Hagiography & the Fictional You
This essay intends to look at the tradition of what is known in the West as a ‘Mary Sue’ story, which is often an exaggerated account of the author’s own life told through the guise of fiction, wherein faults are omitted and strengths exaggerated, as the author’s own life becomes the source of their romantic imagination. It is worth discussing, as many first time authors will tell similar stories, semi-autobiographical stand-ins for themselves, retelling their own lives as a sort of romantic drama.
In such cases, it’s an autobiography in all but name. Sometimes, it’s a self-deprecation fantasy, as one finds in the work of Franz Kafka, wherein fictionalized portraits of his very real self loathing take the shapes of insects (The Metamorphosis), men condemned for a crime about which they know nothing (The Trial), and a man who starves himself for the enjoyment of an ever-boring crowd, only to be replaced by a panther — an animal with much more vigor and appetite (The Hunger Artist, the last short story before his death). As this will be the first type of novel many young writers try to write, it is worth looking at this much maligned genre.
A hagiography is a style of biography in which the author has cast himself or herself as to romanticize the notions of importance in their own life. Cunning morphs into genius, a man with modest guitar playing talent becomes a world class troubadour. Character flaws are downplayed while positive traits are exaggerated, and is often set to be a way for an unknown author to attempt, through fiction, to tell the world the truth about who they are.
The understanding of this tendency, the need to prove ourselves as credible, professional writers, is best understood as the first strokes taken in a new pool; you’re not quite sure if you’re doing it right, not sure if you enjoy it, and wonder what drove you into the water in the first place. By working through this developmental stage of writing as a natural occurrence it is possible to come away from the story you attempted to tell about yourself with a more genuine understanding of what kind of emotions you intend to convey, allowing you to develop your voice without artsy flourishes, without pretensions, by using the medium of fiction as it was intended: to be propaganda for sentimental and intellectual truths.
Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives, and equally natural to think, when in love, that no one has ever felt so much toward another person. But many have, and also thought the same, ‘no one has ever felt this way,’ thought that many people have when experiencing emotions. This shows up in misery contests – where persons swap stories of their traumas and tragedies and relish in the idea of being more thoroughly miserable than their partner. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us, happening inside of us, and often not apparent to others — at least not as powerfully as it is to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without a doubt the basis for the way we look at everything, wherein all in this little world of ours has special importance. To others, the obviousness of what we imagine to be charm in our story is not actually obvious, and any attempt at dry emotional description will only remind them they’re being manipulated by words. Which is important, mind, to learn the art of rhetoric and persuasion, but in utero, while forming as a writer, it is crucial not to mistake wistful romanticism for ourselves as a crutch for problems we’re unable to face in its true form, in truth. The point is not to dissuade, but to be of use.
To be helpful is not to try to convince new writers not to pursue the writing of hagiography, but since they will, it is more instructive to discuss the ways in which a Mary Sue can be done well. After all, some of the best books of all time are thinly veiled hagiography, at least to the extent of fictionalizing a character for the sake of a mouth-piece by proxy – as many writers with a philosophical bent tend to do. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, everything written by Ayn Rand, even the best novel of all time – Proust’s A la reserches de temps perdu is a Mary Sue, and Proust could draw the sublime from a cup of tea and build the most beautiful of vistas, all centered around a sensitive child who wants to be a writer.
As an unknown writer, I understood how it felt to need validation. And because of this, to advertise ourselves, we create a fictionalized, externalized self-portrait, wherein almost all of what is recounted is non-fiction, “non-fiction except the names” the saying goes. We do this as a way of showing not only our literary merits but personal worth. The trope is best described as a semiautobiographical, thinly veiled origin story for the author. The narration is the proxy through which we attempt to communicate our philosophy, what we think about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s natural and it’s part of maturing, by becoming more comfortable with the less exaggerated, more normal person you really are, and should truly be celebrated for being.
The technique can work – but only if the person attempting the Mary Sue is skilled and / or witty, or is intending to tell a story more-so than tell an allegorical representation of Things They Did; but if the intention is to make the story as real as possible, might I suggest autobiography? That’s what it’s for! And if there are to be true elements and fictional elements, what is a necessary fiction doing in an autobiography, you hypothetical hack? If your life is interesting enough, no embellishment should be necessary. If you don’t deserve a genuine biography, making a slightly fictionalized account of yourself and adding fictions to make your story more interesting, then your life probably wasn’t interesting enough for a novel. I’m sorry you had to hear it from me.
William S. Burroughs said it best in The Western Lands:
“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
The more obvious the intent to blur the recognition of a by-proxy facsimile makes more embarrassing the entire situation. And, considering you’ve admitted to yourself no achievement worth an actual autobiography, choosing to enhance your good characteristics and be virtuous by proxy, to be cared for by proxy, this all makes a sad, sad soup of amateurism and intellectual dishonesty. Nonfiction is for truth, yes, but that doesn’t mean fiction is for lying. If you want a biography, do something to change the world. Invent a working system of government—you’ll get a Mary Sue for that. Or at least an eloquent ghostwriter.
