October 28th, 2009

Autobiographical Fiction and the Spectre of Mary Sue

Though my stories use plenty from the purportedly “real” world, I don’t write much autobiographical fiction. I know many authors use their lives on the page to brilliant effect, but the few times I’ve done it, the process made me miserable and took forever. It’s very very hard to transform oneself and people one cares about into characters, and the reason (for me) is that I can’t be as dispassionate, as clear-eyed and insightful about myself as I can about someone I made up, with whom I have no personal connection (because they are not a real person, and not available to form a connection).

Like um, this blog? In case you didn’t know? It’s really really biased. I avoid blogging anecdotes that make me look like (too much of) a moron, don’t discuss complicated moral decisions I made and later regretted, or other ways in which I might have let people down.

Those are shortcuts that aren’t available in fiction or at least not in the sort of fiction I (want to) write, I can’t blink at the characters’ flaws, let them get away with dubious actions, or valorize tepid behaviour. Even though the people aren’t real, they have real flaws and failings, and I care about writing those carefully, honestly.

I care about being honest about my own failings, too, but I find that incredibly difficult to do in public, with an audience. When I attempt to render something that happened to me in fiction, I often wimp out without realizing it, and wind up writing something that lets the “me” character off the hook or else pushes her forward in an unearned “hero” role. I have long-since learned that no matter how much an author likes her characters, you can’t have “favourites”–a really hard rule to enforce if a character is based on your brother, your beloved, or yourself.

A Mary Sue is a character in fiction that is (or the reader thinks is) a version of the author that is used a wish-fulfillment device in the story. It’s the dowdy girl who turns out to be the only one who can repair the engine in time to return to battle–and that’s when the sergeant notices her quiet yet tantalizing beauty. It’s the nerdy boy who just happens to be there when the head cheerleader falls in the lake–and the only one who bothered to learn mouth-to-mouth, and the possessor of surprisingly soft yet firm lips.

The term “Mary Sue” comes from the land of fan fiction, which is stories written about characters from TV shows, books and movies by their fans, for personal enjoyment and sharing with friends (not publication, cause that’s dubious copyright territory). But it applies in literary fiction too, I think–sometimes a fascinating event from real life doesn’t work in fiction because there are too many surrounding personalities and emotions and tensions that the author can’t manage on the page. Those things get edited out, and what we are left with a sublime perfect character who understands everything and everyone and never falls down in the parking lot.

I’m on this topic for a couple of reasons, not least the hysterical bit above from the Write Badly Well blog (thanks to AMT for the link). But more, it’s hearing Carrie Snyder read some really amazing autobiographical fiction, at the launch for the new issue of The New Quarterly, which features same.

Snyder’s story “Rat” is wonderful not only because it evokes the place and experience (a child emigrates with her family to Nicarauga) perfectly, but because the child’s POV is supplemented by a more omniscient third-person narrator. Thus, we do not end up with one of contemporary literature’s stock figures–the “wise beyond her years” “preternaturally intelligent” child-narrator. Sometimes this works beautifully, but often an author using remembered childhood incidents cannot help but load in adult insight and contextualizing, and we end up with an unrealisitically brilliant and insightful child–a character who knows more than all the others, and can do no wrong…a Mary Sue.

Snyder’s central character, Juliet, is smart but not insanely so–she understands more than the adults think she does, but she still misses a lot. The 3rd person narrator fills in the gaps in insight in a striking, sometimes shocking way. I’ve only heard a condensed version of this story read aloud, and I’m really looking forward to reading it at leisure when my issue of TNQ shows up (c’mon, Canada Post).

It’s always nice to reminded that although something is hard, it can be done extraordinarily well by an author with perspecitive and talent. Almost makes me want to try again myself…almost.


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