Stop Assuming That I’m Just Writing About Myself
Why are we so quick to conclude that marginalized writers’ work is autobiographical?
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
A few months ago, I read aloud an excerpt of a short story I’d written at an event. The story was about a young woman, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, telling her father who voted for Trump that she’d been raped. At the podium, I redundantly clarified that it was a “fiction short story.”
After the reading, I complimented one of other writers, a novelist.
“Good luck with your dad,” he replied, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette.
“Still,” he raised his eyebrows at me, “good luck with your dad.”
“It’s fiction.” I smiled through gritted teeth. He shrugged.
“We’re doing better now,” I admitted, and walked away. Immediately, I wished I’d made up something to embarrass him instead of acquiescing — told him my dad had died, or left my family when I was young.
I felt angry, exposed, but it wasn’t because of the content of my story. Most people have complicated relationships with their parents, and I try not to keep it a secret that I, like my protagonist, have been raped (it wouldn’t be a secret if I’d been mugged — why hide the fact that someone else chose to commit a crime at my expense?). Even though the novelist was most likely just trying to be nice, it felt like he was calling me out as a fraud — Gotcha! You took the story from your own life!
“I think you’re right to be angry,” a friend from my grad program said to me as I fumed after the reading. “Would he have said that to you if you were a man?”
I didn’t know.
I’m tempted chalk it up to sexism and say he wouldn’t have. A famous example of this phenomenon is Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” the viral short story about a bad date between a twenty-year-old woman and a man in his mid-thirties. The story was roundly referred to online as “a piece” or “an essay,” implying that it was nonfiction, despite an interview and a recent essay in The New Yorker where Roupenian explains that her current life doesn’t much resemble her protagonist’s — Roupenian is closer in age to the male antagonist and in a relationship with a woman. In The Atlantic, Megan Garber pointed out that many saw the story as “a woman, dreamy and sad, telling the internet about her bad date,” instead of art made by a craft-conscious author. The dreamy and sad protagonist fit palatably into our mold of what women are, perhaps more palatably than the image of a female creator, so we collapsed the character’s persona with the author’s.
That’s not to say that everyone who called “Cat Person” an “essay” is a misogynist who sees women as frail and sad, men as strong and protective. The viral response to “Cat Person” came, at least in part, from people who were interested in the way the story probed women’s issues. But even the most thoughtful and progressive of us are influenced by the labels, categories, and tropes around us. Narratives about women’s oppression are everywhere — police procedurals, sensationally violent news stories, heralded feminist pop culture. While the conversation about what’s been done to women is necessary for change (and a conversation that I personally want to participate in), the tropes that rise from these stories can overshadow the identities that women work hard to cultivate for themselves. The novelist expected me to be the tear-stricken college student from my story, pouring my heart onto the page — not someone who’s spent 40 hours laboring over the language in those ten pages alone.
To him, I was a victim before I was an artist.
We don’t just make assumptions about women authors — our cultural biases influence the way we read marginalized writers from many different backgrounds and identities. As a white woman, I have a substantial amount of privilege, and I’m not above these biases myself. I, too, have put the story I wanted to see over the story someone wanted to write.
In my first MFA fiction workshop, a classmate of mine turned in a first-person story about a girl whose boyfriend committed suicide while they studied abroad. The piece was about the narrator’s journey of trying to make sense of her memories, memories that occurred in a different language than the one she grew up speaking.
I was jealous, intimidated by my classmate’s faculties with language, the way she laid out her narrator’s mind. She was a practicing artist — not like my old undergrad workshops where most people were just looking for catharsis or course credit. I was also attracted to her. I wanted the pleasure of putting the person I knew into the sexual scenes on the page.
So when the two of us were walking to post-workshop drinks, a few paces back from our other classmates, I asked, “What percentage of your piece actually happened in real life?”
“I don’t know,” she said, bewildered. “I’m sure there’s some stuff, but I’d have to look back through it. I studied abroad, but in Ireland, not Paris. I don’t think I know anyone who’s committed suicide.”
I played it off — I’m just so curious about your process — but I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to ask her about how she used the fragmented nature of trauma to structure her story. I wanted to know whether she’d fucked a depressed man while studying abroad.
I’d interpreted her talent as outsourced from personal experience, maybe even a fluke. I wanted the story to be something that happened to her, rather than something she made.
But the gender question still stands: Would I have assumed her story was autobiographical if she was a man? Do we make the same kind of assumptions about white men, too — but maybe we assume they’re aging professors preying on undergrads?
I’ve tried to think of examples of white male authors who draw brazenly upon their lives without getting asked if the story “really happened.” Ben Lerner and Jonathan Safran Foer have both named characters after themselves and, scouring Google, it’s hard to find more than the occasional question about autobiography in their work. While it’s impossible to talk about autobiographical fiction without mentioning Karl Ove Knausgaard, I’d argue that we care about whether his work “really happened” because there are lawsuits from his ex-wife probing into that very issue. Perhaps the conversation between me and my classmate would’ve gone differently if she was a man — but like most examples of bias, we can’t play out the two scenarios to pinpoint exactly what would change.
Still, talking about books with my MFA classmates three times a week, I’m stuck on all the instances in which we’ve wondered out loud if a marginalized writer’s fiction is just nonfiction in disguise. One semester, we debated whether a novelist’s husband had cheated on her, just like the protagonist’s had in her book. In a class on marginalized authors, we all were required to do presentations on the authors’ biographies, which, while well-intentioned, inevitably devolved into speculation about what aspects of their life they “stole” for their writing.
