Presenting oneself

CASSIUS
Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

BRUTUS
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

There appear to be increasing numbers who insist that authors write about themselves. And about no-one but themselves. That writing about people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, different sexualities, and so on, is oppressive. “Cultural appropriation”, a term concocted fairly recently to reflect a cultural ideology also concocted fairly recently, is now bandied about with reckless abandon, while the argument that it is the fiction writer’s job to imagine themselves into the minds and hearts of other people, often very different from their own selves, seems to fall on deaf ears. Issues specifically affecting a certain group of people must not, it is insisted, be addressed by writers who do not belong to this group. And should they do so, they may well find themselves facing a generally inarticulate but nonetheless potent rage. This rage should not be underestimated, for it may hold hostage even our literary judgement: recently, the influential literary magazine Kirkus, faced with such rage, withdrew its approval from a fiction that it had initially reviewed favourably. Authors beware.

The logical end of the arguments against “cultural appropriation” – fulminations rather than arguments, perhaps, for I do not find them well argued – is that we must write only about ourselves, or, at best, about people very much like ourselves, sharing our racial origin, our gender, our sexuality, and all the rest of it; and that we must concede that those who may enter our fictions who are unlike ourselves fall outside the range not only of our experience, but also of our imagination. There seems, however, to be an underlying assumption here I find questionable, and that is that our own selves we do understand. But do we? As Brutus rightly observes, the eye sees not itself.

I’m not a reader of autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve read a single one, although I suppose I should try out some of the more notable examples of the genre – the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, say, or the Confessions of St Augustine, or of Rousseau. However, despite my not having read even the finest examples of the form, I find the form itself troubling. Could I write my own story? I have joked in the past that if I were to try my hand at autobiography, then, given how much I have absorbed of Western culture throughout my life (or “appropriated”, some may say); and given further that, as a newly arrived five-year-old immigrant from India (or, rather, émigré, a term far more distinguished-sounding than mere immigrant), I had found myself typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays; I should perhaps call my autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding. But that joke is a bit tired now, and the “if” itself is highly problematic: I could never, I think, sit down to write an autobiography. For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest, and to be honest about people whom I have known and liked, or even loved, and lay bare to public gaze their inevitable faults and shortcomings, would be on my part a gross betrayal. And to be similarly honest about myself would be simply embarrassing. In any case I don’t know that I can be honest with myself: however I may see myself, my perspective is inevitably distorted. The eye sees not itself. So either I would end up flattering my ego in self-admiration, or flagellating my character in self-hatred; and neither, I fear, would be a spectacle likely to edify. Except, perhaps, as a cautionary example of that which should, for reasons of good taste, be avoided.

But without going as far as autobiography, a great many writers have introduced themselves into their novels in fictional form. And here, too, I think there are difficulties. It is no surprise, for instance, that the only character in David Copperfield who lacks colour and vitality is the adult David himself, the central character in an avowedly autobiographical novel: Dickens would not, or, more likely perhaps, could not, endow David with his own vitality or genius. We never believe that the David we see in this novel would himself be capable of writing David Copperfield. Levin, in Anna Karenina, is a much finer piece of characterisation, but even here, Tolstoy cannot invest this autobiographical character with his own genius: however much Levin may have resembled Tolstoy in other matters, it is impossible to imagine him writing Anna Karenina. This perhaps confirms what lesser mortals such as myself have often felt about genius – that it is so mysterious a quality, it eludes the understanding even of those who are possessed of it. Or, perhaps, especially of those who are possessed of it.

There are other writers who present, quite deliberately, a certain carefully calculated version of themselves in their novels. Fielding, for instance, frequently speaks to the reader in his own voice, thus making himself, in effect, one of the characters in his own novel. The voice he speaks in is companionable – wise, witty, magnanimous, tolerant, admiring of virtues, and generally tolerant and forgiving of vices. Whether Fielding was really like this matters little: what matters is how well the characterisation works in the context of the novel. For once one puts oneself into fiction, one becomes a fictional character, and it is in the context of the fiction that the success or otherwise of the character must be judged.

Nabokov went in the opposite direction from Fielding: the narrator of Pnin turns out to be Nabokov himself, except that he isn’t quite Nabokov himself: he is a version of Nabokov with all warmth and compassion expunged, and with the cruelty and heartlessness accentuated. An unpleasant parody of Nabokov, in other words. For the real Nabokov, the real author of Pnin, leaves the attentive reader in no doubt that the title character is a gentle and dignified man, indeed, a saintly man; and such a man, one suspects, would have been beyond the scope of the parody Nabokov, the fictional author of Pnin. The real Nabokov demands we read between the lines; the parody Nabokov is seemingly unaware that there exists anything at all between the lines worth reading.

