Auto-fiction: The Novel Comes Full Circle

Alex Clark of The Guardian penned an article that I came across in a manner that was entirely coincidental. My blog post about Daniel Defoe had been up for only a few days when, lo and behold, I found myself reading about a new kind of writing called “autofiction.” Clark provides a definition as he discusses the new genre:

“Suddenly this kind of ‘autofiction’ – fictionalised autobiography that does away with traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development – is everywhere” (Source).

As any person of the writerly type would do, I kept reading to find out what was going on, my curiosity leading the way, and that’s when I connected the dots as to what was happening in my mind. I saw that I was recognizing the characteristics of this new form of writing, and realized that I’d seen it before, very recently, and it had everything to do with Daniel Defoe.

In Defoe’s time other writers had published fictionalized narratives about life as it unfolds, from the perspective of a single person, sans the aspect of organized artistic form. Defoe elaborated on the style to produce what he termed the “private history.” The result of his efforts brought us a voluminous collection of breakthrough novels:

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe​ (1719)
The The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe​ (1719)
Memoirs of a Cavalier​ (1720)
Moll Flanders​ (1722)
Captain Singleton​ (1722)
The Journal of the Plague Year​ (1722)
Colonel Jack​ (1722)
Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress​ (1724)

The funny thing about recalling these works is how their content resembles the first two words of Clark’s definition, because they are, indeed, “fictionalised autobiography.” With regard to “traditional elements of the novel,” well, in Defoe’s time, such elements hadn’t come to exist yet.

When I found Clark discussing Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo (2018), in which he describes how “Crudo slips sinuously between ‘Kathy’ the pre-millennial icon of the American counterculture and a 21st-century woman on the brink of multiple life changes,” and that the “action slides from a luxurious holiday in Italy to Korea, Grenfell, Steve Bannon’s resignation, [and] a priest giving a sermon in Italian ‘in which the word WhatsApp was frequently discernible,'” I couldn’t help but to observe parallels to Defoe’s work.

From Defoe’s time, writers leading up to the current age, from Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Austen, to Hawthorne and Melville, to Dickens and Collins, to Brontë and Eliot, to Hardy and Wilde, to Woolf and Joyce, to Ellison and Lee, to Nabokov and Vonnegut, to King and Gaiman, and so forth and so on, the novel has been shaped into what we come to expect in today’s reading market.

And yet it is the “market” that concerns us here, because as Clark tells us, according to the frenzy of the internet-driven, social media age, in which publishing professionals are faced with notorious slush piles, comprised of ongoing novice attempts at the literary tradition, “Writers, then, need strategies to meet the darting eyes of those too powerful, or otherwise occupied, to listen to them.” In short, a new trend has developed in which writers are abandoning the classic structure of the novel — character development, plot, etc. — in favor of blending aspects of memoir-styled nonfiction with fictionally created characters to produce a reading experience that feels fresh and different, enabled by the power of its introspective traits.

The quality of introspection is the factor that drove Defoe’s novels into trail-blazing success (though he didn’t live to see much of the rewards). Introspective writing satisfies an innate need lurking within the human psyche, not only because people want to feel like they’re not the only ones experiencing life on life’s terms, but because the nature of introspective writing projects the opportunity for discovery. Imagine, for example, stumbling across your aunt’s diary from a few decades past, a document she may have meant to have kept hidden. Are you not enticed to find out what she went through? It is the subliminal element of attraction that underscores autofiction, to learn the experience of life from a personalized, lived-in perspective.

When the Internet came into the mainstream, not only did the publishing industry change, but we witnessed the curious onset of experimentation, from novels written on Twitter (micro-novels) to among others, the community-driven novel (collaborative fiction), staples in the abandonment of the literary tradition. As we are learning, however, it seems the writer’s ego never truly fades, never wholly recedes into the background. And so it is that they continue to seek that comfort zone in the cabin by the lake, the quietude stimulating as they seek to tap out their masterworks amid the fragrance of coffee as it wafts through the air. On this note, though the stylistic traits of autofiction will come across as modernized, much more intriguing and energetic, in comparison to the olden form that is the private history, it seems that from Daniel Defoe to Olivia Laing — almost 300yrs to the day — the novel itself as a species of writing has somehow managed to come full circle.

