In the recent biography Updike by Adam Begley, we learn that the celebrated writer ransacked his entire life for story material. He did it religiously, assiduously. In fact, he didn’t invent anything, he merely mined his own life. I found this both a surprise and a letdown. To read Updike’s stories however, the remarkable observation and acuity with detail perhaps make up for a deficiency in inventiveness.
What I’ve learned from reading Updike is that a fiction writer needs to have a painter’s eye for detail, and this can (or used to) be enough to carry a short story. Maybe my disappointment with Updike is that he hadn’t done more than this—he made fiction look so easy just using the basic tools of life experience--admittedly not a very exciting life, at that.
Contrast this to Alice Munro, in her last collection, Dear Life, she has an addendum onto the final four stories, that they are to be read as essentially biographical. For whatever reason, I have always assumed her stories are autobiographical. Why would I assume this for one writer, but not another?
Maybe there’s a lot to be said for a writer who can take the day to day of their life experiences for story material. If most people did this, I feel like we’d have incredibly boring stories. But as soon as you call it memoir, it changes the game (Just look at Knausgaard). Perhaps as a fiction writer, you are in one or the other camp.
Awhile back I must have decided I was in one camp—invention—versus that of using material from my life for fiction. Let’s call them inventors or lifers. I believe I’m incapable of writing a fiction from life, period. I just call it memoir. And because I’ve always coveted Updike’s writing, I assumed he had a natural way with invention.
Jim Shepard’s short story approach, as far as I can tell, is to research a subject that fascinates him, and imagine a story from that. It’s possible some of Shepard’s personal life creeps in to these stories, but really, how much? For example, the details of his recent 2013 Best American Short Stories story accumulate and deliver you somewhere that an Updike-ian story would and could not. So much in Shepard’s work is joyfully inventive, and I think it is in this kind of discovery that a writer makes, rather than the prosaic details of a less than fascinating life, that are what provide the transcendence that can elevate fiction. What’s convincing is the voice, and the fantastical elements within realism, or maybe it’s a transcendence of realism.
Stories that are invented need to be convincing, or some element of the writing has to lift it above mere narrative. Is what Updike pulled off the opposite of this–that his attention to detail makes the story convincing?
I find it interesting that almost all writing of anything of psychological depth is interrogated in terms of “did this really happen?” This might be a credit to the skills of the writer; isn’t there something to being able to transmute life into a story?
What is behind these arguments and discussions about whether a fictional story “really happened” or not, is that it might make the work more compelling. Because there is less at stake, the detail carries the story. Also, a key to a story written from life is its engagement with a gossip quality. Once we know it is based on life, there’s a curious desire to figure out who the characters are based on.
With invention, the writer is relying more on alchemy of a sort. Writing from life, the story is the material. Writing an invented scenario, the material is the story (is this a canard?). Maybe the language enters into the efficacy of the telling, but at some level, the narrative can’t involve distracting language. Is it possible to write a memoir to the level that transcends the language? This speculation could be entering the curious avenue of beliefs. Does Updike’s fiction now seem more compelling to know that all this stuff in his hundreds of stories actually happened in his life?
For me, there’s more of a charge out of writing from what I don’t know. I explored this extensively in an earlier post, “Against Personal Experience”. Something I did not say in that piece was that living life might tend to make you more aware of possibilities in your writing.
Updike would just recycle his experience through characters’ lives. I think, in fact, Updike would essentially rewrite the experience as a story, but he would not place the characters in Afghanistan, or have them drive trucks in Nebraska, for example.
This is not the same thing as invention, on the face of it. I will use the psychological elements of an interaction, but not the setting or scenario. So is it simply that writers are merely using these psychological elements in more or less invented situations? Is this distinction too unclear?
What these questions might actually be getting at is the authority of the writer, how writing seems to establish a benchmark on a detail or an incident from an actual life (or rather involving many lives). If the ancillary characters (based on real people) don’t see themselves as particularly involved or invested in that incident, as they may or may not be, they will feel slighted no matter what is said. The subjective encapsulation will never be enough, or it will be too much. In Updike’s fiction, generally, this seems to be the result; he often waited years to publish some of his more scandalous stories. He still wrote it, but what he wasn’t able to reveal he avoided publishing. If readers who are undeniable subjects of a story question it, it’s like questioning the version that is being told, since it is plainly, unavoidably, subjective.