Nabokov could pull this off because he was well aware of the impossibility of putting one’s self into one’s work; he was aware that when one tries to do so, all one puts in is a parody of one’s self. And being aware of this, he deliberately shaped the parody to serve his artistic ends. As, no doubt, did Fielding, although Fielding went in the opposite direction by presenting the best rather than the worst of himself. But both Fielding in Tom Jones and Nabokov in Pnin are fictional characters; and both writers – the real writers, that is – know it.

This is why I think I find myself suspicious of autobiography as a form. If one puts oneself into a fiction, one immediately becomes a fictional character; and when one puts oneself into what purports to be fact, the factual nature of the self-representation is, at the very least, questionable.

And similarly, I think, with those things one writes about because they are close to one’s self, because writing manuals have told us to write about what we know: the closer a subject is to the author’s own life, the less I find myself trusting it. One’s own experiences are the very things that are most difficult to write about with any great degree of objectivity. And where objectivity is questionable, so too, I think, is authenticity.

Since I am not myself a writer of fiction, I feel I am well qualified to dispense advice to aspiring fiction-writers. I’d say – don’t write about what you know. Forget your own self: imagine yourself into the minds of people very different from yourself. For, if you cannot imagine that, you really have no business even trying to write fiction. Best to write some trifling blog instead, as I do.

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting post and I’m in agreement, mostly; my thin reservation due to the complicated nature of writing. Two things: The current cultural wars are messy; no doubt about it. And appropriation exists on a spectrum with layered-in problems that few people seem to be able to parse. The worst version of correcting for appropriation I’ve recently seen was revision of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado”, in which the company relocated the story into Renaissance Italy. Not only was this an erasure of historical realities (my biggest complaint about those who are offended by milieux that don’t conform to their current values) it substituted one culture for another and grossly misread the point of the operetta to begin with. More on that here: https://www.repeatperformances.org/the-lamplighters-revision-of-the-mikado

    Similarly, autobiography and fiction pose different problems that layer into each other. Autobiography (I don’t read it either, though I read biography when I was a kid decades ago) seems part of our celebrity bias: the need to read and imagine a heightened version of people’s lives that we have projected our own dreams and desires on. It is a mythologizing process, often, and a celebration of success, whether of talent or life or both. I’m not sure how much honesty comes into it, apart from dates, which have the possibility of being confirmed.

    That an author, or his/her life, appears in fiction is inevitable. Poets are given license to openly present the world from their own perspective, clearly and in great detail. That’s one of the reasons we read them (and often why poetry is written): to allow the poet’s imaginative reordering of different aspects of life, physical, philosophical, imaginative, and to make them “new”. The fiction writer needs to compose an imagined world, but that imagined world is often littered with details from their lives, physical, philosophical or derived from external information. How else to form the imagined? The creativity comes in the spin, or how this portrayed moment is different from what actually occurred and that you hold in your memory. The woman walking down the street is now wearing a red hat, rather than a blue one, and the author decides to make her nylons torn. From that moment the author can move clearly into the imagination. Why not decorate that ankle with a tattoo of the number 3 drawn in red, a red the same color as her hat? What does that mean? Where does that take us? That, I believe, is what gives writing its allure for writers, because at that moment, the imagination takes over and the spin cascades into story.

    When an author puts themselves more clearly into a story, they not only spin themselves but they work with the unalterable fact that novels, fictions, stories are only shorthand; they cannot possibly contain all the elements of lived reality. They can, therefore, reshape themselves and depending on their vanity, humor, whatever, make a self that is undeniably different, that describes the lineaments of the person, which is then colored in with a set of crayons missing a number of colors.

    Reply

    • Yes, I quite agree, and thank you for your comment. Subjectivity, of the sort we often look for when we are reading poetry, can be of interest in its own right, and can indeed have its own authenticity.

      There is nothing wrong with presenting stylised versions of one’s own self in fiction: the picture may not – indeed, never will – be complete, but, as you say, no fiction can “possibly contain all the elements of lived reality”.

      What I feel uncomfortable about – indeed, more than uncomfortable about – is the old hackneyed adage that is handed out to aspiring writers to “write about what you now”. Recently, this adage has hardened into a more aggressive “Don’t you dare write about anything beyond your immediate experience”. For writing about what one knows has, it seems to me, its own problems; and writing about experiences removed from oneself is simply what fiction writers worth their salt do.

      But yes, I expressed myself too strongly, and failed to concede that subjective renderings of reality have their place too.

