I'm staring across the kitchen table at the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, filled with a vague sense of dread. I am trying not to dwell on the regrettable fact that I arrived almost 15 minutes late for our interview, which perhaps has not set the right tone. While I do not want to gush, or seem nervous, or stupid, it seems that I have just offered to make her tea, as though that were a normal way to respond to a host who has just offered to do the same. It is late afternoon, and it has been raining all damn day.
Two questions in, Bechdel gets down to brass tacks. "If I'm reading something that is marketed to me as a memoir, it fucking well better be true," she says. "I'm getting increasingly moralistic about this. Tell the truth! Don't we all know what telling the truth is?"
I don't know how to answer. If anyone knows what telling the truth is, it is surely this woman in front of me. Over the course of her two graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, she has been rigorously honest about her thoughts, words, and actions across a wide variety of intimate settings that include her therapist's office, her dreams, and her bedroom. I was "with" Bechdel when she realized she was a lesbian and when she found out that her father died. I even know about that terrible time her mother found the "tee-tee place" drawing she made when she was seven years old.
I look down at my typed list of questions. They plainly indicate that I don't know what truth is. At all.
Conversations about truth tend toward the melodramatic. Take, for instance, "This American Lie," Alex Heard's account of the weeks he spent fact-checking the humorist David Sedaris' essays. Whether or not you agree with it, it's impossible to deny that it's totally over the top. Heard's analysis begins with a close look at "Dix Hill," Sedaris' meditation on the summers he spent volunteering at a mental hospital. By the time Heard has tracked down a nurse who worked at the facility at the same time that Sedaris did, it's clear that he views his quest as deeply serious.
"He's lying through his teeth!" the nurse says. Things Sedaris "lied" about include the architectural style of the building (Tuscan Revival, not Gothic), the name of the facility (a hospital, not a sanitarium), and his responsibilities (less dangerous than those he described). It's low-stakes stuff, and the stakes get even lower a few paragraphs later when Heard phones Sedaris, who readily admits to the embellishments.
In the wide world of books, the binary model of fiction and nonfiction is surprisingly immutable. A novel is fiction, no matter how much of the story is modeled on life. An autobiography is nonfiction, even when its author seems super fake. Writers who gesture to the inadequacies of the binary tend to earn reputations as unhinged (Hunter S. Thompson), annoying (Dave Eggers), or self-indulgent (Jonathan Ames). Anything iffy gets relegated to the anemic bastard category of creative nonfiction, whatever that is.
Interestingly, the one place where fact and fiction fraternize more freely is in the graphic novels section, which is located, in most bookstores, between sci-fi and fantasy in what champion of popular fiction Michael Chabon has called the genre slums. In libraries, too, most graphic novels are grouped together regardless of content, so that autobiographical and semi-autobiographical comics share the shelf with fiction that ranges from one-dimensional superhero stuff to literary stories like Neil Gaiman's Sandman. The line between fantasy and reality—and high and low culture—is blurred in a way that makes everything that exists within this milieu more rich and resonant.
With this in mind, I set out to speak to a variety of prominent autobiographical cartoonists about where they draw the line between fact and fiction, both as creators and readers. Many conversations about truth ensued, in person, over the phone, and via email. What struck me over the course of these discussions is that people's views about fact versus fiction—while varying dramatically from person to person—always seemed automatic, instinctual, and self-evident. It's not the sort of topic that people—myself included—usually pause to consider.
But we should.
Legend has it that Alison Bechdel, like George Washington, never told a lie.
Her work is famous for its bald honesty, which is impressive in its depth and scope. Her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, is a frank look at the circumstances surrounding the death of her secretly gay father, whose fatal accident was probably suicide. The second, Are You My Mother?, published this past May, is an excruciatingly candid love letter to her emotionally distant mother, who is still alive.
Bechdel is a diarist who frequently incorporates her childhood writings into her work. A careful historian of her own life, she has kept a journal since she was ten and an elaborate financial ledger since she was thirteen. These materials, along with an excellent memory, decades of therapy, and an aptitude for creating clinically elaborate charts in Microsoft Excel to track her themes, have been the basis of both her memoirs.
"I try to interrogate my own method," Bechdel told me during our interview. "Like am I remembering accurately? Did this happen? I rely a lot on archival objective facts like newspaper clippings and letters. I feel like I learned so much just from the chronological order in which things happened, which seems pretty objective."
Bechdel's thorough, careful methodology impressed Sean Wilsey, who reviewed Fun Home for The New York Times just months after the James Frey scandal broke. "Memory is no longer entirely credible in the genre of memory," Wilsey wrote. "In fact (and to ensure factuality), it seems possible that not only are the roles of memoirist and documentarian about to be combined, but the roles of reviewer and investigative journalist as well."
