Does it matter whether or not a fictional book is actually based on the author’s real experiences?

A novel that is full of fictional events, but which is probably based, in some way, on the author's personal experience as a poor kid who went to a fancy prep school
Old School is novel that is full of fictional events, but which is probably based, in some way, on the author’s personal experience as a poor kid who went to a fancy prep school

To me, yes.

Just had this discussion with a professor of mine. If a person says, to me, that they could read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in the same way and with the same satisfaction if the author was a 70 year old Danish woman, then I’ll believe them, but the same would not be true for me.

Notice, I’m not talking about whether a book is true or not. I expect all books billed as novels to be more or less fictional in terms of their actual events. But in some books, there is a clear implication that the author lived through events similar to these…or at least existed within a milieu that contained characters and settings that are similar to the ones shown in the book. Personally, I enjoy a book more if I think that it, in some way, conveys something about the world that’s true. But I have no ability to evaluate the truthfulness of a book. Maybe it’s actually a horrendous lie or a distortion of the truth.

I know it’s hip to say that you don’t care about an author’s external authority, but I do. I am more likely to believe something if it’s told to me by someone who I think might actually know something about that thing. I know it’d be possible for a 70 year old Danish woman to tell me something true about America’s involvement in Vietnam…but I think it’s much less likely than hearing that true thing from a Vietnam vet.

9 thoughts on “Does it matter whether or not a fictional book is actually based on the author’s real experiences?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      There are so many alcoholic writers (Eugene O’Neill, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Faulkner, Hunter S. Thompson, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, among others) that if a person who’d never drank a drop tried to write a novel about an alcoholic then they’d be facing some pretty stiff competition =]

          1. alibey

            True. He wrote his own epitaph ditty, you know. But he did write a masterpiece, perhaps one of the greatest (alcoholic) novels in the English language, albeit while sober.

              1. alibey

                I’m glad we agree on that point. I think I will make my next post in my new blog about certain aspects of alcohol and writing fiction. cheers!

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