Pre-Post-Fiction: Classic Novels That Blur the Line Between Real Life and Fiction

The New York Observer‘s review of Awl co-founder Choire Sicha’s new book is generating a bit of chatter in the corners of the Internet we frequent. The reviewer, Michael Miller, groups Sicha’s book with recent ones by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Tao Lin as what he terms a new wave of “post-fiction.” Post-fiction, he says, is characterized by a chiasmus between the real and the made-up, blurring the two into nonrecognition.” I would suggest that this genre is in fact far older than Miller suggests — it’s just that we used to call novels novels, back in the age when “Based on a True Story” was not worth its weight in marketing gold.

If you spend any time reading literary biographies, after all, you discover pretty quickly that a lot of material in novels is not so much the product of an artist’s vision and invention as a (digested, of course!) version of real life, either the author’s own or those of the people that surround them.

Here follow just a few examples of the genre.


Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed chronicled the arguments and marriages of a few literary critics, including the famous Lionel Trilling, who founded a literary journal together called the “Menorah Journal.” The novel was an instant critical success, the Times deeming Slesinger a “writer to be watched.” Sadly, she’d die within ten years of its publication, though not until after she wrote the screenplay for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.