Every story, fictional or otherwise, entails a pact with the reader, and whether or not the reader honors that pact depends on the writer’s ability to sustain it for the duration of the reading.
If I write a text in which an anonymous narrator confesses sordid and even depraved aspects of his life, adopting an elusive style with echoes that insinuate far more than they say, the reader will immediately be tempted to consider it a fictional text. So how can the reader be sure that I haven’t in fact put on a mask in order to talk about myself?
For example, I could write:
I’m shut up in my house trying to write an erotic story. I wrote one years ago that my editor wisely cut out of my first book. It started like this, I think: “The sudden onset of a sound whose sonorous cadence began condensing into short bursts like a ringing telephone sent a shock through the two bodies entwined on the bed in the early stages of coitus.” I’ve forgotten the rest, though there was a time when I knew it by heart.
My life has changed a lot since then. I was twenty-five when I wrote that, and now I’m nearing forty-nine, alone. I live with a woman, but she’s not my wife. My wife left some time ago. I’m not complaining. I’m the architect of my own present.
Back then, and until quite recently, I took a predatory approach to sex. I tried to sleep with pretty much every woman I met, and the truth is I almost always succeeded. I don’t remember much about these women. The few details that have settled in my memory are the ones I come back to when I need to keep my epic masturbation sessions going. The memory of the yellow bush I found sprouting from a woman’s anus when I took her from behind, the way another pinned me to her floor and bathed me in piss, the strong grip of another’s legs around my neck as I penetrated her on the kitchen counter, another’s sweet little moan when she begged me to eat her pussy. . .
The woman I’m living with is downstairs right now, cleaning up the mess I made last night. She’s a bit older than I am and I wouldn’t have looked twice at her before, but nowadays I do want her sometimes, I’ll admit it. Nights like last night, when a carton of ice cream and a movie were all I had available.
Desire only hits me when I’m drifting towards sleep and my mind wanders off on its own. Fortunately, that’s when the woman I live with is in her room and I lack the necessary energy to go knock on her door. The rest of the time, I’ve lost all capacity to turn myself on. That’s why it’s hard for me to get inspired. My wife, who knew me better than anyone, used to tell me that. “All you can write about are your fantasies,” she said. She was my main fantasy, an immaculate fantasy I only dared touch when I was drunk.
I keep on writing about her so there aren’t any hard feelings. I wonder, though, why I had to lose her to soothe my troubled desire. Why didn’t her presence achieve what her absence has so effectively resolved? A strange wall divides my inner life from reality. When I think of the child we might have had, I don’t think of the happiness he could have brought us. I imagine him carrying on my legacy with all the women whom I no longer have at my disposal. Young, petite girls from the Andes, sturdy Irishwomen with freckled faces, wide-hipped black slave women … Is this a story? Does my life fit into five hundred words?
Is it enough to blur the narrator’s features or assign him traits different from mine to eliminate all doubt from the reader’s mind as to the fictional nature of the text? And vice versa: Would it be enough to make him look like me and replace the mannered prose with more direct language to convince the reader that I’m writing about myself?
The answer to both questions is the same: no.
As an author, I’ve found on numerous occasions that fictional stories utterly foreign to my lived experience have been interpreted by certain readers as completely or partially autobiographical. Likewise, I’ve found that claiming that a text faithfully depicts reality doesn’t guarantee it will be accepted as such. Readers are distrustful and, although they accept the rules of the proposed game upon entry, they remain on the lookout for the slightest contradiction and often allow their own prejudices to lead them astray. When they have an openly autobiographical text in their hands, they lie in wait for possible falsehoods. When it’s a novel or a story, they try to uncover the autobiographical subtext. It’s not a bad thing that this distrust exists. I’m also a reader, and sometimes I behave the same way with other people’s texts.
The aspiration of all writers should be to avoid leaving fissures in their work, to make sure that everything is properly secured so readers won’t find a single toehold for their suspicions. That’s the most desirable outcome, to which all writers should aspire no matter what they write about. In a novel, for example, even if the story is actually based on the writer’s life, and sowing doubt and toying with confusion do not figure into the writer’s plans, all biographical material must remain invisible to the prying reader.
And yet no matter how well writers do their job, there is no way to prevent readers from interpreting the fictional text as autobiographical if such is their intent. Nor is the reverse possible: to keep readers from perceiving exaggeration and fabrication where there is only a sincere portrait of lived experience.
Both extremes are equidistant, but their effects only become unequivocally adverse in the latter instance. The suspicion that a fictional text is based on reality if unfounded and the ambiguity unintentional on the author’s part is irksome, no one likes it. However, if we accept that fiction consists of making the unreal real, we might in fact consider this a success. Though in unforeseen ways, and though we believe our reputation suffers for it, if fiction has been taken as true, it means our objective has been fulfilled. The opposite effect, on the other hand, is inexcusable. If we agree that nonfiction is making reality real, provoking the sensation that we as writers have somehow invented, exaggerated, or manipulated the facts spells total failure.
