Were James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Emily Bronte, and Lewis Carroll on the autism spectrum?

Virginia Woolf
This is an undated photo of British author Virginia Woolf. (AP Photo)

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” Virginia Woolf

By Patrick Jasper Lee

Autism and fiction aren’t commonly mentioned in the same sentence. It took me some time to realize that there seems these days to be fewer fiction writers in the world who are considered to be on the spectrum.

In the past we’ve seen brilliant writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Janet Frame, and Lewis Carroll described as exhibiting forms of autism. However, they are only described this way in our current time as no such diagnosis existed in their day, so one might feel that categorizing them in this way is mere speculation.

Yet, there is no getting away from the fact that it takes an obsessive nature and a good deal of self-discipline (which many on the spectrum can summon without a problem) to produce extraordinary creative works such as these writers did.

The question is: are spectrum fiction writers still out there? Perhaps it’s a case of fiction writers with autism not being recognized, or talked about, or even getting publishing deals these days.

Many authors who introduce characters with autism into their books, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon being an example, confess to being neurotypical, and whether you like such books or dislike them, perhaps it’s true that some authors wouldn’t be so keen to carry the autistic label for the reputation it might invite.

As a published author, I know what it feels like to take my fiction out into the big wide world to peddle around as an aspie. It has to be said that submitting work to the established literary industry is akin to stepping into a minefield. It’s true that there isn’t a great deal of education and understanding for fiction writers with Asperger’s, and agents may possibly express doubt if they know a writer is on the spectrum. They may not have made a study of spectrum conditions, and if they have, they may well believe that an aspie writer wouldn’t be able to manage the business side of a professional literary relationship: the social side often being key to success, for it can sometimes amount to quite a lot of socializing, all depending on the kind of agent employed.

Things have changed noticeably on the literary scene over the years. Gone are the days when one expected writers to exhibit eccentricity or quirks or personal difficulties due to artistic temperament. Today, artistic temperament isn’t in the equation when writers are obliged to become business people first. This might be all right for some, but within the coldness of the online marketing world as it is today, to what extent are we sacrificing our literary artistic nature?

An agent may believe that a spectrum writer will be difficult to handle, and will perhaps only be able to write in an “aspie” way – whatever that is. An agent or publisher may run through any number of difficulties when discovering a potential client has Asperger’s syndrome. These questions have certainly arisen in my own dealings with people in the literary field.

There are facts to examine. Virginia Woolf, one of our greatest fiction writers, took longer than the average child to learn how to speak. She suffered with anorexia, couldn’t look people in the eye, was intensely shy and felt isolated as a teenager. She enjoyed socializing but hated being peered at. She was also obsessed with her pens.

Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote many famous fairy tales, was socially immature, a loner and an outsider. He was extremely obsessive and ritualistic in his behaviour; it is said he spoke with an unusually high-pitched voice.

I leave you to decide whether or not you think these writers might have been on the spectrum, but they had distinctive spectrum-like quirks, and both would now certainly be considered to be on the spectrum. They were hardworking, wrote furiously and obsessively, and let’s face it, without them, and others like them, good literature in our world simply wouldn’t have happened. Many also gave us a valuable perspective of the world; such writers often say the unsayable on our behalf, which can be another aspie trait.

Because fiction-writing calls for character assessment, and all that a character or a real person comprises psychologically and emotionally, one might imagine people with Asperger’s to be especially poor at handling such things due to a supposed lack of empathy with the character. So it might follow that one wouldn’t expect someone with HFA to become a novelist. After all, if you can’t understand how people in society around you tick, and how they use or don’t use social cues etcetera, how on earth are you going to introduce such insights into your fictional characters?

The bottom line is that someone with Asperger’s may well produce a novel of a high standard due to having an obsessive nature and a sense of perfectionism about writing, and we must remember that people with Asperger’s feel things; they just don’t always know what is expected of them regarding what they feel – at least I don’t.

