Early in Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, someone tells us that “in this book, all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.” It may be Heti herself speaking — the note precedes the bulk of the text — saying that her novel is based on tosses she did. Or it may be the narrator, who is like Heti but not quite Heti, saying to the reader that the coin is fictional, the flip fictional, the result: Fictional.
In the world of autofiction, works based closely on the author’s autobiography with a minimum of what would be more traditionally termed fiction, it’s a faux pas to ask what hews closely to the real experience and what’s invented. Delving too deeply into this question invites scorn — surely in even asking, the critic or reader reveals a lack of understanding. But the memoir-as-fiction has had a corrosive impact on American literature, almost entirely because of the self-narrativizing at its core. It promotes not only stylistic uniformity, but also uniformity of story. The problem with writers — often white writers who live in Brooklyn, perhaps having arrived by way of some smaller locale they now scorn — writing about their own lives is that the set of novels produced will naturally reflect that narrow experience. It’s already unclear how much the reading public likes books about writers; it’s even less clear that it wants book after book about (usually) white writers who live in one or two neighborhoods (filled with other white writers) writing about themselves.
An exact definition of autofiction is hard to come by — some, like the writer Tim Parks, expand it to include, seemingly, most works of fiction — but it’s certainly true that the inclusion of some autobiographical elements does not, by itself, qualify a work as autofiction. It’s also necessary to separate autobiographical fiction, on the one hand, from the current Anglophone trend, embodied by people like Heti, Ben Lerner, Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk, Teju Cole and a few others. Suffice to say, for now, that “autofiction” herein is the sort emblematic of this trend, not the broader definition of the term (which itself arose to describe French literature in the 1970s and 1980s).
The hallmark of this brand of autofiction may well be the grounding reference. MAGA hats. Walls to build. They’re usually political references. Lerner’s work is full of them. His second novel, 2014’s 10:04 — about a writer named Ben, who lives in Brooklyn and gets a sizeable advance after the success of his first novel (a copy-and-paste from Lerner’s life, even if the exact amount earned in the advance is subject to a little wishful thinking) — spends some time on the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Topeka School, his much-lauded 2019 follow-up, deals with the Westboro Baptist Church, the limpness of Bob Dole and Trumpism — foreshadowed or literal.
Offill, in her 2020 novel Weather, focused on a university library administrator named Lizzie living somewhere in southern Brooklyn, goes further: Remember the week where there were endless news items about mass die-offs of birds? Remember that New Yorker story about the super-rich buying doomsday houses in New Zealand? Remember Timothy Snyder, who wrote of the dangers of fascism in On Tyranny? She hits them all, quickly, tangentially, just enough so the (presumably educated, socially conscious) reader knows she is one of them.
One of Weather’s five sections is given over to the aftermath of the 2016 election. It’s Brooklyn, and the white Brooklynites are afraid: For their futures, for the world. They think of emigrating, they try to do errands (see a dentist) and get health care (IUDs) before Trump takes away those rights. But there are no people of color we see here; there are none of the most vulnerable communities. It’s just relatively well-off, roughly middle-aged white parents in a lefty borough worrying about other people’s problems, and then worrying about their worry, and then, we are left to assume, getting a Xanax script. They invent new problems: “Insomnia is a badge of honor. Proof that you are paying attention.” These aren’t the people who cannot sleep because the lights in the detention centers are never turned out; these people invent problems for themselves to show they care.
Autofictionists often seem to realize that they are privileged, and work like Offill’s and Lerner’s seems to be almost an apology for it. Both Lerner and Offill have protagonists who feel shame in organizing for causes they ostensibly believe in. It’s an aesthetic embarrassment, a shame at chanting and slogans and church basement meetings. But maybe for the relatively well-off New Yorkers they both write about and are (or have been), the beliefs themselves are aesthetic, too. That might be what they really find displeasing but know they cannot say.
Becca Rothfeld wrote early this year in The Point that the characters of Sally Rooney, the autofiction-adjacent Irish novelist, embody a sort of “watered-down Marxism that affluent millennials claim as a personal brand.” You could extend that to Lerner, or Offill, though they and their characters are older. Charitably, their characters embrace leftism disguised by the turmoil of real life. More accurately, though at the expense of cliché, they’re just champagne socialists.
