What's Queer About Autofiction? (Part 2)

This is part two of a three-part epistolary conversation in which Richard Scott Larson and I toss around a bunch of ideas and speculations about queerness, fiction, nonfiction, and autofiction. (Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.)

24 Oct
Dear R—

It’s been a busy, hectic time at work, and in my occasional moments of freedom and lucidity over the last week I have jotted down notes toward a new letter to you. These fragments and shards for now are what will need to stand in here for something resembling thought. I will try to make my next letter coherent, but I can make no promises, as I’m not sure my coherence or incoherence is entirely under my control...


Andrew Chan writes of Louise Glück’s new collection of poetry: “Reading Louise Glück through the years has often felt like being friends with someone incapable of small talk.” This is indeed true of Glück (whose work I love) and also the opposite of what I cherish in, especially, the New Narrative writers, who sometimes (at their best?) seem incapable of anything other than small talk.

Maybe one of the queer joys of autofiction is the queer joy of gossip.


On Twitter, Saed Jones pointed to this fascinating article about Netflix’s lgbtq+ Twitter account, @most. “The account’s institutional voice,” Kyle Turner writes, “is an emblem of the ways corporate entities want to mimic personhood.” Perhaps one of the virtues of autofiction is the way it highlights the fiction of personhood and does not try to mimic it. That’s its subversive power. Corporate entities are not alone in selling the fiction of coherent identity and legible authenticity.


Your mention of Edmund White got me thinking about the various ways his work has presented individual lives. We could create a spectrum of fictionality from his ouevre, with the Genet biography on one side and on the other side whichever one of his novels might be considered the most fictional. Across that spectrum, there are memoirs, autobiographical fiction, historical fiction, biographical fiction… Asymptote ran an interview with White by Daoud Najm in which White discusses Proust and Genet as writers of autofiction and his own distinction between autofiction and memoir (memoir being scrupulous about trying to get at the truth, while recognizing the fact that memory makes truth hazy; autofiction adjusting the truth for the sake of, for instance, clarity of narrative), but I haven’t (yet) found anything that really encompasses White’s whole project, his clear fascination with the intersections of history, memory, text, emotion, and selves. That plural is important; a casual reader could, I suppose, look at a person who has written quite a bit of autobiographical fiction, multiple memoirs, personal essays, etc. and see a narcissist — and who knows, maybe Edmund White is a totally self-absorbed egomaniac (I know nothing of the actual person beyond his texts) — but what I see is someone with a deep interest in history as it is expressed and experienced by the compound illusion we call the self, whether one’s own experience of selfness or someone else’s as expressed via the documents and artifacts that survive them and the speculations we make from those documents and artifacts.


One of the reasons I initiated this conversation is because I’m not actually well read in autofiction or memoir or such. I know of writers you mention such as Édouard Louis, for instance — I picked up a couple of his books, fully intending to read them, but I haven’t gotten around to it.

For a long time, I avoided most memoirs and anything labelled autobiographical fiction, as all autobiographical tendencies seemed self-indulgent to me, an embrace of self when what I wanted then (and still want today) is an expulsion of self. But then I got the New Narrative anthologies Writers Who Love Too Much and Biting the Error and suddenly I couldn’t stop reading. That reading sent me back to Dale Peck’s anthology The SoHo Press Book of 80s Short Fiction, which I’d first found very offputting because it’s so full of stories written in first-person and the book makes little effort to distinguish between the fictional and autobio-nonfictional. Returning to the anthology, though, after my first foray into the New Narrative writers as a group (instead of just reading the occasional person here or there), I discovered that I thought Peck’s selection was brilliant, a real recovery of a lot of writing and writers who have been neglected. On re-encountering the anthology, I found the self-testimony compelling and I was able to see an exciting breadth of aesthetics which previously I had been unable to discern. I gathered up a bunch of Eileen Myles’s books and devoured them. Her poetry had long seemed too simple and offhand to me, but now it felt profound and essential; her prose stopped being annoying and became food of the gods. With Myles, I had been put off before by the casualness, by what felt like scattershot tangents and a lack of carefully developed ideas, but now it all seemed like a brilliant juggling act. I began to feel her rhythms in the way I have long felt Gertrude Stein’s. Around the same time, I found myself obsessed with some of Kate Zambreno’s books, particularly Appendix Project, Drifts, and To Write as if Already Dead. The voice in those books, the self-presentation, became addictive for me. I didn’t even much like the narrator, but I wanted her/it/them to keep narrating.