I’ve seen how people in general (neurotypicals) tend to bluff their way through their social lives, and this naturally varies from one individual to the next. It’s true that it doesn’t mean you’ll get along just fine if you don’t have Asperger’s syndrome. Everyone, in my experience, is subject to the task of having to make their social interaction acceptable to others, because most like to please and like to be liked by others, and as there isn’t a right or wrong way of communicating, no rulebook on the craft, I deduce that I’m simply doing the same as everyone else, but perhaps in a slightly different way. I must admit that I’m able to see clearly that everyone else around me is usually doing it as much as I am, except they’re perhaps better at disguising it than I am.

Having worked at creative writing with people, and having taken them through various stages of inventing characters on the page, I’ve noticed that a writer who isn’t obsessed and who isn’t a perfectionist and who doesn’t ask questions about the art of communication and social life, is unlikely to turn out fiction that is of worth; that is, it may not turn out to be creatively and grammatically polished enough to be worthy of publication. All writers of the past discussed their social lives and had opinions, sometimes quite strong regarding the way people around them ticked because their trained literary eyes, and perhaps their aspie brains, guided them in such a way.

Doesn’t this leave us with the feeling that if we have HFA traits, i.e. if we are obsessed with our work and want to polish it until it gleams, that we would make better writers? Virginia Woolf polished her work to a shine, as did many others. So aren’t those with aspie traits more likely to produce outstanding works?

Perhaps agents and publishers should go all out to search for these special traits in writers instead of looking for business people, which they tend to do too frequently – or perhaps I’m not keeping up with the times and am making ridiculous suggestions. I know that an agent would do well to take on someone with HFA because it would mean they could trust an aspie to work hard in just about everything he or she does.

But it is really the same old story where the workplace is concerned. Aspies in the workplace, whatever that workplace happens to be, can suffer unfairly, when really they are the most diligent of workers, and that is a fact.

There is certainly a general reticence with literary agents these days; the literary world has changed considerably, and it begs the question: would a professional recognize the likes of a Virginia Woolf or a Hans Christian Andersen today, particularly when personal image within social media has become an essential tool for promoting oneself? Would Virginia Woolf mind being “looked at” on Facebook? How would she and others of her ilk promote themselves? Are such dedicated writers only to be found in the past now?

With our attention span lessening steadily – to that of a goldfish due to the invention of the smartphone according to Leon Watson of the Daily Telegraph – we are without doubt facing major changes where the arts are concerned. In Canada, researchers studied the brain activity of 112 people, using electroencephalograms, and the results showed that “the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds.” The article was written in May 2015.

This fact is worrying. I have noticed the attention span in people lessening, and this isn’t a good prospect for writers whose books demand an attention span somewhat greater than that of a goldfish in their readers.

It’s true that spectrum writers would never have found it easy to write fiction, in the sense that one gets rather involved with one’s work, sometimes overly so. It is like living a second life, which can affect you to the point where you lose track of space and time, and can begin living in your book more than you live in your real life. This is something writers of the past also did. H.E. Bates walked a mile in the wrong direction once in London while he was focused on one of his books, and Virginia Woolf was said to bump into walls while preoccupied with her characters.

An alternative answer for an Asperger’s writer where publishing is concerned is of course to keep quiet about the fact that you are on the spectrum, and this is exactly what I did when I had my first book published by HarperCollins. It actually never occurred to me to mention anything so personal about myself, but at the same time I wouldn’t have wanted them to believe I was weird.

As it turned out, they thought me a bit quirky and eccentric, but attributed that to my being Romani Gypsy; they preferred to focus on the foibles of my people and culture.

I feel strongly about, and am also saddened by, the changes that have happened to fiction in recent times. I address the social problems we aspies face through a major character in my most recent novel. This is a book about an aspie, written by an aspie – a bit of a rarity by today’s standards. But there’s a corner to fight here.

Rowan Ansell is a high-functioning individual who is rarely taken seriously. He has a small place in the big world, just as many of us do. He confesses he doesn’t know what to do in the world and doesn’t actually know what it’s for – a perspective echoed by many writers, thinkers, and aspies. He gets by, from day to day, managing his own life in his seemingly quirky way while people around him don’t always understand the highs and lows of what his life is about. The book carries a realistic approach, but is not without humor – which is the way I see my own life.