Taking his role as investigative journalist seriously, the reviewer drove hundreds of miles to the cartoonist's hometown to perform a half-serious fact-check of some of the geographical claims in the book. "I pulled into a parking lot," he wrote. "Maps on Pages 30 and 146 showed me where I was. A memoir you can navigate by!" His satisfaction is palpable.
Like so many reviews, Wilsey's is a study in the backhanded compliment. "Very few cartoonists can also write—or, if they can, they manage to only hit a few familiar notes," he wrote. "But Fun Home quietly succeeds in telling a story, not only through well-crafted images but through words that are equally revealing and well chosen. Big words, too!"
Above all, he admired Bechdel's facility with reportage. "The emotion and depth of Fun Home, as with all honest memoirs, come entirely of watching Bechdel try to make sense of the confusing facts of her own life and history," Wilsey observed. "If it were fiction (or fictionalized) it would be meaningless."
"I totally agree with that," Bechdel told me. "I think that's very perceptive. In the case of my particular story, what made it valuable or meaningful was that it really happened."
Both Wilsey and Bechdel undervalue her artistry—her memoirs would be just as valuable as fiction—but it's true that her specialty is reveling in the sticky moments that might inspire composite characters, compressed timelines, and other "cheats" in the hands of less committed nonfiction writers. Unpacking these ambiguities is what propels her plots. Bechdel's god is in the details.
Are You My Mother? is about how the cartoonist finds emotional intimacy in critical distance—whether it's with her mother, her girlfriends, or herself. "I am most alive and connected to other people when I'm writing something," she said. "This whole book is about this very cerebral, detached effort to get in touch with my feelings and to express love, which are things I can't do easily in a direct way. I have to do them through these contortions of memoir."
An artist with a gift for giving intellectual ideas emotional resonance, Bechdel spelunks in the darkest recesses of her head and heart with an enviable spirit of courage and humor and humility. Like Nancy Drew, or Freud, or Benedict Cumberbatch, in the end she always emerges with a hard-won truth.
Embedded within Bechdel's notion of the self as something that can be deciphered—a case with an elegant solution, if you're willing to dig deep enough—is an assumption, or maybe a need to conquer, that doesn't leave much margin of error. This approach to autobiography comports neatly with how we've come to view the genre, perhaps because it's so appealing in its optimism—if we just work hard enough, maybe we can figure ourselves out.
But there's more than one way to pet a cat.
THE IMAGINARY PAST
Exploratory autobiography is the specialty of my imaginary best friend, Lynda Barry (who was not, in real life, available for an interview). Barry is such an icon that just thinking about her makes me want to tie a red bandana around my head to get more awesome by association. I spend a disproportionate amount of time wondering what her dance moves are like, and if she's any good at Charades.
Barry is a shining light in the world of alternative comics, which can be a dark place. It's not that she hasn't known trouble. But unlike most of her peers, even when Barry's subject is grim, the world rarely seems bleak; her work has the same verve that animates her being.
Barry's graphic memoir One Hundred Demons is an episodic look at her life: short meditations on games of kickball, hula dancing lessons, and the way her neighbors' houses smelled. The book begins with a handwritten disclaimer: "Please note: This is a work of autobifictionalography." The tone is playful, not probing. What, exactly, she means is unclear, and that's by design. It's just something to think about.
Barry's other explicitly autobiographical book—What It Is, an array of collages and comics and guided writing activities—is more difficult to categorize. (The artist has said it was once sold by Amazon as science fiction.) It feels like a mystic text, which is not to say it's impersonal. In part, it's the story of how Barry's imagination helped her weather a difficult childhood. "We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality," she wrote. "We create it to be able to stay."
Memories of things that never happened, the long hours she spent exploring other (more friendly) worlds in books and TV shows—these non-events shaped Barry as much as her physical circumstances. As she excavates the layers of her imaginary past, readers are encouraged to do the same. When we think of our lives in terms of succinct entries on a timeline, we overlook a critical area of experience that's less logical and linear. A person's fictions can reveal as much as, if not more than, her facts.
The final section of What It Is is an activity book that's based on Barry's renowned workshop, "Writing the Unthinkable." (The cartoonist reinvented herself as a teacher after the market for syndicated comic strips dried up.) It contains exercises that explore the connection between memory and creativity—quirky writing prompts (your first phone number, other people's mothers) followed by questions that are designed to tease out sensory details. "We notice that when people tell the story of their lives it often sounds like an obituary," Barry wrote. "A lot of general information but almost no images." The real story of who we are is not in what we experience, but how we experience it.
Expressionism—making one's inner life palpable by showing how subjective experience colors external reality—is widely accepted as a valid autobiographical mode in the visual arts. But in prose, expressionism's relationship with autobiography is queasy, at best.
We would never approach a painter's self-portrait with the expectation that it would be photorealistic. Similarly, in comics, it seems normal when people draw themselves in caricature. If a visual artist exaggerates or distorts reality, it's not considered a lie; it's just a different kind of information.
