Writers on Writing: The Art of the Short Story

By Maurice A. Lee | Go to book overview

“Not about Me”—Autobiography and
the Short Story

Janet Kieffer

Apparently there's a new literary term these days: “autobiografiction,” meaning “fictionalized” autobiography as a serious subgenre. Hemingway and others wrote famous “autobiographical” pieces, and there are contemporary writers, like Pam Houston, who gladly claim a large share of personal experience regarding their stories. Houston's contemporary stories seem to have a real value and appeal for readers in that personal experiences are shared. The appeal was so great that Houston subsequently published a collection of essays, A Little More about Me—but her contribution to the writing of fiction, insofar as it reimagines the general human condition, doesn't seem to be what these writings are about. The Pam Houston stories are “self-identification” stories for a legitimate readership interested in the transformation of a particular writer's life into aesthetically charming stories, and in that way they certainly contribute. These stories are primarily rooted in who Pam Houston is. But far more admirable are the stories that illuminate the characters of other human beings. We do not read James Joyce's Dubliners to find out about James Joyce, but to have reason to think about ourselves and others who either are or who might have been.

The first problem with a term like autobiography is, of course, a matter of semantics and degree. In a loose philosophical or etymological sense, a writer can argue that all of her fiction is autobiography since her stories are written via her unique perspective and experience—which is in turn an amalgam of her impressions: the anger or confusion she felt when the boy looked up her dress, her mother's snatching of her felt hat, the warm or elusive settings she

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