“Are these real concerns? Is this work convincing?”
Behind all the other questions one asks oneself about a novel, these are perhaps the most determining—and the most slippery. Probably we should accept that in many cases a straight yes-or-no answer just won’t be possible. There will be shades of gray. Still, the matter of whether a work of fiction—its setting and characters, its interactions and preoccupations, etc.—feels “authentic” may have much to do with how we ultimately judge it, whether we like it, whether we take it seriously. But what do we mean by authenticity? Since we can hardly ask for documentary accuracy from fiction, what is it exactly we’re looking for?
Let’s take some easy cases. All Dickens is packed with orphans or people in uncertain relation to family groups, or clubs. It’s impossible to read anything he wrote without feeling that the question of belonging was a major issue for him. He had to write about these matters. If we read Lovecraft’s science-fiction horror stories, weird and unpleasant as they may be, they are all obsessively about fear of otherness—women’s, people of other races’, aliens’. All the over-heated horror of the books arises from this gut fear. He can’t leave it alone. Whether or not we like the books and quite regardless of any verisimilitude, it’s clear that the author is writing directly from his personal concerns. The stuff wasn’t just constructed for a literary prize. A certain form of repetition, particularly the endless reformulation, in dozens of different guises, of the same core conflict is probably the hallmark of authenticity.
Now consider a contemporary American. Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius posits a tension between the need to tell an unhappy personal story and the desire to exploit and manipulate that story to accrue fame and celebrity. He wishes to use his suffering to become special, but fears he has betrayed fellow sufferers and to an extent himself in the process. This anxiety that the project is flawed becomes itself another form of suffering that again can be exploited in witty description for the purposes of self-affirmation. The autobiographical nature of the work, which gives a version of Eggers’s adolescence and early adulthood, the constantly and comically reiterated clash between the desire to respond charitably to suffering (in short, to be good), and the yearning to be recognized as a genius and achieve celebrity status, pretty soon convinces us that whether or not we “like” the book, it is coming out of something genuine.
Even when Eggers is not talking about himself, the same problem turns up: at one point a certain Adam Rich agrees to have Dave’s magazine report him as murdered as part of a rather pious project to ridicule the public obsession with celebrity. However, Dave is soon wondering,
Could he really be doing all this for attention? Could he really be milking his own past to solicit sympathy from a too-long indifferent public?
No, no. He is not calculating enough, cynical enough. It would take some kind of monster, malformed and needy. Really, what sort of person would do that kind of thing?
Dave, that is, is projecting his own concerns about motivation on Adam. Authenticity doesn’t preclude monomania, quite the contrary. Novelists do this all the time. All Shakespeare’s tragic heroes have the same concerns about appearance and reality, performance and inner life.
In his later work Zeitoun, however, Eggers writes a novelized but declaredly non-fiction account of an Arab man wrongly accused and mistreated by police and judiciary after he chose to stay in his New Orleans home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The book is a j’accuse. It seems then that the drive for visibility of the earlier work has been tamed and put at the service of altruism. But has it? Zeitoun is very “written,” very stylish; it draws attention to its own melodramatic telling. And the insistence on the protagonist’s goodness frequently seems forced, exaggerated, manipulative. Non-fiction the story may be, but we’re not convinced. Rather than confronting these conflicting impulses—the desire to be good tangling with the determination to be famous—the book pretends that the second has been put to rest. But we suspect that this is not the case.
On the other hand the crazy plot of his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, where two Americans try to go around the world in a week giving away $32,000 in cash to anyone whose poverty might make them worthy recipients, once again sets up the clash between monomania and altruism in grand comic style. Here are Eggers’s heroes in Senegal:
We found a group of boys working in a field… They were perfect. But I couldn’t get my nerve up…
“This is predatory,” I said.
“Yeah but it’s okay.”
“Let’s go. We’ll find someone better.”
We drove, though I wasn’t sure it would ever feel right. I would have given them $400, $500, but now we were gone. It was so wrong to stalk them, and even more wrong not to give them the money, a life-changing amount of money here, were the average yearly earnings were, we’d read, about $1,600. It was all so wrong and now we were a mile away and heading down the coast.
Finally someone—and it sounds like Eggers himself speaking—points out to these would-be benefactors that far from doing good and relinquishing the control that money gives, they are actually exercising their control in the very arbitrariness of their choice of recipient. Precisely because we now have a completely different plot, but nevertheless the same issues, you can’t help feeling that the story arises from a real personal concern.
