After a programmatic attempt to taxonomize the genre of biographical fiction, Lackey's actual interviews with the genre's representative authors tend to uphold the willfully untamable nature of fiction.
Image by Joanna Portelli
In the Introduction to Conversations with Biographical Novelists: Truthful Fictions across the Globe, editor Michael Lackey recounts how he was approached by someone who said "You're the guy who has invented a whole genre of fiction, aren't you?" (2). This is obviously an exaggeration, but it is true to say that perhaps more than any other contemporary critic Lackey has been responsible for naming, theorizing, and critically exploring the emergence and development of biographical fiction, or "biofiction" for short. In this context, and although it is a stand-alone publication, Conversations with Biographical Novelists can very profitably be read as a companion volume to Lackey's Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists, published in 2014, also by Bloomsbury. The 2019 book adopts the same formula, presenting interviews with authors of biographical fiction in an attempt to understand their individual approaches to this particular form of fiction, and also in the evident hope of giving sharper, more distinctive outlines to the genre. The principal difference between the two books, indicated in their respective titles, is that whereas the former focuses on American authors, Conversations with Biographical Novelists features an impressively broad range of contemporary writers from all over the world. Lackey clearly has strong ideas about what biofiction is, and the interviewers he has gathered together to interview no fewer than eighteen writers are clearly all, as it were, "on message." This helps give the book an overall coherence that it might otherwise lack given the diverse range of writers featured, though as I will outline in greater detail later it does lead to a tension between a sometimes quite programmatic attempt to taxonomize the genre, on the one hand, and the wilfully untameable nature of fiction, represented by the writers, on the other.
In the Introduction, Lackey sets out a framework for understanding the biographical novel that is then reiterated throughout the book. The definition of biofiction that informs the volume is relatively simple: it is fiction that takes a real historical person as its protagonist. While acknowledging that biographical fiction is not new, Lackey claims that it has only risen to prominence in recent decades, and that it has done so with ever-increasing urgency. Lackey attributes the belatedness in identifying and appreciating the genre to the persistent and overbearing influence of the historical novel and its critical reception. Lackey's main focus here is how, in his view, Georg Lukács' ideas about the historical novel have obscured the potential value of biographical fiction.
In The Historical Novel (1937), Lukács explores how bourgeois literature, in the form of the historical novel, interacts with and represents the processual unfolding of the historical spirit in all of its social and economic complexity. He is critical of novels that place too much emphasis on individual biography, as this, he believes, will inevitably distort and misrepresent historical development, leading to too much emphasis being placed on individual figures and their psychology, at the expense of the real social and economic forces that in fact drive history forward. Where individual figures play an important role in history they do so not because of their unique qualities and agency, but rather because they occupy a position in a particular way that is historically inevitable and objectively produced – the world historical personage just happened to be in the right place at the right time, as it were. The historical novel, which takes a broad view of society and its forces can represent this, but that perspective is lost if the focus becomes the supposed genius or singularity of a particular protagonist. Lackey identifies what he considers to be two main flaws in Lukács's critique of fiction that places a heavy emphasis on biography:
[…] Lukács fails to see two separate things. One of the many strengths of The Historical Novel is Lukács's ability to identify and define the social, political, and intellectual forces that gave birth to the historical novel. But what he does not see is that different forces gave birth to the biographical novel. This is in part the case because he does not see the literary form as separate and distinct from the historical novel, which is the second failure in vision. For Lukács, the biographical novel is a subgenre or a version of the historical novel, and consequently, he uses historical-novel criteria to analyze and assess it. Within this framework, the biographical novel is an irredeemable aesthetic form, one doomed to literary failure. (2)
In relation to the first apparent flaw in Lukács's critique, namely his failure to appreciate that the forces that gave birth to the biographical novel are different from those that gave birth to the historical novel, Lackey suggests that the emergence of the biographical novel was motivated by a desire to correct the historical novel's tendency toward determinism. This claim is perhaps too boldly made. While it is plausible that certain authors of biographical fiction wrote from a position of dissatisfaction with the historical novel's perceived undervaluing of consciousness, interiority, and individual human circumstance (and Lackey provides examples), to claim this as the driving motivation of the entire genre is presumptuous and perhaps rather too simplistic. The second point – namely that Lukács fails to see the value of biographical fiction because he judges it on the basis of criteria more appropriate for historical fiction – is well made and, indeed, crucial for Lackey's project as it invites attempts at defining what it is that is valuable and distinctive about biographical fiction.
