What’s Autofiction? Should You Fictionalize The Story of Your Life?

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From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

A trendy word in publishing recently is “autofiction,” short for “autobiographical fiction.” The term isn’t new. It was first invented in 1977 by author Serge Doubrovsky when talking about his memoir-sh novel, Fils.

And what about those Creative Nonfiction essays that fill literary magazines? (A goldmine for memoir writers.) Can you call them autofiction?

Unfortunately, “autofiction” is not an official category in the publishing world, according to Publishers Weekly.

That means authors still have to decide if what they’ve written is fiction or nonfiction before they publish it, so bookstores will know whether to put it on the fiction or nonfiction shelf.

Guidelines say if there are real people in it and all the incidents really happened, you can call it nonfiction, even if you’ve changed the names of the real people. But if some events or characters are made up, you’re better off calling it fiction.

Readers Often Expect Fiction to be Autofiction.

Authors have a more complex issue than the the shelving dilemmas of bookstore clerks. (Although I relate. I worked in many bookstores over the years.)

The problem is a lot of readers think all fiction is based on the author’s life. Especially if it’s written in the first person.

Even more readers expect authors to be like their protagonists. I’m amazed at how many readers expect me to be an ultra-polite New York fashionista like my series heroine, Camilla. (People who actually know me are laughing hysterically here.) I even once had a beta reader make condescending comments that were obviously aimed at a ditzy debutante, not a 30-year veteran of the publishing industry, educated at Bryn Mawr and Harvard.

I’m not alone. Canadian humor novelist Melodie Campbell has written about meeting fans of her satiric “Rowena” fantasy series. They were sadly disappointed because they expected her to be just like her hot and horny heroine, Rowena, whose bodice is literally ripped in every hilarious book.

There is Plenty of Thinly-Disguised Autofiction Lurking in Popular Fiction.

Readers can be forgiven their delusions. Some novels are indeed thinly disguised autobiography — including classics. Look at David Copperfield, Look Homeward Angel, On the Road, and The Things They Carried.

Scandals can erupt when people recognize themselves in autobiographical fiction. There was major drama around the story Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian, that ran in the New Yorker in 2017. People found it “eerily accurate” in its description of contemporary dating. Many thought it was a work of autofiction, or a disguised personal essay. Ohers treated it like nonfiction.

In 2021, a writer named Alexis Nowicki wrote an article for Slate claiming Cat Person was inspired by stories from her own life that she had confided in the author.

That’s the kind of situation where authors can run into trouble. We’re exposed to stories every day — in the news, on the Internet, overheard in cafés, etc. Those stories nestle in our subconscious minds. Long after we’ve forgotten their origins, they creep into our fiction. That doesn’t mean we’re “stealing” them on purpose.

There has been ongoing saga concerning a character in Donna Tartt’s famous academic mystery, The Secret History. The character is Judy Poovey, the wild California girl with the red Corvette. Apparently people have even started social media accounts in her name on TikTok and other sites.

Last year, Lily Anolik wrote an article in Vanity Fair that documented the search for the “real” Judy Poovey. Everyone was sure she was a thinly disguised real person. Anolik claims that Donna Tartt’s characters, like Mary McCarthy’s in The Group have “feet of clef.” (You have to use the French pronunciation to get the joke.)

But guess what? Nobody has found the “real” Judy Poovey. And that’s probably because Donna Tartt is a talented fiction writer who can make stuff up.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris