Pre-Post-Fiction: Classic Novels That Blur the Line Between Real Life and Fiction


The New York Observer‘s review of Awl co-founder Choire Sicha’s new book is generating a bit of chatter in the corners of the Internet we frequent. The reviewer, Michael Miller, groups Sicha’s book with recent ones by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Tao Lin as what he terms a new wave of “post-fiction.” Post-fiction, he says, is characterized by a chiasmus between the real and the made-up, blurring the two into nonrecognition.” I would suggest that this genre is in fact far older than Miller suggests — it’s just that we used to call novels novels, back in the age when “Based on a True Story” was not worth its weight in marketing gold.

If you spend any time reading literary biographies, after all, you discover pretty quickly that a lot of material in novels is not so much the product of an artist’s vision and invention as a (digested, of course!) version of real life, either the author’s own or those of the people that surround them.

Here follow just a few examples of the genre.

Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed chronicled the arguments and marriages of a few literary critics, including the famous Lionel Trilling, who founded a literary journal together called the “Menorah Journal.” The novel was an instant critical success, the Times deeming Slesinger a “writer to be watched.” Sadly, she’d die within ten years of its publication, though not until after she wrote the screenplay for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The central characters in Tender Is the Night , F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, are based on Gerald and Sara Murphy, who were major patrons and friends of most of the New York expatriate community.

Mary McCarthy’s The Oasis was a satire of the men in her left-intellectual circles. Her portrait of Philip Rahv, one of the founders of the Partisan Review, so infuriated him he threatened to sue her, and he had to be talked off that ledge. Diana Trilling, Lionel’s wife, called McCarthy a “thug” for writing the book.

Philip Roth is often accused of borrowing fairly directly from his life. Those accusations reached a fevered pitch when he wrote I Married A Communist and the portrait of the wife in that book, Eve Frame, is thought to be close to Claire Bloom.

A Regular Guy is Mona Simpson’s novel about a guy who bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to her brother, Steve Jobs.

Characters in Renata Adler’s second novel Pitch Dark bore such resemblance to some of the intellectuals in her life — Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Oriana Fallaci — that originally she wanted to publish it under an assumed name. (She chose “Brett Daniels.”) Editors swiftly assured her she’d be unmasked.

So, you see? There really isn’t that much distance between these novels-from-life and well, novels. Unless you’d call these examples — and a ton of others — pre-post-fiction, that is.