However, in some ways those are limit cases. Everything I mentioned in the paragraph previous to this one is doing something more than autobiography, or doing something with autobiography. They’re playing around, making a mess of expectations and desires. I still will mostly avoid anything labelled “memoir”, as I have a hard time overcoming my general aversion to navel-gazing, and while there are certainly memoirs I have appreciated or which have been important to me at various times of life (Paul Monette’s, for instance), there are enough I have disliked — enough that have felt like they reduce the world and language rather than expand it — that the genre itself, as opposed to individual works, is not (yet?) attractive to me, and in fact when I see a book labelled as a memoir, I see that label as something of a warning.

On the other hand, I will read even the schlockiest biography, and few types of books give me as much pleasure as giant doorstopper biographies oversaturated with detail. Similarly: collections of letters. Also diaries. Saying that now, it feels like an odd response, because what is the difference between letters, diaries, and memoir? There’s some part of me that sees memoir as too contrived, too shaped and sculpted, and yet not far enough along the path toward artifice to be inherently interesting.

Letters and diaries have clear audiences. The letter goes to a specific person, so the content is shaped to what the writer expects of that person. A diary is written to the self, or, in some cases, to a perceived future audience after, say, the writer’s death. A memoir feels to me too much like the writer saying, “Look at me! I am interesting!” Which of course is a crime all writers commit with everything. (Aren’t these sentences here doing exactly that?) But there’s something about the memoir in general that feels to me like a perfect storm of artificiality masquerading as candidness. I can’t help but cringe. While also recognizing that there are memoirs I appreciate and even, occasionally, love. Autobiographical fiction or autofiction (as a term) at least admits the game is afoot.


On Twitter, Brandon Taylor wrote: “All black fiction is autofiction when a white person reads it.” Someone responded by pointing to Tope Folarin’s New Republic essay from a year ago, “Can a Black Novelist Write Autofiction?” Folarin writes: “To the extent that autofiction is a movement it seems to be one created by critics, which perhaps explains why this genre’s generally acknowledged membership is so homogenous.” And then offers a vision of possibility:
The genre of autofiction would obviously benefit immensely from a fresh infusion of perspectives and ideas and talent. Instead of a profusion of stories about artists in New York, London, or (occasionally) some other Western urban locale, we would hear stories about the concerns and ideas of human beings in other parts of the world, those who are more likely than their peers in Brooklyn to be on the front lines of the crises that will define the twenty-first century, like climate change and economic injustice.


I thought of all this stuff recently while reading Jacqueline Rose’s really fascinating book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, which I picked up after reading Dodie Bellamy praise it somewhere. (I’ve recently gotten really interested in Plath for the first time since I was in high school and besotted with her. Plath’s poetry, particularly the late poetry, was a huge influence on my sense of language, and I read every single book in the library by and about her, but after high school it felt somehow embarrassing to have enthusiasm for Plath, and though I happily returned to a few poems quite frequently, taught them in classes whenever I could, for the most part I stayed away from the many biographies, stayed away from the letters and journal, didn’t reread The Bell Jar.) Rose writes well about the wars over Plath’s memory, with various family members, friends, acquaintances, enemies, critics, and readers all claiming a Sylvia of their own. I’d forgotten that The Bell Jar was originally published under a pseudonym. When, after Plath’s death, the book was published under Sylvia’s own name, Plath’s mother worked hard to distance herself from the portrait of the mother in the book. Rose writes: “It is as if the signing of the text with the name Sylvia Plath removed the novel from the realm of fiction, assigned it as status as ‘truth’, and thus made it available for adjudication” and then refers to a 1988 lawsuit, which I assume is the one that was actually in 1987, when Plath’s former psychiatrist sued over a 1979 movie adaptation which, she said, defamed her by implying that the character based on her was a lesbian. Defamation by fictionalization.


You ask about my statement that during the pandemic I have taken some refuge (if not comfort) in the work of the New Narrative writers and Gertrude Stein. What is the particular attraction at this particular time? Is it an approach to language?

