Auto-fiction, ladies and gentlemen? A few highlights from this vertiginously hip new sub-genre of the twenty-first century novel might include Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2015) and his The Topeka School (2019), Rachel Cusk’s Transit (2014) and Olivia Laing’s Crudo (2018).
And this is to ignore the lodestar to which all lesser lights of the nocturnal sky respectfully incline, the three-and-half thousand pages of the Norwegian novelist Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume My Struggle (translated instalments appearing for the past six years). Critics love them, and Zadie Smith has compared Mr K to crack cocaine. What is their distinguishing mark? Well, they all happen to be about the name on the title page.
Fiction — English fiction in particular — has always harboured a pronounced autobiographical strain. Dickens, Thackeray, Wells, Elizabeth Bowen, Olivia Manning — all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, put themselves and some of the people around them into their books. Kipling’s autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), would make a good alternative title for nearly every first novel ever written.
The difference between an autobiographical novelist and an auto-fictioneer is that while the one features intermittently in their text, the latter is an exclusive presence. A Victorian critic once observed that whenever he wrote a novel Thackeray jumped on stage and played all the parts himself. In auto-fiction, alas, there is only a single role. Thus 10.04 features an aspiring writer named Ben whose career, just like that of his creator, is kick-started by getting a story accepted by the New Yorker.
Transit stars a teacher of creative writing named Faye who flies to Athens to take part in a summer school, and was published shortly after its author, then a teacher of creative writing at the University of Kingston-upon-Thames, had … well, you get the idea. Crudo is largely an account of the meals Olivia Laing ate while on honeymoon in Italy punctuated by bad news about Trump and a brisk little fantasia about Ms Laing’s alter ego Kathy Acker.
My Struggle, alternatively, is a fanatically detailed résumé of its author’s life to date, even down to the pleasure he took, as a teenager, in taking a shit in the woods.
Where does all this come from? Like quite a lot of our contemporary culture, auto-fiction’s roots can be tracked back to the notably self-absorbed 1960s. It was then that an avant-garde novelist such as B.S. Johnson (Trawl, The Unfortunates, etc) could pronounce that as fiction was cognate with the verb “to feign” any writer who aspired to verisimilitude should confine themselves to the workings of their own consciousness.
The curious thing about this shelf-full of lightly disguised autobiography is the strong resemblance to the bunch of 90s-era journalists
It was also the time at which, as The Beatles fell apart, John Lennon noted that whereas Paul McCartney wrote “story” songs about boring people doing mundane jobs, he, Lennon, preferred the far more enticing subject of himself, on the grounds that “I know me.”
If the choice lay between “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, most Beatles fans, you suspect, would plump for McCartney’s traffic warden. Few bits of Age of Aquarius crap have stuck more tenaciously to the cultural pavement than the idea that all art has to be about the artist. The auto-fictioneer, though, has another apologia pro vita sua floating around in his, or increasingly her, head. This is an awareness that the old certainties on which novel-writing was based have fallen apart.
Novels, the argument goes, used to be about power, about settled communities and the forces that drove them, about “society” and its transformations, and explaining, or perhaps only hinting, how the world worked. But you can’t write a novel like Middlemarch in 2020. The information isn’t there any more. Or rather there is so much information, so many accretions of tantalising and contradictory data, that no novelist could possibly make sense of it.
Hence the retreat into self-absorption. No one, the argument continues to run, can write a novel about Trump or Brexit or any of the other calamities that afflict us in these uncertain times head-on. Much better to stick to your honeymoon and the delectable Italian cuisine and let the really serious stuff filter in every so often over the web.
The curious thing about this shelf-full of lightly disguised autobiography is the strong resemblance it bears to the bunch of 1990s-era journalists — William Leith, Zoe Heller and others — known to Private Eye as the “New Solipsists”. Naturally, newspaper columnists tend to write about themselves. The New Solipsists went a step further and wrote entirely about the Thai takeaways they and their friends had enjoyed on the previous Friday night or what their boyfriend had said as he stepped out of the shower.
Nothing wrong with subjectivity, of course, or even personal myth. In the end, though, auto-fiction has to be judged by the standards applied to every other form of writing. And the sad fact is that most of these musings on the delicious topic of me, myself and I are ditch-water dull.
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