LIBBY ANGEL’s book Where I Slept is the story of a young woman’s devastating and inspirational search for a life of artistic integrity.
In this article Libby looks at the historical precedents for autofiction. She ponders whether readers are more interested in the book itself, or how the writers’ life is reflected within it.
For most of my 20s I worked as a trapeze artist. I lived with my partner in a caravan, parked behind a disused electricity generator in Shoreditch. We had no power or running water. In winter we insulated the interior of our home with newspaper, and pissed outside in the snow. One night, after the pub, we fell asleep with a candle burning in the built-in bookshelf. In the morning, I stood inside the sooty shell of a caravan, our meagre possessions destroyed, my white fake-fur coat, still on its hanger, melted inside the small wardrobe. I will write about this, I thought. I would have to get a new journal, along with everything else.
Until I was at least in my 30s, I blithely followed Jean Genet’s romantic dictum that life is a pretext for writing. I was a voyeur, approaching life like an ethnologist, taking notes. In the interest of a good story (or so I told myself), I got tangled up in all sorts of dodgy situations, which I misread as interesting. Food and housing were low on my list of priorities. It was almost too late before I learned (to paraphrase Stephen King) that it’s life that supports writing, not the other way around.
The first work I published was poetry. Nobody asked, How much of this actually happened? But when you write a novel with ‘autofiction’ on the back, people become curious. The term perhaps suggests a straightforward relationship between fact and fiction. Kris Krauss, Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy and Sheila Heti are among contemporary writers whose work is classified as autofiction. Their novels are meta, in the sense they deliberately problematise the relationship between writing and truth. (The narrator, for instance, might share the same name as the author.)
In the past, books by women which draw on personal experience, particularly those concerning relationships and domestic spaces, were trivialised when compared to more traditional sweeping epics which were deemed to be more impressive feats of imagination, with greater social and political importance. In 1977, when Helen Garner released Monkey Grip, some reviewers belittled her for having merely published her diaries. More recently, critics have highlighted the cultural significance of life-writing.
The French writer Annie Ernaux rejects the autofiction label. She says her own books, though largely autobiographical, represent a collective self. As the 1960s slogan has it, the personal is political. The nameless narrator in my own novel is perhaps a gesture towards this idea. She is not only me, but representative of a particular milieu: grungy old Melbourne in the ’90s. Some of the most gratifying feedback I’ve had since publication has been readers telling me, I was there, too. We probably crossed paths. People feel seen. The ‘I’ is sometimes the reader as much as the writer.
When I started writing Where I Slept, I did not set out to write a work of autofiction. (When I first heard the term, I thought it related to ‘automatic writing’.) But, in the vein of autofiction, I decided to write a novel based on a particular period of my life, which privileged the subjective voice. Despite having kept journals throughout the 90s, I didn’t refer to them until I’d already completed several drafts of the novel.
As I progressed, I became less interested in historical accuracy, aiming instead for an authentic feeling of time and place. I wanted to write from memory, with all its biases, unreliability and conflations. The journals contain the past, which is, in a sense, complete. And just because a thing happened, doesn’t mean it makes a convincing story.
Writing a novel, even if it’s based on real people and events, is a venture into the unknown. The past awakens in the wisdom of the present. The unconscious draws on the raw material of history and reveals what it will. Every work of fiction has its own form of intelligence. From the outset of writing my novel, the narrative took precedence over the veracity of events.
Sitting at my computer one day, writing about a beaten-up saxophone I used to play, I suddenly remembered a person I hadn’t thought about for years – I couldn’t even recall his name. I went into the sunroom, where I keep all the junk I would rather not contend with, and began rifling through my boxes of journals, none of which are in order. I generally avoid re-reading them, because, urgh, the horror of confronting my past self.
As much as I tried to withhold self-judgement, I found much of the stuff from the relevant period cringe-worthy. There is a slight puritanical streak, probably a hangover from school. I recount things I have subsequently forgotten, despite having written them down, as if writing them down was a means of releasing them. Other memories that still loom large in my mind barely score a mention.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more engaging material is not about me or my feelings, but descriptions of other people and places; snippets of conversations I’ve had, which can’t possibly be verbatim; fragments of poems and pure wordplay; images and details that function as metonyms of an era: ads for sexy girls on the inside of a telephone box; a river of ants converging on a family-sized box of Coco Pops; neglecting to take all the cardboard off a new radiator and switching it on.
Writers write other people’s stories as if they were their own, and their own stories as if they belonged to everybody.
As I kept searching, I became less invested in how I appear, and more interested in what I describe of the world I inhabited: life on the street, dive bars, rooming houses and squats. Junkies, musicians, artists, yogis, freaks, weirdos and bums – they are part of who I am. Eventually, I found the individual I was looking for, or rather, my depiction of him. And in a somewhat perverse reversal of my creative process (dictated more by my past self than any self-preservational tack), I decided to look him up. But I don’t advise you try it.
