Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Tao Lin: How ‘Auto’ Is ‘Autofiction’?

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Sheila Heti. Photo: Steph Martyniuk

The term autofiction has been in vogue for the past decade to describe a wave of very good American novels by the likes of Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Jenny Offill, and Tao Lin, among others, as well as the multivolume epic My Struggle by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. These are books that invite readers to imagine they might be reading something like a diary, where the transit from real life to the page has been more or less direct. But that effect, whatever the truth of it, is an illusion. The term would be misapplied to books like the five novels Edward St. Aubyn wrote about his alter ego Patrick Melrose, because, although he’s acknowledged that he’s drawn directly from his life to create Patrick’s, his books partake conspicuously of the traditions of the English comic novel, with its artificial dialogue and carefully choreographed set pieces. Heti’s and Lerner’s books don’t lack artifice — they are novels, however their readers receive them — but the artifice is in service of creating the sensation that there’s no artifice, which is the whole point.

The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compound. In the past, I’ve tried to make a distinction in my own use of the term between autobiographical fiction, autobiographical metafiction, and autofiction, arguing that in autofiction there tends to be emphasis on the narrator’s or protagonist’s or authorial alter ego’s status as a writer or artist and that the book’s creation is inscribed in the book itself. This definition of autofiction has something in common with the German term Kunstlerroman, which describes books that chronicle an artist’s maturation, a point made by the critic Jonathan Sturgeon in a 2014 essay for Flavorwire, “The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction.”

But that isn’t the only way to use the term, and because the term originated in France, Americans don’t have a firm grasp of its history and probably never will. That’s okay—I think we can handle it. As it happens, the term’s coining occurred not in a work of criticism but in a blurb on the back of the French novelist Serge Doubrovsky’s book Fils in the late 1970s:

Autobiography? No, that is a privilege reserved for the important people of this world, at the end of their lives, in a refined style. Fiction, of events and facts strictly real; autofiction, if you will, to have entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside of the wisdom and the syntax of the novel, traditional or new. Interactions, threads of words, alliterations, assonances, dissonances, writing before or after literature, concrete, as we say, music.

So autofiction came to us as part of the language of commercial promotion, a way of marketing as new something almost as old as writing itself: the blending of the real and the invented. Doubrovsky’s blurb places an emphasis on his status as a common person (as opposed to those who’ve written about their lives because they’re already famous), on the role of style, and on his freedom to operate outside the traditional rules of the novel (whatever those seemed to be in France at the time). As far as I can tell, Doubrovsky’s novel has never been translated into English, so I can’t report on the degree to which he delivers on his own hype.

Other critics have placed emphasis on instances when a protagonist and an author share the same name or have argued that what distinguishes autofiction is its “sincerity.” I don’t think those are crucial aspects of autofiction, though they’re certainly welcome at the party. One question that I think is pertinent when it comes to autofiction: What’s more important, the auto or the fiction? And I think the answer is: the fiction. It only takes a few gestures toward the real — age and other markers of demographic identity, status as a writer and other career details — to blur the line in the reader’s mind between an author and a character. From there an entire fictional world can be generated, scenarios that never happened or people who never existed. Guessing games can be fun, but they’re beside the point. Some works, like Knausgaard’s, portray life with a level of quotidian detail that appears to be beyond the capacity of anybody’s actual memory. And indeed, Knausgaard has admitted, when it came to, say, setting the scene at his childhood home as dinner was being made, if memory failed, he simply made stuff up.

But beyond an index of what’s “real” and what isn’t, there are other, deeper things at stake in autofiction’s status as fiction. There are certain things we want from memoirs and from essays that fiction can indulge in without committing to. Memoirs may seek to entertain and make us laugh (Sloane Crosley’s recent collection of memoir-essays Look Alive Out There is a good example) or they may place narratives within a moral framework that shows us how to lead our lives (Leslie Jamison’s recent memoir and study of addiction The Recovering does that, among other things). We expect essays to inform us about the world and to make arguments, and autofiction novels often do similar things in the form of essayistic digressions, but within the frame of fiction they have a different status if they are put in characters’ minds or mouths than if they’re made by a memoirist or an essayist, who we are meant to believe are as charming or as redeemed or as righteous as they appear to be on the page. Autofiction writers stand at a certain distance from the world — and the ethics and the politics — on display in their novels, as far or farther than authors of fictions that aren’t autobiographical at all.

