Memory and fictobiography

In the first part of my “gay disco” posting, I touched on the fallibility and unreliability of memory, in particular how memories are reorganized (and, in fact, created and suppressed) by expectations, beliefs, and subsequent experiences. There is a gigantic psychological literature on the subject, and of course great concern by historical scholars for the role memory plays in the historical record — and even a very modest literature in linguistics (having to do with our memories of linguistic experiences). Meanwhile, scholars of story-telling forms (including memoirs/autobiography, biography, fiction, folklore, poetry, plays, films, and narrative art works) have long concerned themselves with the relationship between lives as presented or represented in such works and the lives of real people — in the case of an autobiographical work, the life of the artist.

Everyone understands that works that present themselves as fictional, as “made up”, can involve real-life elements — the figures of real people (the creator of such a work included) as characters and real-life details about them — without crossing the line into (auto)biography. When these elements are substantial, that’s (auto)biographical fiction, fiction with an (auto)biographical cast, or biofiction for short.

And one lesson of that work in psychology and historiography is that works that present themselves as nonfictional narrative, as “true stories”, will nevertheless deviate in at least small ways from the ascertainable record (in addition to failing to “tell the whole story”, that is, in addition to selecting a few details from the many available for telling). When these deviations are considerable, that’s fictionalized (auto)biography, (auto)biography with a fictional cast, or fictobiography for short.

[Note 1: There’s more, of course. Both fiction and nonfictional narrative will evaluate aspects of the stories, not only explicitly, in expressions of opinion, the statement of morals or lessons, and so on, but also implicitly, in the selection of details and in the way they’re presented, and in word choice, for example.]

[Note 2: In any case, there’s a problem with works that present themselves as nonfictional narratives but deviate from the ascertainable truth in significant ways, up to being wholesale inventions: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, for example, which has been excoriated as a masquerade and a misrepresentation. Such things might be called “(auto)biographical fiction” in a sense different from the usage above: fiction masquerading as (auto)biography.]

Putting such failures of good faith aside, there’s still a big territory in between clear fiction and clear nonfiction, one that’s been explored by both writers and scholars. Here, for instance, is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (who teaches writing at the University of California at San Diego and recently made it onto the New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” list of promising young writers), in her blog The Millions, on what she calls “experimental fictobiography”:

The focus of this particular syllabus [prepared in 2009] was experimental fictobiography (a clumsy term for a fluid form), and I wanted to include works that I not only loved but that also demonstrated a variety of methods for telling the story of a “real” person’s life: collage, verse, photographs, fragments, rebuses, found texts, etc.

The reading list looked like this:

Kathryn DavisVersailles
Donald Barthelme: “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Cortés and Montezuma” from Sixty Stories
Anne Carson: “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God
Michael OndaatjeComing Through Slaughter
Anna Joy Springer: “Kathy Acker’s Mystickle Snail and Bone Pedagogy” from Encyclopedia Vol 1 A-E
W. G. SebaldThe Emigrants
Todd HaynesSuperstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Jonathan CoeLike A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
John HaskellI am not Jackson Pollock

My own interest in this fiction/biography median strip comes from my having started, almost twenty years ago, a work entitled Reflections on a Sexual Life, either autobiographical fiction or fictionalized autobiography, I’m not sure which, but I’m now thinking of it as fictobiography (well, autofictobiography, I guess, or maybe, ugh, fictoautobiography). There’s plenty of sheer invention and conscious shaping of experiences into stories, and also a good deal of what can only be seen as unintentionally unreliable narration, resulting from my having written most of this stuff some good time after the events that I’m putatively describing — with all the distortions of memory that entails.

So I started the book with a collection of quotations on memory and on the blurring of fact and fiction:

One thing was clear: my recollection had been almost wholly ­inaccurate; my father did not escape [from Russia] in the dead of ­night and did not bring his own father with him.  How I came by that tale remains a mystery.  Perhaps I invented it to supply some version­ of a father-son cooperative venture which in fantasy held enormous ­appeal for me because of the lack of communion with my own father.  Or ­perhaps my father himself told the story, producing it out of some­ obscure wish to save us both from what he took to be a less digestible­ truth.  In any case I believe I have made the point that I know almost ­nothing of my father’s past (and perhaps secondarily also provided an apologue of how both “first-hand” accounts and the historian himself­ can create obstacles to “reconstructing the past”). [Martin Duberman, “On Becoming an Historian”, ­The Uncompleted Past (E. P. Dutton, N.Y., 1971), pp. 342-3.]

