Novelists Discuss Blurring Lines of Fact and Fiction in Semi-Autobiographical Works

Though fake news and false truths have made headlines in recent months, the boundary between fact and fiction has always been rather blurry. Authors Elif Batuman and Jami Attenberg walk the fine line between novel and autobiography in their latest works, yet neither seem to care much for taxonomical distinctions.

In Scripps College's Hampton Room on Tuesday, March 22, students and professors listened to both authors read from their highly anticipated, recently released novels, which both reflect the lives of their creators.

Attenberg started off with a raunchy selection from All Grown Up, a first-person narrative about a woman in her late 30s who is unmarried, childless, and navigating her career and relationships in New York City.

Batuman followed up with a reading from The Idiot, a story about a young Turkish-American girl in her first year at Harvard. Batuman began writing the book as a young Ivy-leaguer herself, disenchanted by collegiate life. Years later, she returned to the manuscript with the distance and insight that would inform the novel’s published fate.

After their books were released, critics and readers wanted to know about the autobiographical quality of their works. This is not a new question in the school of literary interpretation; the striking resemblances between Marcel Proust and the protagonist in his modernist epic In Search of Lost Time, for example, have spurred endless dissertations about the distinction between fiction and autobiography.

In his popular essay “The Death of the Author,” cultural critic Roland Barthes discouraged the attempt to explain a work by drawing upon the biographical context of its so-called creator. He considered personal information about the author to be distracting in literary interpretation. Readers today, however, have increased access to the day-to-day personalities of contemporary authors via social media which writers use to connect to their fanbase.

Attenberg is a prolific user of twitter, using the medium to express her politics, publicise her work, and share her humor in 140 characters or less. In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, she expressed frustration with being asked about how much of her work is autobiographical, saying that this question is more often directed at female writers than male writers.

“I would say, in general, it’s a lazy question to ask,” she responded, “Writers work so hard to create a specific and unique piece of art that rises above our particular reality.”

In an essay in n+1 Magazine, Batuman addresses the ways in which fiction mimics reality, asserting that literature is inspired by everyday life.

“The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself,” she wrote.

On Tuesday, Batuman continued to distinguish the novel as a literary genre which espouses truths yet does not necessarily have to accommodate to fact.

“I think there’s an assumption that nonfiction is true and fiction has this stamp on it that says ‘none of this has happened’,” she said. “My feeling is that the stamp that’s actually on the novel is that it doesn’t matter if this happened or not, I’m telling you a story, so just suspend your disbelief.”

Whether their books were based on memoir or fiction, Attenberg’s and Batuman’s words brought laughter and contemplation to Tuesday's crowd of admirers.

Bridgette Ramirez SC ‘17 had read some of Batuman’s work in writing classes before and was especially excited to hear her read from The Idiot, the author’s first work of fiction in an impressive career of nonfiction reporting.

“I think she and Jami had a fascinating contrast and parallelism in their respective works,” Ramirez said, “a sort of coming of age or self discovery narrative that happens to two different women in a different time of their life.”

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