Often, it's information that you'd never perceive from an outsider's perspective. Justin Green became the father of autobiographical comics in 1972 when he published Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a powerful account of his struggles growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder. By drawing his delusions (which involve psychic death rays that shoot from his penis) as though they were literally taking place, Green powerfully demonstrated how his interiority shaped his experiences in the outside world.
"The penis rays are real," Green told me. "It is only through myth that I was able to convey their reality, and that is the power of my work."
When James Frey was widely criticized for fabricating chunks of A Million Little Pieces, his memoir about addiction, he explained the embellishments as a sort of expressive gesture in the apology that now prefaces his book.
I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am. People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. I think one way people cope is by developing a skewed perception of themselves that allows them to overcome and do things they thought they couldn't do before. My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.
(I realize that, for some, the idea of an expressionistic memoir is complicated by the strong sense that one gets—in watching him shrink before Oprah's terrible gaze as though he's being interviewed by his prom date's father, and also in thinking about his sweatshop—that Frey is a giant stinking weasel. While sincerity is a whole other can of worms, I submit that insincerity is a perfectly valid autobiographical gesture. In fact, the memoirs of at least a quarter of the people I know would be extremely misleading if they weren't full of shit.)
Often, when we talk about prose writers who embellish and exaggerate, we assume they do so to make themselves look better in some way—smarter or funnier or more heroic or whatever. We forget that exaggeration can go two different ways: up or down. Self-deprecation is de rigueur in autobiographical comics, where cartoonists frequently emphasize their most unattractive characteristics and habits.
Consider the caricature. You'd never know that the artist Aline Kominsky Crumb is a beautiful woman from looking at her comics. Famously, she draws herself ugly using a style that most people (including her) describe as grotesque and crude. The activities she draws herself doing are usually extreme: stuff that's really banal (shopping for a vacuum), explicit (having kinky sex), or both (using the bathroom). Even Aline's most ardent fans usually describe their initial reaction to her comics as repulsed.
Yet, from an outsider's perspective, I can report that Aline is the kind of woman I'd like to be—forthcoming and friendly and smart in a way that makes you feel smarter just talking to her. The first time I talked to her, at a conference, she was sporting a look I can only describe as Punk Rock Tori Amos, which included a black bra you could see through her turquoise lace top, high heels, and a nose ring; though she is 63, this did not look the least bit ridiculous. Plus she lives in France!
From the inside, the view is less pleasant. This difference in perspective was especially dramatic back in 1972, when Aline began publishing autobiographical comics. "The way I drew myself then was really how I felt about myself," she told me. "I had a really horrible childhood. I was made to feel ugly and horrible by my mother. I was exorcising that incredibly bad self-image that I had. I knew I wasn't that bad in real life, but a large part of me felt like that."
R: A photograph of the artist in 2003. Both images appear in Aline's graphic memoir, Need More Love.
While Aline's unflattering self-portraits were a pointed response to the sort of womanhood so frequently depicted in comics drawn by men, her agenda was far more subversive and complex than just that. An important part of her project was to promote self-loathing as normal and even funny in an era when to do so was extremely unfashionable. As second-wave feminists focused on legislating gender equality, progressive women weren't exactly encouraged to admit that they sometimes hate themselves.
"The most touching fan mail I've gotten is from women who really identify with me," Aline said. "I think that's the most important aspect of my work. By drawing myself and making fun of that really ugly part of myself, I think other women feel better."
At the same time, creating those brutally honest comics required lies of omission; her self-portraits were necessarily incomplete. "My character is what I choose to show, which I find is the most absurd and the most extreme aspects of myself," she explained. "What people see in that, that's only like one very small part of me. Obviously, there's more on the spectrum—I hope."
In the tradition of superheroes, Aline Kominsky Crumb's greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. While some consider her honesty to be her most valuable asset as an artist, plenty of other people think it's her worst flaw. Even some of her peers in the 1970s worried out loud that her work was adverse to the cause.
"It did surprise me," Aline told me. "I thought it was humorless. The work that holds up from that period is stuff that is a little bit more honest and raunchy, you know? Whereas the stuff that's the romantic fantasy of one's self seems really, really lame in retrospect. It seems pitiful."
The negative feedback escalated when Aline began drawing autobiographical comics with her husband, the celebrated pervert R. Crumb. In their collaborations, in which they each draw themselves, the crudeness of Aline's style is juxtaposed with the technical skill of Crumb, who is widely considered a master of his craft. This did not sit well with some Crumb fans, whose comments have reportedly ranged from blatantly misogynistic ("keep her in the kitchen") to even more misogynistic ("maybe she's a great lay, but keep her off the fucking page").
"It's pretty nervy to put yourself in work with someone who's highly respected and considered a god in a certain field," Aline told me. "I'm like Yoko Ono. What did someone say to me recently? I saw it on some Internet commentary after some article came out about our book. It called me a 'talentless parasite.'"
