A Field of Ruins
May 21, 2023 12:39 PM   Subscribe

Autofiction has often been derided as both overly concerned with a writer’s individual experience—“navel-gazing”—and inconsiderate to those other than the writer whose lives it depicts. But these criticisms betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what draws writers and readers alike to autofiction. The best—most redemptive—autofiction since Proust included more than 400 characters in his rhizomatic lifework has concerned itself with the ways in which individual lives and identities are connected to the lives and identities of others, and sought to represent this interconnectedness to readers who also sense the terror of being “walled-up” inside their own consciousness. from The Autofiction Writer and the Torturer by Marcus Hijkoop
posted by chavenet (20 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
“Regarding literature, or at least the sort of literature I practice, I have one conviction: It is the place where you don’t lie.”

There is a fundamental problem with autofiction, which I have never really gotten past as a reader.

The power of fiction is that the reader feels that they get to step into another world, one that doesn’t stop at the limits of the text, but extends far outside it, with lives that began before the story and continue after it.

Meanwhile, the power of testimony is that the reader is reading an account of events that happened, and is relayed as accurately as the writer can manage.

Autofiction combines these two genres, claiming the expansiveness of fiction, and the truthfulness of testimony. But the problem is that there is no fiction beyond the limits of the text, only reality, because it is always referring to reality for its claims to truth.

But because it is fiction, there is no compact of truthfulness, the reader knows that anything they read might be a lie.

Fiction, fundamentally, is a compact with the reader that what you will read isn’t a lie. It will be made up, it will not correspond to reality in any direct way, but the reader won’t be lied to.

That compact is absent from autofiction, and personally I don’t like feeling like someone is lying to me.
posted by Kattullus at 1:20 PM on May 21 [11 favorites]

Also, because this drove me to distraction while reading the essay…


He drew heavily on his life, but the product, the text, was extremely different. Just to give one example, Albertine, the protagonist’s female love interest, is based on Proust’s male lover, Alfred.

Proust didn’t just flip the grammatical gender and then write down what Alfred said and did. He took events and personality traits from Alfred and transposed them into a female character, who was then imagined in such a way as to be fully believable as a woman in turn of the last century France.

That is not autofiction, that’s simply fiction.
posted by Kattullus at 1:26 PM on May 21 [12 favorites]

fully believable as a woman in turn of the last century France

Well, let's not get carried away here. But at least that's what he was trying to do.
posted by praemunire at 1:42 PM on May 21 [6 favorites]

If anyone is like me and was similarly wondering:

"Autofiction" is another way to say "autobiographical fiction". Basically it's a fictionalized autobiography.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:04 PM on May 21 [12 favorites]

Proust was not writing autofiction.

I agree. I'm about three-quarters through The Guermantes Way. I would say that it's not only that In Search of Lost Time is not true to many of the facts of Proust's life; it's also full of fascinating details about life in turn-of-the-20th-century France. Telephone calls! Revolving doors! Impressionism! Central heating! Oxygen and morphine (but also leeches) for the dying! The aristocracy! And, of course, the Dreyfus Affair. Proust might have retreated to a cork-lined room to write, but he he had to get out and about a lot in order to write what he did.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 3:54 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]

My late friend was active in the cyberwriting subgenre of autofiction. Some of her work linked here and here.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:04 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

That is not autofiction, that’s simply fiction.

This is underscored by Proust in Swann’s Way. Marcel is relating an intimate conversation between Swann and Odette, and he casually drops a line that reminds the reader that Marcel was not only not there but either unborn or a very young child. The “recollection” of the previous generation is a fiction of Marcel’s, even as Marcel is a fiction of Proust.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:43 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

Oh, Em Carrere, he's an odd cat. I've only read his dark view of PK Dick, 'I am Alive and You are Dead', which is quite interesting.
posted by ovvl at 6:01 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

the power of testimony is that the reader is reading an account

In as that the testimony replaces the narrative or becomes the narrative. I just wonder if this plugs into something I read by Linda Hutcheon concerning the poetics of postmodernism. "in both fiction and history writing today, our confidence in impiricist and positivist epistemologies has been shaken-shakien, but perhaps yet not destroyed.... historiographic metafiction, for example, keeps distinct it's formal Auto-representation and it's historical context, and in doing so problematzes the very possibility of historical knowledge, because there is no reconciliation, no dialect here-just unresolved contradiction... to Aristotle, the historian could speak only of what has happened, are the particulars of the past; the poet, on the other hand, spoke of what could or might happen and so deal with more universals."
posted by clavdivs at 6:19 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

Paul T Goldman might be an example of autofiction gone too far.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:44 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

When I first heard the phrase “autofiction” recently, I assumed it was something to do with automatic writing, like, the spiritualist thing. I thought it was all fiction supposedly written by spirits with the author as a medium. The reality is so much more boring.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:11 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]

Autofiction sounds like novels about cars….
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:25 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

Maybe autofiction would be JG Ballard writing about cars…
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:04 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

Since no one else has brought this up: I feel like the interesting points in this essay were overshadowed by it being primarily about white male novelists on their second or third wives who are just so surprised-- why, despite my powers of minute observation, I truly had no idea!-- when the women in their life turn out to be actual people. It's just so exhausting.
posted by phooky at 8:05 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]

A strange but interesting article. I encounter this feeling sometimes that it's as if someone by random chance is designated one whose every thought and action is worth describing and analyzing in great detail. (Of course the demographics of these people are not quite so random. And also, what phooky said.)

