I’m in a book club, a serious one—we always stay on topic, and I’m the only person who orders a second drink. We’ve been reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. The first thing we do is go around and score the book out of 10. It gets a collective 9.5, the highest we’ve ever had. When it’s my turn to speak, I ask: ‘This is fiction, right? It’s closely based on his real life, but still technically fiction…right?’ Everyone seems confused by my question; they clutch the book protectively to their chest and say, ‘No, it’s a memoir. It’s real.’ There seemed to be a sense that the story would mean less if it was purely fictional. I would argue the opposite. Someone points out it says ‘A Novel’ on the cover, right underneath the title, like that’s an answer. Perhaps I should be more embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t actually know what that means. I think a novel is just a book with a story in it; there’s no reason that story has to be untrue.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is categorised as fiction, but it is truly hard to tell from just reading it. Everything I know of Vuong is also true of his protagonist Little Dog. They are both Vietnamese-American queer writers who grew up in the same working-class New England community. The book takes the form of a letter that Little Dog writes to his mother who will never read it, because she doesn’t read. After the book club, I watch Vuong’s interview on a late night talk show; the host talks as if Vuong and Little Dog are one and the same person, and concludes the conversation by asking him if he’d like to look into the camera and say something directly to his real-life mother, in a way she can understand. He does so, in Vietnamese, and I read the subtitles and start to cry. It feels so real, an extension of the moving fiction he crafted, like the novel’s protagonist and the protagonist’s mother have come to life, moved from pages of the book to television. Now Vuong/Little Dog are looking directly into the camera at me, addressing me as if I’m their mother, an extension of how I was addressed as a reader of the book, via letters written in the second person. I’m not sure what I would even call this now—epistolary late night television?
Historically, ‘meta’ moments like this risk breaking the world built by the story, snapping audiences out of believing it by reminding them of form and artifice. But now it seems modern audiences are perfectly poised to appreciate the meta, or maybe even be moved to tears by it. On the internet, we are asked to be storytellers every day; we must narrativise our lives if we want to exist in a digital realm as well as the real one. We see for ourselves how the facts flex, bend and snap in the process of transcribing them into words and pictures, no matter how real we are trying to be, and we sympathise and connect with writers who do the same thing, in a way we couldn’t connect before. Is it any wonder then that literary audiences are moving towards stories that blend fiction and reality, and that we find this process so compelling?
On the internet, we see for ourselves how the facts flex, bend and snap, no matter how real we are trying to be, and we sympathise and connect with writers who do the same thing.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is part of a newly popular ‘in-between genre’, one that sits between memoir and fiction, and specifically deals with writers creating characters that we basically know to be them, navigating situations which we know are their real lives, telling stories about how the real book you are reading ended up in your hands, and calling it fiction.
If genre is an easy way for us to define stories, taking a step back and defining genre proves a little more difficult. The in-between genre sits at an intersection of autofiction, metafiction and the German term Künstlerroman. Firstly, the auto comes from the insertion of the self into a work of fiction where the writer is certainly the main character and only can be because they are a writer. Secondly, the meta comes from the self-referential nature of the book—it’s fiction that talks and thinks about itself, fiction that has an awareness written into it that you are only holding this book in your hands as a result of the various plot points which are playing out on the pages. And thirdly, Künstlerroman, the artist’s novel, applies as they are predominantly writers’ coming of age stories specifically for writers, meaning they centre around moments of a writer’s maturation, of coming into their own. Plenty of stories drive by and slow down and even park themselves within one or two of these categories for a while, without necessarily belonging to them. Writers have been circling around these genres for a long time, but lately, there are more and more examples of all three happening at once, in a new sort of in between.
It’s more specific than autofiction, it’s a branch that deals exclusively with the lives of writers who are working in today’s industry, and as the stories are taking shape so too are their—suffice it to say, highly literary—audiences. Perhaps the hunger for this type of book indicates that this audience is likely comprised primarily of other writers, aspiring or established; or at least readers for whom the idea of being a writer is a considerable thought or fantasy. It’s also true that society has an interest in how the creative class is going to survive late capitalism, making this genre into something of a real-time how-to manual for artists.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy are wildly successful examples of this new in-between genre. Vuong, Ferrante and Cusk variously detail the before, during, and after of this moment readers seem so interested in: the becoming of a writer.
Vuong, Ferrante and Cusk variously detail the before, during, and after of this moment readers seem so interested in: the becoming of a writer.
