There can be a thin line between fiction and memoir—and it’s often hard to see where that line falls. Just this week I deleted a sentence from a review that said a debut novel had “an autobiographical feel”; many people assume that first novels are based on the author’s life, but who’s to say they’re not just beautifully imagined fiction?
Occasionally writers will make it clear that they’re drawing from their own experience. Kathryn Harrison, for example, wrote a novel, Thicker Than Water (1991), about a woman who has a sexual relationship with her long-estranged father and then wrote a memoir, The Kiss, about her own incestuous relationship with her long-estranged father. At the Authors Guild benefit last year, Harrison said she’d felt like critics were reviewing her life rather than her book.
I was thinking about this recently while reading Charles Bock’s new novel, Alice & Oliver, which he’s acknowledged is based on his wife’s death from cancer. When Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air, most of the questions were about Bock’s own experience, not the fictional Oliver’s. In a starred review, Kirkus said, “In a way, this novel feels critic-proof: who would dare nitpick a work of such authorial catharsis?” Our reviewer didn’t feel the need to criticize, finding the novel “a stunning book about Alice and Oliver, yes, but also about the way illness shatters us all.”
Lauren Groff, who reviewed the book for the New York Times Book Review, didn’t agree: “When a novel is drawn from awful events in the writer’s own life, a reviewer can find herself on a wobbly bridge strung between her duty to be honest on behalf of the potential reader, and the ethical imperative to avoid hurting a person who has already suffered so much. The common critical pretense that a book stands alone, divorced from its creator, can only crumble under the autobiographical claim that Bock makes on this text. The audience is being asked to read ‘Alice & Oliver’ two ways, both as fiction and as fictionalized autobiography; but most of the book’s emotional work is occasioned not by the text but by the context.”
A reviewer’s first commitment must be to the reader, and Groff’s review is a masterful example of how to comment honestly on a writer’s work while being sensitive to the life that inspired it.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.