Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Autobiography and the Curse of the Story

Over at the Savage Critic, Sean Collins has a great write up on Pheobe Gloeckner's new work, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and also links out to a terrific interview with Pheobe from back in 2003. In the interview, and the review, he discusses the amount of autobiographical work in Diary, a subject that Phoebe has talked about at length before.

It brings up a difficult point for storytellers: about where the line ends between fiction and, Rosahmon-like, their version of the past begins. PJ Harvey, whose music I think has tremendous emotional and physical weight, was interviewed once and asked, "how much of this is you?" to which she laughed and answered, "I have to live 100 years and have been both sexes to live everything that i sing about." So when Phoebe presents a book of teenage sex and drugs that might or might not resemble her own past growing up in the rather somewhat more permissive '70's, we as the audience question what is real and what is fake and Phoebe rolls her eyes again. Quite so.

We're asked, as storytellers, to present stories that resonate with our readers, and that may or may not include things that we've heard or read about, or resemble a break up that we might or might not have had. It would be the rare person who hasn't played over a "break-up conversation" that they've had in their head more than once, perhaps toying with a phrase here, or parsing the other person's answer there, searching for more meaning or a different outcome. Does that mean that Adrian Tomine had to live through all the unhappy slacker lives that he chronicles in Shortcomings or any of his prior books? (I hope not, the man does covers for the New York for christs sake, how unhappy can you be?)

And yet, the more torrid the work is, the more titillating it is to ask: do this really happen to you? In our drug and sex obsessed culture, Gloecker's work doesn't look like an exaggeration to me whatsoever, not knowing the personal histories of many of the women that I know who grew up as divorced latchkey kids in the 70's and '80's. And I don't need it to be true to make it resonate.

If we make our fiction indestinguishable from the "true stories", isn't that the mark of a great storyteller? If we label them as true stories and we get caught lying, the Oprah will rake us over the coals for hoodwinking an entire generation of "O Book Club" readers, while not demanding references from all the other authors presented on the club's hot sheet. Eddie Campbell has done a horrendous job of creating an alter ego for his autobiographical works, and yet they're delightful to read. They are, in fact, some of my favorite pieces of work of his.

As storytellers, we're cursed by the fact that sometimes a story takes on a life of its own, just as characters will start to act on their own in our heads and we can't slap them back into line. "True Stories" can be true when the story stay true to itself, even if it starts to diverge from our own personal history. i've been trying to work out how to deal with the gaps in time in a biography: can I call it a person's history when I have to spend time making up some of the gaps in the story to get from point A to point B? And how true can it be when it has my spin on it?

And yet it will likely be pretty damn true to the person as I knew him. So its true to me at least. For what its worth. But I don't know if it will be true to you.

Full disclosure: I'm currently reading, and lving, A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi and don't give a damn it he changes things to suit his story at all. Great work.


hcduvall said...

I've always liked the line from a Sandman story that had some creature watching a play and proclaim (something to the effect of) "What is this thing, that isn't true and says true things?"

But while fully cognizant of, and I'd like to think mostly forgiving of, the vagaries and the dodges of memory and POV for memoirs and the like, I do think that expectations of attempted fidelity in things that are going to label themselves autobiography carries some weight. Perhaps because I think of this topic mainly in context of movies, which hold a much stronger hold in popular knowledge than comics will, charitably a place where fudging for narrative drive is pretty common, I wouldn't make the blanket comment re: A Drifting Life that it's alright to change to suit a story. It's already a very different work than Tomine's by it's very relationship to the audience. I'd like to think that one might extend a little forgiveness for it's storyline in return for the faith that the teller is dealing with us truthfully. Basically, I think there's still a line between autobiographical influences in fiction and actual autobiography, and what ought to be acceptable between them.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

probably true, with regards to the potential for changes to "this drifting life". Again, there are better ways to say it, so i'll try here: I wasn't in postwar japan, nor part of his family, so I'll never know if he deliberately changed things in the autobiorgraphy, but in reality i'm far more interested in his "preceptions" of growing up then and doing his initial work in manga than a dry account of his personal history.

You're right that movies with autobiographic intent are viewed differently given that the public expects more from them, and the visual of movies places itself in the brain with the permanence of cement sometimes. I know that I wasn't there with Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel, but i sure a hell think that i was the film was so good.

great comments, thanks for sharing.

continuing the thoughts today...