Similarly, the cartoonist Carol Tyler, who will publish the third and final volume of her remarkable graphic memoir You'll Never Know this October, is frequently shunned by the fans of her husband, Justin Green. "A lot of people are disturbed that I talked about Justin walking out on me," said Tyler, whose trilogy weaves together the stories of the near dissolution of her marriage with her father's military service in World War II. "That was a shocker. 'Justin Green, father of the autobiographical comic! Why would you show him leaving you like you he was a cad? We love him.' I could feel the chill."
It's a tricky business, legitimacy. Often, as we dole it out, our decisions are informed by invisible forces that are anything but objective. Who sets the standards? What happens when we label someone else's story as invalid? And how could the benefits possibly outweigh the risks?
A MILLION LITTLE PIECES
While Phoebe Gloeckner is a highly respected cartoonist, she hasn't enjoyed the same level of crossover success as many of her peers. Paging through her first collection, A Child's Life and Other Stories, it's easy to see why: her comics depict sex crimes, drug use, violence, neglect, and abuse—mostly through the eyes of a minor who's involved in all of those things. The images are graphic and gross and difficult to look at. It's the kind of book you want to put in your freezer, out of view.
Of course, that effect is calculated: A Child's Life is supposed to be disturbing. When you're being honest about, say, the first time you had sex with your mother's boyfriend, a little discomfort helps set the right tone.
In 2002, Gloeckner published The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a sort of genre-defying illustrated novel. Like the events depicted in A Child's Life, the book is based on the artist's own life. Many of the passages from A Teenage Girl were taken verbatim from Gloeckner's real diaries, which she sliced and diced to build her narrative.
Whitney Joiner provided a glimpse into Gloeckner's studio in a 2003 piece for Salon that described one of the cartoonist's original diaries. "The first entries are neat, the handwriting large and round and childish, the dates carefully recorded in the small spaces at the top," Joiner wrote. "By the end, during her time with 'Tabatha' [an abusive junkie] on the streets of the Tenderloin, the pages are stained with lipstick and blood, the writing haphazard and messy." Hello Kitty was on the cover.
"At some point, I ended all allegiance to exactly duplicating this girl's words," Gloeckner told me, as she explained how she worked with the original diaries. "Which were my words, but I was practically a different person with a lot of years in between."
The fragmentation of self—the distance between me and my idea of me and what I'm willing to tell you about me and what you think I'm telling you about me, and all the subtleties that are lost in translation—is a postmodern concept, a sort of earnest and existential game of telephone. It's also a dissociative technique that some people use to cope with trauma. While it wasn't something that happened during our conversation, many interviewers have described Gloeckner as shifting back and forth between the first and third persons, using "I" and "Minnie" (the name of her comics alter-ego) interchangeably.
"You have to separate yourself from yourself in many ways," she told me. "It's almost like there are two people inside of you in order for one to tell the other's story."
My phone interview with Gloeckner felt a little like arguing a case in court; she frequently objected to particular words and phrases and argued the premise of almost every question. The topic of autobiography raises her hackles, she explained, because she feels like people place an undue focus on the line between fact and fiction in her work. She worries that people are missing the point.
"I'm not a particularly famous person, or even cartoonist, so the idea of creating a memoir—who would give a fuck?" she said. "This is the story of a girl. I don't really care that it's me.
"My frustration with all of the many interviews that I've ever given is that people kind of focus on that," she continued. "It's not a matter of me saying it's not me, but I see a huge difference between me and anything I can say about myself. I can sit here and talk until I'm blue in the face about my process, about Minnie, about me compared to Minnie, but in the end you would have a bunch of words and you wouldn't really know me. People sometimes feel that they do know me, who I am as Phoebe, through reading my work, and that's actually not at all true. It's very isolating."
TWO FAMILY PORTRAITS
Portrait #1: The Vanishing Act
The cartoonist Craig Thompson, who was raised as an evangelical Christian in rural Wisconsin, is unabashedly earnest—a Sufjan Stevens figure within the comics world. It's that rare sort of earnestness that doesn't read as square. Both artists demand that you reconsider your whole relationship with irony. Suddenly, the way you look at the world seems uncharitable and maybe even disrespectful. Presumably it's some sort of Midwestern wizardry.
There's a lot to like about Thompson. There is his drawing style, which is fluid and full of grace. There is the way he can make you long for a second childhood as a boy with a brother. There is even the man himself, who just seems super nice. But the thing most people like about Thompson is his pitch-perfect portrayal of first love in his graphic novel Blankets, which he somehow captures in all its bathos without ever letting things get too mawkish or gross.
Blankets is a coming-of-age story that explores Thompson's relationship with his family and his faith. But he didn't set out to write about himself, at least initially. "Everything was fictionalized in my first draft," he told me. "It sort of emerged more and more as my real-life family in spite of myself." Eventually, he decided to shift from fiction to autobiography, digging deep into his own past.
