Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
webzine of new and unpublished work

What is Autofiction?


But fictive things
Wink as they will’

Wallace Stevens

‘Communal myths evolve to merge reality and fiction in order to create a cultural identity. Personal mythologies draw on facts to design a fictional one’*. This imaginary character - be it Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus or Proust’s Marcel – appears to represent the author, but is not him. 

In France on the advent of post-modernism the demarcation between autobiography and fiction became increasingly uncertain. For writers trying to make sense of their lives the emphasis shifted ‘from being a pilgrim in this world to being an entity fabricated into it. The material could be strictly autobiographical but the manner was fictional. In 1977 Serge Doubrovsky named the genre autofiction’*.

‘By transposing details of one’s life into a fictional text to create a character, writers of autofiction are not begetting a personal legend. On the contrary, the writer is at one remove from his/her essential self by means of a mask. This is in keeping with a culture that prizes privacy and defends confidentiality, but more importantly lends it a certain authenticity… ‘Art making’, according to Christian Boltanski (1972), ‘is not about telling the truth, but making the truth felt .  

French criticism tends to complicate what seems obvious. Fictionalised autobiography always existed. A debased form would be writing to conceal the truth. This in life is so common it could be considered normal. Differences in degree only separates the white lies that spares others, the self-deceptions that props up our self-esteem, and the cheating of a Donald Crowhurst (would-be around the world yachtsman) or Enrico Marco (the false concentration camp survivor). Lila Brik in defence of Mayakovsky, who romanced the truth of his life, heightening it into poetry, made the distinction between ‘honest lying’ and ‘dishonest lying’.  ‘Honest lying’ fortifies the truth by embellishment. The ‘dishonest lying’ is self-serving evasion of it. Still the ‘dishonest’ once unravelled leaves the truth standing naked and ashamed. . The troubled waters of Crowhurst’s autofiction are true to reality. Getting to the truth can be left at worst to the Law, and at best to the philosophers, but psychiatric evidence tends to give the facts a deeper dye.   

Paul Potts prefaced his autobiographical Dante Called You Beatrice (1960) by apologising for his unreliable memory, ‘My book is not factually true, but it contains the atmosphere of truth.’ This is autofiction as ‘honest lying’. Rather more sublimely Kierkegaard told the truth about his life through a gauze of pseudonyms and parables and justified it with a warning,  ‘The author has the right to use what he himself has experienced. But he must keep the truth to himself and only let it be refracted in various ways.’ (‘The Law of Delicacy’, Soren Kierkegaard,1832).

‘ Writing is not a truth telling exercise, it is the truth turned inside out and throbbing gently.’ I attributed this to Berthold Brecht in an imaginary conversation. I hesitated to go so far under my own name.

*Claire Muchir, Narcisse, 2014.