Ah, autofiction. It must be one of the most confusing literary labels out there! What’s so ‘auto’ about this kind of fiction, and what does that prefix even mean? Is autofiction any form of endorsed navel-gazing, or is there something more at play here? How can you find a good autofictional novel, and which writers should you look out for?
The best autofiction writers of all time are Karl Ove Knausgård, Nina Bouraoui, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, though there are countless other writers of autofiction currently emerging and from throughout history who are well worth a read!
What is Autofiction Writing?
Autofiction is a style of writing in which an author blends their own observations and experiences with fiction to produce a novel or work of prose.
Autofictional novels and stories often draw heavily from circumstances familiar to the author in question, but may also feature made-up events or characters.
It’s often impossible to tell when reading autofictional writing which lines are drawn from life, and which have been developed or imagined by the author while writing.
In blending these modes, autofiction encourages us to draw parallels between the life of the author and their autofictional protagonist.
When we read autofiction, we may find ourselves making assumptions about the protagonist related to biographical details we already know about the author.
In the same way, we might make assumptions about the author based on the thoughts and experiences their protagonist shares.
It’s hard to tell, when reading autofiction, where the truth begins or ends!
The History of Autofiction Writing
Even though scholars will tell you that Serge Doubrovsky, a French novelist, was the first to develop the term autofiction after writing a novel called Fils, a word meaning both ‘Sons’ and ‘Threads’, the practice of writing autofiction could be argued to be as time-worn as writing itself.
Writing has long been used as a tool used to evidence the richness of our inner lives. Even though we may choose to narrate or tell a story about a character from a different part of the world to us, or who has unique experiences, we as writers generally do draw from our own experience when writing protagonists to make them feel relatable.
It’s important to remember that almost every line an author writes reflects a personal thought. It has always been hard to separate the identity of a writer from their writing.
Autofiction, as a style or genre of writing, can simply be used to refer to novels or pieces of writing which draw explicit attention to this relationship between the biographical experiences of the author and those of their protagonist.
Is Autofiction Writing Popular?
Autofictional writing has long had staunch supporters and some strong critics.
It’s widely accepted that works of autofiction can be quite accomplished from a literary standpoint, but many readers find autofictional writing uncomfortable to read, boring, or an acquired taste.
It can be fascinating to read and engage with a protagonist operating as a stand-in for the author. There’s a sense of voyeurism and excitement attached to the possibility of gaining access to the inner world of another person, whether a famous writer or not!
For this reason, and because there are often scandals which emerge from the relationship articulated in autofiction between an author’s life and their work, autofictional novels are often highly publicized and sell extremely well.
A writer called David Shields has also written a book called Reality Hunger, where he argues that autofiction has become increasingly popular as people have developed their taste in recent years for stories that are true to life and honest.
That said, authors of autofiction have also been accused of and criticized for exaggerating or fabricating events!
Why Do People Read Autofiction Writing?
Many people read autofictional writing because they are fascinated by the opportunity to engage with an earnest portrayal of the thoughts of another real person.
While memoir, biography and autobiography can all be heavily concerned with presenting a particular kind of legacy or sense of a person, autofiction gives authors more latitude with which to be honest, because authors know while they are writing that their reader will not be able to definitively say whether a line or thought comes from truth and life or fiction.
It can be extremely refreshing to read honest work and thoughts, and many authors feel uncomfortable sharing true details with readers without the protection autofiction offers them to dismiss a given line or event as ‘made-up’.
Autofiction also allows authors to use fictional characters and settings to explore feelings that may still be true for them, or to write ‘false memories’ which resonate with them for one reason or another, while perhaps not actually belonging to them or to their experience.
Who Are the Best Autofiction Writers of All Time?
Karl Ove Knausgård
If you have ever read and enjoyed In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, this may be the writer for you.
Knausgård has published a number of novels but his crowning achievement to date is considered to be a series of novels (the first of which is titled A Death In The Family), a project he embarked upon to detail every single memory and experience he has had during his lifetime.
Knausgård writes with acute attention to detail and does not shy away from unflattering moments. It’s worth reading this series simply because it could easily be considered one of the greatest literary efforts of contemporary times.
Though Bouraoui writes mostly in French, translations of some of her novels (All Men Want to Know, for example) have recently become available in English and are worth taking a look at.
Bouraoui has made her career in France on the back of her autofictional novels, and she deserves to be recognised as one of the ongoing pioneers of the form.
She writes bildungsroman-style stories, or ‘coming-of’-age’ stories and often reflects on her childhood between Algeria and Paris.
She also writes about coming to terms with her own sexuality over the course of her life.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Ní Ghríofa, first and foremost a bilingual poet, has written an autofictional novel called A Ghost in the Throat for readers who enjoy poetry and historical fiction.
In the tale, Ní Ghríofa speaks to and becomes a vessel for eighteenth-century Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, drawing parallels between their two lives across the centuries, and reflecting upon their shared experience of motherhood.
Ní Ghríofa won the James Tait Black Prize for the novel, and accordingly, remains an autofictional writer to watch.
Cusk has been writing brilliantly for many years now, before quite recently finding her own groove and style as an author of autofictional novels which focalise the speech and actions of secondary characters while appearing to decentralize her own protagonist.
Cusk encourages her reader to occupy the same position as her protagonist, as the recipient of what those around her have to share.
In blending not only herself, but the positioning of her reader with that of her protagonist, Cusk encourages us to reflect as much upon our own sensibilities as we do upon the nature of the relationship between her life and that of her protagonist.
One of the most well-known and popular authors of autofiction, Lerner now teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College, New York.
His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, uses the autofictional style to detail the experiences of a scholarship holder living abroad in Madrid.
Lerner himself went to Madrid as a Fullbright Scholar, and though he has given his protagonist in the novel a different name (something Cusk and many other writers of autofiction frequently do) there’s clear overlap here.
Lerner’s work often also follows ‘coming-of-age’ conventions, while also charting the development of an artist or novelist in the making (many autofictional novels do this, and there’s a name for this tradition: the Künstlerroman).
Autofiction has long been a confusing term within literary studies, and on book blurbs. Where does the fiction begin and the ‘auto’ end? One of the best ways to find out would have to be through seeking out the above writers and their work.
By reading their novels, you are likely to learn precisely what does, and doesn’t constitute autofiction. You’ll then be able to make up your own mind when it comes to who the best autofiction writers of all time are!