Literary quotes, quips, observations, warnings #8

Fiction and autobiography edition, featuring Somerset Maugham, Alexander Chee, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys, and Graham Greene, and (semi-estranged) half-sisters AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble


“Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that, looking back, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” — Somerset Maugham (in video above)

“I sat down to write a conventionally autobiographical novel. I wrote 135 pages, sent it to my agent at the time and she said, You know, the writing is beautiful, but probably no one is going to believe this much bad stuff happens to one person… I saw how she meant it — a life is not a story — and the novel lacked story and structure. I went to Aristotle’s Poetics, for his rules for the structuring of tragedies, and proceeded to alter my book from there, erasing the way it resembled my life and making something more and more fictional as time went on. So it’s as if I erased the core of my life and left the details to help convince, inserting an impostor who resembles me into the scene.” — Alexander Chee, on writing Edinburgh

“There was a certain tendency to read Play It As It Lays as an autobiographical novel, I suppose because I lived out here and looked skinny in photographs and nobody knew anything else about me. Actually, the only thing Maria and I have in common is an occasional inflection, which I picked up from her — not vice versa — when I was writing the book. I like Maria a lot. Maria was very strong, very tough.” — Joan Didion

“When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes. I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that if you ‘write out’ a thing… it doesn’t trouble you so much. You may be left with a vague melancholy, but at least it’s not misery — I suppose it’s like a Catholic going to confession, or like psychoanalysis.” — Jean Rhys

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” — Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (his most autobiographical novel)

“I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell. All writing is an exercise of power and special pleading – telling something your own way, in a version that satisfies you. Others must see it differently. As I get older I increasingly understand that the liveliest characters – made up with the most freedom – are combinations of many, many people, real and fictive, alive and dead, known and unknown. I really don’t like the idea of ‘basing’ a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead. I am also afraid of the increasing appearance of ‘faction’ — mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention. It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy.” — AS Byatt

“Interviewer: ‘Can you describe the process of transforming material into fiction?’ Drabble: ‘Not sticking too closely to the accidental and circumstantial elements of the original material — but being able to recognize when some things — a name, a certain kind of face or voice, a nationality — are an essential part of the subject matter and therefore cannot be omitted or transformed.'” — Margaret Drabble

See also Fears, impulses, and dangers I’ve been sensitized to; On the melding of fact and invention in fiction; On the melding of fact and invention in fiction II; On the importance of what is culled; and Welty v. Maxwell on autobiography in fiction. Prior literary quotes, quips, anecdotes, and warnings: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, and 7;


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