Today we present the third installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave addresses the question of fictionality in biography.
The Implied Author Part III:
Non-non-fiction: Alternative Biography
I used to plot how I would annihilate the signage in bookstores. The categories seemed so arbitrary, constrictive. I thought it might be interesting to liberate the poetry, the literary criticism, the self-help, and the cook books to rub shoulders with one another outside of their individual ghettos. But the burning mission was to tear down and trample upon those smug signs that pretended to distinguish the “fiction” from the “non-fiction.” I have regularly ranted at my students that all writing is, properly-speaking, “fiction.” I generally go on to bore them by trotting out some argument based on the Latin root of the word. All writing, whether it calls itself history or philosophy or a how-to manual, amounts ultimately to the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. And it’s made up.
Maybe it’s odd, then, that I have never been a big reader of conventional biographies. (Yes, I know that’s like admitting to not being interested in The Environment or not reading The Newspaper. It brands a person as somehow not serious.) After all, biography is probably the genre where fact and invention are most gloriously confused. Biographers of the dead are left to sift the external markers of a life: photographs, receipts, recorded sayings, writing (if any), anecdotes. It’s never enough. So they look into milieu and known associates, and try to join up all of the dots. They are almost always helped along by a healthy dose of empathy for their subject: not all that many biographers choose subjects in whom they see nothing of themselves reflected. Even when they are blessed with a living subject and so-called unlimited access, biographers are not immune from being lied to or under-served. I’ve never been able to see how their practice is that different, then, from how novelists render characters. The lives they pretend to expose are actually woven too. And that’s before the reader gets in there, supplying a host of additional inferences and empathetic responses to round out the representation.
I expect that writing historically-based fiction represents merely a more sedate and middle-aged way of trying to destroy those signs in the bookstores. By the time I had finished writing Silver Salts, it was less than clear to me any more exactly what was researched and what was invented. That’s maybe a middle-aged phenomenon too, like forgetting where you parked the car. I can go back to my notes (when I can remember where they are) and check which details about Louis B. Mayer or Al Altman or Irving Thalberg are documentable and which are not, but I don’t. They have (I hope) become “characters,” their lives projected fictitiously. No need for the coy disclaimer about any resemblance being entirely coincidental (which should probably read accidental to be really effective anyway).
Autobiographies, because access to their subject never closes, might be expected to exert a stronger claim to non-fictionality than mere biographies. There is something we want to believe in the “I” witness account. But Nabokov, for one, has made it clear that the autobiographer and the character-narrator are really one and the same. His Speak Memory does a lot to tear down those bookstore signs, and complicate the debate on biographical criticism (sometimes boring but never a bore.) If Nabokov and others have made it possible for traditionally non-fictional autobiography to “cross the floor,” what are the possibilities, I wonder, for the traditionally fictional autobiographies (the so-called first-person narratives that cover a substantial part of an invented life) to do the same in the opposite direction? It’s one of the questions asked, I think, by the recent Commonwealth Prize-winning novel Mr. Pip.
Perhaps the final assault on those annoying signs should be launched from the Science section of my local bookstore (shelved ridiculously as “non-fiction”). Apparently, those physicist types began to wrestle with these problems years ago. They just didn’t know that they were about life-writing too. Which is truer: the fictionalized historical personage or the historicized invented character? Is the cat that is locked inside a sealed box with a vial of poison dead or not? I am inclined to disagree with Schrödinger. I think the cat must be both alive and dead—even after you look.
Coming Soon - Signings: The Agony and the Ecstacy