Authors who switch between genre writing and “serious” fiction introduce a further dimension to this question. Is the literary work “authentic” and the genre work not? Georges Simenon wrote seventy-five detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret and, starting somewhat later, forty-four serious novels that many believed should have won him the Nobel Prize. Frequently autobiographical (and we remember here Simenon’s boast to have made love to ten thousand women), the serious fiction endlessly reworks the same territory—like it or not, this does seem to be a hallmark of literary authenticity. Life, in Simenon’s literary novels, is ruthless self-affirmation, “Some [people] seem powerful,” remarks one character typically, “and maybe for the moment they are. But they’re never—and don’t forget it—as powerful as they pretend, because no matter how powerful they are, there are always others who are more powerful still.”
The resulting struggle may occasionally be quieted and contained in mutual understanding, but more often leads to open conflict and catastrophe. In one of the strongest of these novels, Dirty Snow, a young man seeks to assert himself by theft, murder, and deceit. But paradoxically he contrives to do so in such a way that he will be observed by a “good” neighbor whose adolescent daughter he seduces and betrays in the most ugly fashion. Monstrously provocative, the young hero seems simultaneously to seek recognition and condemnation, victory and defeat. Flashing around money that is the reward for theft and murder, he knows he is attracting attention, but reflects, “Why say he was worried when he was perfectly calm, when it was he, of his own free will and in full awareness, who was doing everything to bring about his own destruction?” It’s hard to imagine more conflicted books than Simenon’s romans durs.
What has all this to do with Inspector Maigret, whom the author had invented years earlier as part of a lifelong project to become extremely wealthy, and then trotted out four or five times a year for much of his adult life? Inevitably the plots tend toward the formulaic and are often wearily mechanical. Clearly, the temptation to read all of them amounts to a form of addiction, rather than the kind of fertile engagement one associates with literary fiction. Yet Maigret himself is absolutely sui generis and, for all the far-fetched action that surrounds him, convincing. In the rapidly sketched world of suburban Paris or seedy, small-town France, ambition, passion, and consequent conflict has led to murder. This is the territory of the serious novels, but reduced now to caricature.
After the crime has taken place, the murderer enters into a different kind of conflict, this time with Maigret. It is a battle of wits and wills. Bovine, dogged, and brilliant, Maigret always wins. But he wins not through violence, a mere assertion of power, but by understanding his quarries on a human level, to the point that, having arrested them, he often personally “forgives” the assassins. It is as if both sides of the conflict in Dirty Snow had been resolved in one fantasy figure; Maigret was the kind of man who would have understood and forgiven Simenon himself for his endless philandering (some of it bordering on rape), and the ruthless ambition that produced all those books, often provoking outrage among family and friends who felt they had been grossly misrepresented.
This is how I construe authenticity: however many ways the author reworks his material, it is recognizably his. We might say he or she is obedient to a need, or an inspiration, even when setting out to work in a different genre. Tackling an author who is new to us, it can be hard to tell whether the work is authentic or not. In which case, best to enjoy the perplexity of not quite knowing how serious our author is, weighing the arguments on both sides, reading another novel to see how it fits. This is part of the fun of reading, too, the attempt to get one’s mind round the work, accepting a long game played out over three, four, five books. I have had this pleasure reading Annie Proulx. Or again Damon Galgut, the latter’s work being intensely focused around questions of fear and courage.
In general, when a novel manipulates its material to conform to the pieties of the day, or alternatively to attack those pieties for no other reason than the visibility such an attack will generate, when its literary tropes are all too familiar, its clever prose reminiscent of other clever prose, then the compass needle is slipping away from true north. William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries are all recent examples. (James Walton, writing in The New York Review, speaks of the “feeling that The Luminaries is more a careful simulacrum of a great novel than the real thing.”) When, on the other hand, the author renounces some easy twist, some expected payoff, to take us into territory we didn’t expect but that nevertheless fits with the drift of the story, then the novel gains force and conviction. And when he or she does it again, telling quite a different story that is nevertheless driven by the same urgent tensions, then we are likely moving into the zone of authenticity.
This approach to novels, which is only one of many, inevitably has implications for how we see the relationship between an author’s work and life. Explore a biography of Dickens or Simenon and one’s intuitions on reading the novels are quickly confirmed. The conflicts in their fiction emerge very clearly in their lives. “The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”
This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.