What's Queer About Autofiction? (Part 1)

Claude Cahun

For some time now, my friend Richard Scott Larson and I have been chatting about fiction, nonfiction, and queerness. At some point this fall, I proposed that we should maybe try exploring in a slightly more formal and public way. Thus, in October we began sending letters back and forth. Our letters are an exploration, so they are full of digressions, speculations, citations — rough drafts of essays, in some ways.

Life was busy for both of us during this time, and we had a tendency to go long in what we wrote, so the whole conversation took a few months. That's a virtue of this experiment, I think, because we approached the material in different moods, under different sorts of duress, and the us of October is not quite the us of January.

We are publishing the whole conversation here in three parts over the course of this week. This is the first part. (Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.)


6 Oct

Dear R—

You and I have been talking informally for some time, here and there, now and then, about fiction, autobiography, fictional autobiography, autofiction, and autotheory. We’ve also sometimes talked about conjunctions of writing and queerness. When you pointed me toward your review of Dorothy Stachey’s Olivia, titled “On the Origins of Queer Autofiction”, I then began wondering something I hadn’t before: What is queer about autofiction?

First, I suppose we — I — we? — should grumble a bit about the word autofiction. What I have come to enjoy about the term is that hardly anybody likes it. Autofiction is what you call something if you want to drizzle scorn on it. Especially if you’re primarily a writer who might get the label stuck to you, like sidewalk gum on the bottom of your soul. In an essay about autofiction a few years ago for Ploughshares, Rebecca van Laer wrote that “few of these authors embrace the label, and some of them explicitly reject it. During a March conversation I attended, an audience member asked [Sheila] Heti and [Chris] Kraus what they thought of the term; they both recoiled. Kraus noted its French provenance but did not feel that it applied to her own work.”

It’s the indefiniteness of that auto that causes me to dislike it — I suddenly can’t avoid thinking of J.G. Ballard’s Crash when I think of autofiction. (Not only is it a book about automobiles, but, if I remember correctly, the narrator is named as Jim Ballard; it’s like autoerotic autofiction. Vroooom!) Or I think of fiction that writes itself, automatic fiction. Etymologically, autofiction makes good sense. The OED finds words built from the prefix auto- (self-) making their way into English “from the first half of the 17th cent. (the two earliest such formations are autology n. and autocide n.1), but are relatively rare before the 19th cent.” Interestingly, they have an entry for autofiction: “on (a part of) the author's life, often presented as a first-person narrative in the style of a novel; fictionalized autobiography; a work of this type” and they note that the word “is sometimes said to have been coined (in French) by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 with reference to his novel of that year, Fils, but in fact the word is attested in English before that date,” providing a citation from Paul West’s wonderful essay “Sheer Fiction: Mind and the Fabulist’s Mirage” in a 1976 issue of New Literary History.

A lot that West says there is relevant to the discussion. He distinguishes fiction, myth, and hypothesis, seeing fiction as the most capacious. The term appears on page 556: “This is to see fiction as a mode of tethered autobiography, or auto-fiction, in which the thing of paramount importance is the presiding mind itself, which endures after the fiction collapses.” I’m tempted to quote much more, but I’ll spare you and just add this sentence from the same page: “For every counterfeiting there is a Journal of the Counterfeiter; it’s just a matter of its being made public or not.”

What endures after the fiction collapses? What is the counterfeit, what the journal of the counterfeiter?

Anyway, do we need the term autofiction? I don’t know. But I like how unsettled it is, how reluctant anybody is to be associated with it, unlike, say, memoir and autobiography, which are more established, accepted, unquestioned, like ‘em or not. You can’t not question autofiction, and that’s what’s attractive, even though I hate it and would never in ten thousand years say I write it, even if I did write it, which I don’t, or maybe do.