Rowan Ansell’s main problem is with names. Everyone around him must utter his own and everyone else’s in full when in his presence. He otherwise cannot settle, and almost goes mad when he falls in love with a young woman whose surname he cannot for the life of him discover. He naturally finds himself getting into a lot of trouble when he becomes obsessed with the woman he adores.

While writing this book, I gave it my all. I would work all day and sometimes into the night. It wasn’t a case of outlining a plot and then sketching it out and refining it. (Nothing a goldfish might do – with all due respect to goldfish). I was there. I was in it, and it was in me, for a long period of time. The characters came to life in my kitchen, in the shower, in the supermarket, wherever I happened to be; they were real people, some of them based on people I have known, but each character offered up his or her own perspective on life and I stood firmly in their corner each time they interacted on the page.

I know for a fact that were I not on the spectrum, I couldn’t have injected so much detail into Rowan Ansell, which I hope makes him, and the book, far more readable.

Dedicated fiction writers are up against a lot in these times of intense marketing where in order to find a publishing deal they need to be a “somebody”, or a “somebody who knows a somebody”, essential to get you where you need to go.

It may be surprising to hear that writing is rarely judged by its craft these days. I am tired of walking into big bookstores and seeing celebrity titles dominating the shelves, with many of those celebrities suddenly becoming fiction writers, overnight, simply because they are – well, a somebody. I am not alone in this. The Society of Authors stated around fifteen years ago that good books weren’t finding their way onto the shelves anymore, even though published by one of the Big Six, now reduced to the Big Five: Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Random House now having merged.

My wife, Anni, also a writer under the pseudonym C.G. Browne – and who exhibits quite a few aspie traits herself – encounters the same problem, and we are both on a fight to educate people in good writing, and for good writing to continue to be recognized.

Fortunately, the aspie spirit is one of courage and resilience. If we can do something, you can be certain we’ll do it well. I take my own writing seriously, certainly as seriously as any other hardworking writer of the past might.

If autism and fiction aren’t always talked about as a conducive partnership, then perhaps we should all turn to imaginatively written books, like those written by Virginia Woolf and others of her ilk, so that we can educate ourselves, and gain that artistic/autistic perspective on the world. I sometimes believe autistic thinking is artistic thinking. I see stream-of-consciousness forms of writing as representing autistic thinking, which I am experimenting with in another book at the moment, exciting to do.

If HFA is part of one’s life and one is a writer of fiction or poetry, one will not be able to stop refining, perfecting, correcting, rearranging words etcetera to the point where one is obsessed with getting it right. An HFA writer will also have developed a rare knack of looking out at the world and seeing what few are able to see: the real world and the way it ticks, along with all the sense and all the nonsense that goes on out there, plus the important characters, good and bad, who make up our world and who affect our world.

As an aspie writer I have the satisfaction of being able to see it all and say it all as it is, and to feel good about that, and no matter what happens, that is unlikely to change.


Patrick Jasper Lee
Patrick Jasper Lee

Patrick Jasper Lee is an author who specializes in Romani Gypsy folklore and myths. He is the author of Coming Home to the Trees, We Borrow the Earth, and many other books. Patrick Jasper Lee’s books are available at www.patrickjasperlee.com.

You may like these other blogs by Patrick Jasper Lee:

Patrick: Romani Gypsy Author Composer Artist and Aspie
Autistic Perspective: On Meeting and Aggressive Dog
On Being The Psychic Autist
Living in a Geometric Universe: On Being an Autistic Synaesthete

4 replies on “Were James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Emily Bronte, and Lewis Carroll on the autism spectrum?”
  1. says: Jeremy Young

    Thanks for an interesting post – I especially empathised with your argument that agents should look for writers with writing skills not for business people. This sort of need to market yourself is, I suspect, an ever-increasing barrier to work for people on the spectrum in a wide range of fields, and absolutely definitely in my field, research science.

  2. says: Joe

    Please may I ask a favor. I have fallen in love with a woman who is a genius and fantastic writer. I would appreciate some advice about how to broach the asbergers topic, or not. Some signs point to HFA, some absolutely do not. I just want to love her well. Can someone contact me pls l?

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