These distinctions are relevant in considering a few books out this month: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood; Tao Lin’s Trip; and Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick. Both Lin and Heti have been part of the recent wave of autofiction, Tao Lin most recently in his 2013 novel Taipei, and Heti with her novel How Should a Person Be?, which first appeared in Canada in 2010. None of DeWitt’s books, including Some Trick, can be classified as autofiction, but because some of DeWitt’s travails in the publishing world are public knowledge and some of her stories involve conflicts between artists and writers and the industries they operate within it’s tempting to draw parallels. It’s no fault to critics who do that but rather a mark of DeWitt’s artistry, that her stories — with their abstractions, games, and flights into counterintuitive or unorthodox logic — give a lot of pleasure if you know nothing about her career and perhaps more so if you ignore her biography entirely. (And I say this as someone who’s profiled her.

Trip, on the other hand, is a work of nonfiction, and there’s no point for readers to separate it from the writer who wrote it, because his career and his life are two of its explicit subjects. But its prime subject is the experience of taking psychedelic drugs, including acid, mushrooms, and DMT. Why did Lin, having previously written a novel about characters who take psychedelics, move to nonfiction? One of the answers has to do with the status of his descriptions of drug experiences, which are wild and lyrical. Within the context of a novel, such passages might as well be invented, the way that novelists often tell of their characters’ dreams. In Trip it’s important that we trust that he’s presenting his hallucinations in good faith so that when he writes, “I arrived, with amazement, in a silvery-gray, bulgingly dimensional, complicatedly pulsating, profoundly unfamiliar-feeling, nonphysical place that seemed ancient, public, and, because I couldn’t change perspective, strangely screen-like,” our reaction is: wow, that must be what DMT was like.

These distinctions may seem simple, and indeed they are, but it’s crucial to keep them in mind, as reactions to Heti’s Motherhood have shown. Without picking fights with her critics (some of whom I’ve worked with, as I have with Heti), many of them have seemed determined to read her novel as a manifesto or tract with one even declaring that the narrator and the novelist seem “indistinguishable.” Some have judged that narrator is “like a child” or taken by “childish notions of freedom.” (As Lauren Oyler points out in the Baffler, this undermines the idea that Heti’s use of literary devices is “indicative of authorial choice.) Another critic asks, “But is it possible that freedom is overrated, in life as in art?” We might also ask, is family life overrated? Is love overrated? Is life itself overrated? (Aeschylus thought so.) Certainly many novels are overrated. And it’s to Motherhood’s and its author’s credit, I think, that it raises such basic questions and that it provokes such strong responses, even negative ones.

But I think it also risks underrating the novel to read it strictly as an answer to whether one character, two characters, or any woman or any couple should have children. And certainly everyone is going to have their own opinion on that matter. There’s so much more going on in Motherhood. In perhaps the most formal reading possible (which is easy for me to do as a childless man), you can see the narrator’s question of whether or not to have a child as a MacGuffin — that is, a plot device that allows the narrator to delve into her inner life; her relationships to her boyfriend, her mother, and her grandmother; her friendships; and the ways middle-class societies view parenthood. It also allows for much humor and philosophical speculation that Heti probably wouldn’t commit to if she were writing nonfiction (in the same way many of the flights into sex and social life in How Should a Person Be? wouldn’t sit as well in a memoir). One element that Heti avers in a note to be nonfictional are answers given to questions by coins flipped according to a practice from the I Ching. Of course, why put them in at all if the answers were just made up? These arbitrary (or fated) responses are some of the funniest things in the book.

Another thing about novels: It’s all in the writing. Heti wouldn’t be so popular to begin with if she wasn’t such an an appealing stylist. Which puts me in mind of a joke a novelist I know made when he was on tour in Europe. Asked by an interviewer what he was working on next, he said he’d been commissioned to write a biography of Knausgaard, “filling in the gaps” he left in My Struggle. Who would want to read such a book if not for the music Knausgaard brought to the telling of something more or less like life? Beside it, real life is trivia.

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How ‘Auto’ Is ‘Autofiction’?