Autofiction grows up, a little
Heti, Knausgaard, and what it takes to turn the real into the true
Literature as an enterprise is staked on the way that fictions reveal the contours of a deeper sense of reality, like a stone dropped into the bottom of a well. As Wallace Stevens observed, the power of literature is in its ability to cultivate a peculiar moment of belief in something that all involved parties understand is not real: “The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”
This kind of belief is trickier than ever in the age of the hot take, of the tweet, of “fake news.” What is evenly and accurately reported, fact-checked, expressed, and edited with an eye for unimpeachable veracity shows us how the world is, yes, but the facts are not the same as the truth and we live in a reactionary culture that is starving for both. The truth, in life and in art, takes shape through interpretation, that finicky mechanism by which the human animal fabricates a world of meaning, each of us knitting ourselves into some semblance of significance. But the rate of interpretation, in a fragmentary, prolific, and outrage-driven content cycle, has vastly outpaced the speed at which either facts or fundamental truths can be observed, gathered, and disseminated; the truth, even in fiction, has been degraded.
It’s easy, though tedious, to find examples of these critical shortcomings, so I’ll limit myself to one, “Cat Person,” a short story published in The New Yorker late last year. The story, by Kristen Roupenian, is written in the close third-person perspective, and details the beginning and end of a relationship between a young female protagonist and an older man she meets at her job at a movie theatre. “Cat Person” is an agile depiction of how technology can create a false sense of intimacy in the flirtatious beginnings of a relationship. The protagonist initially feels a spark in the way she and the man communicate over text messages, but that spark disappears when they interact in person. She has sex with him anyway, and it is unpleasant, even chilling, and then she breaks the whole thing off. The writing is crisp and full of ambiguity, and Roupenian’s skill in crafting characters who are fully realized even as they are excruciatingly un-self-aware is evident, as is her excellent judgement in using detail, and the internal experience of her protagonist, to navigate a minefield of questions about sexual consent and power—without ever lapsing into didacticism or reductionist morality. The story went absolutely viral, generating hundreds of thousands of shares on social media and a seemingly infinite array of think pieces.
That the story resonated with so many readers is a testament to Roupenian’s power to depict the murky, complicated reality of relationships, modern relationships in particular. But in many responses to the piece, the story was described as an essay, and the themes and plot (again, presented in the third-person, limited omniscient voice) were frequently taken as a bias-confirming, essentially factual account of the state of heterosexuality in the #MeToo era, as if Roupenian’s literary skills were applicable only to what could be recounted in personal journalism, her material limited to the assumed facts of her life rather than the truth of human experience.
Given the rise in the prominence of this kind of reading-in-bad-faith (cf. American novelist Jami Attenberg’s descriptively titled New York Times opinion piece last year, “Stop reading my fiction as the story of my life”), it’s somewhat ironic that a related trend has been in vogue in English letters for the past five years or so. We’ve been witnessing the rise of what is generally called autofiction, first-person novels that appear to be more or less verifiable accounts of the experiences of their authors, complete with protagonists who share their names.
Autofiction originated, like so many rarefied and reflective literary forms, in France. Writer Serge Doubrovsky coined the term in 1977, to describe his novel Fils. “Fiction,” the back jacket copy of his book read, “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.” The introduction of the term launched forty years of (sometimes fruitful) confusion for French writers and literary theorists. Even now, the word lacks a stable definition in French or English. Marguerite Duras’s 1984 masterpiece, The Lover, is perhaps the most widely-read translated entrant in the genre—a novel that weaves through time and forms of address to distance both the reader and the author from the events being depicted, interrogating how relationships, space, and years can simultaneously create and completely undo the self. The genre highlights such moments of rupture in life and in narrative, forcing readers to engage in a paradox; how can we, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge asked of us, willingly suspend our disbelief of these fictions even while we are made to understand that reality, which requires no suspension, is also on the page?
The American critic Christian Lorentzen, writing for New York magazine this spring, quotes Doubrovsky’s book jacket as a way of trying to distill how the slippery term is used to describe works like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle epic, and Sheila Heti’s two most recent novels. Lorentzen tries to apply a sense of precision to the term, 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.” It’s a start, but in my reading seems not quite the most useful criterion for using the term. I would argue for a definition of autofiction as a novel, a) that is written in the first person, b) where the author and the protagonist share a name and other biographical details, c) that takes an essayistic form that nonetheless gives rise to a plot, and in which the language used leads to a sense of narrative immersion as with a more conventional, realist novel, and, most centrally, d) where the seam between what is real and what the French call the imaginaire is a central, propulsive tension of the work. All that said, I wonder if the utility of such a term is undone by trying to affix it to novels like Heti’s and Lerner’s. In the culture of rapid interpretation and explanation, labelling a work as autofiction seems to encourage easy entry to some kind of take, emphasizing the auto- rather than contending with its complex relationship with the murkier fiction.