What keeps gnawing at me as I browse through articles about autofiction, though, is how very straight the canon is. And white. Granted, I’m not doing a systematic study of the corpus here, but autofiction, as a term, seems to point to a thing straight white people do, and that’s another reason to hate it, because the term in its current use erases so much queer and notwhite writing. There’s a weird thing going on with gender, too, because while lots of straightguys (Lerner, Knausgård) get discussed at length as autofictioneers, when people really want to dismiss it, they bring up white women, and the tone implies they see these women as fragile narcissists, their readers shallow people who deserve to be mocked by manlymen. The gender part goes back a ways — in spare moments, I’ve just begun listening to this conversation between Lauren Fournier and McKenzie Wark, and early on in it, Fournier mentions reading Freud and being struck by how the idea of narcissism as he presents it is so feminized. (She also mentions Gloria Anzaldúa as early autotheory, and I love that. Have you read Borderlands/La Frontera? I first read that book in grad school 15+ years ago, and it really blew open my idea of what could and should be written, and how.)

So on the one hand of litchat, we have the Straight Men Who Write Autofiction and on the other we have self-obsessed women who “write autofiction” (ewww!). Obviously, I’m stereotyping, but whenever I tune in to the discourse, it feels like this stereotype gets more supported rather than challenged. Even when people seem to be trying to challenge it, to oppose the hysteria model of autofiction or to offer women and nonstraights who write the stuff, often they just mention Maggie Nelson and/or Chris Kraus. (But maybe I’m not listening to the right litchat.)

TL;DR: Can we grab the terms autofiction and/or autotheory for ourselves, this queerwhite asks, or is it better left untouched?

In a 2014 essay proclaiming (mostly straightwhitemale) autofiction as the replacement for postmodernism, Jonathon Sturgeon ends by saying:
The current tendency toward autofiction, as Chris Kraus has recently suggested, may have been foreshadowed or even inaugurated by queer and women writers in the 1990s — I’m inclined to think she’s right. In both cases, there is a vitality of self in excess of systems — of control, capital, information, whatever — that cuts against postmodern fiction. Yet the rise or return of autofiction isn’t the work of a movement, campaign, or vanguard: it’s more of a murmur in the heart of the novel, one that lets us know that literature is alive, still-forming — a living hypothesis.

If you click through to Kraus’s essay, which is a good overview of the Native Agents series from Semiotext(e), you’ll see it never uses the word autofiction once, nor do the books Kraus describes quite fit with Sturgeon’s own definitions of autofiction — they’re much more varied. I like the Native Agents series a lot, and I like Kraus’s description: “The books we are drawn to are more conceptual than experimental, more warm than cold, more discursive than lyrical, often queer, never conventionally male heterosexual, more autobiographical than not.”

I think it’s older than Sturgeon understands, though, because even without going to France we can go to the New York School poets like John Ashbery and especially Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, then of course the New Narrative writers. So much queerness! In an essay in Dodie Bellamy Is on Our Minds, Andrew Durbin ends by arguing that “what makes queer writing so great” is “invention, contrivance; the fictionalization of our lives allows us to rewrite the world to suit our needs, and I suppose as long as it’s done with an ethics in mind and with a sense of the responsibility of the imagination, it might be an antidote to our decade replete with so much public lying.”

Here, there is a sense of commitment to the ways the real and the imagined work together. This is perhaps why I remain interested in it all — not because I have any interest in autobiography per se, but because I do have an interest in the friction, the frisson, the frottage of nonfiction against fiction. There lies my erotics of art. The work of fiction in nonfiction, of nonfiction in fiction. Because neither, of course, is pure; both are rhetorical tools (or stances) more than anything, and so much depends on the intermingling (the intercourse) of text and context — without some context, “I” is just a letter. The hidden journal of the counterfeiter. It’s easy to write fiction that sounds autobiographical and is not; similarly, it’s easy to say of a story, “Oh, that’s all made up. That’s what fiction is, ha ha ha,” and actually you’ve just transposed some of your diary entries. What’s interesting is not that boring dualism but the synthesis its ambiguities produce — the melded, mercurial form. The perpetual ambiguity.