Obviously in autofiction one does it to oneself but it also happens in articles like this, when there is this presumption that Carrere's every action, word, and thought has real intellectual value. I don't mean to say that the opposite is necessarily true, but it's funny how in postmodern literature that seems to be the case quite often, and as an outsider I'm left thinking, isn't it possible this man is not actually that smart, and we are ascribing significance to whatever he does regardless of its value, like trusting an octopus to predict the stock market?

I met a young woman at a bar a little while ago and she said she was writing and very interested in autofiction. Although I squinted a bit internally, I encouraged her to explore it and to look earlier than she thought for the origins of the genre — specifically, to Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It probably doesn't meet the modern standard of autofiction, but it's a hell of a lot closer than you'd expect a book to come 250 years ago. She had never heard of him (and being 21, it is not surprising) but seemed surprised that the idea went back so far. I said, they all do, and that's one of the most important lessons I've learned in all my years of reading and writing.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:09 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

The article isn't really about this but I guess I don't understand what auto fiction is?

There is memoir and autobiography, with its innate, and sometimes perfidious subjectivity. And there is also a long tradition of highly autobiographical 'fiction' - sometimes barely disguised and sometimes with very significant alterations from the author's 'real' biography. And then there's this 3rd category of auto fiction, which I took to mean a certain set of innovations with form that cross genre. I tend to like a lot of books that I understand to exist in these liminal worlds between fiction and self-reflection, with elements of autobiography, essay, philosophy. Thinking of Sebald or Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts or Teju Cole's Open City, and also of less immersive dives into self-reference, such as the way Rivka Galchen drops a version of her real father, through the eyes of a likely insane character, into her novel Atmospheric Disturbances. I find this, when successful, a really interesting exploration of self that is not oriented toward supposedly conveying a 'truth' but actually inherently troubles the idea that the author/observer can have an accurate or full picture of themselves or the people they are in relationship with. It seems like the opposite of the conflict described in the article, where the author references their lives and the people around them by explicitly exploring their own inability to know or capture those selves with a universal accuracy.

I have not read Knausgaard or Carrère, I sense they are not for me, but I don't know why these two are classified as autofiction rather than completist or pedantic memoir or something of that nature.
posted by latkes at 1:10 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

I think Anna Moschovakis' Eleanor or the Rejection of Love is autofiction: it's about a novelist named Eleanor who is a character in a book written by a novelist named Eleanor, and in it there is a dialog with an editor about the novel she is writing. I have no idea what aspects of the book are 'autobiographical' to Moschovakis, but I am confident it exists at least in her cultural milieu (the International and NY based community of youngish artists, writers, editors etc) and the book has Eleanor reading many formally inventive novels (a good side project is to read the many referenced works) which at minimum one knows have been read by, and one assumes influenced Moschovakis, herself a translator, poet, author, publisher. The whole thing reflects on itself and on the author (I guess?) in a more interesting way than simply portraying a real-life family member as a thinly fictionalized - or supposedly-not fictionalized character in a subjective biographic narrative.
posted by latkes at 1:27 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

I also really liked Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs which features a fictionalized version of himself and also superheroes and sort of essays about Occupy and politics and such. I think of autofiction as this blend that inherently questions the autobiographic while acknowledging the author's existence in every one of their works.
posted by latkes at 1:38 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

Answer: Autofiction.
Question: What is Crash, a Novel by J.G. Ballard?
posted by ApplAuD at 2:59 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

I wonder if my stage magic project counts as autofiction.

It's a show largely about the anxiety and impostor syndrome that comes with making a show - in this case my first ever magic show since a failed childhood attempt. The framing device is a magic show with two assistants, one of whom (a cis white guy that represents both The Kyriarchy and my self-hate) is trying to take over my show. The show consists of a mix of various vignettes of my life, intertwined with magic tricks, some of which have their own stories. The framing device is fictional (I obviously haven't actually been killed by an incompetent dudebro assistant only to come back to life) and some of the stories are a little fictionalized (I aged down my kid-fail self from 14 to 10, the story about legendary magician P.C. Sorcar has him bamboozling my grandfather at border control with a filled up passport instead of the IRL customs form because passports translate better on stage), but the overall vibe is true. The stagecraft of it helps convey the emotional truth about the each moment better than a strict literal depiction of events.

Would that count as autofiction, or a different thing?
posted by creatrixtiara at 4:25 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

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