Autofiction is a little similar to free indirect discourse but is suited to stories which deal with themes around truth. Claus Elholm Andersen talks about autofictionalisation at the High Theory Podcast. The following draws from that interview with extra notes from further reading.
WHAT IS AUTOFICTION?
A subgenre of the novel that involves a blurring between fiction and reality that would be highly problematic in straight autobiography of an important person (e.g. a president).
In essence, autofiction is a story in which main character, narrator and author all have the same name. This person/character claims to be telling the truth.
FEATURES OF AUTOFICTION
Whereas straight autobiography is written as if non-fiction, autofiction authors make use of techniques and devices we typically associate with fiction e.g.
- Metafictive devices (Any technique which reminds readers they are reading a story as outside observers)
- Fragmentation (Fragmentation is a literary practice of the postmodern era. To fragment is to disintegrate, which is what the writers did to their themes and narratives.)
- Metatextuality (A form of intertextual discourse in which one text makes critical commentary on itself or another text. This concept is related to Gérard Genette’s concept of transtextuality in which a text changes or expands on the content of another text.)
- Hybridity (Refers to any mixing of East and Western culture. Within colonial and Postcolonial literature, it most commonly refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between Eastern and Western cultural attributes.)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUTOFICTION
The term autofiction has a long history, especially in France. (The word is at least 40 years old.) But after the financial crisis of 2008, authors around the world started making use of autofictive techniques.
To create a sense of authenticity. After the financial crisis, people felt lied to en masse.
In 2013 My Struggle by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard was translated into English.
A New York Times bestseller, My Struggle: Book 1 introduces American readers to the audacious, addictive, and profoundly surprising international literary sensation that is the provocative and brilliant six-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
It has already been anointed a Proustian masterpiece and is the rare work of dazzling literary originality that is intensely, irresistibly readable. Unafraid of the big issues-death, love, art, fear-and yet committed to the intimate details of life as it is lived, My Struggle is an essential work of contemporary literature.MARKETING COPY
This book is thought to be the breakthrough novel which introduced autofiction to a wider international audience.
Some critics complain about “the Knausgaarding of Literature” — the trend of plotless, “boring” novels — which speaks to its influence.
The financial crisis of 2008 revealed an entire financial system built on fiction. We started hearing about this thing called ‘derivatives’ for the first time, alongside other financial instruments, all built on fictional money. There may be a correlation between that realisation and a tendency for readers to turn to reality — or the appearance of reality — in their reading material. We crave realness, truth and the concrete.
Another interesting point: Claus Andersen only ever meets Knausgaard fans who will only read the physical books, avoiding eBooks.
#METOO AS ‘SEXUAL FINANCIAL CRISIS’
“The truth might be hard to bring to light, but that didn’t mean it didn’t exist, because it did exist: fixed in its moment, unalterable, and certainly not a matter of ‘belief.’ “
When an old flame accuses him of sexual assault in her memoir, expat English journalist Marco Rosedale is brought rapidly and inexorably to the brink of ruin. His reputation and livelihood at stake, Marco confides in a close friend, who finds himself caught between the obligations of friendship and an increasingly urgent desire to uncover the truth. This unnamed friend is drawn, magnetized, into the orbit of the woman at the center of the accusation—and finds his position as the safely detached narrator turning into something more dangerous. Soon, the question of his own complicity becomes impossible to avoid.
Set during the months leading up to Donald Trump’s election, with detours into the 1970s, this propulsive novel investigates the very meaning of truth at a time when it feels increasingly malleable. An atmospheric and unsettling drama from a novelist acclaimed as “the literary descendent of Dostoevsky and Patricia Highsmith” (Boston Globe), Afternoon of a Faun combines a sharply observed study of our shifting social mores with a meditation on what makes us believe, or disbelieve, the stories people tell about themselves.
Katy Waldman at The New Yorker pinpoints autofictive elements in a 2019 novel Afternoon of a Faun by James Lasdun, a so-called post #MeToo novel:
…an objective truth does exist here, and, finally, Lasdun reveals it. The shock of this moment owes to how tightly the book’s psychological mechanisms are wound. It also owes to “Faun’s” autofictional elements. Biographical echoes invite us to read the narrator—and, to a lesser extent, his foil, Marco—as alternative-reality versions of Lasdun. At times, “Faun” feels squarely in the space of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and others. But here, Lasdun marries autofiction to the more obviously stylized genre of the psychological thriller, deploying cliff-hangers and the trope of the unreliable narrator. This is a neat idea: autofictional garnishes on a suspense novel can create a sense of claustrophobia, or become an eerie extra quotient of human consciousness, as if another pair of eyes were watching.Katy Waldman at The New Yorker
If the financial crisis shocked many people into the realisation that money is mostly not real, the #metoo movement shocked many into the realisation that sexual harassment, abuse and rape is everywhere, the snail under the leaf.
