A hybrid of memoir and biography, Jenn Shapland’s debut is a sensitive recounting of her discovery of novelist Carson McCullers and, in a very real sense, of her own identity as a lesbian and a writer.
... a hard-won inquiry into how we seek out the truth of ourselves and others in ways that often, by necessity, aren’t straightforward, that arrive in our lives in glimmering bits and shards ... The difficulty in overcoming this instinct to code and conceal is what gives Shapland’s book its considerable stakes ... Shapland’s book is the kind of state-of-the-form reckoning that makes one wish there were more like it. The truth is, doing the work of retrospective, corrective rearranging (pretty much the job description of any critic or academic working today) is never without risk. Surely, the more transparently we acknowledge the stakes, the more likely we are to arrive at a payoff. After all, it’s often by looking back that we move the conversation forward, and by inhabiting the lives of others that we might glimpse pieces of our own.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers , as its too-clever-by-half-sounding title implies, is neither memoir nor biography ... such a declaration cannot disguise the fact that her (over) identification with McCullers takes us nowhere that is very productive ... She wants to name lesbians – to use the word, over and over – not only as a point of principle, but because it does her such good. I understand this. But there is a problem here. In all the pointing, McCullers’s work is lost; Shapland is keen on the novels’ queerness, but never gets too involved with their literary achievements. Like many of the other women in the book, she is seen almost entirely through the prism of her sexuality ... how reductive this is and how antiquated. It’s a diminishment that invites another kind of invisibility and I think McCullers (and all of them) would have despised it ... Still, I’m glad to have read My Autobiography of Carson McCullers . Its mere existence stands as a warning of the cul-de-sac into which publishing has lately wandered (I mean, run, blindfolded, at full tilt). It could not be more modish, from the floating paragraphs of its fractured narrative to its breathless quoting of Maggie Nelson (of whom, incidentally, I’m a fan). In the US, it was a National Book award finalist; Carmen Maria Machado calls it – preposterously, given the single note it sounds – 'symphonic'. Why the dazzlement? Why won’t anyone take this book on? Because I’m here to tell you that it often makes no sense ... What’s funny about this is that before I read Shapland’s book, I’d no idea anyone believed McCullers was straight. What’s much less funny is its utter futility. What a dead end. For writing, for the imagination, for empathy.
Shapland’s research uncovers one censorship after another: euphemisms, silence, and outright denial by parties competing to control McCullers’ story—a willful closeting. But if one could animate this book, it’d be with the cartoon trope of the exploding closet ... What makes My Autobiography Of Carson McCullers so different in spirit from other takes on McCullers’ story is Shapland’s open partiality. It takes a queer to know one, and as Shapland immerses herself in McCullers’ life...she traces her own 'protracted becoming' ... By drawing on the work of Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, Susan Sontag, and Maggie Nelson, Shapland brings a sharp modern lens to her reading of McCullers’ (and her own) life.