An example of a unique type of Mary Sue
I was a big fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a child. The first two novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four were the best books ever, as far as I was concerned. I would later get the rest (of the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories), always trying to work out how the crime took place. So I pestered my father into getting me a tourist map of London that would’ve been accurate during the time that Watson and Holmes undertook their adventures. When I first started thinking about it as an adult, I started to think that, since Watson was a disabled war vet, he may have created Holmes to somehow live an exciting life as an important, intelligent and useful man, after being invalided out of the military. This is a Mary Sue by which the author gets to live vicariously through a better, more intelligent literary self, but isn’t a Mary Sue in the life story business. Or perhaps he created Holmes as an imaginary friend, to escape the monotony of a slow and unfulfilled life. There is evidence to support this.
First, within the framework of the story, there is a surprising lack of Holmes in newspapers despite his brilliant career—as for his reluctance for validation, it does not make sense for the character as described by Watson. The Sherlock Holmes as described had few weaknesses; yet, time after time, he is prone to vanity and showmanship, despite the repeated insistence that he disapproved all forms of popular applause.
A man so moved by vanity would naturally take credit for his deeds. Yet, when not on the scene or talking to witnesses, Sherlock dislodges himself from the scene entirely, like a moth roused from sleep by the hint of a greater fire. Watson dramatized the stories by making Holmes an artist and magician.
In The Hounds of the Baskervilles, Sherlock was absent for almost the entire story – until Watson cannot form a conclusion on his own. As events begin to move along at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is found camping on the moors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a good author of fiction, but he is much greater at bringing together lots of disparate strings in his particular type of deductive denouement. Conan Doyle was Holmes, if for no other reason than the words from Holmes’ own lips were words written by Doyle, and Doyle solves each case through Holmes.
In between these cases, Holmes is described as abstracted, detached, and aloof – almost like he isn’t there. The sole motivation seems to be to perform these pieces of drama at the behest of his friend, Watson. At the end of The Sign of Four, the denouement is usurped by the wonderful story of the main antagonist, the one-legged Andaman islander Johnathon Small. The ending is brief but telling: (From the ending of The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
“The division seems rather fair,” says Watson. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there is cocaine.”
And he stretched his long white hand up for it.
Watson was the narrator in all but a few stories: two in which Holmes recounts the adventure, such as The Blanched Soldier and The Lions Mane, both from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. In His Last Bow, two stories are written from a third-person omnipotent perspective, The Dying Detective and The Mazarin Stone, respectively. Watson narrates the rest, and exclusively in the first-person perspective, except for the second half of A Study in Scarlet, the first book to feature the world famous detective. The story is told in a third person to give the murderer, Jefferson Hope, a back-story which takes place in Utah and really pisses on Mormons. The same thing happens in the second half of The Valley of Fear, which tells the story of John Douglas’ time in America as an undercover Pinkerton detective going by the name Jack McMurdo. Doyle goes to great lengths to flesh out his fictional characters when they’re not even named until the final act.
Consider how Watson describes Scotland Yard’s MacDonald as a protégé to Holmes: ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, while genius instantly recognizes talent.’
Consider who is more likely to exist: a man capable of riddling out your job by the calluses on your hands, where you live by the unique stains on your boots, and where you sat in a carriage because of the direction of the splash of mud across your jeans, someone who can read your mind, basically, just by following your eye-movements, or a retired military man playing his own little game of literary cops and robbers, imagining himself as Sherlock Holmes, a man of genius, wit, and skill, as their mutual creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly was. Even Watson’s injury isn’t consistent from the first story to the second: in the first, he says:
“I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.”
In the first chapter of The Sign of Four, Holmes manages to upset his dull companion by his accurate deduction of his brother’s habits and character. In that scene, it becomes a leg wound that, ‘aches with the change of weather.’
Watson’s greatness and his weakness was projected onto Holmes. After Sherlock’s death in The Final Problem, published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, [he] is assumed to have died in combat with Moriarty, having fallen into the Reichenbauch Falls. However, in The Adventure of the Empty House, from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of stories after Holmes’ death, Watson tells of his comings and goings in Sherlock’s absence. Interestingly omitted from Watson’s account of life without his famous friend is his wife Mary, whom he met in The Sign of Four. Who, died somehow? It is never really mentioned. But how does he find Sherlock Holmes again? He runs into him while contemplating another problem, that of the death of a fashionable London socialite, Ronald Adair. Holmes, disguised as an old man, bumps into Watson, carrying a pile of books. And from that disguise, from the pile of books, Sherlock Holmes reappears.
To imbue your fiction with aspects of your life in a relatable way is different in a very important way than the first type of Mary Sue, which is little more than exaggeration and just shy of outright lying. To have a character with your mother’s manners or your father’s name is natural. The reason the Mary Sue is so frowned upon is because it negates the problem of imagination at the same time fictionalizing what isn’t the province of the fictional – the real world. The best thing about writing fiction is the discovery of truths within the fancy, within the obviousness of the falseness. When you understand what makes the best art so valuable is that it has a dual and positive effect: the motivation to acquire the skill to create, and the sensibility and identification with the material to know what you’ve created.