While some names have been changed, the story in Blankets is almost entirely autobiographical. (The scenes written from the perspective of Raina's father were invented.) "Everything in there happened, but the great fiction of it all is in the details that have been removed," he said, referring to events from his life that didn't make the final cut. Thompson was home-schooled for half his senior year of high school, a fact that was never mentioned in the story. And then there's his sister, who doesn't even exist in the world of the book.
Is it really different to leave out a sister than to add a sister? That is an actual question I asked Craig Thompson, who probably thought I was high.
"I don't think there's a big difference," he said. "I will say that my favorite parts of Blankets are the parts I completely fictionalized. Imagined things, those are the ones I'm happiest with. I don't know what that says about me and about doing memoir work. But there's like maybe two scenes in the book that specifically step outside of my view, the protagonist's view, so they're wholly made up. I enjoy those the most."
Portrait #2: The Man Who Wasn't There
If deleting a "main character" from a narrative blurs the line between fact and fiction, what happens when you try to write about someone who was never there?
Any child who grew up with one or both parents MIA knows that somewhere between the acutely felt lack of parent and the reality of that parent as a person somewhere else in the world (or in the ground) lies a thousand imaginary versions, starring in all manner of imagined confrontations and unbridled Orphan Annie-style fantasies. These imaginary parents have a powerful ability to shape their children's behavior in the real world. Frequently, they exert as much or more influence than their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
The cartoonist Chris Ware, a man who grew up without a father, explores this theme, among others, in Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, an intricate and rigorously melancholy comic about lonely sons and distant fathers.
After making your way through 380 pages of what is surely one of the saddest and most dispiriting stories ever told, you turn to an even sadder one—a postscript in which Ware explains the weird relationship between his fact and his fiction. Through a remarkable series of coincidences, Ware's comic—far and away the most fictive of the works discussed here—turned into something true.
Before it was published as a graphic novel in 2000, Jimmy Corrigan was a serialized comic strip in a Chicago weekly. In the postscript, Ware explains that the project started as a sort of therapeutic exercise.
It was planned…to provide a semi-autobiographical setting in which I could "work out" some of the more embarrassing problems of confidence and emotional truthfulness I was experiencing as a very immature, and not terribly facile, cartoonist. I'd poked into the subject before—that of meeting an estranged parent—but I wanted to try a more respectable "stab," by shoving my hapless and poorly-written "alter ego" of the moment, "Jimmy Corrigan," through the starting gates first. I had spent my entire life avoiding contact with my own father, and I guess I thought that once this story was finished, I would somehow have "prepared" myself to meet the real man, and then be able to get on with my life.
While the story that unfolded on the page is complex, its premise is simple enough: Jimmy Corrigan, an emotionally stunted man in his 30s, receives a letter from his estranged father. They spend some time together. Misery ensues.
(Inevitably, trying to describe Ware's comics make them sound unpleasant and grim, which is misleading. First of all, there's this sense of playful geometry that's deeply satisfying, even if it sometimes gives you the impression the artist's memory palace looks a lot like the Container Store. But the central delight in reading Jimmy Corrigan, as in all of Ware's work, is how it's painfully awkward and incredibly cool at the same time.)
Five years deep into drawing Jimmy Corrigan's story, Ware's own estranged father phoned him—the first exchange they'd had in about 30 years. Initially, Ware thought it was a prank, but it wasn't.
Despite a few more calls and an awkward face-to-face over dinner, the relationship never deepened. Meanwhile, Ware continued to work on Jimmy Corrigan. About a month after he finished the story, which ends with the death of Jimmy's father, Ware's own father dropped dead of a heart attack.
"It occurred to me upon closing the 'manuscript' that the four or five hours it took to read is almost exactly the total time I ever spent with my father, either in person or on the telephone," reads the end of Ware's postscript. "Additionally, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, its final printed size seems nearly equal in volume to the little black box, or urn, before which I briefly stood this January, beneath a color photo of the man its label claimed to contain."
Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are? What about when you accidentally draw psychic voodoo comics? Maybe the Germans have a word for it.
From his vintage suits down to his very name, which he gave himself in the 1980s, the cartoonist Seth (b. Gregory Gallant) comes across as a character. Like Amy Sedaris or Pokey LaFarge, he has a strong sensibility that seems rooted in a past that never quite existed. It's the sort of affectation that seems charming against all odds.
When Seth began drawing his long-running series Palookaville, a comic that is beautiful and subtle and sad, he worked in an autobiographical mode. "After my first couple of issues, I realized that the stories I was telling were more anecdotes than anything," he told me. "They were lacking something essential." He decided to try something different.
The storyline that followed, which was eventually collected as the graphic novel It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, followed Seth as he pursued the cold trail of an obscure cartoonist called Kalo. While many of the particulars of that story (a sick cat, a weird breakup) were true, it turns out that Kalo, a sort of Keyser Söze figure, never existed—a revelation that left some fans feeling disappointed or even betrayed.