Lerner tries, in The Topeka School, to tell the reader something about flyover country, red states, the Midwest. He tries to make a broader cultural observation about the people who are not like him, who voted for Trump. That the Topeka of his youth was and remains a reliably liberal city seems barely relevant to his larger mission. But this is autofiction, and Lerner fails to observe much of substance beyond himself. All we learn about flyover country in The Topeka School is that Ben Lerner, d/b/a Adam Gordon, hates it. Maybe he also hates the part of himself that comes from it.
There’s certainly something of Quentin Compson here: Adam-cum-Ben again and again denying he hates Topeka, acting as if his removal from it provides understanding, when all that is left is disdain. Maybe that’s how Lerner meant the book to be read, but the impression left is rather that he wants to seem an enlightened observer of Trump country, of the America that gave birth to Trumpism, all while seeming every bit as out-of-touch and elitist as a Rust Belt voter would fear a Brooklynite writer to be.
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Autofiction, as a genre, is nebulous — it’s impossible to know for certain where another’s life ends and fiction begins, to know what is almost exactly autobiography and what is a chimerical mix of memoir and invention. That makes critiquing the movement more challenging, both because it makes a refutation easier (“actually, that was invented, you see”) and because it makes identification more challenging to begin with. Who is a true autofictionist, who merely strays a little into autofiction?
It’s useful, maybe, to think of fiction as faith: Imagine some sect or cult are magical-realists, another write detective fiction or noir and all of it is somehow related. Autofictionists, we could say, are Catholics. At the extreme end, we have our Cusks and Karl Ove Knausgårds, the equivalent of SSPXers or Sedevacantists. Then there are the practitioners, regular church-goers, like Heti or Lerner. They’re followed by the semi-observant, the cafeteria Catholics: Rooney, say, or perhaps Offill, who clearly take more from their own lives than many writers, yet cannot be said to be fully practicing autofictionists. There are, or there will someday be, lapsed autofictionists, presumably. But in the way that all faiths have some connection, however loose, all writers borrow something from their own lives. And the one bleeds into the other.
In The Topeka School, it becomes obvious that Lerner is at his strongest as a novelist when he writes about characters who are at the greatest removal from his own experience. With the sections devoted to Jane, the mother of protagonist and Lerner stand-in Adam Gordon, and passages on Klaus, a closeted, elderly Holocaust survivor, Lerner is somewhat removed from the realities of his own life. One person is a woman a generation older than he, the other a foreigner, likely gay, several generations older: Neither, like Adam or Jonathan, Adam’s father, are fellow white, American men.
With Jane and Klaus, Lerner builds fully-realized characters, creations that inhabit the page and live upon it. With Adam and Jonathan, he succeeds only in putting poor reflections of life onto paper. He seems to have half-forgotten that a real person and a character who feels real aren’t the same thing, that to embody reality isn’t to be fixed entirely in fact. A realistic portrayal of humanity isn’t perfectly human; in fiction, to be real requires a deviation from exacting focus on the literal, and that’s often gained naturally by the partial separation of author from subject. By forcing himself to imagine — to imagine what it is to be a woman, a mother; to imagine the trauma of seeing one’s family killed and surviving, alone and isolated in a new land — Lerner also forces himself to, for parts of The Topeka School, become a better novelist. When he transcribes his own life, when he pulls from life so directly that Adam Gordon becomes almost indistinguishable from Ben Lerner, he succeeds only in creating a bland, sad shadow of memoir.
In Jane and Klaus, Lerner also finds greater empathy. What is clear in The Topeka School is that Lerner, in crafting Adam and Jonathan Gordon, is crafting characters closely based on himself and his father, and making them seem pathetic, gross, vile, wicked. They are frequently philanderers, petty racists, cowards. But what Lerner seems to want is a reader who will offer some forgiveness to Adam and Jonathan. He can’t ever ask for that, because they are so close to him, and he instead spends the book seeming to condemn the pair (whose misdeeds may be somewhat inflated from those of Ben and Steve Lerner).
