Why Are So Many People Writing Semi-Autobiographical Works?
There are so many good and important works being written nowadays in different literary art forms that are interested in exploring the seams of autobiography, as though it were a black curtain of reality with rips, through which the light of fiction peeks through. Think of Gabrielle Bell's semi-autobiographical short stories and hybrid memoir graphic novels; or Ben Lerner's novels, where we step into the physical dimension through the fictive; or Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers, where the physical Joshua Cohen writes a story about a fictional Joshua Cohen interviewing a third Joshua Cohen whom he is often misread to be. Think about Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, a story told in diary form in the third person. Or Sheila Heti's Motherhood, a kind of fictional essay memoir that uses the I Ching and images.
Each of these works explores the fine line between fiction and autobiography. In Lerner's 10:04, for example, published in 2014, we read in the opening scene,
"I managed to draft an earnest if indefinite proposal and soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses and we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene."
The opening scene - we are actually watching, in this passage, a fiction erasing itself in the act of it being written. It is the opening scene of the book and, as we move our eyes across the words, helped by Lerner to imagine the scene, the scene itself is being imagined by Lerner, writing the scene while simultaneously being in that scene as a character, which ends with the word "scene," like a kind of slinky stretched to its limits and then - wham - collides back into itself from opposite directions and vanishes. Curtain.
Now look at the last paragraph in the book:
"We will stop to get something to eat at a sushi restaurant in Prospect Heights - just vegetable rolls, as Alex is pregnant and the seas are poisoned and the superstorm has shut down all the ports. A couple beside us will debate the relative merits of condos and co-ops, the woman insisting with increasing intensity that her partner "doesn't understand the process," that this isn't "the developing world." Sitting at a small table looking through our reflection in the window onto Flatbush Avenue, I will begin to remember our walk in the third person, as if I'd seen it from the Manhattan Bridge, but, at the time of writing, as I lean against the chain-link fence intended to stop jumpers, I am looking back at the totaled city in the second person plural. I know it's hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is."
This is one of the most fascinating passages in a novel I have ever read, especially in contemporary fiction. It begins with a prediction "we will stop to get something to eat at a sushi restaurant"; then moves into an oblivious couple debating about something in tired language that the passage itself restates and satirizes through framing it with quotes; and during this dialogue they drop a charged phrase - "developing world" - that is itself developing as an idea within the passage, as the passage develops in the book. Time-travelers, we move from future tense ("will"), to present tense ("lean"), to past tense ("looking back"), and all three simultaneously from a multitude of perspectives ("I," "We," "You" "Us" "You" (plural)). It ends with a genre switch, suddenly, from fiction into poetry, or poetry within a story. What do we make of these expansions, these flowings?
Artists and critics have more art forms and genres available to us now. Film is a fairly modern invention, as is photography. Visual art has gone through enormous and very fast changes. When Samuel Johnson wrote, he wrote a dictionary. When Harold Bloom wrote, he had to consider the Romantic poets to make any sense of the poets of his generation. Nowadays, if a critic wants to make any sense of the American scene, he or she has to take into account all of these recent developments, since film and photography were not invented when Johnson wrote, nor were they ripe enough when Bloom wrote.
I think Lerner's opening and closing paragraphs in 10:04 are a kind of riposte to critics. Do you only look at language? Why? Do you only look at prose? Why? If I am combining image, poetry, and prose together, why are you looking at my creation through a desiccated lens, that says more about your imaginative failures than me? The invention of photography and film changed the way we think about the relationship between art and reality, because the line between them grew thinner. In photography, paintings took on the appearance of the physical world while remaining "paintings"; in film, the world itself, as it moved, became art. How could a critic in the 21st century write about words moving across the page, intending to represent the physical world, if they didn't also write about film? This would be like looking at cars driving by the window, and say something outloud, but only see a speech bubble without words. Emaciated content, a paucity of interpretive capacity, a reluctance to venture into areas that demand exploring.
There are also questions outside the frame of art that are equally important and raise very significant questions for artists interested in these issues. For example, this essay begins with the opening and closing scenes of the novel 10:04. But what about the larger frame? How do we create art after 9/11? The Shoah? Each of these artists recognizes the important of this question, because each of these artists recognizes the important of the imagination. Both 9/11 and the Shoah can be interpreted as a failure of the imagination, since both involved people unable to imagine other people as people who suffer like themselves. To explore fiction and autobiography in the 21st century requires an almost unimaginable versatility in art form, because of the speed with which we now consume art, which has in many ways displaced religion in our cultural landscape. Like Charlie Chaplin, who, with nimble subtlety, drew a hair-thin line between his image and Hitler's, these artists shift a curtain through which a reality that can feel simultaneously paranormal and theatrical happens, like a sort of shadow puppet play, where even the hand holding the puppet is a kind of different fiction.