Yes, as with Eileen Myles, it is partly the language, but not necessarily in the same way. I keep typing words here and then deleting them. I suspect now it is not so much language (though it is language) as attitude. Or more than attitude: approach to life. In an interview, Thomas Ligotti says something to the effect that as a reader he is drawn not to particular content as to a particular worldview, a sense that he is reading a writer who sees and feels their way through the world in a way that is either agreeable to his own or intersects with it in an interesting way. I think that’s insightful, and digs deeper than fetishizing representation via identity category.

I read Kathy Acker not because I perceive that our lives have much in common, and not so much because I love Kathy Acker’s writing (I enjoy some of it, but also find it overall repetitive, so I approach it kind of like conceptual writing, skipping and skimming at whim) but because I feel like in a time of global pandemic, raging neoliberalism, the dominance of rightwing thuggery, etc. — I feel like in this time, I need some of Kathy Acker’s spirit alongside me in the journey from birth to death, and a writer’s spirit is their writing. I wish I had been in San Francisco in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to meet the folks who hung out at Small Press Traffic, I like the way they approach the world, even when it is not at all how I would approach the world, and the only way I can infuse a sense of their community into my own life is to read their writing. Maybe that’s the appeal to me of Kate Zambreno’s writing, too: while our enthusiasms and philosophies may be quite different, and were we to meet In Real Life we might not get along, I think we would agree about the shittiness of a lot of things. And isn’t that something we need? People who agree that shitty things are shitty.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve ploughed through biographies of writers because I want to feel the presence not only of their words but of their work, the work of making words, the work of living while making words, perhaps because I find it so difficult myself to live while making words, to keep the faith. I don’t think I necessarily would have liked a lot of these writers as friends — I definitely would have found Kathy Acker tiresome, for instance, and Gertrude Stein is hardly someone I regret never having known — but I am moved by their struggle, their arrogance in the face of the world’s contempt, their ability to keep doing the work, regardless of whether they were in or out of fashion, regardless of whether anybody wanted to read what they wrote. This is the attraction especially of the lesser-known, the forgotten writers, the unjustly (or even justly!) neglected. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Stein is a bit different, though, because ohmygawd! Gertrude Stein! No other writer is so purifying for me, so clarifying, such a purgative (none of these words are right, but they are gesturing toward what I mean). I got obsessed this year with the forgotten Stein, the (in so many ways) inaccessible Stein: books published in the 1950s as part of the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein series, some volumes of which it’s just about impossible to get your hands on now outside of big academic libraries; there’s a good selection, though, in a 1980 collection edited by Richard Kostelanetz, and I’ve managed over the years to scrounge a few of the original volumes. None of it is stuff you would necessarily recommend to friends, and especially not to anybody without much experience of Stein’s writing. Even though I would never claim to “understand” Stein’s writing, there was still comfort in getting lost in the rhythms of Mrs. Reynolds, in thinking about it as text and context, in reading it as one might a long-lost occult book. As my interest in plunging into novels has waned during the pandemic, I have been drawn to books that can be bounced around in, books that don’t mind being stopped and started, taken up and put down, read with gusto sometimes and distraction elsewise.

End transmission from the weeks of busy-ness.


28 Nov

Dear M—

You’ve given me lots to think about with these notes and thoughts. I’ve been working through the New Narrative texts that I can get my hands on (many of them twice-removed, like the anthology published by Nightboat Books on Bruce Boone, Bruce Boone Dismembered, and Douglas A. Martin’s “tribute” to Kathy Acker, Acker, also from Nightboat). I’ve also been going over Dodie Bellamy Is On Our Mind as I re-educate myself about this group of writers, and I was particularly struck by the definition of the movement offered up by Megan Milks in the book’s first essay as
a transgressive, self- and body-obsessed, queer avant-garde that formed in part against the anti-narrative, self-evacuating Language poetry that was dominant in the Bay Area at the time. Combining the confessional with the conceptual, New Narrative experimented with the possibilities of loosely autobiographical storytelling to produce an exploded and unstable “I.”
I know storytelling isn’t the same thing as fiction, so I’m aware that this is veering a bit left of what we’re trying to categorize as queer autofiction, but I know we both think this is an important ingredient to all of this—the idea of the reclamation of the queer self in narrative. In the next essay, Andrew Durbin talks about the use of the “I” specifically as a technique, one which is “designed to constantly expand the first person beyond biography or lived experience toward emergent and hypothetical politics, theories, ideas, and, importantly, relations that do not yet exist in the real world but must be imagined anyway.” I love this repossession of the first person from the realm of self-indulgence (I’ll get to your comments about memoir soon!) to that of reckoning with human existence at its basest level, in the body, as a painstaking archive of sensory experiences. I also love the idea of the “I” as a technique rather than as a kind of embarrassing confessional impulse, which I think helps to restore some of the credibility that’s been eroded by its easy dismissal as navel-gazing.