      Reply

      • I agree that formulaic writing is tiring at best, and repulsive at worst. For students of writing the adage is less useless perhaps. It’s more a command for self-awareness. But I agree, dogma never helps.

  2. Don’t you have to distinguish between autobiography written as such and usually classified as non fiction (even though much of it is made up) and fiction which contains elements from the writer’s personality and life experiences? We can imagine ourselves into other people and other cultures, but need to convey our emotional experiences, whether directly or indirectly and in pieces.

    As I was writing this, James’ comment came in. He says very well what I am trying to express.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree, we need to distinguish between autobiography, which claims to be, and, no doubt, tries to be, non-fiction; and fictional representations of oneself, which allow greater artistic licence. I thought I had done that, but I focussed more on fictionalised presentation than on autobiography, as I have more experience of fiction in my reading. But the problems that beset the representation of one’s self in fictionalised form seem to me to exist also when it comes to autobiography.

      However, as Jaime says in his post, subjectivity is not necessarily a bad thing.

      Reply

  3. You’ve left out the pressure constantly put upon (American, at least) writers of fiction to produce multicultural works, fiction that is not limited to one race, creed, social class, etc. So we writers are told to write about characters who are not us, while being told that to do so is to commit some kind of sin. Bollocks, all of it.

    I read not to see myself, but to see who else is out there. I write not to represent, but to think aloud, as it were, and to ask questions about what I see. I do not care who I offend; indeed, if nobody disagrees with me, I have likely not said anything worth reading.

    I don’t read biography or autobiography, either. But somehow over the last few years I’ve found myself reading collections of letters. I did read “I Will Bear Witness to the End,” which is the wartime diary of Victor Klemperer, written in Dresden during the rise and fall of the Nazi Party, and that was fascinating and terrifying.

    Reply

    • …indeed, if nobody disagrees with me, I have likely not said anything worth reading.

      Ha! If the converse of the above holds, I guess this post was very much worth reading! 🙂

      I see on re-reading my post that I had expressed reservations about the very validity of autobiography. I had not intended to do that. I think I was responding to the pressures put on writers these days not to venture out of their own orbit. (And I hadn’t considered the pressure you mention that is put on writers in entirely the opposite direction.)

      I remain dubious still about how well one may represent one’s own self, either in autobiography or in fiction, but that is not to say that autobiography is an invalid form. Or, indeed, that one should not attempt to depict oneself in fiction. The literary world would be poorer indeed without the authorial figure in Tom Jones, or without Tolstoy’s Levin.

      And, of course, those testaments recording personal experiences of great historic events. As well as Victor Klemperer’s diary (which I have not yet read), there are also the diaries of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anne Frank; Wole Soyinka’s account of his solitary imprisonment during the Biafra War (The Man Died); Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Gulag; Primo levi’s writings about the death camps; etc etc. Of course, it would have been better for mankind if the horrendous events they record had never happened at all, but since they have happened, eye-witness accounts are of immense importance, both as documentaries, and also, sometimes, as literature. I do not doubt it.

      And yet, I retain a scepticism about the extent to which an account of one’s own self can be truly objective. But objectivity, I concede, is not the sole issue.

      Reply

  4. Yes, for pity’s sake, read Cellini! Cellini is awesome. Completely nuts. Rousseau and Augustine are no slouches either. And since you brought him up, Nabokov wrote one of the all-time great autobiographies, too. He did not even remotely think that “putting one’s self into one’s work” was impossible. He put himself into his work frequently.

    Pretend that these are all novels if that helps you with your neurosis. Maybe it is the demand for “objectivity” that is the problem? Let it go! If any form is made for subjectivity, it is the autobiography. I mean, you have read Wordsworth’s Prelude, so you have read at least one autobiography, and it is pretty much about subjectivity.

    Reply

    • Noted. Cellini, St Augustine, and Rousseau – but especially Cellini – are now firmly on my ever-growing list.

      I think Nabokov is keenly aware of the problems of putting one’s self into one’s own work. Here’s what he says in Speak, Memory:

      [The author’s] true purpose here is to project himself, or at least his most treasured self, into the picture he paints. One is reminded of those problems of “objectivity” that the philosophy of science brings up. An observer makes a detailed picture of the whole universe but when he has finished he realises that it still lacks something: his own self. So he puts himself in it too. But again a “self” remains outside and so forth, in an endless sequence of projections, like those advertisements that depict a girl holding a picture of herself holding a picture of herself holding a picture that only coarse printing prevents one’s eye from making out.

      He writes his autobiography with this awareness.

