Book Review: ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee

Fiction writers learn to expect certain questions: “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How much of your work is autobiographical?” Both questions aim for the same information: both probe the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, the created work and lived experience. In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee, author of two previous novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh, addresses this relationship in a series of sixteen essays. As the title suggests, the result is partly a “how to” guide–a book that sits comfortably alongside recent works on craft like Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. The result is also partly memoir–a portrait of Alexander Chee as he moves through the worlds of creative writing, bookstore clerking, cater-waitering (for William F. and Pat Buckley, no less), and gardening, as a politically engaged queer artist.

Chee’s advice for the writer spans the pragmatic and the lyrical. A student of Annie Dillard at Wesleyan, Chee shares her frank advice on his prose. Choose precise verbs. Don’t tell your reader how to feel. Convey feeling through action. In “My Parade,” about attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he offers similarly straightforward insight: “A reader experiencing what they call a pacing problem can be experiencing an information problem…and problems with plot are almost always problems that begin in the choice of point of view.” Two list essays, “100 Things About Writing a Novel” and the titular “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” tend toward the aphoristic. From the former: “The novel and God are always being declared dead. Both are perhaps now indifferent to this, if either really can be said to exist.” From the latter: “If you are a professor, then the character is a professor. If you are tall, he is tall. Angry, then angry. But then change other things that will make the difference.” As predictable as the question of autobiography might be–“Why is it not a memoir? people will ask” (“How to Write”)–this question is also, as Chee shows, hard to answer. There is always a relationship, sometimes thick and dense, sometimes vague and tenuous, between fictional characters and situations and the lives of those fictions’ creators.

As a professor of literature myself, I’m disinclined to tell my students that the novel is dead. But following Roland Barthes, I often tell them the author is. However strong the temptation, I want my students to experience a piece of fiction as something other than memoir: a work understandable on its own terms, or in terms of its own internal complexities, apart from the author’s often unknowable intentions. Chee’s book reminds me that what I tell my students is less a truth about fiction–as if the author really becomes irrelevant to anything one might say about the work following the work’s publication–than a tool of analysis meant to ensure that students do not see fiction as merely versions of autobiography. Chee is not The Queen of the Night’s Lilliet Berne, a nineteenth–century French opera singer, but he is not not–her either. Nor is Chee Edinburgh’s Fee, although the resemblance there, both Korean American choirboys, is somewhat obvious. For Chee, the relationship between characters and authors is one of translation and masks, of copies with a difference, and, occasionally, mutual creation. In “The Guardians,” an essay on traumatic memory, Chee describes his first novel as one that “let me practice saying what I remembered out loud for years until the day I could remember all of it.” Authors sometimes only understand in hindsight all the contours of the relationship between their fictions and themselves.

I am no novelist myself, yet I once had aspirations to be. Several weeks ago, I reread the novel I wrote at age eighteen. Transposing all my queer teen angst onto two heterosexual adolescents, the novel is transparently autobiographical. It violates almost every piece of Chee’s advice. There is little plot and lots of feeling. I thought it was savvy, sophisticated, philosophical. It was, in reality, crassly imitative, naïve, and, (worst of all) boring. I never learned to cultivate the necessary distance, to multiply the masks, and perform the work of translation necessary to competently write Chee’s “autobiographical novel.” The short story: I gave up and became a literary scholar instead. But I might have been a better fiction writer had I read Chee’s essays. I might have gained a more sophisticated understanding of how writing fiction emerges from the self yet, of necessity–and if it is to interest anyone beside yourself–take you outside yourself as well.


How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
Alexander Chee
Mariner Books
Paperback, 9781328764522, 288 pp.
April 2018