To view the matter from this perspective is to contemplate why the elements of character development and plot came about in the first place. There is a reason why Defoe’s private histories are recognized as fundamental novel writing, and so it is that with autofiction, a new kind of writing that is, according to Clark, nowadays to be found “everywhere,” the pleasure will be in not only coming to marvel and enjoy this new literature as it flies off the bookshelves, but to envision where the phenomenon will take us next.

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The Amazing Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) opted for a life of writing after years of struggling as a businessman. For the amount of non-fiction pamphlets he came to produce, in the modern age he would have been a blogger. Add in the scale of his fiction output and the man becomes quite the enigma, especially considering the spark of his imagination, putting his pen furiously to work at the age of 59, which led to the seminal masterwork that is The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). One peculiar and marveling aspect about the man, it seems, is that he is the only published author known to the literary canon to have been pilloried. Can you imagine? Being pilloried?

Ian Watt situates Defoe as among the triumvirate of authors whose literature participates in the founding of the novel writing tradition, the other two being Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Defoe’s work is of particular interest, both for its form, which seems a kind of meandering style that somehow ends up being well worth the read, and for its content which, in two of his novels, concern the lives of unfortunate women.

Unlike the olden medieval tales and their damsel saving heroes, and even in contrast to the amatory and scandal fictions of his day, Defoe’s work comes across as anomalous. Dubbed as “private histories” (and building on a lesser-scale tradition), he goes into copious detail about the daily lives of his heroines, Moll Flanders and Roxana, without so much as a single chapter heading to help digest the material. It seems he had beginning and end points roughly in mind, making up much of the middle based on his worldly experience, and then he set about the task of writing his works in seeming singular fell swoops, staggering for the length in which they came to encompass. At times his paragraphs are so long that it’s hard to imagine forcing a quill pen to perform in such a way, all without the luxury of a backspace button and copy/paste features. Most profoundly, the notion that he happened to stumble into the form — carrying on at length, elaborating on the minutia of daily life, experiencing the ups and the downs of a character — it all speaks to the mysterious manner in which nature itself intermixes with the human mind to produce that which will blaze new trails.

Where the form sneaks up on the literary establishment, the choice of characters and their experiences are equally as innovative. With no relation to the aristocracy, and with the debt that haunted him, Defoe knew well the trials of life. That he applied his ideas of misfortune to the lives of two fictional women is a fascination. Moll Flanders begins by telling us how renowned she was at the prison at Newgate, and that Moll Flanders is not even her real name. The sense of shame is immediate, yet with the enormity of detail that follows, revealing both her good and bad natures, readers are compelled to consider the “why” of it all; Defoe makes it difficult to pass judgment.

And if Moll Flanders entices readers with her escapades as a career criminal, Roxana’s tale confounds us with alternative schemes that are mind-boggling. Again we are presented with a woman caught in the throes of despair, where only a few pages pass before we find her labeling her first husband a “fool,” no less than seventeen times over the course of two paragraphs. She is ranting, for the man’s inability to care for her, which serves to underscore most pointedly how the chivalric days of gallantry are, indeed, long past. Unlike her literary predecessor, however, Roxana employs sexuality instead of thievery to make ends meet, which leads to her from one debasing situation to the next as she makes the effort to survive. Replete with a perplexing relationship with her devoted servant, and the willingness to throw her own daughter under the bus, that Roxana ends with a shallow portrayal of penitence, should come as no surprise. Realism is Defoe’s game play, unconcerned as he is with notions of making the reader feel good, much less the aspects of epic and spectacle.