The work that nonfiction does in queer (or otherwise marginalized) fiction is perhaps in some way different from the work it does in the writings of dominant groups. The synthesis is different. The place of imagination is different, the place of reality different. But how so? I’m not sure. This whole path may be a dead end at which sits nothing but a pile of red herrings stinking in the light of day.

I am in danger of falling into taxonomy. Save me! Let’s talk about what we love in this stuff. I will tell you: I love all the New Narrative writers, perhaps Dodie Bellamy most of all (but I hate to choose). Also Gertrude Stein, a great queer autofictioneer who also infused queerness into language. Nobody has sustained me so much during the pandemic as the New Narrative writers and Gertrude Stein, though I’m not sure I have the words and concepts to explain why. Perhaps we will find some by the end of this journey.

Your turn!


13 Oct

Dear M—

As you note, I’ve been thinking a lot about the narrative representation of personal experience, specifically as it relates to urgent periods of history—like the aftermath of an AIDS diagnosis, for example, in work by writers like David Wojnarowicz and Herve Guibert, who’ve both been central to some of my most memorable reading journeys over the past couple of years. The kinds of experiences that are too visceral and often too rage-inducing to submit to the polite and conservative apparatus that undergirds the commercial novel. Maybe I’m also lately drawn to self/life writing and (barely) fictionalized autobiography because I’ve lost some faith in the kinds of craft moves that readers are supposed to derive pleasure from in conventional fiction, and exploring the potential messiness of autofiction—particularly the moves that make it fiction and not memoir—is offering new kinds of surprises, new potentialities for what storytelling can unearth rather than rake clean.

Maybe that’s the beginning of my answer to your question of what it is we love about this stuff? I like what Rebecca Van Laer writes in the piece you quoted about how readers approach fiction and nonfiction entirely differently and with different expectations of what they’ll be experiencing, so if you want a reader to engage your work as “creatively” produced (i.e., made up out of thin air) rather than methodically reproduced from lived experience, then the term—indefinite and generally unlikeable as you note that it is among both writers and readers—becomes useful to me. Attractive even, because it’s a way to describe something that I do like, which is the effort to give form to the formlessness of our lives, to gather up some scraps and make them beautiful.

I appreciate the mention of my review of Olivia, because I’ve been thinking about what I wrote there in the context of the taxonomical journey detailed in your letter. In my review, I wrote:
Queer writers have long taken to the use of autofiction as a dominant storytelling mode, and Olivia serves as a very early example of this trend. This impulse is perhaps rooted in telling our stories like we’re often forced to live our lives, so many of our most fundamental traits disguised and outwardly reconfigured in order to meet certain expectations of form. Autofiction—fiction drawn from life, sometimes in almost photorealistic detail—allows for both obfuscation and exaggeration, but it also creates a kind of necessary distance, a way for a writer to give shape and structure to often painful lived experiences, and thus to reclaim control over them. No wonder, then, that these writers are often inclined to tell the stories of their first confrontations with their sexualities—Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and Edouard Louis’s more recent The End of Eddy—which is often a time of inner chaos infused with shame, a roiling sense of forbidden desire suddenly bursting forth from some dark and unfamiliar place.
Looking at that now, I see that I’m mostly talking about early examples of the form that were published when queer narratives as such weren’t able to advertise themselves as completely “true” for a variety of reasons, not the least of which would have been the trends of the literary marketplace, and thus the truth had to be embedded and scaffolded within the familiar and “acceptable” form of the novel. Obviously Edmund White has since written in a wide variety of forms (and had been even before his move into autofictional territory) and seems to have never really been interested in distinctions between memoir and fiction, least of all in his famous trilogy that later included The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony, seemingly drawing entirely from personal experience in order to produce what amounts to a record of bygone queer life. I guess I’m most curious about the personal and political dimensions of that impulse to include the reproduction of true events in a text that is otherwise read as fiction. And why does the impulse so often seem to be queer? Even the term’s Wikipedia page indicates the autofictional mode’s frequent use by women and queer writers. Is there something about the margins that needs to assert itself in this way, to become more visible and loud?