Lackey has clear ideas about what this might be. Positioned against the opponents of biographical fiction (Lukács primarily, but also those he influenced, such as Frederic Jameson), he sets out, and reiterates often, a critical framework for its appreciation. Here he draws on heavily on the examples of Oscar Wilde and William Styron. He credits Wilde with penning, with his essay "The Decay of Lying" (1889/1891), "perhaps the first theoretical reflection about biofiction" (6). Presented as a Socratic dialogue between the characters Vivian and Cyril, Wilde criticizes the slavish representation of facts and social reality, suggesting instead that art should always prioritize the artist's creative vision. Lackey comments: "Wilde acknowledges that novelists can base a work on a person from the past, but he qualifies this claim by saying that the author, to actually be an artist, should appropriate rather than represent the biographical subject's life" (6). That Wildean appropriation, Lackey suggests, is essentially creative and future-oriented, using, as it does, the past to try to bring a new reality into existence (see, for instance, 139).
He sees William Styron as representing a different but equally valuable potential for biofiction. The publication of Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967 caused outrage due to the liberties taken in the portrayal of Turner. Lackey suggests that fundamentally the criticisms of Styron's novel were due to the fact that people were mistakenly reading it as historical fiction rather than biographical fiction – where the former would be expected to present historical facts more or less accurately, and the latter would be expected to blend fiction and reality creatively. In this instance, Lackey argues, Styron is doing with biographical fiction something quite different from what is celebrated by Wilde. Rather than simply subordinating history to the author's creative vision, as advocated by Wilde, Styron turns a historical figure into a metaphor through which both the historical past and the contemporary of the author can be seen and understood more clearly. Summarising these two approaches to the biographical novel, Lackey writes:
So there are two separate approaches: one is a biographical novel that creates a metaphorical diagram so that readers can illuminate the past and the present. The other biographical novel actually tries to bring into existence a new reality. (139)
One of the main guiding ideas of Lackey's book is that the mixing of fiction and historical fact should not automatically be equated with untruth. The truth claims of historical fiction are easy to understand – a historical novel uses the art of the storyteller to present true facts. More difficult to grasp, though essential to Lackey's evaluation of biofiction, is the possibility that even when facts are altered, and entirely invented situations, scenarios, and characters are introduced, it may still be possible to claim that a biographical novel conveys truth in some sense. Much of the questioning in the various interviews in this volume invites the interviewees to agree with this idea and tries to elicit articulations of what the nature of the truth claim of biofiction might be. This approach has to be understood in the context of Lackey's determination to define the genre of the biographical novel the better to be able to appreciate it. If it is mistaken to judge biographical fiction on the basis of criteria more appropriately applied to historical fiction, and if, as its recent popularity suggests, biofiction has its own distinct appeal, what then is the nature of the genre's potential and appeal? What is it capable of doing that sets it apart from the historical novel and, indeed, from the novel more generally? The possibility that it possesses the capacity to animate, convey, or constitute some sort of non-factual truth constitutes one of Lackey's main lines of enquiry.
This is intriguing, though in the history of aesthetics there is nothing particularly new about seeking to discover and articulate a form of truth or knowledge specific to art and literature. Plato's (or, rather, Soctrates') proposed expulsion of the poets from the polis on account of their perceived inimicality to truth set the scene for generations of artists and writers who felt they had a case to answer and must somehow vindicate the arts on the basis of some legitimate claim to truth. It might be argued that Romanticism, the entire enterprise of which was predicated on the possibility of art being able to access and articulate non-rational truths and forms of knowledge, was the culmination of this impulse (see Corby, "Failing to Think"). Lackey, however, seems to want to establish a truth claim not for art or literature broadly, but specifically for biographical fiction. Understandably, therefore, he is keen to differentiate biofiction not only from historical fiction (which prioritizes facts and historical truths), but also from extreme manifestations of postmodernism, which can be understood as constituting an assault on the very notion of truth (16–17). Biofiction's claim to truth must, he seems to imply, lie somewhere between these two poles, drawing on the creative freedom opened up by postmodernism, and yet also, to some degree, remaining anchored in the "real."