When we consider how Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey was in production during the same years in which Defoe wrote these incredible works, it becomes a task to comprehend what it is that is so compelling about Defoe. Pope was among the elite, Homer is timeless and iconic; Defoe was not. Yet his lasting impact as a composer of those “private histories” can be traced and even summed up in that which has been threaded into the modern American consciousness, the desire to write the “Great American Novel.” Defoe’s endeavor to document fictionally the lesser known peoples of the world has, in a roundabout way, paved the way and given voice to the thousands upon thousands of writers who followed in his footsteps, shaping and modifying the realism of his style to give us the novels that we know of today.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia]

Reading The Great Chain of Being

In the back of my copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the study questions do more than draw interest to the text, they draw attention to the social landscape of the day. One question asks, “Does Jane Austen ridicule a particular set of people with her wit?” The question is alarming because it situates judgment on the authoress herself, painting her with a bit of conceit.

In our modern age, creative writers are urged to “show” their stories scene after scene, which is a means to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions concerning subtext. In Austen’s day, marked rules and distinctions between showing and telling did not exist, where it was for our lady genius in her free form prose to stumble upon what literary theorists know as “free indirect discourse,” a form of literary expression that in essence allows readers to know what a character is thinking.

The result of this form bleeds into our initiating question, that people stand be ridiculed as Austen’s story unfolds. We know what people are thinking about others because Austen spells it out. But we can’t judge her for how she sounds in her writing, because the question is as much a historical inquiry as it is a textual study. Austen’s thoughts are a reflection of an English paradigm stretching centuries into the past, in which her psyche functions at the mercy of that very paradigm.

Just before the long eighteenth century, the vestiges of Feudalism lingered with great tenacity. Feudal social structures are likened unto the Great Chain of Being, that unbreakable hierarchy in which all creatures large and small fit in at some level. And I mean UNBREAKABLE! God himself sits at the very top of this hierarchy, and from this point comes the monarchy and nobility, followed by the peerage and on down into the peasant classes and so forth. Wherever a person was born within this Great Chain of Being, society at the time recognized the position as permanent. In 1563 The Statute of Apprentices embodied this concept, “for it assumed the moral obligation of all men to work, the existence of divinely ordered social distinctions, and the need for the state to define and control all occupations in terms of their utility to society” (Source). A peasant couldn’t dream of becoming a baron and a baron wouldn’t think of becoming king unless certain rare conditions were to arise. This understanding of the structure was embedded so deeply that to imagine life otherwise was incomprehensible.

The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being can be understood even better when we observe the moment in time when it suffered the rudiments of disruption. London trade exploded into the open during the early 1700s, and a new class of people came into being that had people scratching their heads. A person could develop a business based on the sale of goods and become successful. Social mobility had arrived. The middle-class had been created, destabilizing that Great Chain of Being.

Yet the social consciousness created by the Great Chain of Being did not dissipate so easily. Social mobilization was like a shock wave of which its effects took time to deal with. In Austen’s work the aftershocks of this disruption pop up throughout her text like Freudian slips, yet they are to the contemporary reader, a part of fleshing out this glacial force of change.

For example, Sir Walter has strong opinions about social mobility via time served at sea:

— “Yes; it [The English Navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of” (Austen 19).

Obscure birth? His use of the word “undue” comes off as harsh even for the day, and the element of social mobility disrupting the Great Chain of Being is well-defined in the insistence that it could never be “dreamt of.” As modern readers we might ask: Why shouldn’t someone of obscure birth be allowed the chance to come into their own?

The Great Chain of Being is subject to dismantling by Captain Wentworth’s intention to succeed, so as to raise his station in life. This longing is pivotal to the plot in that he had lost his romantic chance with Anne because of his lower level in the social hierarchy:

— “But he was confident that he should soon be rich: full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to everything he wanted” (26).

Personalities and character defects are no match for status when we consider the power Miss Carteret has over her peers in light of her natural place in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth” (143).

Birthright has been cemented deeply in the social consciousness so that it is like pulling teeth trying to remove it from the authoress’s mind.

— “But Mary did not give into it very graciously, whether from not considering Captain Benwick entitled by birth and situation to be in love with an Elliot” (124-25).

