The more experienced I become as a writer, the more I realise I was closer to the soul of the art when I started out than after a decade and some lose change years studying its craft. Jonathan Franzen is a writer I discovered through The Corrections some time in the last year or so. In his recent lecture reprinted in The Guardian, Franzen talks about the relationship between fiction and autobiography, by way of Kafka.
Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.
When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.
Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn / delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.
The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy. Star, my latest short story upcoming in Universe magazine in June, is an alternative history of a fascist Britain, and also a memoir of the attempt to escape what seemed an overwhelmingly authoritarian educational system. My Lovesick Zombie Boyband is about a teenage girl with powers of necromancy, and also about having my heart crushed when I was eighteen. Circe’s Bar and Grill is a contemporary retelling of the Odysseus myth, and also my experience of serving rich people in restaurants. Momentum is an complete invention, except I do have boxes of scrawled notes from departed relatives hidden under my bed and I often wonder what they mean.
Reading Jonathan Franzen’s idea of autobiography and the fictive dream, I realised how distinctly biography and fantasy, far from being conflicting urges, have actually been aspects of the same urge for me. I can steal Franzen’s words to describe that urge as to ‘create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning’. It’s in the collision of the real and the fantastic that the vividness and and meaning of the dream arise.
Earlier in the same section of the lecture Franzen says:
My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.
Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net’. It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spinds out remarkable idea…if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.