All Fiction is Autobiographical

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Adam Begeley has written a book about John Updike called, fittingly, Updike. In his New York Times review, Dwight Garner wrote, “It is among Mr. Begley’s themes in Updike that much of Updike’s fiction sprang almost directly from his life.”

Garner doesn’t paint this as a negative trait for Updike’s writing and I can’t say whether Begley does, as I haven’t read his book. Yet I have picked up the hint of disdain among other voices—the slight criticism of writers whose fiction has an autobiographical bent.

Yet the old adage says, and I’d call it a truism:

Write what you know.

Years ago, horrified by what I’d learned about the Korean War’s Battle of Chosin Reservoir, I wrote a short story about U.S. soldiers in the campaign’s most desperate moments, when the Chinese army had surrounded—and outnumbered them—in freezing, desolate conditions. I submitted the story to literary magazines for publication and, though rejected from all corners, the editors sent me the most encouraging rejection letters I’ve ever received.

I’ve never fought in a military battle—much less a war. I’ve never served as a soldier. I’ve never traveled to Korea, much less seen the Chosin Reservoir in winter. I’ve never even visited Asia.

Sure, I read a lot about the battle, the geography, and the region. I read academic accounts of the ordeal and reports from soldiers who survived. I flipped through shocking photographs.

Nothing I’ve felt in my fortunate life could come even remotely close to the soldiers’ emotions during the battle’s harrowing seventeen days. Yet I had to dig deeply into my memories of personal past emotional states to evoke, as best I could, the soldiers’ feelings and perspectives.

Further, writing the story forced me to puzzle through the complex conundrum of morals and loyalty in mentally and physically desperate circumstances. The story’s contemplation on the struggle between bad and worse options and “right and wrong” is my personal contemplation.

In these senses—that I evoked my own emotions to craft characters’ feelings and that my thinking framed the story’s scenario and debate—you could consider the story autobiographical.

Every novel is autobiography.

I’ve read fiction by people who had no clue about what happens in a given situation and what it looks and feels like when a particular event occurs. I’ve read fiction by writers who didn’t try to internalize their characters' feelings. I wouldn’t call these texts or the experience of reading them “good” or “satisfying.”

So, if we agree that all fiction has a strong autobiographical bent, how can we criticize or dismiss writers that base fiction on their experiences? Why do we need to believe a writer has invented a story in its entirety for it to be legitimate or good?

What do you think?