Reading the Writer into the Work
Are writers always writing about themselves—and if so, how should critics handle it?
‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most used phrases in writing. It’s understandable; drawing on our own experiences can make our writing more well-informed and stronger as a result. The question is, how far is too far when it comes to inserting the real into the fictional, especially when it comes to the insertion of the author themselves?
Known as authorial self-insertion, it is defined as ‘a character who is inserted into the story to represent the author’. This character doesn’t necessarily have to share physical similarities like their name or appearance, but rather is viewed to be a projection of the author. This makes self-insert characters a very broad categorisation; they can be as obvious as Dante Alighieri writing the story of a man named Dante going to Hell, or as vague as Oscar Wilde basing the three main characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray on aspects of himself.
Authorial self-insertion can be done well and with literary purpose. Often works of metafiction use it as a technique to enhance their narrative and make the reader question the reality of the book, such as in John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the narrator intervenes in the story and alters its ending. Creating a main character that closely resembles themselves can also allow an author to write stories based on their own lives without being restrictively beholden to the truth. This has been done by numerous authors across many genres, from Charles Dickens to John le Carré and Sylvia Plath.
Controversy arises when the self-insertion is done seemingly without literary reason, and is instead viewed to be an idealised projection of the author. Examples of this have been attributed to the main characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. They contain characters whose self-insert status hasn’t been ascribed by the author, but rather by the reader. It is possible, and even likely, that the author did not intend to write a self-insert character, but that remains the popular interpretation.
Meyer’s Twilight character, Bella Swan, has in particular received intense backlash for supposedly being a self-insert character. While holding no physical similarities to Meyer, it is widely believed that Bella is an idealised projection of the author; a plain, shy girl with little personality who draws the attraction of beautiful men and possesses amazing abilities. This idea of an almost ‘empty’ character being derided as authorial self-insertion/projection is known in popular culture as a Mary Sue. While lacking a universally agreed-upon definition, a Mary Sue is generally thought to be a near-perfect main character who can do no wrong in the story, and is generally thought of as a projection of the writer.
The problem with the idea of the Mary Sue is that it is often used inaccurately. Often the characters who are accused of being projections of the author are suffering from poor characterisation, rather than actual self-insertion. The term ‘self-insert’ is often thrown around casually at, mostly female, authors, when what is to blame is generally just poor writing.
This idea of authorial self-insertion can be a complex issue. While it can be used as a literary technique to great effect, it is also an accusation that has been weaponised against writers who they feel have written themselves too closely into their texts. In the end, the judgement of what is and isn’t self-insertion in a fictional text is often down to the reader’s interpretation, but it would perhaps help if they learnt the proper definition first.
by Seren Livie