There can be no doubt that the inclusion of this suggested framework for understanding and appreciating what it is that the genre of the biographical novel is capable of is useful in a volume such as this, since it provides the reader with an organizing lens through which the diverse range of biofiction represented in the interviews can be considered. However, that being said, there is occasionally an insistence and inflexibility in the articulation of Lackey's ideas that is less than satisfactory. The result of this is that certain lines of enquiry, perhaps especially that concerning the nature of biofiction's truth-claim, gradually become rather too repetitious over the course of the volume, the questioning too leading and too obviously driven by a desire to fix the genre into place (in line, of course, with Lackey's own convictions). To be sure, Lackey, and the other interviewers in the volume, who by-and-large repeat his ideas about biofiction, do sometimes elicit agreement from the interviewees, but just as often there is a sense that the writers are rather uneasy with an overtly taxonomic approach to their work – which, it is worth stressing, is not in itself uninteresting.
For instance, Nuala O'Connor, author of Miss Emily, a biographical novel that imaginatively explores the relationship between Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, is asked: "Can you talk about the kind of truth that you give readers?" (201). The interviewer, Julie A. Eckerle, elaborates her question:
You start with an individual like Emily, and then through that character's interiority, you look out. But what kind of truth is that? Is it a completely new truth that's being created? Is it the novelist's truth that the biographical novelist brings? Is it an effort to force the reader to engage something in his or her self? These are some of the questions scholars have, and obviously there's no one consistent approach. So where do you think you enter that conversation about truth, or not? (201)
These may well be "questions scholars have," but they are rather too broad, and indeed too generic, to be likely to register meaningfully with authors of individual works of biofiction. In this instance, O'Connor responds evasively but not unreasonably:
Every novel's chief responsibility is to itself: to make the best possible story out of the set of circumstances the characters find themselves in, whether they are based on real people from history or not. Like all fiction, there is a fair amount of dissembling that goes on in the writing of historical work; we write it now, but it is about then. (201)
She goes on to touch upon a particular motivation that seems to be shared by many of the authors interviewed in this volume, namely to give representation to those who have been marginalized by the narrative of history: "My hope is that I can lift women's lives out of obscurity and into some kind of spotlight: to add sinew and lifeblood, emotion and, indeed, facts to the female side of the story" (201).
We will return to this desire to give voice and visibility to the historically marginalized, but first let us continue to examine the interviewers' desire to understand what kind of truth might be at work in biofiction. One common gambit in the interviews is to ask the authors whether their novels would still in some sense be "true" if it became known (perhaps through the discovery of a historical document) that some of the apparent "facts" in their work are actually incorrect. For instance, Lackey asks Chika Unigwe, author of Zwarte Messias, a biographical novel based upon the life of Olaudah Equiano, "Is it possible that you could be totally wrong about Equiano's biography, but still be right in another sense? And, if so, in what sense could you still be right? In other words, what kind of truth are you trying to give your reader?" (248). Similarly, interviewing Sabina Murray, author of several works of biofiction, including "Periplus," whose protagonist is her father and which includes an account of a trip to the Golden Triangle in Thailand with a group of students where, at the end of the story, he makes a significant pronouncement, Lackey says:
Let's just assume there was a diary being written at this time, and we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt it didn't happen. So it's wrong. It's false. Could you still say that it is true in a certain sense, that there is a certain kind of truth to it? And if so, can you specify the nature of that truth? (189)
Unigwe's answer sheds little light:
Yes, it could still be true, because my novel is not a biography of Equiano. It starts with the story, using Equiano as the skeleton. But the flesh that comes onto Equiano, well, I'm not expecting the readers to take that flesh as the truth. I'm expecting them to take it as something to explain Equiano, to bring Equiano into the twenty-first century. (248)
Murray's answer is perhaps a little more promising. She argues that even if her father did not say the things she reports him to have said, they would still in a sense be true, because they would be true to him:
The belief system is provable. My father's belief system would generate that thought, so it belongs with his thoughts. If you were to put things in groups: thoughts that my father would have and thoughts my father wouldn't have, and you sorted it in this way, apples and oranges. That would be an apple thought, that would be a thought that he could have, and that could coexist with his other thoughts without creating conflict. So that's how I would explain that process. (190)
This idea is echoed by Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone,a biographical novel about John Lennon:
All I can say is that there are different measures of truth that you can achieve on the page. It is a flat phrase, but what I was going for was a kind of psychological truth in Beatlebone – I was saying this is how John Lennon may have felt in such circumstances, at such a time, and in such a place. (31)
David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl, similarly argues that although he may have been writing fiction, he was "always aiming for an emotional truth" (103).