      It’s interesting you mention The Prelude, as I considered mentioning it myself in my post, but decided it would only make the post too cumbersome. And in any case, I make too many references to Wordsworth as it is. But yes, Wordsworth’s subject was the development of a human mind, and of all the external influences that act upon it. And he chose to focus on the human mind he knows best – his own, a specific example of more general principles – if only we are capable of extrapolating what those general principles are from the specific. I think it is a masterpiece, and I find myself turning to it frequently. But how reliable is it as autobiography? When Wordsworth did try to write about an autobiographical event that was, perhaps, a bit too close to the bone – his affair with Annette Vallon, and the illegitimate child he had fathered – he had to present it in fictional form, as a story of Vadracour and Julia. It is not among the more compelling passages of The Prelude: it appears only in the 1805 text, and and I think Wordsworth was perfectly correct in excising it. In short, one does not go to The Prelude for autobiography.

      But yes, as Jaime points out, subjectivity can have its own type of authenticity. I should have noted that in my post.

      When autobiographical figures are presented in fiction, I take them to take them as fictional figures anyway. I really don’t care how close or otherwise Levin may be to Tolstoy. I suspect I’ll do the same with avowed autobiographies as well: I simply don’t care how close the real Wordsworth was to the picture of himself he presents in The Prelude. So I’d certainly take your advice on this matter and treat autobiographies like novels, were it not that I probably do so already!

      The various comments on this post (including yours) have certainly made me rethink various aspects of this matter Not only will I read the autobiographies you recommend, I may even start work on Westward Leading, Still Proceeding, the central figure of which will emerge as a wonderfully sharp-witted, personable, and charismatic. Why? Because, I guess, I’m worth it! 🙂

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on February 8, 2018 at 8:07 am

    “For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest,”
    The dishonesty is often the most revealing part of a writer’s work. Where would the fun be if an autobiography were honest ?
    As another of your correspondents has pointed out: Nabokov wrote an autobiography. He is, however, acutely aware of the problems of memory, and that is part of the pleasure of reading it.

    Reply

    • I am not at all surprised that Nabokov is acutely aware of the problems of memory. As Mark Twain once said, when he was younger, he used to remember everything – all that happened, and all that didn’t. But, as he gets older, he tends to remember only the latter.

      Dishonesty (intentional or otherwise) is of course interesting in itself, but if one does no have an honest account, how does one even identify where the dishonesty lies?

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on February 8, 2018 at 10:55 pm

        ” if one does no have an honest account, how does one even identify where the dishonesty lies?”.
        By comparing different accounts. There will usually be different accounts unless the author is particularly uninteresting, and under those circumstances who is going to read the autobiography anyway? If you sold a best selling immigrant experience book I suspect that you’d soon find out you that had friends and enemies that you couldn’t remember having.

      • There is, of course, no such thing as an “immigrant experience”. Or, rather, there are as many immigrant experiences as there are immigrants. Of course, they are likely to have faced similar issues, but how they reacted these issues, how they perceive them, is as individual as the individual immigrant. And if I were to be dishonest, say, about how I had reacted to these issues, i don’t know anyone would be able to check that by comparing with other accounts.

  6. What do you mean by “authenticity” in this discussion?

    Reply

    • I mean a truthfulness – something you can rely on as being close to reality. This is why writers are being urged now to write only from the perspective of people of their own background, for to write from the perspective of people from other backgrounds, or to presume to speak on their behalf, is deemed “inauthentic”, i.e. not truthful, not something one can rely on as being accurate. My point is that writing about matters close to one’s self is generally not authentic either in this sense.

      But much depends, of course, on how we define “authenticity”. An honest account of how I felt, or feel, may in itself be of interest even if I have completely misunderstood, or misremembered.

      Reply

    • Much becomes clearer. You don’t like the idea of autobiographies because you cannot know if they are true. And that is right; you cannot.

      I do not believe that the current conflict over identity politics in literature has much to do with truth. Certainly not accuracy. Foucault is perhaps the more relevant philosopher.

      Reply

      • You’re probably right: truth matters for very little when it’s considered to be contingent on one’s group identity. Problem is, I’m conditioned to think it’s rather important…

        I don’t know that I necessarily dislike the idea of autobiography: I am merely suspicious of the extent to which they reveal the truth (yes, that word again) about their subject. But I am certainly happy to think of them as fictions anyway – or semi-fictions at least. I’ll certainly read Cellini’s autobiography (given your enthusiasm), but will do so without expecting it to be factually accurate. As long as it’s a “good read” – as they say – it hardly matters!

  7. Posted by alan on February 9, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    “Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep and in his simple show he harbours treason”.

    Reply

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