You’d be forgiven if you thought autofiction was filler for a hot rod mag. The Greek prefix auto- means “self,” think “autobiography”—now, swap in “fiction” and you get the gist.
It’s nothing new, references reach back at least as far as the 70s (according to contemporary criticism) and likely beyond.
This bastard offspring of memoir and fiction even gets a pouty definition from Wikipedia: “Autofiction combines two mutually inconsistent narrative forms, namely autobiography and fiction.”
I don’t think that autobiography and fiction are necessarily “inconsistent forms” when brought together in autofiction (yes, I too wish there was a better word for it). My go-to chestnut on these occasions is to lean into the difference between truth and fact so far as artistic endeavors are concerned. Albeit, I’ve had to occasionally shelve this trope due to the Fake News wave of recent years, but I risk rolling it out here to stake a claim for emotional truth versus fact.
The SAT analogy would be “truth is to story as fact is to plot.” Anyone familiar with my work knows that I privilege the former. For that matter, I’ve always written autofiction in some form, starting with the appearance of aspiring screenwriter “Chris F.” in my first novel, The Late Projectionist.
Given the propensity for first-timers to write—if not “what they know,” then at least—“who they know,” it’s no accident I leaned on my own bio for my pseudo-roman à clef about wannabe filmmakers in a small town.
I emphasize “pseudo” because the book is less about “real-life events” (that are “overlaid with a façade of fiction,” as Wikipedia explains the French term), than a sci-fi romp that was inspired by the environs and pals of that moment. It was certainly not a memoir but a kind of intentionally false memory (those were all the rage in the 90s) though I’ll argue it makes a claim at a kind of emotional “truth” that is more effective for not being encumbered by mere facts, which were boring in a way only Gen X can appreciate. Emotional truth is not always rational and as such does not require faculties to be experienced.
Hence, the burnt-out journo “Daedalus Howell” in Quantum Deadline—which blurs the autobiographical and fiction, let alone my professional byline, in a manner that is both aesthetically and psychologically appealing to at least its author.
And I’m not the only one. My awareness of the possibilities of autofiction likely started as an adolescent with Kurt Vonnegut’s authorial cameo in Breakfast of Champions and was later confirmed when Paul Auster answered the door as a character in City of Glass. These stuck with me personally and informed my own work but so many more, especially in recent years, have made their own offerings.
Lifelong friend Abe Levy uses an autofictional approach in Her Men (FMRL 2021) in which the main character shares the name and autobiographical details of the author’s deceased sister but otherwise, the names, places, etc., are fictionalized. Furthermore, the narrator is ostensibly the author recalling experiences told to him by his sister. In this way, it’s a second-hand memoir but it’s technically (and legally) a work of fiction and in genre terms “autofiction,” …if there indeed is such a thing.
“…Autofiction is not and has never been a genre,” writes publisher and author coach Brooke Warner in Publishers Weekly. “You will not find autofiction as a category on Amazon, nor does it exist as a subject heading in the industry’s [Book Industry Standards And Communications] categorization system, which exists to help booksellers know where to shelve books.”
Warner suggests that autofictions, given their fictionalized components, are technically novels and would thus find their place within recognized fiction categories. Moreover, Warner is a self-described “champion of the memoir,” and is concerned about “what we might lose when authors don’t claim their truth.”
I get it. And agree. Autofictions are novels. And as such, I think those of us who traverse this liminal terrain should push even further to the various outposts of genre and form. As Marcel Proust observed (his seven-volume work In Search of Lost Time is often considered a prefiguring of autofiction), “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
But imagine what they can be.