Favorite autobiographical fiction

Erin Kodicek on September 18, 2020

Favorite autobiographical fiction

In Tim O'Brien's "autofiction" classic The Things They Carried, he writes: "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." The latter sentiment might help explain why certain authors choose to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Writing autobiographical fiction is also a way to create a safe, and less constricting, space in which to mine some of life’s big, thorny questions. Here are a handful of favorites that do just that.

Inside Story by Martin Amis

Haunting this intimate and often witty “novelized biography” is the late Christopher Hitchens, and it is their friendship that provides the foundation for Amis’s upcoming Inside Story (October 27). You’ll find other literary cameos from the likes of Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Iris Murdoch in a story steeped in grief, but one that is ultimately a celebration of learning and life.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson eventually wrote a lionhearted memoir detailing her brutal upbringing in a suffocating English town, where she was adopted and rejected by a religious zealot who couldn’t abide her daughter's bent towards “unnatural passions” (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). But it's a tale she first broached in her brilliant debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. On why Winterson initially went the "fiction" route: "I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it."

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong’s poetic prowess is on full display in this epistolary novel about a young man who tries to make sense of the violence and isolation that has followed him and his family from Vietnam to America. In an interview with The Atlantic, Vuong said: “I wanted to invoke or invite an autobiographical reading, but refuse it ultimately. The book would be founded on truth, but realized by the imagination.”

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner has made a habit of writing autofiction and The Topeka School is no exception. A deft exploration of adolescence, masculinity and violence—and of the enduring imprints parents make on their children's lives—Lerner told The New School: “Writing autobiographically, if you’re writing seriously, is never writing just about one’s self—it’s writing about how the self opens onto the social, is formed by it, about how every time we say ‘I’ all kinds of histories are coursing through us.”

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Knausgaard has referred to My Struggle as a "nonfiction novel," adding, "I didn't try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns." Reading and relishing it was anything but a struggle for senior editor Chris Schluep: "The book is notorious for following the banalities of its protagonist's life. It makes art out of the mundane, keeping a bright light on his feelings as he passes his days, and—maybe my favorite part—striking out at times into truthful exposition on life."

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