I did a lot of research, too. I was interested in reading about female protagonists who exist outside the domestic sphere. Two of the novels that haunted me most were Eve Langley’s The Pea-Pickers (1942), which concerns a pair of cross-dressing sisters who work as labourers in Gippsland (the narrator is an aspiring poet), and Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers (1941). Although vastly different in style, both are Australian depression-era novels based on the authors’ personal experiences of itinerancy. In both books, the characters’ actions are predominantly motivated by the need for money, food and shelter.
A sense of rootlessness shapes the narratives. I also thought a lot about Iris Owens’ hilarious novel After Claude (1973), in which the narrator, seemingly oblivious to her own obnoxiousness, is booted out by her boyfriend, then drags her mattress outside onto a stoop in New York. I read Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story (1985), based on the life of homeless woman Bea Miles. And I read and reread Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (1971), mostly for its take on gender politics.
The other day, in the fruit and veg section of the IGA, I ran into another writer I know. When I told her that I was trying to confront the question, How much of it is true, she let out a few expletives. Then she showed me a quote she’d photographed at a writers centre in the States. Something along the lines of, Writers write other people’s stories as if they were their own, and their own stories as if they belonged to everybody.
Novelists, especially women, can become defensive when asked how much of their story is true. Here are some possible reasons why: first, the question is more often put to women. Is the questioner interested in the novel or, more pruriently, in the writer’s life? The writer wishes to preserve their own and others’ privacy. By writing the book, the writer has revealed as much as they are willing to – let the story speak for itself.
A novel is not a confession or a witness statement. As Kris Krauss writes of autofiction, no crime has taken place. The integrity of a novel is not dependant on the truth. On the contrary, fiction embraces contradiction, ambiguity and complexity. To write is to unfold, rather than offer a neat conclusion. It’s even possible, that after writing the book, the writer no longer knows the answer to the question. Perhaps the truth is unknowable.
I once taught a subject called ‘creative non-nonfiction’. One of the students wrote a story about camping inside a tunnel in Serbia, and pushing a man under a train. I didn’t ask if it actually happened. I had already explained to the class that I was more interested in the writing itself than whether it conformed to any genre.
In a sense, all writing comes from personal experience. Autobiographical writing might include anything from Sapho’s fragments, with their insistent ‘I’, to Austen, to Woolf, to Proust, to Duras, to Knausgaard. Even genre writers, who seem to invent fictional worlds entirely removed from the one most of us inhabit, draw on their own lives to some degree.
In On Writing, for instance, Stephen King explains how many of the settings and characters in his fiction are remixes of familiar places and faces (including his own). Some of his early horror writing might be read as a kind of metaphor for his struggles with drugs and alcohol. All fiction relies on descriptions of the material world. Our own perception is the only direct information we have. Selfhood is inescapable. Creative possibility lies in how we transcribe and transfigure our experiences, in terms of style and form, in how covert or overt we are, and how conscious or unconscious our rendering of the world.
I remember the precise moment, aged twelve, I began keeping a journal, in an exercise book covered in denim contact paper, as part of a school activity. We could write about our families, or what happened the day before, or simply make something up: we could write anything.
The teacher, who had glossy dark hair and wore soft brown leather boots, told the class she’d kept a journal right up until the time she married. (It was 1982.) This information both enthralled and confused me. I had really taken to the assignment. I wrote not only in the allocated writing periods, but whenever I could. And I had no intention of stopping, ever. Did that mean I could never get married?
A number of reviewers have compared my novel, Where I Slept, to Garner’s Monkey Grip, perhaps to help contextualise the work. Both novels are narrated by young women. They are set in inner-city Melbourne, and involve drugs, art, music and share houses (among other things). Both novels are propelled by the vicissitudes of their narrators as they move through irresolvable cycles of creativity and desire.
Some of my favourite books by Garner are her diaries. Although ostensibly composed of rolling fragments, the three published volumes possess natural structural integrity, with drama and pace akin to fictional storytelling. Like many others readers, I admire Garner’s startling observations, her unflinching gaze, and her excoriating honesty. The self-doubt she expresses, especially in relation to writing, is strangely reassuring. Perhaps what I love most about Garner’s work is her doggedness in pursuing what is an essentially impossible task. Rendering the real into language. On that note, she offers the following insight: ‘About writing: meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.’
Serge Doubrovsky coined the term autofiction in 1977: “Fiction of strictly real events or facts; the autofiction, if you like, of having entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside the wisdom of the novel, be it traditional or new.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Her poetry has appeared in a number of Australian journals. Where I Slept, a work of autofiction, is her second novel.