As the author of a contemporary novel about four women who are roughly my age, I’m often asked how much of my book is autobiographical. This question comes in many forms—from the up front “which of the characters is you?” to the concerned “do your friends mind you writing about them?”—but the fundamental assumption remains the same. Novels—particularly those written by women—set in the sphere of the domestic, and those that deal with the events of ordinary existence, are inevitably considered to be (or dismissed as) thinly disguised accounts of the writers’ own lives. Why?
To be fair, in my case, I can see where the confusion lies. One of the characters in my novel is an Englishwoman making a new life for herself and her family in New York. And, yes, I am English, and I lived in the city from 2006 to 2010. But the similarity begins and ends with my nationality and geographical situation. I was inspired by my own experiences and I share history and habits with all four of my characters, but the book is still an imaginative work of fiction. The characters are me in the way that Gustave Flaubert identified with his most famous character, but when he said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” I don’t think he was suggesting that he had ever injured his child, or had taken to swigging arsenic.
Biographical criticism has been around for centuries, of course. Studying English at Oxford University, I spent many happy hours reading learned tomes on the parallels between authors’ lives and their literary works. By the time I’d finished that module, my fellow students and I could swear that Charlotte Brontë was Jane Eyre (the book’s original title was Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, after all). But the parallels between Charlotte’s sister Emily and the characters in Wuthering Heights are less compelling, despite the possible anorexia and the drunken brother, Branwell. Catherine Earnshaw might declare, “I am Heathcliff!” but if Emily had been asked, “Which of the characters is you?” she might well have replied: “None. Reader, I made it all up.”
Of course, one way to escape what Jeanette Winterson calls “the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ ’’ is to set stories on space stations, or in Internet-free postapocalyptic landscapes populated by robots, or simply in the past; to create a protagonist of the opposite sex, or a different age or race, or even a nonhuman; to construct a thriller, or an epic, or an experiment with form.
But what if the setting you choose is, as Jane Austen wrote about her own novels, “four or five families in a country village,” worked out on a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory”? (Austen’s comment is not just about the narrow focus of her plots but about the tiny notebooks she used.) What if you consider yourself a subject worthy of literature? What if you take your own story, use it as a plot, and throw in some recipes? In the end, how can readers detect the differences between the writer’s observations and his or her imagination?
When the HBO series Girls first aired, I was in Ireland—where I now live—spending most of my time chained to my desk working, arguing with my kids about their homework, or taking long walks with my husband. As a result, I’d missed the frenzy of speculation in the media about the parallels between its prodigiously talented 20-something writer/director/star, Lena Dunham, and the character she portrays in the show. (I know, I know—maybe I have experienced what it’s like in an Internet-free, postapocalyptic landscape populated by robots?) After seeing the first episode, I quickly Googled Dunham and found her piece for the New Yorker about Nora Ephron. Dunham wrote that Ephron “called bullshit on a whole host of things, including... the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.” I couldn’t have put that better myself.