"If anything, it was simply a device to make the tale more engaging," Seth explained. "It was never my intention to put anything over on the reader. I was seriously failing in my earlier autobio attempts to get at the heart of my own life or personality. By adding a fictional plot, I ended up getting much closer to a true portrait. It was still a rough inaccurate portrait, but nearer than before.
"After Good Life I started to work in straight fiction—eliminating myself as a character entirely. It is in these works that I think I have gotten the very closest to showing my 'true' self."
Years ago, a profile for Toronto Life magazine described the way in which the line between life and art—between self and character—seems more permeable for Seth than for most people. In the apartment the cartoonist shares with his wife, "there is a whole shelf of trophies, all of them awarded by Seth to himself, the brass plates on the bases recording one disappointment after another—'Never Called a Boy Wonder, Seth, 1962–1987' is just one of them." The sign outside the door says "Palookaville."
What does autobiography mean to a man with a living room like that? Whatever it is, I don't think nonfiction has the capacity to capture it.
In the arts, if you get famous enough, eventually you will be faulted for whatever it is you do best.
When the Magnetic Fields released their folk concept album, Realism, in 2010, many people weren't sure how to reconcile the band's caustic frontman, Stephin Merritt, with earnest folk icons like Joan Baez. Shouldn't folk singers promote personal convictions that are more heartfelt than a general distaste for humankind?
"Those hoping to find anything remotely autobiographical or directly emotive on Realism will be sorely disappointed," wrote Matt LeMay in a review for Pitchfork, who described Merritt as "defiant[ly] withholding" the "emotional gratification of 'rock.'"
Suddenly, Merritt's famously fluid point-of-view, one of the signatures of his songwriting, was eyed with suspicion and even disappointment. As LeMay and others all but accused him of carving the lyric "I" from his songs like a serial killer, Merritt tried to deconstruct the myth of the authentic singer-songwriter by patiently explaining that folk music is, in fact, simply a marketing category.
"Marketing" is a word we find distasteful in the arts. It's for the soulless, the shallow, the greedy. But marketing isn't really about money. It's about image.
Merritt, for example, is an expert in personal branding. He has been called the most depressed man in rock—a persona that is reinforced by his ubiquitous scowl and his frequent collaborations with the writer Daniel Handler (best known for the mock-gothic children's books that he writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket). That's not to say Merritt's wry take on misery is an act, but it seems clear he plays up a certain aspect of his personality for the crowd. And he is consistently on message.
Of course, public relations isn't just for celebrities. It's like the old Chris Rock joke about dating: When you meet somebody for the first time, you're not meeting them. You're meeting their representative.
Françoise Mouly, the art editor of The New Yorker and former editor of the influential comics magazine RAW (now defunct), believes that each of us has a hand in shaping our own image, particularly on social media platforms such as Facebook. "At this point, everybody is a little media source in and of themselves," she told me. "Everybody is on a stage with more or less of an audience. Everybody is making up who they are." Whether you're cataloging your interests on Facebook, your work history on LinkedIn, your sexual proclivities on OkCupid, or your small talk on Twitter, you're projecting a certain image of yourself that's tailored to a particular community. And the veracity of that image is entirely self-regulated.
The artifice inherent in autobiography is just another version of the "marketing" that most of us do online every day. "Biographers are legally bound to stick to the truth; autobiographers much less so," Stephin Merritt told me. "It's safe to assume that any autobiography is primarily a promotional tool, with only the standard of accuracy that that implies. That's why autobiography is much more fun. And it never ends in death!"
To some degree, self-promotion taints even the most rigorously honest autobiographical effort; by definition, it is impossible to escape. Writers who belabor that point do so at their own peril, as with Dave Eggers, who, in the lengthy preface to his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, acknowledged both "the painfully, endlessly self-conscious book aspect" and "the knowingness about the book's self-consciousness aspect," among a litany of other meta observations and remarks (including, not for nothing, a careful accounting of the parts of his narrative that were fictionalized). While the book was very well received, there was still something about it that rubbed some people the wrong way.
"Although Mr. Eggers's eagerness to continually footnote his narrative…can be intensely irritating, his use of pomo gimmickry does not undercut the emotion of his story but somehow heightens it by throwing the passages of earnest sentiment into high relief," wrote Michiko Kakutani, who meant that as a compliment.
Of course, one way to avoid the self-consciousness trap is to pretend it's fiction—which Eggers himself "jokingly" admits (also in the preface to his memoir) that he should have done. The author took his own advice for his second experiment with autobiography, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, the mostly-true story of Deng's experiences in the civil war in Sudan. This time, Eggers chose to market the book as a novel, saving himself the trouble of writing what presumably would have been a beast of a preface had he decided to call it nonfiction.