So perhaps this is the sort of truth that biofiction can principally lay claim to, a deep emotional and psychological truth, a truth of the interior life, of consciousness – a kind of truth that is not ultimately dependent on a direct and unwavering correlation with historical facts. It is a tempting idea, and one that Lackey perceives to be a motivating impulse in biofiction. In fact, he says at one point: I feel like many biographical novelists are saying to Lukács, whether they were in dialogue with him or not: "Your whole philosophy about the historical novel falls apart once we shift to the interiority of character" (87–8). He puts this idea quite forcefully to several of the authors he interviews. For instance, he says to Sabina Murray: "But you are a novelist, so you are more interested in human interiors than the historian's established facts" (181). To Colum McCann he says: "Biographical novelists seem to be focusing on the interiority, and they're not as committed to objectivity" (142). David Lodge, interviewed in Lackey's book, would seem to be broadly amenable to this emphasis on interiority:
So the novel is, as I think Susan Sellers said, the supreme form of art for representing consciousness because it can go into the heads of characters. What it offers is interiority. If a novel is about a real person, it can use the clues that are available, the information that is available, to try and recreate what that person's consciousness was perceiving in any given situation. (119–20)
This sort of position, however, is not sufficient for Lackey and his co-interviewers, who wish to find something more specific and distinctive that can be attributed to biographical fiction. After all, the novel has proven itself supremely accommodating as a form capable of exploring interiority without needing to be grounded in any sort of historical fact and without requiring that the interiority in question belong to an actual historical figure. Does this exploration of interiority function differently in biographical fiction, and if so can it provide a basis for truth claims made on account of biofiction?
One possible answer to this might be that whereas historical novels might be said to treat historical facts as constituting a monolithic (even if multifaceted) truth of what really happened, biographical novels, more often than not, introduce either ambiguity into received ideas about history, or they challenge the dominant perspective of history. Either way, the effect is to subvert the perceived monolithicity of truth, helping us, as Rosa Montero puts it, "to better understand the world in its greater complexity" (9). As Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites and The Good People, says in her interview: "You are not trying to replace – you are trying to interrogate the idea of a single truth" (260). The effect of this can potentially challenge both how we see the past and how we understand the present. This would seem to accord with Lackey's interpretation of the model that Styron presents to authors of biofiction:
Styron is not really that interested in history, which is why The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be considered a historical novel. The biographical novelist appropriates the life story of a person from history and then converts that story into a metaphor. As such, Styron does not give readers history or even biography. What he does is to appropriate the biographical figure in order to create a "metaphorical diagram" that readers could then use to illuminate something from both the past and the present. (15)
That "something," Lackey suggests, is typically made up of overlooked instances of oppression and prejudice – historical blind-spots ripe for revisitation, reclamation, re-evaluation, and revision: "Styron gives us a truth about social, political, and mental structures of oppression" (138). This imbues the truth of biographical fiction with an ethical motivation to uncover past injustices and to give a voice to the historically marginalized and dispossessed. We have already seen that O'Connor's stated aim is to "lift women's lives out of obscurity and into some kind of spotlight" (201), and similar sentiments are expressed by other authors in the book. Indeed, this desire to represent socially and economically marginalized figures (typically women, non-heteronormative individuals, members of ethnic minorities, the working class, and so on) who typically do not have a place in the histories of "great men" and of the victors and vanquished, emerges from this volume as perhaps the strongest common thread that ties many authors of biographical fiction together.
