by Russell Christie
Unfortunately, the Spread-the-Word, life-writing competition email didn’t tell me why my submission had not made the longlist for this year’s prize, just that it hadn’t. Leaving me to my own speculations as to why my story had not made the cut. Was my life-writing too fictionalised for their category? Memoir may be the new novel, but is novel the new memoir? What is the relationship between autobiography and fiction and how does the autobiographical fiction I had submitted differ from what is categorised as life-writing? And: is memoir what it used to be?
An event at Brunel – an examination of autobiografiction in light of The Burnett Archive of working class autobiographies – offered to further stoke my grief-fuelled speculations, or ameliorate them with free wine!
Working class investment in writing autobiographically based fictions has historically been modulated by conscious political positioning of the texts by the genre’s major exponents, apparently. Autobiography fictionalized enables distance and circumspection in using the material of a life. It is a different mode of exposition from the promised authentic intimacies of memoir: it takes place in a fiction form. Significant scenes are often transposed onto other incarnations and protagonists in a distancing that mediates against easy nostalgia. Stripped of the requirement for a psychological accounting of self, this fictionalising ‘shows’ the basic facts. The distinction between fiction and memory in this context is one of genre markers based on style and perspective rather than documentary truth. Fiction is showing, memoir is telling, life-writing is telling by showing.
I reflected that the frequent designation of working class fiction as inherently autobiographical, characterizes working class people as inescapably marked by their situation in a way that middle class writers supposedly transcend. Working class fiction gets categorised as autobiographical because it is suffused with a coal dust which does not appear in the milieu of a middle class oblivious to its own saturated marking with clean crockery and Evelyn Waugh conversations. The middle class, of course, are equally marked by the biographical limitations of the bourgeois imagination. Aren’t they, Alan Hollinghurst?
Denying autobiographical pertinence to your writing – even to speculative fiction – is to pretend that the imagination is undetermined and un-situated: a standard bourgeois conceit and ideological ploy. Fiction no more exists than freedom. Everything I write displays my historic circumstances. I cannot help but express the autobiographical configurations of my life, channelling the people who have influenced me, the travel I have been privileged to, the language that gives birth to this tongue and no other. How would I write outside of this? There is no universal writing, or even any universal to know, apart from this binding we are all subject to: this thrown-ness into our own narrow and total worlds, which we then only transcend through sharing as a limitation, as a specific embodiment, as ourselves.
And where is the proof that would differentiate fact from fiction? Even if you video your whole life, what would you be evidencing in the editing: psychological structure, political reality, one story among others? It’s a naïve understanding of truth that easily marks fiction from documentary. As in the contemporary shift from nostalgically reflective, purple prosaic memoir to the stripped back, New Journalist, first person prose of life-writing, it is the form that distinguishes genres rather than the events these forms are built around.
It is the tenor, the intimacy, the pose, the hands-up, the hidden-ness, the sentences, the perspective that distinguishes fiction from life-writing and memoir. These are genre markers. Fiction has a fiction form, irrespective of its factuality. Self assertion, ownership and marketing is part of the form of contemporary autobiografiction. And what you remember, told as fiction, is not memoir. Except perhaps for Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time And The River and, ahem, my submission to the life-writing prize. Is there more wine?