Even when specific examples fall to the wayside and subtle everyday language is applied do we find the gradation functioning within Austen’s psyche, found in her application of the word “superiority” (emphasis mine).

— “…save as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (40).

Even inanimate objects are assigned a measure of station in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Their house was undoubtedly the best in Camden Place; their drawing-rooms had many decided advantages over all the others which they had either seen or heard of, and the superiority was not less in the style of the fitting-up, or the taste of the furniture” (131).

In the modern age we don’t go around commenting about the life-cards a person has been dealt, not in the ridiculing sense we hope. In movies sometimes we will find politicians insisting to their children who will marry who, as they revel in the glee of their lack of poverty. And so far as we know, those who’ve been divined to claim standing within that fabled “one percent” probably have thoughts and they make comments about who is who in this world, and where they stand in relation to them. As for the potential of Austen’s work to sound as though she is ridiculing others, at the very least, and from her perspective, her work serves to suggest to the reading public at the time, and in our modern era, that a person does not necessarily have to remain in the situation into which they were born. As Captain Wentworth’s ambitions suggest: How much are you willing to work for a better life?

Serfs locked into the Great Chain of Being by their overlord.

___________________________________________

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. Barnes & Noble, Inc, 2003.

Diegetic vs. Mimetic Writing: Making Sense of the Show-Don’t-Tell Decree

Trying to understand the dynamics of creative writing is like wandering into a briar patch. For a writer who has fallen in love with the craft, if they have not studied these dynamics, they will at some point in time submit a manuscript inevitably to be returned, rejection notice attached, with a potential suggestion to learn how to “show” and not “tell” the story. Depending upon the writer, the level of burning sensation frying the scalp will reach variable levels.

The problem with this particular brand of advice is that it is not altogether wholesome; it is vague and it doesn’t guide a writer toward better writing. What exactly does it mean, to “show” and not “tell” a story?

In technical terms, diegetic writing is the same as “telling” your story. Diegesis is the formative writing style that brought us stories long before that nasty editorial request had ever been made, “showing” and not “telling” a story. The most famous example of diegetic writing can be found in the proverbial famous phrase, “Once upon a time…” Here we are presented with a time locale in which a series of events is about to be recited.

“Once upon a time there lived a King and Queen who had no children. They longed very much for a child; and when at last they had a little daughter they were both delighted, and great rejoicings took place.”
Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault

By contrast, mimetic writing is that in which you are “showing” your story, presenting the world as it is seen to the eye. Mimesis is the writing style that instructors want their students to learn because it immerses the reader into the story’s action; but it is the editors who push for this style because it makes books seem more like television. Consider an example by Robert W. Walker:

“She snatched at the bedside table, foolishly grabbing a handful of wires and turning over her clock and telephone, sending up a cacophony of metallic noise and crying out, ‘Dammit! I want out of this bloody Hell!'”
Pure Instinct (1996)

Whereas diegetic writing makes us feel distant, as though we are being lectured about events that have taken place, mimetic writing makes us feel as though we are eyewitnesses. Mimetic writing allows us to experience a story as opposed to merely hearing about a story, and in this capacity the chances stand that a story will be more memorable, more thrilling, because it tends to affect the senses. And because of the effects of mimetic writing, it tends to assign to the principles of diegetic writing a negative impression. Diegetic writing is boring; mimetic writing is exciting, etc. etc.

In the grand scheme of things, distinguishing between the two is important because it helps both writers and readers in the navigational method of a story. Constructively speaking, one should not be held in importance over the other. Diegetic and mimetic writing are tools for storytelling. Their worth as literary devices lies in how they are applied, the goal being to harmonize the two.