A trained journalist, Eggers has the heart of a fact-checker—a trait that is, at times, at odds with his playful postmodern mind. Perhaps the person of Eggers and the plight of the Lost Boys of Sudan are (in)famous enough to mitigate the risk inherent in calling What Is the What a "novel." Perhaps not.
In any case, for his next full-length work, Zeitoun—an award-winning account of the wrongful incarceration of one of the heroes of Hurricane Katrina, Abdulrahman Zeitoun—Eggers finally felt comfortable enough to use the nonfiction label without equivocation.
“I started on the book in 2006, about a year after Katrina, and because there is so much information about the storm and the aftermath, we could tell the story with enough verifiable information to call it nonfiction,” Eggers said in a FAQ on the Zeitoun Foundation’s website. “And because most of the book is from the Zeitouns’ point of view, and because we started so soon after the hurricane, their memories were very sharp. … That made working in a strictly nonfiction environment much easier than it would have been for the war in southern Sudan, where for many years there was no news coming out of the area at all.”
Recently, Eggers’ portrait of his saintly protagonist has been complicated by news reports that Zeitoun has a violent streak. (He was convicted of assaulting his now ex-wife Kathy in 2011. Since then, he allegedly beat her in the street with a tire iron; now he’s in jail on charges of soliciting her murder.) While it’s tempting to speculate that Eggers, whose brand in both literature and philanthropy is optimism in the face of adversity, oversimplified and inflated his subject, the real lesson lies in the limitations of rigorous journalism, which produced Eggers’s most problematic, if factually accurate, work to date.
THE SMALL STAKES
While most autobiographical comics aren't officially classed as fiction or nonfiction, that's not to say the nonfiction category doesn't exist. It was established by Art Spiegelman in 1991, when he wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times objecting to the newspaper's classification of Maus II, his epic comic about the Holocaust, as fiction on its best-seller list.
Spiegelman had spent 13 years researching and drawing his two-volume memoir, making sure that every detail was accurate, down to the way the toilets looked in Auschwitz. His one departure from literal representation was his decision to draw all the people in Maus as animals.
"To the extent that 'fiction' indicates a work isn't factual, I feel a bit queasy," he wrote. "I shudder to think how David Duke—if he could read—would respond to seeing a carefully researched work based closely on my father's memories of life in Hitler's Europe and in the death camps classified as fiction."
"There was an internal debate at the time because those things matter," Françoise Mouly, who is married to Spiegelman, told me. "We had a mole who told us of the discussion. One of the editors said, well, listen. I'll tell you what. We'll go knock on Spiegelman's door, and if a big mouse comes and opens the door, then we'll put it on the nonfiction [list]." Ultimately, though, the NYT relented.
Spiegelman's work (and his 1992 Pulitzer Prize) carved out a space in comics for other projects with historical heft. Joe Sacco single-handedly established the form of comics journalism by traveling to trouble spots like Palestine and Sarajevo to collect people's stories and recreate them panel by panel in collections that took him years to draw. A trained journalist interested in deconstructing the myth of objectivity in reporting, Sacco rejects the cloak of invisibility that most journalists assume when they discount the influence that their particular eyes and ears have over any given story. Arguably the most interesting figure in an industry filled with pathologically interesting people, Sacco's body of work is an incredible mediation on history and what it means to be a person.
Spiegelman and Sacco share an interest in telling true stories about real people; they amplify the voices of individuals that might otherwise get drowned in the din surrounding large-scale atrocities. They tell these stories so we, as readers, can bear witness. Thankfully, most autobiographical projects have much lower stakes. And with these, it's more difficult to make a case for the importance of veracity.
Do stories matter more to us when they're true? As someone who has cried bitter tears for the most one-dimensional characters on "Grey's Anatomy," my opinion probably shouldn't count. So I asked Craig Thompson, whose book tour for his graphic memoir Blankets attracted many weepy fans who were moved by his story. His most recent graphic novel, Habibi, is pure fiction. Did it elicit a similarly emotional reaction?
"It's hard to separate them," Thompson said. "I have been touring with the new book, but I'm still meeting the same fans that are coming out with copies of Blankets instead. But I have had some really emotional responses to the new book, too. And with some of the personal stories that both books are eliciting, there's some overlap, especially around the theme of sexual trauma."
Thompson's observation reinforces what any reader who has ever pined for Mr. Darcy or Vampire Eric instinctively knows to be true: make-believe characters can move us in mysterious ways.
For me, whether or not a memoir is true has nothing to do with its value as art. While I wonder sometimes what that stance says about me (sociopath? high-functioning autistic?), I believe that "real struggle" is no excuse for overwrought work. My imaginary dissertation is about how choreographers on "So You Think You Can Dance" slap a painful backstory on subpar numbers to elicit sympathy votes. Truth shouldn't be an aesthetic consideration.