My understanding of the way we perceive autofiction cracked open while reading a novel for a course, where the (male) protagonist doesn’t consider a female cartoonist’s work to be “respectable” literature — her cartoons are autobiographical and don’t engage with the high-minded philosophical concepts that his own writing tackles. Our professor accepted the protagonist’s view of the female cartoonist, referring to her a “bad writer,” but I thought we were supposed to interpret the protagonist’s dismissal of her as misogyny. Art doesn’t have to engage with philosophical texts in order to be meaningful and well-crafted, and judging art by whether it engages with this canon ignores who wrote it. The Western dynasty of Great Books are largely written by white men, and depict frameworks for the white male experience, dialogues that excellent white male authors have built on for hundreds of years.
But marginalized writers don’t have the same widespread canon to engage with — not because marginalized artists didn’t exist, but because their work hasn’t been preserved, distributed, and heralded (by the white men in positions of power) the same way as the work of someone like Hemingway or Hegel. Instead of assuming that a writer isn’t intelligent enough to look beyond the biographical to “higher concepts,” we should think about how their absence from the canon has tasked them with creating and cementing the concepts that apply to their own experience.
By discussing their fiction first and foremost as autobiography — regardless of whether it’s inspired by their experience — we dismiss the frameworks they’re creating as “an anecdote” or “something that happened to them that one time,” instead of engaging with their ideas. When we look beyond the anecdote, in the best autobiographical writing, we can often see something widespread — something that can maybe only be known by certain groups of people, something that hasn’t been articulated yet in the cultural consciousness. For example, Imogen Binnie says that the protagonist in her novel Nevada sprung from writing about her personal experience as a trans woman. Because of Binnie’s sharp, lived insights, the novel is heralded in the trans community and beyond for illuminating the ways that years of gender dysphoria can impact someone’s life — a subject with increasing cultural relevance where coverage in the literary canon is sparse, at best.
That hidden resonance is my best guess for why Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was the most viewed New Yorker short story in recent history — leaps and bounds beyond their usual readership. Roupenian didn’t snag a miraculous seven-figure book deal despite writing about an experience that many women have. She succeeded in creating something both intimate and universal — in words that no one had quite used before.
I’ve been asking myself, “Would we be talking about whether the work is autobiography if the author was a man?” But a man probably couldn’t have written anything like “Cat Person” — even though the story didn’t come from Roupenian’s biography, it was shaped by the way her own experience as a woman has compelled her to think about women’s lives.
Instead, I want to ask: Would Roupenian’s words seem less “anecdotal” if we could source them to the Western canon? The story’s viral distribution was history-making, yet many referred to it as a “diary entry.” It didn’t call back to philosophical concepts — instead, it broke new ground.
I want to ask: If we could find a white man who said it first, would we then take her more seriously?
Sure, not everyone who writes autobiographical fiction is a misunderstood pioneer. Once, I read a piece in workshop where the protagonist with the same “sandy blonde hair and erudite glasses” as the author was also a Christ figure with an exceptionally large penis. (No one told him, “Good luck with your dad,” or suggested the story had come from his diary.) Still, that personal myopia is different from the myopia an author constructs when writing from the perspective of a single character. Take Lolita — Humbert Humbert convinces himself that his child abuse was justifiable, but Nabokov gives us the tools to unpack the horror of his narrator’s crimes.
But the line dividing the narrator’s thoughts and the author’s ideas isn’t always so obvious, especially for newer writers who haven’t been studied for many years. The Pulitzer Prize committee likely believed Junot Diaz was depicting sexism, while the women Diaz harassed likely believed he was espousing it.
As a student writer, I wrote the story about the girl telling her father about being raped using a messy present tense. I wanted to convey the way it’s hard to communicate under pressure, and how the two characters didn’t know how to show each other they cared.
When I had a friend read an early draft, he told me, “This has got to be at least sixty-five percent true. It reads like a diary. You’re smarter than this.”
“I wanted language to fail her,” I explained. “I’m smarter than this — my narrator’s not.”
“That’s so cool,” he replied, after we looked over the text and I pointed out what I was trying to do, but hadn’t succeeded yet. Then he helped me inch a little closer to what I wanted the story to be.
If my friend, who’s also a writer, had analyzed the text without looking for the secrets behind what happened to me, he could’ve engaged with what I wanted my art to accomplish. To be clear, no one who reads my work is required to think about what I meant to do, rather than what I actually did, but by assuming that I included parts of the story because they happened, not because I decided they belonged in the text, my friend was already considering my artistic intentions. Instead of helping me improve the language I’d chosen, he’d assumed I’d dashed off an account of what happened. To him, my writing wasn’t something I made — it was a product of my father and a product of my rapist.
My friend, like the novelist from the reading, assumed that I was the sad, inarticulate college student. I’ll cop to it: In November 2016, I was. But I’m not anymore. I’m an artist that’s trying to be smarter than I was yesterday. I want to learn more about people, and I want to experiment with my craft to communicate what I’ve learned.
I don’t say this because I’m special — in fact, I say it precisely because I know I’m not alone. In my MFA program, I’ve seen my classmates’ work, and I’ve seen the work they’ve created to describe experiences that many of us have felt, but haven’t yet heard the words for. Some of them are astonishing; some of them need a few more drafts.
That’s okay — we are writing, revising, repeating. We are practicing artists, and we demand to be taken seriously.