There’s a veer towards autofiction when Durbin later asks, regarding writing about queer experiences: “Why novelize it . . . when the best . . . is in our lives?” He clarifies that he isn’t distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction when he refers to telling stories from life, but I think that what he is acknowledging is the importance of the presentation of the self without artifice, without the layer of constructedness that exists between the writer and reader of a conventional novel. Later in the anthology, in a written conversation between Bellamy and Kevin Killian, the former complains about a reading that the two had attended the previous evening, stating that “the one person who showed talent was the spoken-word guy . . . There were hints of the real [emphasis mine], for lack of a better term.” She had also just said, about the kind of craft lessons frequently taught in the writing programs she either knows or presumes that the other readers had attended, that it “destroys talent.” And I think she’s referring to that learned constructedness I mentioned earlier, the way we’re taught to shape real or imagined experiences and events into recognizable and prefabricated forms. (“Hints of the real” = leaning away from the expectations of crafted forms, leaning into messiness? Maybe?)

I’d been wondering where to begin with my next response (I’ve been thinking about a lot of things, and I want to get back to your thoughts about Edmund White too) when I read “How the MFA swallowed literature” by Erik Hoel, alongside the rest of Literary Twitter. The essay sparked the latest iteration of the always brewing debate about the value of the MFA and its effect on literature as a whole, one which might speak to Bellamy’s assertions that I mentioned before. And while I’m not interested in rehashing those particular points and arguments here, I was struck by a moment in the essay in which Hoel attacks what he views as an inherent defensiveness in contemporary American literature (at least that which has been produced by writers with MFAs).

Hoel introduces the term “attack surface” to ostensibly mean the amount of vulnerability that the writer has allowed onto the page, referring to what he sees as an effort on behalf of writers from MFA programs to “shrink the attack surface” of fiction with self-consciously well-polished prose, often unnamed or otherwise detached narrators, and a general sense of minimalism that shrouds the novel in a protective cloak designed to ward off possible criticism. And then he writes, bringing us back to the topic at hand: “What is auto-fiction but a form of defense? For if it really happened, who can criticize? . . . Even the use of first-person, so ubiquitous now, is defensive, for it protects you from getting the inner life of someone unlike yourself wrong.”

Does it? I wonder. Or I guess something else I wonder: am I really that interested in reading fiction right now by someone writing about an inner life that has been utterly fabricated or based on received knowledge and experience rather than one’s own? The contrivance of this kind of fiction is rarely foolproof and reminds me of the things that bother me about fiction these days, the kind of third-person scene-making that I’ve grown suspicious of (at least, perhaps, during the pandemic). Why not let these characters tell me themselves what happened, with the possibly fraught subjectivity that comes with any statement in the first person? And the element of queerness, the lingering effects of the closet and our having been driven to avoid truth-telling for however long it took for us to come out, only further complicates things.

I guess it might be the assurance of the novelistic voice that sometimes bugs me, the presumption that you can’t argue with a third person sentence because it’s meant to be taken entirely at face value. But if you convert the sentence into the first person, then suddenly it’s so much more interesting to me—at least these days, at least right now. Is this character telling the truth? What’s his real motive for telling me about this particular event? I’m not trying to dismiss conventional close third-person fiction writ large, but rather I am trying to mount a defense of writing instead from the self, writing from real experience, and how interrogating the “attack surface” of autofictional or memoiristic writing might be missing the point. (I wrote lots of close third person fiction in my MFA, for the record, something that I haven’t done at all since.)