In Vuong’s novel we learn the story of before he became a writer. In a way he is outlining the unique experiences he has lived which help us understand how he arrived at his incredibly singular voice. Raised by a mother who was born in and lived through the Vietnam war, Vuong grew up Vietnamese and queer in a town where it was not common to be so, and where it was not uncommon for friends to die young of drug overdoses. Early on in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong writes:
In a previous draft of this letter, one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating above their sentences—and least of all that those sentences would save me. But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you everything you’ll never know.
In Ferrante’s quartet we live through the story as it happens to her young protagonist, and then we live through her writing that same story down, penning her first draft in a wild twenty-day frenzy and sending it off to a publisher. For the next two books, the fictional Elena is a grumpy famous recluse, something we know/want the real-life Ferrante to be. In Cusk’s trilogy she’s already well established and we follow her around to see what the life of a successful novelist looks like these days: teaching creative writing classes in exotic locations, going on the literary festival circuit, and seemingly having lots of (amazing) one-sided conversations. These protagonists are not their authors, and the books are classed as fiction, but regardless, the fact that we can assume large sections of the text to be autobiographical acts as a huge selling point for all three.
I say ‘selling point’ because genre exists more as a way to sell books than to read them. As a bookseller during the Ferrante frenzy of 2013, I saw the effect of this first hand. Someone would pick up the book, I would say a few things about it, they would continue to look at it, still not swayed. It’s based on her own life story, I’d say, and that would seal it—with an impressed (or acquiescing) ‘hmph’, they’d put the book on the counter and buy it.
If a story being true is such a selling point, if that’s what makes people love the book and clutch it to their chest and say ‘but this is real,’ why not just call it a memoir and be done with it? Who gets the chance to write a memoir anyway? Not everyone, that’s for sure. It’s assumed that writers have interesting lives, even if a lot of it is spent alone at a desk. Nevertheless, people’s curiosity (my own included) in the lives of writers never wanes, so why the need for these lives to be fictionalised?
As soon as we claim something is real we are opening the door for someone else to claim that it’s not.
It’s easy to think of this type of fiction as ‘memoir with a safety net’—as a way around verifying the truth of every moment in the story as agreed upon by everyone involved—but it is so much more than that. The in-between genre allows for stories to bend and flex and pivot and spin according to the strength and talent of the writer, unconstrained by the realities of chronology and mundanity.
Introducing elements of fiction is a way for writers to bring us closer to the bones of the story. As readers, we are more ready to attribute artistic agency, and all the power that comes with it, to those who say they are making things up. As if the fact that it is sprung from their mind makes it a singular vision that cannot be questioned, whereas if they are writing their account of something, we start to read more sceptically. As soon as we claim something is real we are opening the door for someone else to claim that it’s not, hence risking the truth that all this is an effort to capture in the first place.
Another advantage of writing yourself into fiction is the constant redrafting of the self. As a guest on the podcast Literary Friction, Vuong says when asked about the category of his book:
It is fiction, because Little Dog is better than me. He’s more patient. And that’s the beautiful thing about creating a character, is you get to put 12 drafts (in this case) into them, and Ocean Vuong only gets one draft at life, you know, I get one try, but Little Dog got 12 work throughs, and he’s better, he’s my ideal.
Redrafting your self in words (or pictures) is something anyone who uses the internet—particularly social media—engages in and witnesses on a day-to-day basis. Modern readers don’t just have high levels of literacy about how this process takes place, they do it themselves all the time.
Previous audiences used to care a lot more about whether someone was telling the truth about themselves. I’m thinking here of various ‘scandals’ in which books had to be moved from the Memoir section to the Fiction section, the authors shamed for lying. I’m thinking also of when I was growing up, and artists, musicians and rappers were also expected to really be their persona, and had to regularly fend off any challenges to their authenticity, lest they be exposed for just being a normal person, instead of some creation.
Now, I feel it’s safe to say that (at least insofar as artistic license is comparatively victimless) fewer of us really care—we are all aware of how hard it is to avoid fictionalising yourself. Not only do we do it every day—every time we interact using a digital construction of ourselves—we have fun with it, we lean into the artifice. There is no way to be ‘natural’ on the internet, no matter the end result, everything you put of your ‘self’ online is the result of hundreds of tiny but active choices regarding images, text and your life.
Surely, due to this daily practice of creation and construction we all engage in, we are more interested in holding up a mirror to this process, we are driven closer to stories where we see the blending of the ‘naturally there’ and the ‘carefully crafted’, where we see the creation of a second self that exists separately to the first, like our digital selves do. Surely, a novel can just be a story, and there’s no reason that story has to be true or untrue. We all innately understand that it’s just something in between.