Don’t worry, this is not a lesson, I just want to think out loud a bit about why fiction which may or may not be a direct transcribing of the author’s journals is my favourite type of writing. My starting point will be Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I have just read – or re-reread, a lot of the situations seemed familiar – but where will we go from there? Rooney’s other works, An I-Novel, Miles Franklin, Eve Langley, Jane Austen (why not?).
Even before going on I realise I’ve left out Justine Ettler and her discomfort with the reception of The River Ophelia, paralleling Franklin’s discomfort with the reception of My Brilliant Career 90 odd years earlier, and with the same consequence. Sales were suspended.
Let’s say autofiction is a work where the author bases her – I seem to have only offered female examples – protagonist on herself but puts her in situations which the reader cannot know are real or fictional. By all means improve or dispute my definition, but that is where I’m starting.
The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compoundNew York literary critic Christian Lorentzen, 2018 (Wiki)
And the reason I like autofiction so much is: writers whose objective is to be writers don’t bother with too much story-telling, they just put themselves on the page with all the skill they can muster; the protagonist subjects herself to intense introspection; the writer is writing what she knows, no energy is spent on invention (where this leaves my other love, Science Fiction is a question for another day).
Sally Rooney (1991- ) has now released three works: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), Beautiful World, Where are You (2021). In Conversations Rooney takes her third year at uni (Trinity College, Dublin) and explores friendship, sex and love through the protagonist, Frances, her friend and lover, Bobbi, and an affair with the married, older actor Nick. I’m guessing she uses an ‘affair’ because she wishes to avoid the clumsiness of young love/first sex, though this is the first time Frances has had sex with a man.
Normal People I’ve lent to someone, my daughter probably, but basically Rooney offers an alternative coming-of-age (to Conversations), starting at the end of high school with Marianne and Connell, taking them to Trinity College, and then taking Marianne through some masochistic relationships without ever losing sight of Connell. One day a literary biography well tell us (or my grandchildren more likely) what truths, or not, this is based on.
Beautiful World, Where are You reads like a transcription of Rooney’s diary now she is a wildly successful writer, though no doubt she has just taken her present position and around that woven four different ways of dealing with being 30.
Minae Mizumura (1951- ) is a Japanese-American writer whose An I-Novel (1995) is mostly the thirtyish Minae and her sister Nanae talking on the phone about their life in America wishing they were in Japan. The I-novel is a Japanese form of autofiction dating back at least to the early 1900s. Of the novelists I’ve named only Mizumura and Justine Ettler used their own names for their protagonists, which for some (not me) is a necessary part of autofiction.
Justine Ettler (1965- ) wrote Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996) and then The River Ophelia (1995), though you can see they were published in reverse order. Marilyn is a straight autofiction first novel, but The River Ophelia is an astonishing exploration of Justine’s subjection to sadism. Ettler became so upset about the assumption that it was autobiography that she stopped both books being sold (see my interview with her).
Miles Franklin (1879-1954) wrote My Brilliant Career (1901) when she was a teenager, probably writing chapters and reading them out to amuse her friends as she describes in her subsequent works. Sybylla is Miles and Possum Gully is Thornford, the small farming community near Canberra (then a village) where she grew up, but the story is just a story, or sequence of stories, as Miles who was very prudish, imagines ‘love’ or more often the disagreeableness of ‘love’, and caricatures her family and fellows without thought for their reactions on seeing themselves in print.
Following MBC’s success, at least with everyone who didn’t know her, Miles wrote two follow-ups, The End of My Career (1902) and On the Outside Track (1903) both re-presenting the same ‘facts’ but framing MBC as a spoof autobiography written by a fictional author who just happened to have the same name, Sybylla Melvyn, as the protagonist of the new work. Very postmodern when Modernism had hardly got under way. Sadly, both were refused publication, and so Miles withdrew MBC from sale “until ten years after her death”.
The End was subsequently revised and published as My Career Goes Bung (1946) – more in my next post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge (13 Apr.) – and On the Outside Track was re-written as Cockatoos (1954), the best of her autobiographical works in my opinion, to fit in with the Brent of Bin Bin series (which is based on generations of Miles’ mother’s family).
Eve Langley (1904-1974), probably the most lyrical Australian author ever, wished to live in the Bush as a character out of a Henry Lawson story, and so she and her sister ‘Blue’ famously adopted men’s clothing and went out into eastern Victoria as itinerant farm workers. Eve kept a journal for every year and when, in dire straits in New Zealand during WWII she heard of the upcoming Prior Prize she wrote up her first journal as a novel, The Pea Pickers (1942), the story of a woman wanting the love of a man but determined to preserve her independence. One of Australia’s great novels won one third of first place, £100, promptly spent by her husband.
Her second journal became White Topee (1954) and the New Zealand journals (no.s 6 -12) were edited down by Lucy Frost from about 3,000pp to the 300 page and tremendously sad Wilde Eve (1999).