And that’s the central problem of autofiction: The unforgivable, reprehensible narrator is embodied in the first person, but the human begging for understanding, for sympathy, for forgiveness continues. Lerner can’t create an antihero because he is the antihero, and falls victim to the human urge to see himself as just a hero, even as he lacerates himself and his family.
Jane’s sections in The Topeka School, like Jonathan’s and Adam’s, are told in the first person, but unlike the men, Jane seems to narrate hers, in theory to a future Adam, now a novelist, writing down what his mother tells him. Is that a reflection of a real interview between Ben and Harriet Lerner, who, like Jane, is a prominent psychologist affiliated with a prominent clinic in Topeka? Of the concept of parents, he notes that “some were writing this in Brooklyn while their daughters slept beside them.”
Whether Lerner is imagining or recording his mother’s voice matters little; after sections of Adam’s voice, it’s a welcome relief. In the sections involving his alter ego, it’s hard to tell whether Lerner’s prose is insufferable because he is immensely talented at getting inside the head of an insufferable teenager, or if it’s insufferable because that’s how Lerner writes. In an early section, Adam participates in a debate tournament. That Lerner knows the ins and outs of policy debate as only a veteran debater would is obvious. (It seems significant somehow that Lerner, like Rooney, is a champion debater; the least artistically promising high school extracurricular is now producing novelists to a degree that one Brooklyn-based writing workshop labeled the trend “debatecore.”) That his character is a wish-fulfillment device, providing arguments Lerner wishes he himself had made as a youth, is equally obvious.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Autofiction is where writers go not to invent new tales, but to modify their lives — sometimes with the romance of heightened despair, sometimes just with wittier retorts. It’s a place for the uncool to become cool, for the awkward to become suave.
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In one early scene in Weather, Lizzie attends a reading by a poet, just out of rehab. His poems include one “from the point of view of a hat being worn by a beautiful woman.” He tells the audience, “I have written about a hat though I have never been a hat.” Lizzie finds a card someone in the audience left for the poet. It’s captioned: “You’ve received this card because your privilege is showing,” then tells the poet to check his privilege — checked off are items like “White,” “Male,” “Heterosexual,” “Citizen.” Is that card what the autofictionists fear? That if they write about anything other than their lives — anything other than being a writer, usually white, usually in Brooklyn, usually a graduate of some elite university — they will be told that their privilege is showing?
It seems abundantly clear that autofiction leads to, if anything, a more narrow, more restrictive sort of literary culture. Suddenly, writers are rewarded for having less and less imagination. To be a writer, in the world of autofiction, is to be part of a small set of people from roughly similar backgrounds each writing roughly similar books about their roughly similar lives. By doing everything in their power to only tell the stories they know intimately, many of these writers have in fact managed only to leave out other narratives.
In a recent essay for The New Republic on the late Robert Stone, Scott Bradfield argued that post-war American novelists had a diverse array of backgrounds. Many lacked the MFAs that are now all but obligatory for literary novelists. (Disclosure: The author of this piece fact-checked Bradfield’s essay.) Many weren’t products of a narrow set of elite schools (Lerner went to Brown, Cusk to one of Oxford’s poshest colleges, Offill to a premier public university, Heti to a slew of elite Canadian institutions), some grew up far outside the comfortable world of suburban professionals. Maybe Bradfield’s view was rose-tinted; mid-20th century America is duly not remembered as a time of great social equity. But sometime in the midst of another of Lerner’s passages bemoaning the suburban life he and his parents led from his current vantage point as a fixture of elite literary culture in Brooklyn, it’s hard not to think that autofiction leaves much to be desired, both in the stories it tells and in the people who tell them.
In 2014, Cusk told The Observer that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,” adding, “description, character — these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.” It’s good that Cusk is wrong; if all art were reduced to the level of mere autobiography, if we stopped investigating and interrogating the lives and wonders of our world beyond the narrow angle of our own lived experiences, art would be worse. Indeed, it would be barely worth having.