French literature has a more mainstream tradition of playing in this liminal space between autobiography and fiction (ah, Proust!), so Edouard Louis perhaps draws from the history of a genre that has been less formally marginalized and already built into the expectations of his readership. I’ve been reading a lot of Herve Guibert recently, who I mentioned earlier, and I just finished his devastating To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990), his autobiographical novel about his experience with AIDS in the years leading up to his death—the period when he basically became famous for being public about his diagnosis. Late in the novel, Guibert’s narrator is concerned about turning in a manuscript to his editor that reveals his AIDS diagnosis. He writes (trans. Linda Coverdale) that the secret would soon spread 
like wildfire, which I expected, calmly and with a kind of indifference, because it was only natural to betray my secrets, since I’d always done that in all my books, even though this genie could never be stuffed back into its bottle, and I would never again be a part of the human community.
The reception of his fiction as truth—even when presented as a novel rather than a memoir or a journal—is taken to be a precondition of having written it, which I think is key to understanding its purpose and its form. There’s a noteworthy and thought-provoking aside in Edmund White’s afterword to the Semiotext(e) edition of To The Friend that includes a quote from Guibert’s The Compassion Protocol: “It is when what I am writing takes the form of a journal that I most strongly feel that I am writing fiction.”
I’m obsessed with that Andrew Durbin quote you mentioned about how “the fictionalization of our lives allows us to rewrite the world to suit our needs” and how it’s “what makes queer writing so great.” I need to go back to the New Narrative writers for the purpose of this discussion. The memoirist Melissa Febos recently took to Twitter seeking examples of writers who switched from traditional memoir to autofiction: “I can only think of novelists who wrote ‘autofiction’ after writing other (not so auto) novels. Are there writers who went from memoir(s) to autofiction?” The replies offer up lots of examples that also include Michelle Tea, a writer who was first published by Chris Kraus at Semiotext(e), and Kraus’s I Love Dick is obviously really interesting to think about in the context of autofiction and these various genre distinctions (is she the last of the New Narrative writers? Maybe, if we’re to stick with the decades covered in Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997).

But back to the tweet: I was struck by how many genres were crammed into one tweet (non-autobiographical novels, autobiographical novels, memoirs, and autofiction) and how my brain still didn’t have to do any backflips to understand what was being asked of me to provide in terms of a response to the question, which means that these distinctions have to some extent been internalized, along with the expectations of what each particular mode has to offer. But like Christian Lorentzen mentions in that Vulture piece, this has mostly been delivered “as part of the language of commercial promotion,” which is immediately suspect.

One of my first mental responses to the Febos tweet was: Who cares about making such a hard distinction between memoir and autofiction? Then I remembered that we’re discussing this very subject through this exchange, and that I had agreed in advance to care! But while I came to this discussion valuing the distinction of autofiction as indicative of the kind of experience that a writer explicitly wants a reader to have, I’m also wondering how productive (and reductive) it might be to name a project as such at its outset, rather than leave the critical apparatus to name it after the fact. Does anyone set out to write autofiction? And if so (or even if not), where does the impulse to write it come from? Is it the result of external forces like late capitalism creeping into all aspects of our lives? Maybe we’ve (or at least I’ve) become suspicious of outright fabrication in fiction writing, and clinging to evidence of personal experience—often including some form of ekphrasis, which literally inserts objectively real and interpretable objects into the text—allows us a way to experience narrative pleasure without feeling like we’re being somehow irresponsible by escaping reality entirely. (For me, there’s also a question of trust.)

I’d love to hear more about what it is about the pandemic that has driven you back to New Narrative and Stein. The language itself? The context of its production? And have you enjoyed any more contemporary examples of what we’re calling autofiction? I’m thinking about writers like Ocean Vuong, Edouard Louis, even Andrew Durbin, and also writers like Douglas A. Martin, who was cited in that LARB review of Writers Who Love Too Much (linked previously) as carrying New Narrative into its second wave. Outline of My Lover is one of those books that so vividly captured an extended personal experience in narrative that it feels to me almost like a memory…

Until next time,