Ok, we’re nearly at the end and it’s reading a bit (a lot) like a lesson. Sorry. Let’s consider Jane Austen (1775-1817). I’ve loved Austen’s writing all my adult life. She doesn’t exactly write autofiction, and her works, brilliantly written of course, are not introspective. But I suspect that her first work, Love and Freindship, and also Sense and Sensibility, arose out of her time at boarding school, 1785-86. Silly girls telling each other stories of ‘love’. Pride and Prejudice is clearly Jane and (older sister) Cassandra given the romances that life (or their own preferences) denied them; the Austen parents lampooned affectionately as Mr and Mrs Bennet, and love sought, found, withdrawn etc. Then as Jane matures so do her heroines.
Re-reading, as you must when you’re your own editor and proofreader, suggests this conclusion: that earlier and many current writers, eg. Rooney, base characters on themselves, but that autofiction is the self-conscious placing of a character representing the author into a fictional setting, resulting in a close interrogation of the author’s character.
24 thoughts on “Autofiction”
Helen Garner is one of our finest practitioners of ‘auto-fiction’. (Thanks for the term, by the way – I hadn’t heard it before.)
I agree entirely! How did I leave her out. ‘Autofiction’ is relatively new to me too, which is why I was exploring it.
tmlcp beat me to it — the first person who came to my mind was Helen Garner. But, that’s the trouble when you write posts like these, you always miss an obvious one or two.
The other main point I’d make is that many debut novels tend to be autobiographical, so most authors have a go at it. Is there a difference between autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction and autofiction. Isn’t Astley’s first, Girl with a monkey, another example.
Elizabeth von Arnim, whom I’ve just reviewed, wrote very much from her life – so much so that people were (and still are) confused about whether Elizabeth and her German Garden is fiction or not (which reminds us of Garner controversies of course). But, it is fiction … even if thinly veiled.
Elizabeth Jolley wrote an autobiographical trilogy. Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe is self-described as drawing closely from his life … and so on.
I could talk Austen but I won’t – much – except that to say that what happened to Mrs Dashwood and her daughters at the beginning of Sense and sensibility is very like what happened to Jane, her mum and sister after Mr Austen died. It took years before a relative – son/brother – offered accommodation. But, to talk about her work as autofiction is probably pushing the definition.
As for me, I enjoy autofiction when it’s a well written book, not BECAUSE its autofiction. I love all Astleys I’ve read. I love all Jolleys I’ve read, and would not say I like the autobiographical ones more than the others. In the end, it’s the writing and the literary imagination that’s important to me, not what the inspiration was. However, autofiction can have that little extra voyeuristic frisson I suppose?!
As a consequence of this ‘thinking out loud’ my opinion is that there is a difference between autofiction and autobiographical fiction; that there has been a progression from using yourself as a character, to writing your own life as fiction, to writing yourself into a fiction which blurs the boundaries between life and fiction. The reason of course is that any trend in fiction will be both extended and parodied by clever writers.
I believe MF was a pioneer in questioning what it means to write yourself into fiction and it is quite possible On Dearborn Street (written 1915) was intended as a parody of autobiographical fiction.
Justine Ettler doesn’t directly discuss ‘autofiction’ in my interview but she does its antecedents in Kathy Acker’s writing. Helen Garner, whom I inexplicably ignored, probably stands on the cusp between autobiographical and auto – fiction, with the protagonist, whatever her name, at least implicitly standing for the author (plausible denialbility!)
I enjoy auto fiction also but not quite as well as non fiction of an author’s life. Our shared reading group at Fullers book store has 12 of us reading My Brilliant Career out loud each Monday night until finished. We manage 40 pages each week. It is the first time we’ve read auto fiction in this group and we are really enjoying this particular book. Books have a different perspective when read out loud in a small group.
MBC is fun but it’s important, I think, to remember it was written by someone both young and immature. That’s why I think the two works Franklin wrote in response to the widespread belief MBC was autobiographical are so interesting. Firstly she was a better writer; and secondly her interrogation of autobiographical fiction was probably a world first. Those two works are a clear demonstration that using yourself as the protagonist doesn’t make your fiction autobiographical.
I’m not sure I would include JA in this group. Like many/most authors, she wrote what she knew. She was excellent at lampooning her family and neighbours but I think this early writing helped her refine her later characters. Pieces from her life ended up in her stories and there was no doubt some wish fulfilment thrown in their too.
Self-conscious is the word. And perhaps deliberate. JA did not self-consciously or deliberately insert herself into her stories IMO.
As for a male writer, the main one I can think of right now is Karl Ove Knausgaard.
I read a book by Shelia Heti (Canadian) a few years ago that I would describe as auto-fiction. Her new book is on order, so I will see if she continues down this path. Which reminds me of the French writer Delphine de Vigan…and Colette & Anais Nin and then Henry Miller?
I very much enjoyed Nin and Miller when I read them (and still own some) but it was 25 years ago!
What I attempted here was to look at some authors who are to a relatively large extent protagonists in their own novels. Austen appears to have based characters on herself, and on people she knew and situations with which she was familiar. But she keeps some distance between fiction and real life.
Autofiction on the other hand deliberately confuses that distance, so that we can never be sure where real life ends and fiction commences.