Running with Claus Elholm’s theory that a big truth moment such as a financial crisis influences narration in literary fiction, it would seem the #metoo movement has been equally influential. Readers are craving truth, or the semblance of it, in our fiction. Unreliable narration feels tiresome when we’ve been lied to so deeply in our real lives.
I would expect that as more readers feel the impact of the climate disaster for themselves, the big lie that “Everything Is Fine, Business As Usual” will get the autofiction treatment in novels as well.
WHAT IS AUTOFICTIONALISATION?
A mode of narration that characterises many of these autofictional novels.Claus Elholm Andersen at the High Theory Podcast
Mode of narration refers to how these novels are being told. The narrative consciousness or voice is placed with the experiencing character, not with the narrator.
WHAT IS IT FOR?
Certain modes of narration match better with certain themes.
Autofictionalisation suits stories which delve into themes around truth.
Autofiction lets authors describe their lives “in concrete particularity”. Using this technique, authors are able to “situate themselves in the potential and possible past by placing the narrative consciousness in that past.”
You may be wondering how autofiction is different from free indirect discourse in autobiography. Well, it is very much like that, except autofiction “allows for more precision about what is going on”.
EXAMPLES FROM LITERATURE
Claus Andersen offers the following two passages for a compare and contrast:
For a long time I used to go to bed early.Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913)
In the opening sentence to Swann’s Way, already we see a narrator in the present, looking back at his childhood. The narrative voice of consciousness is with the narrator, not with the little boy lying in a bed. (We could have picked any number of novels to demonstrate this very common mode of narration.)
Now for an example from My Struggle, ur-Autofiction of the modern world.
Knausgaard is eight-years-old, outside doing yard work. Just before he turns a corner he stops running. He’s really excited, but has been told he’s not allowed to run in the yard. Then he talks to his father. Before the father leaves the son, the father reminds him, “No running.” (Eight-year-old?) Knausgaard says:
How did he know I had been running? […] How the hell did he know I’d been running? […] How could he have known?Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle
The (adult) narrator (writing this passage) knows exactly how the father knew because he enjoys the adult benefit of hindsight. However, he keeps the reason from the reader. Readers don’t learn the reason for no running in the yard until the character learns it himself.
This narrative technique lets the reader experience the limited knowledge of Knausgaard’s eight-year-old self.
This is autofictionalisation.
IS AUTOFICTION A TYPE OF FICTION OR Nah?
When talking about autofictionalisation, Claus Andersen doesn’t use ‘fiction’ in ‘autofiction’ as it stands in opposition to ‘reality’. Instead, he is using the word ‘fiction’ to describe work informed by “newer rhetorical approaches” to fictionality.
In short, just because an author uses autofictionalisation as a mode of narration to tell their autobiography doesn’t mean they’re being untruthful about their own lives.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Compare Knausgaard’s autofictional with retrospective first person.
Retrospective first is when a first person narrator tells a story about the past from a present moment. A example of this is Stephanie Vaughn’s “Dog Heaven,” which begins with the famous line, “Every so often, that dead dog dreams me up again.”
The narrator is telling a story that happened twenty-five years earlier. She lives in New York now, is an adult, but every now and then remembers the events of the story, when she was twelve and living on an Army base.
This POV is opposed to simple past, in which a narrator simply writes about what happened to them in some ambiguously close past moment, e.g. “I walked to the store, and my ex-wife was there. She did not look happy to see me.”See the rest of Adam O’Fallon Price’s Twitter thread here.
O’Fallon Price contrasts this style of narration to the simple past, but I think autofiction is the far-inverse because there is no sense of past at all, even though the story clearly happened in the past (because here we are, being told all about it, and that’s how time works).
Advantages of retrospective first person:
- This form of narration confers power to the ending. We are aware of how the story is building towards something, and we trust the something must be important.
- The narrator has had time to reflect on past events, which allows the story to contain more psychological complexity. Say the character was naïve in the past, they have experience now, looking back. This insight comes through in the story.
- The narrator can mess around with the timeline, telling bits from the deep past, skipping backwards and forwards from the time of writing. This allows the writer to position thematically and plot-related elements so that readers are most likely to draw the link.
- And in O’Fallon Price’s words: “The duration of time between telling and told is a mystery, a negative space in which the lightest brushstrokes feel vivid. Good writers can use this space to sketch out a life or portion of a life in a way that is often deeply satisfying.”
If those are the advantages of retrospective first person, we might expect those advantages disappear when writing autofiction.