Hannah Kent, for instance, suggests that we have become increasingly aware in recent times that history is full of omissions and that there is a desire to "address the silences" (111):
For example, as a feminist, I really want to read more about women in the past, particularly women who were poor or illiterate or who were clearly misrepresented by the people who did have the literacy, power, time or access to materials to write their stories down. As a reader, I want to have writers provide that which I believe historians have neglected or omitted or misrepresented due to prevailing colonial, patriarchal, or classist ideologies. (111-12)
Similarly, Olga Tokarczuk, author of, among many books, The Books of Jacob, Comments:
It is a sad fact that history is keener to record men than women, and better at doing so. I decided that I had to individualize all these people, mentioned solely as "wives," "lovers," "waiting women" and "mothers," give them a voice, furnish them with personal features, and put them to work. (242)
And Emma Donoghue, author of Life Mask, The Sealed Letter, and Frog Music, comments:
[M]y original impulse was very much to represent the ones who'd been left out, like the nobodies, women, slaves, people in freak shows, servants, the ones who are not powerful. I felt an obligation: if I was going to write about them at all, I wanted to give them their little moment in the sun. To name them, even if they were incredibly obscure figures. (81)
Of course, one obvious advantage of writing about figures who were denied a voice in historical accounts is that often relatively little is known about them, and this lack of information provides space for the biographical novelist's imagination to flourish. Acknowledging this, O'Connor admits that a particularly strong attraction provided by such figures is "[t]he freedom to fill those gaps fictionally" (197). For many writers, however, this can lead to a certain anxiety about the ethical implications of appropriating and embellishing the story of another, particularly that of someone who has suffered exploitation. Kent, for instance, reflects: "Am I the right person to tell this story? Should it be told by someone else? Am I doing everything I can to ensure that I'm not exploiting these people's lives and that my representation is as likely and as accurate as possible given the sources available to me?" (118).
Often these forgotten personal stories have wider social implications, and by focusing attention on them biographical novelists effectively invite a reconsideration of social history. This is clear in the case of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a Danish transgender woman and one of the first people to go through gender reassignment surgery. David Ebershoff, who takes Wegener as the protagonist of his novel The Danish Girl, comments:
When I first came across the story in the 1990s, she was not well known, and history had partially lost her. She was not as known as she deserved to be as a transgender pioneer and as someone significant in LGBT history […] One of the efforts of The Danish Girl is to pull her story and her life out of the obscurity that it was in at the time. (92)
In his interview with Ebershoff, Lackey notes biographical novelists' tendency toward social engagement and seizes upon it as another possible way of establishing the distinctiveness of biofiction as a genre:
[Y]ou all seem to have a deep commitment to social justice. So I wonder if you could talk about the novel as educating readers. Here I do not mean education in a conventional sense, like I'm giving you a universal truth. Rather, education in the sense that you are giving readers ways of seeing that are vastly different from what we get in the moralist novels of [the] nineteenth century. (103)
As happens rather frequently in this volume, attempts such as these to fix in place the motivations, affordances, and achievements of the biographical novel are gently resisted by the interviewees. What comes first for the authors is not a particular agenda or the observance of genre conventions, but rather a sense of fidelity to the work itself, as is demonstrated by Ebershoff's response to Lackey:
A novel can have a profound effect in showing people new ideas, new lives, inspiring them in their own lives. And many of us want that out of a book. But I don't think I can go into writing a book with those goals because I'll be aiming toward them as opposed to aiming toward the truth of my characters. Those goals may be achieved through the truth of my characters. If I'm writing a book to try to inspire people, to try to educate people about LGBT lives and issues, or other issues, I may miss the mark in creating complex, compelling, even contradictory characters. By focusing on my characters, and finding the language to represent their experiences honestly, perhaps the book will have something to say about social justice and inspire people in their own lives. I never start with theme. I start with characters, story, narrative, and language. So social justice is in some ways an after effect of a book, albeit a significant one. (103)
And yet Lackey is surely right that biographical fiction is enjoying unprecedented popularity today, and in trying to understand why that might be so it is of course legitimate, and indeed proper, to try to understand what biographical fiction in fact is and what makes it distinctive. The difficulty is that authors are typically not the best people to interrogate about this – both because they are focused on their own individual craft and tend not to write with a view to wider literary and generic developments, but also because it is not necessarily in their interests to be complicit in any attempt to subsume the singularity of their work under the formulaic conventions of genre. This perhaps is the only real flaw of this volume – Lackey is undoubtedly a fine and insightful critic of biofiction, and the authors interviewed are, without exception, engaging and articulate about their work. The problem is perhaps in the way the volume is conceived, which leaves the impression, at least occasionally, that Lackey is either asking the wrong people the right questions, or he is asking the right people the wrong questions. This critical mésalliance, however, also often results in some of the strengths of the volume. The various negotiations of interviewers and interviewees, especially where the critical agenda is not fully received and accommodated by a deep allegiance to singular literary vision and craft, tend to open up the discussion in a way that I suspect will be appealing for most readers, and what emerges is an expansive and rich global literature focused in non-dogmatic ways on the productive intersections of history, personality, and storytelling. Indeed, for many predominantly anglophone readers, the vistas opened up by Lackey's book may well constitute something of a revelation, and the insights offered into the parallels and differences between biofiction authors working in different linguistic and literary traditions are unquestionably valuable.
