Autofiction: What It Is and What It Isn’t
Whether writing autobiographical fiction or memoir, writers must own their truths.
It is not uncommon for authors of memoir to wrestle with whether to publish a book as memoir or fiction. “It’s all true,” an author I’m publishing in the spring told me on a phone call intended to sort out this very question, “but I took some liberties.”
“So it’s fiction,” I concluded.
“But it could be memoir,” she countered. “I could easily make those parts true.” She told me that she’d intended for the book to be autofiction, but she was arguing in circles—seeming to make a case for memoir, but then bristling when I asserted that we should make it memoir, and landing back at this idea of autofiction.
Finally, I explained to her: “It’s either memoir or fiction. There’s no such category as autofiction.”
Authors can get a little obsessive about labels, I’ve found. I’ve sat in pitch sessions with writers who spend their valuable minutes wringing their hands about whether their book is literary or upmarket or commercial fiction. “It doesn’t really matter,” I tell them sometimes, in an attempt to steer the conversation to things that will actually help them.
Autofiction, which is short for autobiographical fiction, is one of those labels that ultimately doesn’t matter to the industry. Coined in 1977 by the author Serge Doubrovsky in an attempt to explain the autobiographical nature of his novel Fils, it was intended then, as now, to qualify a form of fiction. The problem today is that the term is showing up more and more as a way to qualify what’s “true.” When asked onstage at a Los Angeles Times Book Club event why he had blended the genres of memoir and fiction for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which has been heralded as a work of autofiction, Ocean Vuong said, “For me, as a poet, I was always beginning with truth.”
Just because memoir must start with the truth doesn’t mean that fiction doesn’t start there, too. Fiction does not mean “not true” just because the characters are portrayals and the scenes are ostensibly made up. Fiction is often drawn more from the imagination than from lived experience, but the characters who populate novels are not fake (they’re always drawn from the author’s understanding of their own world), and fiction has always been a vehicle for poignant observation about real people, human dynamics, and societal and cultural dilemmas.
The term autofiction serves a purpose when it is applied in its original meaning—to describe a novel that draws from real life—but autofiction is not and has never been a genre. You will not find autofiction as a category on Amazon, nor does it exist as a subject heading in the industry’s BISAC categorization system, which exists to help booksellers know where to shelve books. If an author has written a work of autofiction, the book can only be labeled as a novel, and as such it’s sold in the fiction section with fiction categories and fiction BISACs.
The reason it matters that we talk about what autofiction is not—namely, a memoir with a fiction label—is because memoir as a genre has long fought for legitimacy in a world where readers and critics alike love to judge memoirists for their behavior rather than the work itself, and women who write memoir are more maligned than the men who do. I recently interviewed Michelle Tea, a cross-genre writer who published her first novel, Rose of No Man’s Land, in 2006, after multiple memoirs. “It was really interesting to be writing these girls doing all the same things I had personally done,” she says, “and all of a sudden my writing was being discussed, and not my personal behavior.”
Rachel Cusk, too, has noted this discrepancy in treatment of memoirists versus novelists. She’s been widely celebrated for the novels in her Outline Trilogy, and yet, before all the recent praise of her genius at renovating the fictional form, she’d written several memoirs for which she was eviscerated by readers who took issue with her exploration of truth—how she wrote candidly about maternal ambivalence and the breakdown of her marriage.
In a 2014 piece for the Guardian, Cusk spoke about the reception of her memoir, Aftermath, as a “creative death” that pushed her “into total silence.” When I interviewed her in 2019, she spoke about how readers reacted to the content in her memoir. “Right now it’s difficult to speak,” she said. “At what moment can what you say suddenly be conscripted into a dialogue of offense?”
In countless memoir panels I’ve sat on over the years, I’ve heard authors of memoir give permission to other writers in the audience to fictionalize their work. I see this as a knee-jerk desire to protect those future authors from other people’s hostile reactions. It’s always the writer’s prerogative to decide whether to bill their work as memoir or fiction, of course. In the case of the author on my list, she chose fiction, and perhaps rightly so, as she’d conceptualized the book that way and taken plenty of liberties. But fiction only distances the author from their personal lived experience of truth, not from the truth itself, while memoir insists that the author own their truth.
Writers who want to write autofiction should. But, as a champion of memoir, I worry about what happens when the silencing that Cusk spoke of starts to become an exodus of would-be memoirists to autofiction, and what we might lose when authors don’t claim their truth.
Brooke Warner is the publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, a writing coach, and the author of Write On, Sisters! and Green-Light Your Book.