The semi-autobiographical novel can be the best of both worlds for authors and their readers. That mix of memoir and fiction takes facts and embellishes them and/or dramatizes them and/or smooths them into more coherent form, etc.
A partly autobiographical approach also allows authors to potentially pen very heartfelt books — after all, they lived the emotions — and perhaps provides those writers with some mental therapy, too. Meanwhile, readers learn stuff about an author’s life that they might not learn otherwise. (Of course, many memoirs also have some fictional elements, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Often, a semi-autobiographical work is an author’s first novel. After all, that kind of book can be easier to write because the author just has to remember aspects of her or his own life. And perhaps such a novel psychologically declutters an author’s brain so that s/he can more easily move on to writing novels with fewer or no autobiographical elements.
Examples of semi-autobiographical debut novels include James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (teen has problems with religion and harsh stepfather), Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (growing up lesbian), Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (Chinese-American immigrant experience), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (college years), and Herman Melville’s Typee (tropical island adventure).
(Melville went on to pen several other partly autobiographical novels — Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket — before writing that little thing you may have heard of called Moby-Dick.)
In other cases, authors don’t go the selfie route until later in their literary careers, as did Charlotte Bronte with Villette (English loner teaches in France) and W. Somerset Maugham with Of Human Bondage (personal and professional struggles of a would-be doctor). Authors might want to wait until their writing is developed enough to best convey their own experiences, or wait to become famous/established enough to risk writing something more personal, or wait for enough years to go by to have more perspective on what they’re writing about, etc.
Nathaniel Hawthorne let a decade pass before penning The Blithedale Romance, a fictionalized version of his experiences living on a communal farm. But Charles Bukowski waited only two years to write Hollywood — a minimally disguised account of doing the screenplay for, and seeing the making of, the movie Barfly starring Mickey Rourke in a Bukowski-ish role. (I read the very funny Hollywood this month.)
Occasionally, disguising is a necessity. It’s obvious to readers that Fyodor Dostoevsky was part-fictionally recounting his own Siberian internment experiences in Notes From a Dead House, but to get the novel approved by Russian government censors he couched it as the recollections of a murderer rather than those of a political prisoner like Dostoevsky had been. (I’m in the middle of reading the fascinating Dead House now.)
Other semi-autobiographical works written in early, mid, or late career? George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (Maggie and Tom’s troubled sibling relationship was partly based on the dynamics between Eliot and her brother), Willa Cather’s My Antonia (Cather channeled male character Jim Burden), Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (the author reversed his CD initials to DC), Jack London’s Martin Eden (the ME initials signify the London “me”), Colette’s The Vagabond (partly based on the author’s time performing in music halls), L.M. Montgomery’s Emily trilogy (the struggle to become a successful writer), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (set in the hometown of the author’s youth and featuring a relationship inspired by a real-life relationship Hurston had).
Also: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Tom is an amalgam of the young Twain and two of his schoolmates), John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (which includes characters based on the author’s ancestors and features a brief cameo by a young John himself), Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (World War I trauma), Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (living down-and-out in Tennessee), Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (small-town Illinois childhood), E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair (growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (depression), and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (schizophrenia).
What are your favorite semi-autobiographical novels?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.