The nub of the difficulty in making a case for biographical fiction as possessing distinct, genre-specific affordances and qualities is that the arguments that distinguish it from historical fiction tend to weaken its difference from the novel in general, while the arguments that distinguish it from the novel in general weaken its difference from biographical fiction. In the Introduction, Lackey writes:
In her interview for this volume, Rosa Montero best clarifies what readers get from biographical novels. For Montero, the goal of the biographical novel should not so much be to depict a real life as to use the life "to try to better understand the world in its greater complexity." (9)
But surely all good novels are capable of doing this? The suggestion seems to be that biographical novels are particularly effective at doing this because they, as it were, colonize and extend the life of a historical individual. The question is what difference does it make that the protagonist has some sort of root in historical reality? Perhaps Lackey's ultimate answer to this can be gleaned from his following observation:
What biographical novelists primarily reject is the governing idea animating the historical novel, which is Karl Marx's claim that it "is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." By stark contrast, biographical novelists spotlight the power (albeit limited) of human consciousness to evade determinism and thereby shape an alternative reality into being. (9–10)
This would seem to assume that an author of biographical fiction chooses to make use of a historical figure, and that that historical figure has a history (a received understanding) that the reader is familiar with – familiar to the extent that it is difficult to imagine that figure and the historical context from which they emerge being separable or their story different from how it is known. The value of the biographical novel would then be in the narratological clinamen, the swerve, which it sets out, prising apart the individual from history, showing other possible interpretations and outcomes. The effect of this would be to show that history is not fixed, not predetermined, and that the likely reality is always more complex and conditional than is usually thought. Furthermore, it shows that the individual in question lived with a sense of freedom and possibility, or at least uncertainty, and that both individual agency and chance and twists of fate played a part in their lives. This can be made manifest in the biographical novel either as a plausible revision of the received version of history in a manner that, for instance, uncovers the roles played by marginalized individuals, or it can be presented as a sort of counterfactual history that explores what might have happened if things had happened otherwise and other decisions had been made. If this is so, however, it means that the effects of biographical fiction remain fundamentally dependent upon history and "fact," or at least upon the received version of history and fact. This in itself is not necessarily a flaw in the attempt to establish biographical fiction as a distinct genre with distinct affordances since this argument presents biofiction as operating differently, in its signature manoeuvres, from both the historical novel and the novel in general. Perhaps more of a problem with this theory of the biographical novel is the fact that often such books take relatively unknown figures as their protagonists, about whom little historical record remains. Without some sort of relatively solid and commonly received idea about the historically real figure who is taken as the protagonist, it is difficult to see how the clinamen argument could hold up. Perhaps the most that can be said in such cases is that we possess a received idea of the "type" of person that the protagonists represents. But in these instances what difference is there whether the actual protagonist existed or not? And if the historical reality of the protagonist makes little or no difference in these cases, can these works still be viewed as biographical fiction? To their credit, the interviewers in the volume are not unaware of this possible gray area. Barbara Chase-Riboud, interviewed by Melanie Masterton Sherazi, reflects on her two novels about obscure eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave women in the United States. In Sally Hemings she felt she had to establish her protagonist's reality:
Sally Hemings was deemed a figment of yellow journalistic perversity. So I had not only to invent a historical character but to convince an ignorant public that Sally Hemings really existed in time and space. I had to make the Americans believe in her. (70)
This is perhaps even more of an issue in the case of The President's Daughter about Sally Hemings's daughter, Harriet, about whom even less is known. Sherazi asks: "In what ways do you consider The President's Daughter a work of biofiction, given the lack of historical evidence about Harriet Hemings?" (74). Chase-Riboud does not engage with directly with the question, though she acknowledges the paucity of information available to her:
Although The President's Daughter has a historical setting, there is little evidence of who Harriet Hemings was as a person. I had to imagine everything based on the few things that her brother Madison Hemings had written in a newspaper in 1873 – other than that, there was nothing. (74)
