Naoise Dolan: My personal life is nobody else’s business
Why does anyone want such information from me, asks the author of Exciting Times
Naoise Dolan: ‘I don’t think my personal life is anyone else’s business just because I wrote a book.’
It is strange to me that anyone wants to know about my life just because I write novels. When I have been interviewed about my debut, Exciting Times, journalists have asked me private questions about topics ranging from my relationship status to whether I’ve been in a love triangle (because the fictional narrator in my fictional book has sex with two also-fictional people).
I can decline to answer such questions, and I do. I don’t think my personal life is anyone else’s business just because I wrote a book. It’s not that I’m immensely reclusive – I am fairly active on Twitter and Instagram – but I want my book to be read on its own terms, and not on whether it “really happened”.
There is no reason to assume that my fiction is autobiographical, particularly not when I have said many times that it isn’t; and it is well-established that this assumption happens more often to women.
As Irish writer Eimear McBride put it in conversation with Jamie Quarto in the White Review: “There can’t be a female author alive or dead who hasn’t experienced the ‘it’s really just you, isn’t it?’ phenomenon.” In primary school, I was free to write stories about girls who lived in red houses and had dogs, without the teacher inquiring as to the colour or canine occupation of my own house. Adult women are not afforded this respect.
This strikes me as prurient. Women existing in any kind of public capacity are seen as having forfeited our privacy; if I agree to an interview about my work, I am not allowed to mind being asked about my sex life. And facts about a woman’s life are even more interesting if we think we’ve caught her out. The idea that a woman thinks she’s fooled us by writing a novel, when we know better and can tell it’s really about her, is especially appealing: it gives us the voyeuristic thrill of seeing something we weren’t meant to, a buzz we wouldn’t get by consuming that same life under the sanctioned heading of autobiography.
We saw this from the media circus surrounding the involuntary unmasking of the novelist Elena Ferrante’s identity, which attracted far more mainstream attention than the self-announced autofiction of the likes of Rachel Cusk.
Autobiographical assumptions also come from our refusal of moral complexity. This was evident in reactions to the viral short story Cat Person. The author, Kristen Roupenian, was clearly not writing about herself when she was nearly twice the protagonist Margo’s age and in a long-term relationship with a woman; but many readers insisted on seeing Margo as Roupenian and on discussing the story as though it were a binary ethical debate, and not a depiction of flawed human beings.
It is easier for us to think in black and white when we imagine that authors endorse their characters’ decisions, and women are held to higher moral standards than men, so we are reluctant to see women writers as capable of writing with detachment and curiosity about the lives of made-up characters – ones with whom they mightn’t always be inviting the reader to sympathise. (Positively or negatively, reviewers tend to note that they did not find my characters likeable; the assumption being that I intended them to be liked, or at least that it is notable that I didn’t intend that.)
This tendency to see women writers as advancing personally inspired polemic plays into controversies like that Kate Elizabeth Russell faced over her debut My Dark Vanessa, where she described herself as ambushed by questions interrogating the nature of her connection to her novel’s content about a teenager’s affair with a teacher.
If Russell and her publisher had announced the novel as a memoir, this would be a valid question to ask, as readers would have purchased and consumed the book on the basis that it was factual. But Russell never said that. While it happens that Russell did draw on her own experiences, she had never claimed that her life gave her any particular authority on how to write abuse.
She had presented a novel to be judged on its own terms, and readers instead judged Russell. There are broader power dynamics informing who gets published and who doesn’t, including the racial biases described by memoirist Wendy Ortiz when she outlined how a book deal like Russell’s was inaccessible to her.
I have fun making things up, it’s what I’m good at, and if
I were permitted only to describe my own life, I would stop writing altogether
We all need to do more to uplift own voices writing: writing about marginalised groups by authors from that group. But questions about Russell’s own life didn’t engage with these structural inequalities. Russell’s personal history was a purely individual concern that should have had no place in that discussion.
There is a further argument that tethering autobiography to writing can have a limiting effect. The main reason I don’t write autobiographically is that it would bore me to tears. I have fun making things up, it’s what I’m good at, and if I were permitted only to describe my own life, I would stop writing altogether.
This creative limitation can become more ponderous the more under-represented one is in the literary world; Sara Collins, author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, has argued that as a black writer, she is wary of any externally imposed pressure to stick to certain subjects just because of her identity.
That is not to disparage the value of explicitly championing writers from disadvantaged groups. I am proud to be queer and autistic, and will happily discuss these facts about myself with interviewers. I don’t do this, though, because I want to draw links between my life experiences and my work. I do it because LGBT and disabled women are under-represented in the arts; and when you see someone like me getting a book out, it makes publication seem more possible for you.
I worshipped Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters as a teenager because they were gay women writing about gay women. Given that I have an invisible disability and that people tend to assume I’m straight by looking at me, the burden is on me to actively correct those assumptions. In a fairer world, I wouldn’t have to constantly come out to everyone, but we’re not in that world and that’s a reality that I face by being open. None of this is an invitation to read my work any differently than if someone else wrote it. My approach to my identity has more to do with my public persona than with my novels.
In some ways I feel I am old-fashioned for wanting so little of myself in my work. The novelist Matt Thorne, senior lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University, noted a generational shift among his students in an interview with the BBC: “The biggest change is that while in the past I might encourage students to write from a different perspective from themselves in order to help transmute lived experience into fiction, I don’t think that would be appropriate [or welcome] any more. There’s a thirst among students to tell their own story first . . . It used to be that in class it was inappropriate to assume that anything a student was writing was autobiographical; now it’s unlikely that it isn’t.”
My instinct, though, is that while we are seeing more authors writing about themselves – Sheila Heti, Annie Ernaux, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner – this is likely the snowballing effect of sudden possibility, where some writers mining their own lives for material has made others realise that they wanted to do it all along.
Novelists give us only whatever is there between the pages, and I think we should take that much and be happy with it
For as long as people have written anything, we have always divided ourselves – as Zadie Smith put it in conversation with Jennifer Egan – between those primarily interested in “limning their interior” and those more interested in showing a varied span of characters. I would group myself among the latter creed of writers. I’m just not that interesting, and everyone else in the world is vastly more so to me.
Despite the self-limning/people-spanning divide, it is fully possible to read the likes of Cusk or Knausgaard without knowing anything about the author that has not been revealed within the text itself. For me, this is the most interesting way to engage with any novel. I consider political, historical, social context; but I do not care about personal minutiae. That’s probably why I struggle to understand it when anyone wants such information from me.
The alleged collapsing of the boundary between autobiography and fiction – a phenomenon I’m not convinced we can detect while it’s happening, any more than we have ever successfully demarcated any other shift in fiction until after the fact – ultimately still does not offer all of an author’s life up for public consumption.
Novelists give us only whatever is there between the pages, and I think we should take that much and be happy with it. Even if I did write autobiographically, I would think we should approach books as books, and leave personal history out of it. My dream reader is one who doesn’t know or care who I am.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €16.99