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book review: how to write an autobiographical novel by alexander chee

“there’s a reason that whenever fascists come to power, the writers are among the first to go to jail.” 

How to Write An Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee


Rating: 4 out of 5.


paperback & audiobook

Page Count:



nonfiction memoir


How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.


content warnings.

child abuse, homophobia, sexual abuse, police violence, 9/11


this book, in the author’s words, is a “manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him.”

although (unlike the name suggests) the book is not at all about how to write an autobiographical novel, chee does offer many of his perspectives on novel-writing throughout. the collection also serves as an autobiography of sorts, taking us through his childhood and education, on to his post-graduate and adult life living in san francisco and new york city .

there were many essays in this book that i resonated with deeply, especially in the first half of the collection–at times, it felt like chee was reaching inside my soul and echoing my deepest hopes and fears. there were also quite a few essays that confused me and left me feeling hopelessly sad. 

like chee, i am living in san francisco after graduating college, and it was particularly interesting to read about his years in the city: “at this time in San Francisco, it seemed that the world might either go up in flames or be restored in a healing past imagining. the world seemed ripe for fixing and rescue. i think now, twenty years later, this feeling might always be true.”

i also appreciated his argument that writing is a skill and can be learned, and also that “…the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure and success.” i loved that he told his students to go make space for where their books will be on the shelves–i imagined that i was his student and i was hearing those words for myself.

Have you read this collection? I’d love to hear your thoughts down below!

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day <3

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