I wrote about Heti’s previous novel, How Should a Person Be?, during its American release in 2012. At the time I called it a work of “reality fiction,” given that the formal techniques she employed (such as using recorded conversations with her friends as dialogue), and some of the material she dealt with (literally producing for an audience a version of her life as a young woman navigating friendship and a burgeoning career in a metropolitan city), seemed to echo the early 2000s boom in reality television. HSAPB was released in Canada in 2010, the same year that The Hills, a reality television show about a gaggle of friends navigating their early and mid twenties, concluded its four-year run. Like other such shows, it mixed some real experiences of the people on the show with producer-led elements to create an entertaining, low-brow, rather cheap viewing experience. Authenticity was not the point; viewers knew to expect something neither fully factual or particularly truthful; regardless, they found the work watchable, compelling. The production of a work of literature using some of the techniques of reality television struck me then (and now) as a phenomenally interesting experiment; what’s more, the book (unlike The Hills and co.) is brilliant, with the intermingling of real conversations and events with authorial invention yielding an original piece of art that equips readers with new ways of thinking not only about reality, but about what literature is and can be.
Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, is much more subtle in its provocations. As with HSAPB, Motherhood uses some fact-checkable elements of Heti’s real life in its formal construction. There are photos of real objects in Heti’s real apartment, and a prefacing note about the factual accuracy of one of Heti’s more ingenious devices: The protagonist simplifies a technique from the I Ching, using three coins to provide yes or no answers, as a means of outsourcing some of her endless thinking about the question of whether to have children. The brief preface from Heti avows that she really did toss these coins and has faithfully rendered their ultimately arbitrary determinations.
Like Heti, the narrator of Motherhood is a writer, and the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. And just as Heti was at the time of writing, the unnamed narrator is nearing 40, renting an apartment in Toronto, and living with her longtime boyfriend. But while the scaffolding of the novel is taken directly from life, the book’s structure is entirely invention, artifice, fiction. That’s partially what makes it possible to find in it some infuriating, hilarious truth.
Because Motherhood is frequently essayistic, it is difficult to hold it at a distance from the culture’s imperative to churn every text through a pro forma mill of virtue. The way the narrator expresses her occasionally problematic thoughts, to borrow a term from the school of “hot takes,” is almost diaristic, and it’s all too tempting to make a false equivalency between the protagonist and her author. But the narrator of Motherhood is not Heti, not even a person—she’s a fabrication, built entirely from language and obsession.
And her voice can be positively aggravating; one of Heti’s supreme gifts as a stylist is to make wild, ugly thinking seem plain, natural, all but inevitable. At one point, the narrator notes her cousin’s six children and wonders if her six books are roughly equivalent; at another she laments her own loneliness in the face of what she perceives as her friends abandoning her in their retreat into child-rearing domesticity: “I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever.” It’s starkly naive to hope that nothing ever changes, that adult life would take the same form as some kind of endless adolescent afternoon hangout.
But it’s equally embarrassing to fashion from a line in a work of fiction an argument ready to be swatted down, as many reviews of Motherhood have done. Heti’s books are frustrating, in that their “aboutness” often seems exceptionally easy to grasp at and contend with in a way that feeds the content churn. Motherhood, for example, seems as though it’s hinged on the question of whether or not the protagonist should have a child, if having children is the ultimate expression of the female body, if having children and being a woman writer are compatible, and so on. The essayistic format of many sections makes it so tempting to think of the positions the conflicted, confused narrator ekes out in this book as being bald assertions Heti herself is making—and many reviews tiresomely rebut these presumed assertions with personal stories of the joy of having children, or of successfully churning out essays during nap time, or what have you.
But Motherhood, at its heart, is not about arguing the pros and cons of procreation. The novel is almost claustrophobic for its extreme interiority—all the action happens inside the narrator’s mind and body, with later chapters structured according to the character’s menstrual cycle. It’s not strictly about making that decision, it is about what it feels like to wrestle with history, culture, and fate. The question of having children is just the nail this painting hangs on.
Given her flirtations with the factual accuracy of her life, from the stories of her mother and grandmother to the faithful reporting of the results of the actual coins she actually tossed, it’s easy to see why Heti’s novel has been called autofiction, but I think the label is not only limiting but inaccurate.
It’s limiting because describing Motherhood as autofiction sets readers up to expect a narrative experience that reveals a plot that Heti has herself lived through—this, despite the fact that the novel has, essentially no plot to speak of. A few things happen, the narrator fights with her boyfriend and gets her fortune read and asks the coins a bunch of questions, but the book’s momentum has much more to do with Heti’s ability to make her reader experience the narrator’s circuitous thinking. The label also gives rise to the idea that there are facts in this book, intermingled with the loftier authenticity of art.
Motherhood, like How Should a Person Be? did before it, bucks the conventions of the realist novel, and labeling these novels “autofiction” would be inaccurate—they’re inventive, and defy the genre (and other genres). Heti seldom relies on narrative scenes to situate her characters, and she uses images and conversation and the gimmick of the coins to completely interrupt the flow of what would in another book be the plot. Using her life to provide some of the material for the book seems less precisely autofictional and more akin to writing a role in a Brechtian play with a particular actor in mind—as if Heti casts herself in a part she knows she can bring to life. The person onstage looks familiar, but the point is the performance; everyone understands that the artifice is the draw.