To the modern reader, encountering diegetic writing at the outset of a novel can indicate a boring read to ensue, and this is understandable. Opening a story by going straight into the action is a level-headed maneuver, but depending upon the circumstances, diegesis will need to be inserted at some point in time. This is where the craft of writing needs to be understood in terms of an art form unto itself. But it is here that the argument may be frustrated, because where the fledgling writer may be turned away for diegetic writing, prolifically published authors may be writing in the diegetic form with impunity. The opening lines of the sequel to Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) is a case in point:

“After Wilmington, the daily drinking stopped.
He’d go a week, sometimes two, without anything stronger than diet soda. He’d wake up without a hangover, which was good. He’d wake up thirsty and miserable — wanting — which wasn’t. Then there would come a night. Or a weekend. Sometimes it was a Budweiser ad on TV that set him off — fresh-faced young people with nary a beergut among them, having cold ones after a vigorous volleyball game. Sometimes it was seeing a couple of nice-looking women having after-work drinks outside of some pleasant little café, the kind of place with a French name and lots of hanging plants.” — Doctor Sleep (2013)

King is toying with the language to make the writing seem mimetic, but it is diegetic nonetheless. We are not experiencing a first hand event, a specific scene is not being described, and spans of time are being glossed over so that the reader is distanced from any particular point of action.

Interestingly enough, some of literature’s most famous writers are bound to diegetic writing in ways that render the advice to “show don’t tell” a story perfectly inane. P.D. James, for example, spends a large, very large amount of energy expounding on her diegesis in her Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), and I’m certain editors were more than pleased to publish the work, especially considering how it became an instant hit television series.

What this all means is that at its root, good writing is simply good writing, diegetic or mimetic. The key is to understand how to intertwine the two so that the story makes sense in every way that it needs to be, all the while being pleasurable to read. In essence, to avoid diegetic writing is to risk either rendering a story too long, by having to describe every last scene that leads to the next, or it is to risk confusing readers as to what is really going on.

Our Beloved Authors

Call it author irony, or the writer’s paradox, but at its root the phenomenon of the existence of great literary works whose creators have endured hard times, or met with tragic ends, is something marveling, if not deeply unsettling to comprehend. One of the greatest known examples of this kind would have to be the writing of Wuthering Heights (1847), and the subsequent passing of its ever-too-young authoress, Emily Brontë. It seems she had been put on this earth for the sole purpose of writing this novel, and yet her story stands among many others whose lives of writing fell under similar kinds of circumstances.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Because of the infancy in the field of medicine, Mary Shelley was beset by the loss of her children in life, with only one to survive into adulthood. She was lucky that she herself did not die giving birth, like that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the famous feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died within days of giving birth to her. With praise that is, at this point, beyond calculation, Mary Shelley is famous for her opus magnum Frankenstein (1818/1831). Yet her efforts as an author are overshadowed by this masterstroke of genius, since she rarely receives credit due for her immense contribution to the field of writing and publishing in general. Yet it is primarily because of her cautionary tale, written with such terror and love for the craft, that she is truly one of literature’s beloved authors, which is why the end of her life seems so tragic. As the Victorian Web tells us, by the time she reached the eldest of her years, she had “lost her will to live” (Source).

Herman Melville (1847–1891)

Herman Melville was a thoughtful, thoughtful man, evidenced in his highly elaborate narrative technique. It seems each and every sentence he ever wrote was endowed with the power of extreme perception, all the more genius in the uncanny notion that he was able to write what he did without the help of a word processor. The creator of America’s greatest novel is another one of those authors of whom, their many other works are dwarfed by the power of their masterpiece, and yet we find melancholy and even sadness in how the man was hardly praised during his day. He looked for jobs like the rest of us, working as a customs inspector for many years to support his family. In spite of his literary output, and whatever contemporary critical acclaim he did manage to attain, his passing evoked but a “single obituary notice” (Source).

