The truth about autofiction – and why it might be your next favourite literary trend

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Having started life in France in the 1970s before slowly spreading out across the world, autofiction blends memoirs and novels in a way that can be as liberating for authors as it can be captivating for readers.

Let's get the awkward truth out of the way first: autofiction can be a difficult thing to get your head around. For a start, it has split the literary community – some think it a wholly unnecessary genre (writing coach Brooke Warner wrote in Publishers Weekly last year that it is a label that doesn't matter to the industry); others find it fascinating. It is also rather tricky to define.  

In fact, definitions vary so much that writer Walker Caplan, writing on the much-respected literary website LitHub, recently came up with '10 New Definitions of Autofiction' in a tongue-in-cheek article that included such entries as “Cars is autofiction, as most of its events happened to Owen Wilson.” 

For a more serious definition of autofiction, most eyes turn to the writing of Serge Doubrovsky, who came up with the term in 1977 while trying to explain the thinking behind his novel Fils. Päivi Koivisto, a literary researcher and Publishing Manager at Finnish publishing house, Teos, is among the many who generally subscribe to Doubrovsky's interpretation. 

“At the moment, when most Finnish journalists write about autofiction, they think it means every novel that has something from the author's life in it, that it is basically an autobiographical novel,” she says. “As a literary researcher, however, the way I see it is a little bit more complicated.” 

Doubrovsky's definition, she explains, suggests that several things need to happen for a piece of work to fit the autofiction genre:

1/ The author and the protagonist/narrator must have the same name. In cases when the word 'I' is used throughout instead of a name, some literary critics will accept the work as autofiction if the author can be identified as the narrator via clues within the text.

2/ The story told in the book is something that has actually happened to the author.

Number 2, of course, raises an obvious question: if it is has happened to the author, then why is it sold and marketed as a novel? The answer, according to Koivisto, is that autofiction books are generally accepted to contain some elements that may not be true. For example, it is impossible to quote authentic dialogues from the past – prompting writers to lean on a blend of both memory and imagination.

Additionally, autofiction novels tend to contain other things that are not commonly seen in autobiographies.

“The first is the language,” Koivisto notes. “Doubrovsky says that autofiction authors should write lyrically, using metaphors and other techniques – basically using language as a tool to make the story evocative so that all sorts of connotations come to life.”

The second is that artistic licence can be taken with the chronology. “You can decide how to arrange the events in the story,” says Koivisto. “For example, Doubrovsky – who wrote the first autofiction according to his own rules – wrote about an imaginary day. There wasn't such a day in his own life, but he created one and put situations in that really happened to him.”

A cloak of invincibility for writers

As well as autofiction being an intriguing concept for the reader – “When you see that this is a novel but that the protagonist's name is the same as the author, you understand that something a little different is happening here,” says Koivisto – it can give authors something special, too.

“Autofiction allows them to write about intimate, sensitive, personal experiences, which may expose them to shaming and humiliating comments,” says Koivisto. It is especially appealing to many authors who have been marginalised – due to their ethnicity or sexuality, for example.

For them, it is vital that the narrative has its roots in real experiences – of shaming, racism, ostracism – but, as Koivisto says, “one can never demarcate the borders of truth.” As a result, fiction works as a shield against hostile readers and their dismissive interpretations.

Not everyone is in favour of this blurring of the lines between truth and fiction, however. The late French literary critic Gérard Genette, for example, said that autofiction as defined by Doubrovsky was used by writers seeking to expose nasty things about their friends and relatives, and in order to avoid lawsuits those authors dressed up what is patently an autobiography as autofiction.

Genette preferred to see autofiction, when interpreted correctly, as a work in which everything is fictional – but the writer and the protagonist share the same name.

For Koivisto, autofiction lies somewhere between the two – and she has experienced first-hand how appealing it can be to authors who want to write about things that are difficult to write about. "It's actually something I have taught in class," she says, "and the writers I explained it to definitely saw it as a kind of shield. In many ways, it just feels safer to add some fiction in there."

A trend to try 

For all the furore and confusion it has created, it looks like autofiction is here to stay. Koivisto's publishing house has this year published a book by Finnish author Ossi Nyman titled Häpeärauha (loosely translated as Ignoble Peace), the last part in his autofiction trilogy. There are also more autofiction courses available. For example, Masterclass, the online tuition portal where experts ranging from Gordon Ramsay to Martin Scorsese share their knowledge, has added an autofiction class to its roster in order to bring newcomers up to speed.

For readers, it's a chance to try something different. And autofiction certainly isn't as narrow a genre as it might first sound.

"One book can vary greatly from another," says Koivisto. "Some are plot-driven and make for good entertainment, others are quite challenging to read, with fragmentary narrative or no narrative at all, along with symbolic and associative language."

In short, there's an autofiction novel for everyone. Part of the fun is in trying to find it.

Check out Stora Enso’s range of book papers here

5 autofiction novels – and what makes them autofiction

1. My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgård

These six books by Norwegian writer Knausgård's are clearly labelled as novels but the protagonist's name is the same as the author and the events written about are very much autobiographical in nature.


2. The Lover by Marguerite Duras

This 1984 work by acclaimed French writer Duras has been defined as a work of autofiction, even though the title character is not named. The events described in the book however, very closely resemble the author's experiences.


3. A Portrait of a Friend by Penti Holappa

Winner of the Finlandia Prize, this 1998 novel by Finnish author Holappa tells the story of a man who is madly in love with his friend. The protagonist shares the author's name and the story shares many similarities with Holappa's own lifebut there are some notable differences. The narrator underlines that he might not be remembering certain parts correctly – or that they may not be true at all.


4. The Red Book of Farewells by Pirkko Saisio

In which the Finnish author completes her autofictional trilogy that depicts her life from childhood to adulthood. The protagonist carries the same name as the author, but sometimes Pirkko is narrated as "she"; other times as "I".


5. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

Now a successful TV series, I Love Dick is a 1997 novel that reveals its American author's obsession with 'Dick' via a series of real and not-so-real memoirs.

In focus

Päivi Koivisto
Päivi Koivisto
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