A side note about ambiguity. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, most contemporary narratives dissolve the barrier between reality and invention. For some this is a novel concept, but combining these two domains takes us back to the very origin of literature: myth. Moreover, introducing real elements into a web of fictitious events is an old novelist’s trick that serves to enhance the realistic effect of the overall narrative. It’s nothing new to make the game explicit or to bring it to the forefront. A narrator whose identity is deliberately blurred with that of the author doesn’t exactly break new ground, either. Autofiction, like metafiction, is a modern label applied to an ancient phenomenon. Fostering ambiguity and uncertainty is more than legitimate: it constitutes the essence of literature. Readers should be allowed to determine where reality and fiction meet and diverge if they so choose, but this should be the only limiting factor.
But that’s a different conversation. I’ve called this piece “Making Reality Real” and I want to explore the topic further, to explain myself.
If we set aside these hybrid formulas and adhere to convention, fiction is about making unreality real and nonfiction is about making reality real. The first seeks to pass off an illusion as real, while the latter seeks to make that which is already real seem convincing. The difficulty that writers face is the same in both cases, so their weapons must be similar. A story is a representation, and sliding that representation into place without a catch is the complicated part, independent of genre. Careless mistakes are not permitted: all elements must align with the writer’s intent, striving for the utmost balance and coherence. The common goal is to make the reader forget that the text in question is an artifice and accept the initial pact as seamlessly as possible.
In 2010, I published a memoir entitled Father and Son. It’s a book of mourning written after my father’s death in which I tried to articulate the pain I felt at his disappearance while at the same time describing the bond between us, from my earliest memories up through his illness and death. That is, instead of leaving his permanent absence untouched, like a still frame, I treated it as a living substance that reflected the various phases we went through, the bitter conflicts we faced and the thread of love that, despite everything, never snapped ensuring, even before our final reconciliation, that we would never fully lose each other. The reason I decided to write it wasn’t to settle accounts, overcome grief, or close wounds. My wounds were already closed and my pain at his death, as I say in the book, will last forever. My motivation was literary namely the conviction that our experience made for a good story and so was my approach to the challenge. Although the subject matter stemmed from reality and my intention was to be honest, I still had to structure the story and make choices that would slide the representation smoothly into place, just like a fiction writer. After several false starts, I became convinced that our story’s dramatic development possessed an inherently novelistic structure and decided to respect it. The narrative voice would be mine and the order of the memories would be chronological, to avoid ranking. Aware, however, that it was not enough to remain faithful to my memories because memory is not necessarily objective, I made other choices that strengthened my purpose. One important decision was to renounce all literary flourishes in crafting a voice and to pursue a spare, stripped-down style instead. I wanted to be seen as myself, not as a writer. I resolved other issues, too many to list here. A few of these were to separate the narrative portions from the reflective ones, to alternate one with the other in distinct sections so that the facts would remain as unpolluted as possible, and to limit the page count to force myself to exclude superfluous details. None of these choices entailed manipulating or silencing. All of them involved reinforcing the radical objectivity I sought. One essential decision was to be uncompromising with myself, not concealing my flaws even though the result might be unflattering. My goal was to eliminate all suspicion from readers’ minds, to make them believe my story.
Then, I made a discovery that was new to me. As a novelist, I knew that fiction required me to create the illusion of reality so that the representation that emerged from it would be credible. The way to achieve this effect, as I’ve explained, is through internal coherence. Even fantasy literature needs this coherence. As a reader, I knew that honesty wasn’t enough make a story seem convincing. Before confronting my father’s story, I never suspected that achieving the necessary coherence or capturing reality wouldn’t always entail a rigorous or exhaustive handling of the truth.
It doesn’t make sense to explain in fastidious detail how I arrived at this conclusion. I would feel compelled to scrutinize certain personal matters that I pass over in my book, stretching myself thin over trifles in the process. My point is that every period of discord and distancing that my father and I went through over the course of our relationship was initiated by a third person, whom I refer to in the book as “the friend my father met in Brazil.” She was always looking out for her own interests, and our reconciliation was not a priority for her. This person did everything she could to drive a wedge between us, and she did so in such a rude, obstinate, and prolonged fashion that, had I described it in depth, my story would have seemed like an attempt to settle accounts. And so I had to sugarcoat my experience to make it convincing, smoothing over certain aspects that would have tainted the final result and cast a shadow of doubt over my intentions. Ultimately I discovered that to make reality believable, it’s sometimes necessary to betray it, diminish it, suppress it.
My conclusion is that reality isn’t always believable on its own and that, without betraying its truthfulness, it is essential to modify it in order to strike the delicate balance of plot elements, without which a factual story cannot hold up any better than a fictional one. This once again reveals the deep bond that exists between fiction and fact. The weapons writers use, the demands placed on them, and the choices they must make are all very similar, as are the elements upon which the reader bases his or her judgment.
Marcos Giralt Torrente was born in Madrid in 1968 and is the author of three novels, a novella, and a book of short stories. He was a writer in residence at the Spanish Academy in Rome and at the University of Aberdeen, and was part of the Berlin Artists-in-Residence Programme in 2002–2003. He is the recipient of several distinguished awards, including the Spanish National Book Award in 2011. His works have been translated into French, German, Greek, Italian, Korean, and Portuguese.
Audrey Hall is a Fulbright scholar living and working in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 2013, where she majored in Comparative Literature with a certificate in Translation. She has since translated a variety of short stories, poems, and novellas from Spanish into English, primarily those of Argentine authors Sara Gallardo and Silvina Ocampo