Auto-fiction: Is it Fiction or Autobiography and Does it Matter?


There is a lot of ambiguity in story-telling, including in the very definition of what constitutes a story (or for that matter, a novel or novella). Is it the length, the subject matter, the structure? These questions can become contentious; for example, in a course about the novella that I took during my MFA, my classmates, professor and I once had a half-hour argument about whether novellas are just long short stories, or whether they have some other ephemeral quality that sets them apart. Settle any of those parameters—say length—and quickly you find exceptions (e.g. For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) 

The definitions of “fiction” and “nonfiction” at least seem distinct and unassailable—at first glance. Broadly speaking, there seems to be a consensus that fiction is “made up stuff” and nonfiction is “true stuff.” But on closer inspection, these distinctions begin to crumble: not to get all freshman philosophy class, but how true can nonfiction really be, given that there is no objective version of reality? And can fiction really be all made up, or is all writing inherently autobiographical, given that it is the result of a single consciousness and a single individual's set of experiences? How much can you draw from real life and still call it fiction? How much can you invent and still call it memoir? And most importantly, are these labels necessary or important to telling a good story? 

To complicate all of this, there is a new kid on the playground, kicking up sand and refusing to pick a side: auto-fiction. Autofiction can be roughly understood as “fictionalized autobiography”—but there is, of course, debate about this definition. In a Guardian article on the topic, Alex Clark defines autofiction as “fictionalised autobiography that does away with traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development.” Notable examples of the genre are the novels of Norweigen author Karl Ove Knausgård, in which he records his daily life in minute detail, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Motherhood. (Other articles on autofiction also mention works such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04; Rachel Cusk’s trilogy; and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick). 

In Motherhood, Heti’s late-thirties protagonist, who is almost indistinguishable from what we know of Heti, grapples with the question of whether or not to have a child. Of the novel, Alexandra Schwartz writes: “‘Motherhood’ is a novel, or so its publisher claims, though even that loose and accommodating category doesn’t convey the weird originality of this sometimes exasperating, sometimes illuminating work. Heti’s narrator...calls it, at various points, ‘a book to prevent future tears,’ ‘a prophylactic,’ ‘a written defence,’ and ‘a wrestling place.’” This is what I found so wonderful about Heti’s work: she is able to interrogate a question, to circle and circle it, to approach it head-on and slantwise, in the same obsessive way that we ourselves circle the big questions in our lives, and yet the book is not an essay—it relies heavily on emotion and small occurrences and dreams and mini-crises. Part of what made the book feel so real and vital to me was simply that Heti wouldn’t let the question go: she does not, out of deference to the form of the novel, use rising action to build to a climax and neat resolution. Instead, she philosophizes when she wants; she asks long series of questions and uses coin flips to answer them; she inserts pictures of her own apartment and of a tarot reading. 

I understand the compulsion to sort what is real from what is not. Labels and categories are soothing; they are a way to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world, and they are a way to ascribe value. Autobiography is devalued because it is seen as easy—a mere transcription of real life events, requiring little imagination, while fiction is vaunted because it is seen as stemming magically from the ether of imagination. The other reason that sorting fact from fiction is so compelling is the voyeuristic pleasure in learning about the inner workings and intimate details of an author’s life. Did this really happen to her? we want to know. Is this how she really feels about her sister? Is this really a conversation she had with her therapist? (Recall the frenzy surrounding Elena Ferrante’s real identity—there is something about not knowing that just drives us crazy.)

I feel two ways about the term “autofiction.” The utility is that it allows the author to transcend category: they do not have to “stick to the facts,” so to speak—it is fiction after all. And because there is an admitted autobiographical element, the term may diffuse the impulse to ferret out the autobiographical details hidden in fiction. The focus can, once again, return to questions of the story: what is it saying and how well is it saying it? What emotional truths is it revealing? But I also wonder whether the term is even necessary: why can’t a novel, even if it clearly relies upon autobiographical details, simply be accepted as a novel? Why do we, societally, feel the compulsion to police the boundaries of genre? I can’t help but feel that there is a collective worry that fiction and the novel must be protected—that to retain its value, fiction must remain mysterious, aloof, and entirely separate from the stuff of life.  

What do you think about autofiction? Are you intrigued by this semi-new genre or do you think we are splitting literary hairs? Do you feel drawn to write something in the boundary between reality and fiction (...if such boundaries even exist?!)