many ways, is not that different from writing about fictitious events. Surely as soon as someone ‘tells’ of an event, it becomes fiction? As soon as ‘telling’ begins, a story has been constructed? A person or event may well be more, not less, difficult to write about it with the detachment necessary to create something resembling a work of art precisely because of the writer’s proximity to that thing, as something they have actually experienced.
The books above all have strong autobiographical elements or use the trope of autobiography. They also all deal with outsiders and with escape, the cost of it and the possibility of it, and whether it is sustainable - Joyce from Roman Catholicism, Winterson from fundamentalism, Coetzee from the hollow societal structure of 1970s South Africa. Is the individual always formed in opposition, I wondered; is that how we come to exist? (The word 'exist' means 'to stand out', presupposing something to stand out from). If so it leaves her vulnerable to having the background she has fashioned herself in contrast to suddenly removed. Then where will she - or her story - be? Any identity at all is an investment and an attachment. The very fact that most protagonists are created in this way and that every novel needs protagonists suggests that the subject matter of autobiography is essentially the same as that of any novel; it has to be to work as a dramatic fiction.
While most novels are to some extent autobiographical, some novels play with the trope of autobiography. Austerlitz is such a novel, a relayed narrative, mostly made up of digressions expressing a single theme: transience. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is the same - and has the same theme too. The 'autobiographical' voice works for Sebald and Robinson because it is a fiction. I suspect a relayed narrative would sound strange if it was deployed in a real autobiography because it would be too close to what is actually happening. Ironically it is only by inversion that that particular trope can work. A good rule of thumb, I imagine, is if something really happened, write it as fiction, and if something didn't, write it as fact. Ths neatly sidesteps the possible pitfall of writing that is overly solipsistic, confessional or self-expressive. Be that as it may, any writing that is anything today blurs all sorts of boundaries; Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, Rachel Cusk - are the works of these writers notebooks, diaries, prose poems, philosophical treaties; works of fact, fiction - or everything in between?
For me I don't mind about the provenance, it's the end product that matters. It is possible to discern, just as it is possible to discern when you are in the presence of good writing, when - wherever something came from - it has been transformed, transmuted, transmogrified, as Joyce said, in the smithy of the soul, into something beautiful and rare.
The Strange Thing About Auto-biographical Fiction