The category of non-fiction increasingly has the quality of dry land, of open and inviting country, for writers brought to a state of despair by the novel. This seems especially true for the more ambitious writers working today. Where fiction comes with too many formal obligations and a suffocating set of prescribed subjects, in non-fiction it seems you can write about almost whatever you like, and in something closer to your own voice too.
Of the fifty-two titles covered in Rob Doyle’s Autobibliography – a record of the books that, according to the author, ‘formed me’ and even ‘deformed me’ – under half are works of fiction. If we’re tempted to keep count, it’s because Doyle has already alerted us to the recent drift in his reading habits. ‘When I was in my twenties,’ he says in the introduction, ‘novels were … the primary means by which I understood the world.’ Nowadays, though, there’s more immediate succour to be found in ‘criticism, philosophy, aphorisms, history and books about what the internet is doing to me’.
Autobibliography grew out of a weekly column (limited to 340 words) written for the Irish Times in 2019, each one providing a capsule description of a particular book. Although he established himself as a novelist – his debut, Here Are the Young Men, was published in 2014 – Doyle has moved away from the fictive, not only as a reader but also as a writer. Threshold, published last year, was a series of sketches from his early thirties, years of questing for enlightenment through drugs, travel and ‘the more colourfully speculative branches of philosophy’. In Autobibliography, the newspaper columns are supplemented with short essays, memoiristic fragments about why he chose the books.
One of the threads connecting the selection and the mini essays is Doyle’s preference for candid, quite pared down autobiographical writing over anything that depends too heavily on the traditional apparatus of fiction. ‘It’s a pity that authors must first prove themselves with … novels and short stories,’ he says about Marguerite Duras’s late collection of memories and ruminations, Practicalities. ‘Relieved of the obligations of narrative and setting, such secondary works offer a more direct intimacy with an author’s consciousness.’
For the most part, Doyle’s choices could pass for a (very thoughtfully assembled) reading list for a life-writing MA course – ranging from the founding fathers (St Augustine’s Confessions) to the kind of contemporary non-fiction that includes the author as a character (Emmanuel Carrère’s Emmanuel Carrère-starring study of a murder, The Adversary). Among the relatively few novels, ones ‘that don’t act like novels’ figure most heavily. André Breton’s Nadja, which Doyle confesses to not really liking, is included because its abstract, digressive narrative voice is resolutely anti-dramatic and because it has a ‘keen sense of mystery and magic’.
Another classic of the French avant-garde, Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, leaves Doyle baffled as to its meaning and purpose, but not unpleasingly so: it ‘imprints the mind with the shape of a question mark’. What’s striking about Doyle’s attraction to these often deliberately cryptic works is that his own writing adheres to such different standards. He admires Jean Baudrillard for mastering that ‘peculiarly French kind of sentence which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but drips with poetic suggestion’, but he’s never less than lucid himself. He may favour novels that don’t behave like novels, but he behaves very much as narrators (in fiction as well as non-fiction) are expected to these days, conjuring an amiable, conversational tone that can, at times, lapse into a sort of breezy lifestyle journalese.
The implication is that we can salute all those difficult writers of the 20th century without wishing to write like them ourselves. A determination not to lose the reader for a single moment has replaced less accommodating, but perhaps more profound, methods of exploration. Given the space to say more about Tropisms, Doyle focuses on how he chose Sarraute’s work because of its shortness and his own laziness. This is not the place, it seems, to look for an account of how the book shaped the nouveaux romanciers of the 1950s and 1960s, who cited it as a foundational text, or to see beyond Sarraute’s own summary of it as a transcription of ‘instinctual movements’ that ‘constitute the secret source of our existence’, which Doyle repeats without questioning.
One of the contemporary writers most highly praised here is Geoff Dyer, author-hero of the kinds of books Doyle seems to want to write: non-fiction that cuts through potentially knotty subjects (jazz, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky) and can be read in a single sitting. Like Dyer, Doyle occasionally seems embarrassed at the idea of going too deep into a subject, at least on the page – from a fear, you often feel, of breaking the seductive surface of the prose with anything too rigorous or theoretical.
There’s no attempt, for instance, to achieve a more systematic understanding of what unites his choices beyond his general fatigue with the fictional. Twice, in passing, he mentions David Shields’s 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger. Shields regards fiction as a particularly cumbersome means of obtaining the insights into lived experience that we want from it. Doyle reiterates this position – getting ‘close up to the essence’ is his highest compliment – rather than, say, tracing its historical evolution through some of the very texts in his selection.
It’s only to the good of fiction when anyone speaks up for novels that dare to be other than, as Doyle puts it, ‘novelly’. ‘The novel’, he reminds us, ‘has nothing to lose but its chains.’ The same could be said for its almost-but-not-quite-identical twin, creative non-fiction. Now, to produce a fact-based piece of writing that’s as mysterious as those tricky 20th-century novels and not at all like a Sunday magazine feature – that could be a path to another sort of enlightenment, for Doyle as well as his readers.