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Tmlc has beaten me to it! Surely Helen Garner should be listed here 😊
She definitely deserves to be in this discussion, but …
Oooh, what an intriguing post Bill! Love it. You should think out loud more often!
Wallace Steger (American) is a superb writer of auto-fiction.
I have My Brlliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, but given that Cockatoos is selling for a price that makes my eyes water, would you recommend On The Outside Track, as it’s selling at an affordable price?
I wonder was it “safe” for Miles Franklin to depict herself as a character in a novel? Was that one way of thinking about herself, “from outside” as it were? I’m wondering if she was using her writing to work herself out – ie. introspection? (Now I am thinking out loud, but it’s interesting!) I’m sure Stegner is doing that. I can’t speak for Rooney as I haven’t read her.
I have (long ago) written (forgettable) pieces for radio, but these were non-fiction. They still required me to think very hard about myself and my actions and experiences – so I imagine each writer you mention has to examine themselves very closely (and look at Garner as a superb example of that).
Thank you. I don’t know Steger. On the Outside Track appears to be a poem by Henry Lawson. I’m sure MF’s book was never published under that name.
I think autofiction is the author putting themself ‘under the microscope’. I don’t think the young MF was that introspective and was rather – as you did – making use of the person and situation she knew best: her own life. The reception of MBC and the hurt it caused her family inspired her next two (unpublished) works in which she argues, as I have written above, that putting yourself into your fiction doesn’t make it ‘true’. Keep looking! The Penguin MBC and My Career Goes Bung, published together, are still relatively common.
Thanks Bill, you said above she wrote a manuscript On the Outside Track, I didn’t read carefully that it was unpublished!
I agree auto fiction is not necessarily true, as it’s easy enough to change all manner of things about yourself when writing!
I have My Career Goes Bung and My Brilliant Career, and On Dearborn Street – I have a friend in the USA who knew those block of apartments she lived in there!
Thanks for an interesting talk.
Sue, years ago I wrote a post about MF and her Chicago connections
but please don’t feel compelled to read it!
I love the lesson, whether you meant it to be or not. I honestly didn’t realize this was a genre, and immediately chastised myself for my ignorance. Of course it is! But this also makes me wonder how much autofiction exists in the world that just isn’t known to be autofiction. It must be common for authors to take their own experiences and put them in books. “Write what you know”, as they say. But if I was writing autofiction, I’d be exploring what would have happened if I took the path less traveled.
…So, what is the line? Where does autofiction stop being autofiction and just become… fiction?
Thank you Jackie. That’s the question isn’t it. A lot of ‘autobiographical’ fiction is just authors writing the story they know best, but I like your version of autofiction, exploring the road less traveled. Like much of postmodernism, I think autofiction contains an element of teasing or tricking the reader.
Really enjoyed this post – though I think the reasons you give for liking autofiction as a genre are the exact things I dislike about it: the intense introspection by one character, the lack of invention, the sparse storytelling. In general I prefer novels that give me insight into several characters rather than just one. Though I do have The Pea Pickers on my TBR, and I often find that older novels that have autofictional elements are more up my street – I hadn’t known it was based on Langley’s journals and will be interested to see how I find it.
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Glad you liked it Lou. I find it distracting having more than one POV, and yes I really enjoy introspection, but we can’t all be the same. I really hope you enjoy The Pea Pickers, it’s one of my favourites, but I don’t know how much I’m influenced by it being set in country I know. I’ll be very interested to see what you say about it (when it makes its way to the top).
I still have An I-Novel on my TBR thanks to you. My old thesis advisor from my master’s program had a book that was so completely autofiction that it even included his house, real homeowner’s projects he was doing, and local independent stores in his novel. All I could think was, “Can he not invent anything??” I think I’ve mentioned the book This History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane, which reads like memoir, but then she pauses to ask her dead mother a question, and the dead mother responds (with what the author things her dead mother would say, anyway). I tend to agree more with Lou that autofiction makes me wonder, “What is so important about this person’s life? Why write a memoir that is made up?” and what Jackie said about write what you know, meaning you include what you see with your eyes, vs. writing a doll of yourself moving about made-up experiences.
If I wrote it would be autofiction. Not because I think my life is ‘important’, but because a) all I have to communicate is what I’ve learned and experienced; and b) what I’m interested in is the process of writing.
Likewise, as a reader, I’m interested in the author’s character and how they write about it.
Makes sense, but as you mentioned, what happens to your beloved sci-fi?
Good question. When I have a coherent answer I’ll post it for my friends and readers to tear down.
Interesting post! According to your definition of autofiction, you can put me in the “like” category. I love books that focus on character. The only thing that sometimes gets to me is when I want to know what’s real and what’s not. The more I like a book/author, the more I want to know how much of it was real!
For some reason postmodernism doesn’t want us to be sure about what’s real. Luckily most authors aren’t totally driven by theory and write more or less ‘straight’. My author examples for this post all include themselves in their fiction but I think only Mizumura and Ettler are teasing the boundary between fact and fiction. And Franklin, uniquely, is responding to the boundary being misunderstood.
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