I've just finished Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, and I didn't like it very much. A more thorough explanation can be found in my Amazon review, but one sticking-point for me with Amy Tan has always been: she writes the same story every time. Superficially, this represents a departure from her normal structure; set in Shanghai at the turn of the twentieth century and dealing with the ritualised world of the courtesan house, it's more Memoirs of a Geisha than The Bonesetter's Daughter. However, as the story unfolds, it's clear that Tan's usual themes are all present and correct: the rift between a mother and daughter and the daughter's eventual appreciation of the richness of her mother's life experience (this time, multiplied over three generations for added angst!); the clash between traditional Chinese values and modern Western culture; the horrible treatment of women historically in China. While this set of themes would make one good book, I don't think that it makes more than one. The problem: Tan always writes what she knows. I know little about Tan's life, so I'm not going to make the lazy assumption that this story is a completely autobiographical one, but it doesn't really matter if it is. Because she never moves from this basic plot-line, her writing has little room to develop and grow, or to surprise the reader.
'I have never subscribed to the notion of "writing what you know", at least not for myself,' Ann Patchett writes in 'The Getaway Car', one of the essays in This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage. 'I don't know enough interesting things. I began to see research as both a means of writing more interesting novels and a way to improve my own education.' As I wrote in my review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, I'm certainly not saying that writers should never write about what they know. I think the important thing to keep in mind is that handling material you know from personal experience should be handled as delicately and with as much care as you would handle research notes. We've all read an over-researched novel, with irrelevant info-dumps and characters' decisions distorted so the author could cram in more vital information (The Valley of Amazement does a bit of this as well) and I think writers run similar risks when they try to make their personal experience fit a character that isn't themselves. Losing important emotional distance, it becomes more difficult to judge what really works and what doesn't. I also think a wonderful advantage of consciously doing research for a novel is that you can deliberately choose to do most of your research after the skeleton of the first draft is in place, ensuring that the key decisions aren't affected by what you find out. This is impossible for somebody working from personal experience, who has to be that much stricter with themselves.
The fact that Tan is clearly working from a particular script isn't necessarily a problem - it's clear in the work of most writers that certain concerns and worries pop up again and again, as I discuss in my review of Lionel Shriver's Big Brother on Friday. The problem is that these themes are never reworked; she is saying the same thing every time, and less well, I think, in The Valley of Amazement than in some of her earlier work. As Patchett indicates, writers who realise what they don't know, and what they are willing to risk, are often the most adventurous; and while you can't guarantee that your life will encompass an inspiring range of experience, you can always ask a research question.