So what difference does it make to a novel whether such protagonists existed or not? The question matters, of course, because if it is of no consequence whether they existed it is difficult to see how, in cases such as these at least, claims about the distinctiveness of the biographical novel can be sustained (at least in relation to the novel more generally). And even with novels that take well-known historical figures as their protagonists, and which would, therefore, plausibly support what I am calling the clinamen theory of the biographical novel, there would surely have to be a considerable degree of naïveté in the way the reader conceives of "truth," "history," and "fiction" in order for this to fully account for the effect and appeal of the genre's "truthful fictions." And the appeal is undoubtedly there. As Lackey puts it:
One of the questions we are trying to answer is this: why has there been this major surge in biofiction[?] There was a minor boom in the 1930s, with biographical novels from Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Arna Bontemps, Robert Graves, Irving Stone, and Zora Neale Hurston, just to mention a few. But from the 1990s to the present, biofiction has become a dominant literary form. Why did this happen? (88–9)
Why, indeed. Perhaps the various ways of trying to understand the particularity and appeal of biographical fiction discussed thus far are too sophisticated by half. Perhaps what engages so many people with biofiction is altogether less sophisticated and high-minded. Perhaps what appeals to us as readers is simply the rather childish thrill that what we're reading about "actually happened" or is at least, in that famous phrase often used cheaply to garner gravitas, "based on a true story." The question as to why this sort of dubious authenticity might have such an appeal at this present moment could give rise to a considerable amount of speculation. Perhaps it is because we live in an era of post-truth – that is, of supreme fiction (see Corby, "The CounterText Review: Post-Truth and the Post-Literary", 442; "The Post-Literary, Post-Truth, and Modernity", 49)– that we increasingly hanker after "the real." This hankering after the real was identified as a trend in literature by David Shields in Reality Hunger, published in 2010, and David Lodge, interviewed in Lackey's book, is perhaps onto the real appeal of biographical fiction when he points us towards Shields:
There is ... a very noticeable trend toward writing fiction that has a factual basis, not only in the biographical novel, but also in historical novels or novels about current events. There is a book written about this called Reality Hunger by David Shields, a kind of manifesto for fact-based writing in which he actually downgrades the novel. It's quite worth reading, but very provocative and overstated, I think. I certainly don't reject the fictional novel, but I think Shields has identified an appetite for fiction that has the imaginative and emotional power of the traditional novel, but also has a guaranteed factual basis, which gives it an extra appeal. I think that this is partly to do with the media, which bombard us with news from all directions twenty-four hours a day. We've come to rely on fact for truth, rather than the ideal truth or virtual truth of fictional writing, which has to convince by its own integrity and power. It's very noticeable in the last twenty or thirty years that the proportion of fact-based novels, plays, and films has hugely increased, and that must say something about this phase of our culture. (120)
What Lodge is identifying, of course, is a broad tendency that cannot be reduced merely to being a property of the biographical novel. Indeed, one notable irony is that biofiction and post-truth discourse actually share quite a lot in common. Unsurprisingly, Lackey's desire to define biographical fiction as a genre means that this sort of wider avenue of speculation is not explored. This is a pity as surely there is an interesting story to tell about the rise of biographical fiction in the context of the gradual decline of the authority of objective truth in the modern age and the parallel expansion of fiction beyond the arts and into the social and political realm. However, that analysis is probably best served in a different context than this one, a context that Lackey's book of interviews perhaps helps clear the way for. Ultimately, then, while the interviews in this volume do not substantially corroborate Lackey's theories of biographical fiction, and in numerous instances actually seem to resist them, the volume triumphs as a celebration of a serious-minded, often ethically responsible approach to fiction that is grounded in a desire to engage with social realities past and present. And what emerges clearly is the wealth and health of contemporary biofictional "world literature."
Corby, James. "The CounterText Review: Post-Truth and the Post-Literary." CounterText, 4.3 (2018): 431–443.
---. "Failing to Think: The Promise of Performance Philosophy." Performance Philosophy [Online], 4.2 (2019): 576–590. Web. 22 Jun. 2020.
---. "The Post-Literary, Post-Truth, and Modernity." CounterText, 5.1 (2019): 33–69.
Lackey, Michael, editor. Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
---. Conversations with Biographical Novelists: Truthful Fictions across the Globe. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1937. Translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, London: Merlin Press, 1989.