You wrote: “There’s some part of me that sees memoir as too contrived, too shaped and sculpted, and yet not far enough along the path toward artifice to be inherently interesting.” I think the distinction between autofiction and memoir is much as you describe, but as someone who has now written a text that I’ve called a memoir, I’m trying to think about the elements that repel you about the definition as a whole, while also thinking about the separate promises made by autofiction and memoir. I’m very self-conscious of the “too shaped and sculpted” framing of personal experience in the service of a life lesson or a pat on the back for surviving something difficult and traumatic. These are the characteristics of what are maybe the expectations of memoir in the American literary marketplace, which are different from what, say, Herve Guibert was doing in France with something like Crazy for Vincent, which certainly structures personal experience towards a very specific narrative arc, but does so without a moral impulse, without an apparent thesis. And like you, I do often prefer reading journals for that lack of scaffolding, the idea of the writing being compulsive and raw and full of things that the writer might want to take back later (or frame in a different way).

But I think the attractive promise of autofiction is in the fiction, in the acknowledgement that the reader is supposed to enjoy surprises that are contrived, purposeful, and sometimes invented, even when the source material is taken from life. Autofiction isn’t setting out to prove anything, whereas the memoir at its crudest is presented simply as evidence, as testimony. (I generally prefer memoirs with some sort of outside component, cultural criticism perhaps, or centered around art objects of whatever kind, rather than the straight narration of a period of one’s life, however beautifully written. Or maybe memoirs where the writer isn’t sure of what really happened and is working out some kind of problem.)

I guess that’s a line I’m now obsessed with: in which cases is the evidence itself enough to be proof of the value of a text, and in which cases is the evidence necessarily more of a starting-off point for a text that perhaps aims to be critical of the subjective “I” in ways that the inherent earnestness of memoir can’t be? If Knausgaard wrote My Struggle as memoir, the entire project would fall apart. All that reported dialogue would start to look ridiculous. But then Annie Ernaux can write something like Simple Passion, which I encountered recently and was completely floored by, and you see that to call her work autofiction might cause the text to lose a reader’s trust from the start, because the emotional experiences she describes are so out-sized, reminding me of Duras’s The Lover in many ways. But then I read the NYT review of the Ernaux text that uses the terms autofiction and memoir almost interchangeably, and I wonder if worrying about the distinction between the two is all that important in the end. The review is from 1993, which maybe shows how recently these categories have become so persistent?

I did some digging in terms of statements that Edmund White has made regarding autofiction as a form, because I’m really interested in how his practice might reflect some kind of critical stance. And I uncovered this amazing interview that he did back in 2001 with Thomas C. Spear, which Spear published as “Edmund White on Queer Autofiction, Biography, and Sidafiction.” In the interview, White observes early on that while in the past only the famous and well-known among us wrote autobiography, the trend of writing from personal experience by “the humble” means that the unknown writer is “forced to use novelistic techniques to create interest” on behalf of the reader. Hence, autofiction. And while this might seem obvious, I think it’s interesting that the writer in this case must make promises of quality and form rather than content, at least initially, whereas a celebrity can generate stale text that will still be devoured by a public interested in what she has to say rather than how she says it. (Do we think that a famous person not already famous for their writing can write autofiction?)

Anyway, back to the interview. I like this tangent that White goes on about Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, which becomes autofiction (fiction rather than memoir) through the omission of important context—in this case the presence of Naipaul’s own wife and child in scenes described in the novel without them there, as well as the fact that Naipaul’s family’s landlord during the period being written about was the “famous British eccentric” Stephen Tennant, who Naipaul never names. White writes that “the omissions are so enormous that it becomes fiction,” which refers to an earlier comment he makes in the interview about how every book is fiction because it ultimately comes down to a selection of details. And when it comes to queer texts, and queer autofiction in particular, the question of audience becomes central: is the author writing for a queer or straight audience, and how does that determine the selection or omission of detail?

White depicts the history of queer autofiction as first a mode oriented towards heterosexual readers—especially as he refers to Jean Genet’s stance of addressing what amounts to an imagined jury, “this constant flirtation . . . with his heterosexual reader, a desire to seduce, shock, and appease him”—but then the Violet Quill writers, most notably Andrew Holleran and White himself, who sometime around 1975 began to write explicitly for a queer or homosexual audience, completely changed what the texts could include and ultimately accomplish. (White cites Christopher Isherwood in the 1960s with A Single Man as ushering in these kinds of possibilities.)

There’s more that I’m thinking about (for example: White argues that the decriminalization of homosexuality and inreased so-called “equality” means that “the need for gay fiction and autobiography is disappearing,” and I couldn’t disagree more), but I’ll stop here with this question of audience and these various threads that I’ve tried to gather together.


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