Serge Doubrovsky and his cohort of autofictionists envisioned the genre as one that makes space for the lives of ordinary individuals to be examined and expressed in language (autobiography being the province of people understood to be in some way extraordinary). Doubrovsky’s dictum that this attention to language is what creates the fiction, that the novel should otherwise contain the facts of the life of the writer’s experiences, is the classical underpinning of the genre. This emphasis on the language creating the reality of the novel, which may also represent the reality of the author, has been unevenly applied in the recent English-language resurgence of this genre, but two recent Canadian debuts give evidence that the form is starting finally to come of age.
Jordan Tannahill’s Liminal is an artfully constructed novel in which the protagonist shares the author’s name as well as some of his life experiences, including founding the now-defunct Toronto performance space Videofag. As a director, playwright, and performer, Tannahill, who received a Governor General’s Award in 2014 for a collection of three short plays, is no stranger to the use of language to build whole new worlds. Liminal sees his protagonist caught between what is felt and what is thought, and living suspended between what the mind can do through language and what the body does as it moves through the world. Tannahill uses autofictive devices as a way of dancing around some of the questions inherent in the novel, about belief and character and the ways in which we understand our relationship to others, which constitute our selves as much as our discrete bodies do.
Both language and this theme of the body are central, too, to Catherine Fatima’s Sludge Utopia, which takes place over the course of a year in the life of a twentysomething woman named Catherine as she tries to raise herself into some kind of adult. Fatima depicts her protagonist pursuing her undergraduate degree and obsessing over a variety of forms of relationships—sexual, academic, professional, friendly, and familial. Catherine is enamoured with socialist theories of utopia, and her travels (from her apartment in Toronto to a few weeks in Paris, then Lisbon) and other adventures (mostly sexual) seem to her occasions to experiment with an ethical practice of living. She enters relationships with people and spaces and gradually becomes a bit more herself in both.
It is the form and tone of the writing, per Doubrovsky, that makes Sludge Utopia read more like a novel than autobiography. Fatima combines diaristic conventions with the all-caps lingua franca of the internet, and through language we see her character grow and shift over time. In the beginning of the novel, Catherine yearns for some physical realization of her intellectual desire for modeling an ethical life—she wants to be aroused by what Aristotle would call the Good, she wants herself to be Good, and perhaps more than being Good she wants to feel Good. Her opening line: “My desires form a system of ethics, right? If I desire something, it is because I conceive of it as just—I desire what I think should be.”
Part of what makes Sludge Utopia work so wonderfully as an autofictive exercise is the apparent guilelessness of the writing—we are unsure of the difference between writer and protagonist, but it matters less because the self being revealed feels still unformed. (It seems relevant that Fatima, though not completely strange to a group of arty, academic types in Toronto’s west end, does not have the burden of being a public figure, and her narrator positions her own writing almost as a way of getting to know herself.)
Autofiction tends to have the most impact, in my reading, if the tension between what is actual and what is made real only through language is all but unbearable. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume My Struggle became a bestseller in part because he understands the reader’s desire for both truth and for fact, and that part of what we clamour for is the idea that he has ruined his real life by recounting it in as near totality as he can manage, transforming it into art. But this kind of tension is increasingly difficult to countenance, in part because so much of our reading is done in bad faith—a culture of finding points of agreement and contention in a given narrative work makes it all but impossible to savour the skill required in using language to turn what’s real into what is true.
Nelly Arcan, the Québécoise writer who took her own life in 2009, was a master at exploiting this tension. Her novel Hysteric stands up as a breathless and stunning example of the power of the genre. The novel recounts a disastrous love affair, one where professional jealousy and an impending death make the involved parties cruel and callous. First published in French in 2004, then translated into English by David and Jacob Homel ten years later, Hysteric bridges the gap between the mostly-French autofiction of the 1980s and the international flair of the genre now. The novel’s narrator, Nelly, addresses her observations primarily to her lover, creating in the reader a sense of unbearable complicity in the pain she compulsively describes. The brutality of the sex they have, the fragility of their connection, and Nelly’s compulsive need to continue to narrate this story of her own undoing creates an all but unsustainable tension, and the questions of the authenticity of the plot, of Nelly as Arcan, only heighten the sense of the novel’s wild power. Arcan’s peculiar, singular voice rattles off the page, daring readers to be seduced into that willed belief in what is true, all the while never knowing quite whether or not it’s real.
That dare is where the art lies. Such a shame to see it rejected in favour of baser provocations, to notice how a reactionary culture of upbraiding and abnegation threatens truth. Our critical habit of shallow-position-taking costs us the ability to measure for ourselves the effect of a piece of narrative art. The transformative, weird, soul-leveling, mind-altering possibility of literature—Kafka’s axe against the frozen sea—is harder to parse, to discuss, to tweet, and to take on than surface level concerns of whether or not for example, it is correct to want children, or, for that matter, to write books that are complicated and show ugly things. Interpretation, that mechanism for finding the deeper human truth, has become a matter of churning through the content that now comprises the public sphere, to see what affirms one’s position and what should be loudly rejected because it does not. Neither the facts nor the truth seem to matter so much as the churning.