[He] successfully promoted, in retrospect, a version that suited his ­purposes (and had probably, by then, displaced the actual event in his­ memory). [Stephen J. Gould, “Knight Takes Bishop?”, Bully for Brontosaurus (W. W. Norton, N.Y., 1991), p.­398.]

Memory is overlaid with later memory, mangled  by self-justification and self-pity, guarded by self-interest, rent by great gaps of ­forgetfulness. [Herbert Simon, “Introduction”, Models of My ­Life (Basic Books, 1991), p. xvii.]

Nothing has more marked the literature of our time than the blurring­ of fact and fiction, the discovery that “fact” is difficult to­ establish, that “fiction” is by no means confined to the realm of ­fantasy, that both are contrived to provide us with story, the­ ordering of events into narrative. [Carolyn G. Heilbrun, “Vera Brittain’s Testament ­of Experience“, Hamlet’s Mother and Other ­Women (Columbia Univ. Press, N.Y., 1990), p. 39.]

“My childhood is like a dream,” I said.  “I’m not sure it’s possible ­to look at it with too much expectation of meaning.  I’m not even sure­ you’re supposed to.  Expect too much from memory.”

“And you don’t mind?”

“No.  In some ways it is a relief not to have to understand­ everything.” [Susanna Moore, In the Cut (Knopf, N.Y., 1995), ­p. 141.]

My quotation bank has some more material in it, most of it not directly related to memory or fact/fiction:

[longer version of Simon quote above] Memory is overlaid with later memory, mangled  by self-justification and self-pity, guarded by self-interest, rent by great gaps of forgetfulness. [p. xvii] … It is a denial – a denial that a life, at least my life, has a central theme, a unifying thread running through it. [p. xviii]

…we cannot bear it.  We must have comforting answers.  We see pattern, for pattern surely exists, even in a purely random world… Our error lies not in the perception of pattern but in automatically imbuing pattern with meaning, especially meaning that can bring us comfort, or dispel confusion. [Stephen J. Gould, “The Streak of Streaks”, Bully for Brontosaurus (W. W. Norton, N.Y., 1991), p. 467-8.]

[gardens figure in the book] The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. [Michael Pollan, “Why Mow?”, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Atlantic Monthly Press, N. Y., 1991), p 64.

…gardens are simultaneously real places and representations. [Pollan, “The Garden Tour”, Second Nature, p. 243.]

At first my gardens here lacked this quality of doubleness, or resonance. [“The Garden Tour”, p. 244.]

In whatever likeness the fiend appears he has never more than one nostril, which is great and wide, and he will gladly turn it up so that we can see through to his brain.  And his brain is nothing else than the fire of hell, for the fiend cannot have any other brain.  I could tell you their names but you know them, their initials go from A to Z. [Robert Glück, “Chaucer”, Elements of a Coffee Service (Four Seasons Foundation, San Francisco, 1982), p. 51.]

But my life insists on continuities – between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness.  So, in the sixties, at the height of my belief in the possibilities of change, I knew that we all continue to carry the same baggage; in my world, Christian does not shed his burden, only his attitude to it alters. [Thom Gunn, “My Life Up to Now”, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1985), p. 194.]

6 Responses to “Memory and fictobiography”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    I see that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s short story “The Erlking” has now appeared in the New Yorker (July 5), in its “20 Under 40” series.

  2. Safe for public consumption « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] and people actually get into discussions over whether it’s porn art or art porn (echoes of fictobiography versus biofiction here). And some observers find the photos offensive because their subjects are so beautiful, so […]

  3. More on writing and memory « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in June, I wrote some here on “Memory and fictobiography”, including a section of quotes on memory and writing. An […]

  4. Truth, memory, and stories « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] postings of mine on memory and writing here and here. And on narratophilia — the love of, desire for, (satisfying) stories – here […]

  5. Big Bill Broonzy and the truth « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] an artist’s notion of truth, which allows for the shaping of events to make a better story: fictobiography on a large scale. We judge fictobiography as art, not as testimony. (Of course, the trick is to […]

  6. Comics books « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] narratives in the borderland between fiction and (auto)biography (biofiction and fictobiography, here and here), and not only longer forms but also shorter ones, has been noted, usually with dismay, by […]

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