Still, that's not to say that texts always operate in exactly the same way if we read them as fact or as fiction. This idea didn't crystallize for me until the cartoonist Seth told me about a compliment he received from Art Spiegelman, who said he preferred It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken as a work of fiction. Intrigued, I asked Spiegelman to explain exactly what happened when he changed the lens.
"My first impression of the book was that it was a well-crafted, but excruciatingly slow and 'low-stakes' report on the artist's not-all-that-exciting obsessional collecting," he said. "Learning it was all invented and not relatively straightforward 'first-degree' reporting made me slow down and pay more attention to the details of what Seth was showing on the slow ride, and even let it all read as parody of other low-stakes autobio work."
Whatever the stakes, it's important to remember that no story—even (and especially) in journalism—is without its fictions.
In 2005, the year the Iraq Survey Group concluded its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Stephen Colbert coined the word "truthiness" on the pilot of his satirical news program. The word was widely used as cultural commentators discussed the implications of the James Frey scandal. In a January 22, 2006 op-ed for The New York Times, "Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito," Frank Rich's panic is palpable when he explains how "fictionalization plays a role in almost every national debate." Less than a week later, his colleague Maureen Dowd echoed the same sentiment in her own op-ed, "Oprah's Bunk Club":
It was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequences, into Swift boating and swift bucks, into W.'s delusion and denial, to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying and conning—and embarrassing her.
Would Frey's falsifications have elicited such a shrill reaction from the American public in, say, 1999? It seems unlikely. To some degree, his memoir became a scapegoat for our collective outrage and anxiety about the 2000 election and the war in Iraq. But that doesn't diminish the importance of the embarrassment that Dowd mentions, which is, I think, what perpetuates the culture of fact-checking that still surrounds autobiography.
Oprah, for one, certainly took Frey's falsifications personally. In the wake of the scandal, she spoke to him as though he had been a bad boyfriend, telling him she felt "duped" and that he had "betrayed millions of readers." Five years later, during the final season of her talk show, she invited him back for a tearful apology. "What I now know is that whenever you're in the position to be embarrassed, that really is your ego," she said, wiping her eyes. "It's your ego on the line."
Oprah's humanity (like her ego) is larger than life, but it's natural that autobiographical art has the power to elicit a personal response in the rest of us plebes. Confessional work in particular conveys a strong sense, however illusory, that we know the artists, so when we find out that they've "lied," it echoes the real-life disappointments that we've known. No one likes to feel hornswoggled.
But what good can come of uncovering these transgressions? The fact that readers sued Frey and his publisher for fraud as though he had been selling snake oil off the back of a wagon is far more indicative that something is wrong with us than with him.
In her role as art editor of the The New Yorker, a publication that fact-checks even its cartoons, Françoise Mouly occasionally sends artists into the field on assignment. Part of her job is determining whether a piece can still in good faith be called reportage after it emerges from the editing process in its final mediated form.
"When I send an artist somewhere to do reportage, I get feedback from the copyeditor, from the proofreader, as well as from legal," she told me. "Copyeditors will give me a proof saying, oh, this is ungrammatical. Then I'll get the proofreaders saying, oh, I checked this against the recording and this is not exactly the sentence. And then legal will say, this person is recognizable, but didn't sign a release form or whatever and shouldn't be identifiable, so make that a composite person. As the editor I have to decide, okay, is this presented as reportage? There's not one hard and fast truth."
Writers, too, must look at their own work within a framework similar to the one Mouly describes and choose a label of fiction or nonfiction. We, as readers, are not privy to what goes on behind the curtain during that reckoning—unless, for some reason, the artist wants us to be.
David Sedaris famously justified his claim to the nonfiction label in a Q&A for Time magazine in 2008. "I've always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale," he said. "And if it's 97% true, I think that's true enough. I'm not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn't true."
Perhaps, in his shoes, you would have made a different decision. I think I would have. Probably.
After all, truth is a relative value. Forget any difference of opinion between you and me and David Sedaris. Even at the level of the individual, your notion of what's true is subject to change due to the passage of time or how hungry you are or the slant of light or some other nebulous cause that lies beyond the reach of reason. Anyone who's too sure about the truth is probably a jerk. And anyone who ascribes some sort of nobility to Truth Tellers is probably setting themselves up for disappointment.
Fiction/nonfiction is an old-fashioned paradigm that endures because it's useful, but its categories have never been mutually exclusive. Like gay/straight or liberal/conservative, it's a false dichotomy we impose on the world to make it seem less complicated. We use these labels as a sort of convenient shorthand, with all the limitations that implies.
Shortcuts are fine. They are necessary. But when we pretend that gray areas don't exist—or, worse, forbid them from existing—it's scary and gross. As a song of the self, autobiography is always inherently correct. It is one person's story, subjectively told. Who am I to tell anyone else how to navigate such a fraught project? Who are you?
Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Look, she has a blog.