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)

The powerhouse writer who produced Don Quixote (1605-1620) once served in the Spanish Navy Marines, but when he was captured by Ottoman pirates, it was his family who paid his ransom after five miserable years, not the Spanish government. It was later that this same government imprisoned him, though it was this very imprisonment which engendered the impetus to create what would go on to become — the novel of all novels. Sadly, “No graciousness descended on Cervantes’s domestic life” (Source). He faced hardship with his family, and though Don Quixote was a success as a publication, copyrights during the age did not work in his favor. The message that Cervantes sends to aspiring writers lay in the scale of his creative output, which began for him at the age of 57, serving to show that no matter the age, it’s never too late to get on the ball and get that novel written. What aspiring writers can also take from the life of Cervantes is that the life of a writer is not an easy one at all.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

My edition of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe feels like a brick when I hold it. And the font size is tiny. The man passed from this world at the age of 40, which is all to suggest that it was within this brief span of time that Poe produced literature to voluminous effect. We know that he paid to have his first works published, inspiration for Indie Publishers everywhere, but we also know that he struggled financially throughout most of his life. Poe was a gentle man who suffered loss after terrible loss, of the women he loved, and he died under conditions of poverty in the most abysmal of ways. To be simple-minded and non-intellectual in my commentary, I can only remark that it just doesn’t seem fair!

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

To say that Sylvia Plath was brilliant would be an understatement. Natural poetry and prose poured forth from her mind like pure water bubbles from a spring in the mountains. Her case is tragic because she was caught in a time when the odds were stacked against her. Simply speaking, she wanted to write creatively, and she did anything she could to that end, including the rejection of a scholarly career. Her husband left her with two children to care for, and it was at this point that she seemed on the verge of throwing her hands up about it, though we are lucky she did not do so before the writing of The Bell Jar (1963). Plath suffered from depression and her situation, living in London alone with her children, struggling to pay bills, pushed her to the limit. She had a passion for producing literature, but it was the inhospitable life of a writer that drove her to the end. We all feel that her suicide was unnecessary, but we are stuck with the reality of a bitter world and by proxy, the incapability of changing what happens in that world.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

What more can be said about the great Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway? Every writer who has ever lived wishes they could possess even a fraction of his talent. More so, his life stands at the pinnacle of author intrigue and excitement. He worked tirelessly as a journalist, saw the front lines in both world wars, traveled vastly, wrote seemingly until his fingers bled, and was published to great critical acclaim. His literary output is so impressive that to encapsulate it all within a series of blog posts would be a massive undertaking in and of itself. Which is why the downturn of his life is so inexplicable. After seeing so much, learning so much, experiencing so much, and influencing so much, the tragedy of Hemingway’s end is something that will never meet with a proper sense of understanding, and as mentioned elsewhere, it just doesn’t seem right.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Breaking ground, startling the modern world with a new “stream of consciousness” writing, Virginia Woolf lived the quintessential life of a writer. She started newspapers and literary clubs, ran publishing ventures and completed novels, all the while voicing pro-women’s rights during an age when the understanding of what civil rights even meant was an abstraction. It was an emotionally trying life, bolstered by complications of a sexual identity element and its association to public affairs. By virtue of the nightmarish international world of turbulence around her, Woolf came to connect “masculine symbols of authority with militarism and misogyny, an argument buttressed by notes from her clippings about aggression, fascism, and war” (Source), and with the English way of life under a direct Nazi threat, the turmoil took its toll. We want to imagine how strong people can become, the super men and women of whom we look up to, yet we sometimes fail to see the perplexing conundrum that is the often fragile nature of the human condition.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The wit of Oscar Wilde is only paralleled by the way it tends to mirror what it reveals in ourselves. Wilde’s seemingly cavalier way of drawing out the nature of self-truth, the abyss no one dares to look into, means that we owe him a debt for revealing it for us. In spite of it all, I like to think of Wilde as having utterly and completely refined the linguistic style of the Victorian Era. To read Wilde is like the partaking of a filet mignon with fine red wine at a five star restaurant. Wilde shows us that reading can be both pleasurable and didactic at the same time. “However, due to his sexuality, he suffered the indignity and shame of imprisonment. For a long time, his name was synonymous with scandal and intrigue” (Source). It is harrowing to imagine that he was exiled. He came to wander the streets of Paris alone where, after having written with such impressive prowess for so many years, he died a broken man.