Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.
Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.
In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.
Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:
If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.
If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:
And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.
Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:
And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.
There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.
Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”
In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.
If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:
And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.
Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.