These are my notes for the MLA roundtable I participated in this year, “Contemporary Autofiction,” organized by Ralph Clare and featuring great talks by Timothy Bewes, Annabel Kim, and E. L. McCallum.
In my remarks today, I want to propose that autofiction, or at least in its contemporary variation, is not a genre. It is, instead, an aesthetic gesture or practice or mode (or whatever you want to call it) that takes place at the intersection of genre and marketing.
Specifically, I will suggest that the distinctive feature of this aesthetic gesture is the internalization of marketing into literary form, and the identification of self-promotion with the author function.
In making this claim, I’m not trying to condemn contemporary autofiction or dismiss those who write it as "selling out."
Rather, I want to argue that this mode or gesture or practice is a way of grappling formally with a larger ongoing historical condition or crisis.
I would further argue, as a corollary to my initial claim, that autofiction has been too easily collapsed into a couple other literary-historical tendencies:
First, the larger history of modernist life writing
And second, the history of metafiction.
In the first case, we find claims that autofiction is little more than a continuation of what many modernist artists were doing all along.
In the Program Era, for example, Mark McGurl suggests that one of the main jobs of the modernist artist was to reflexively produce a portrait of the modernist artist.
And this tradition, he suggests, has continued in the second half of the twentieth century in a writing practice that he calls autopoesis and that he associates with University creative writing programs.
That’s the modernist artist version of autofiction.
In the second case, there’s scholarship like Marjorie Worthington’s important book on American autofiction, which positions more recent writers into a genealogy that responds to and grows from the writing of John Barth, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and other postmodernists.
What these perspectives have in common in the claim that writers of autofiction are newly reflexive about their embeddedness in institutions.
whether that institution is language (and linguistically constituted reality)
or the creative writing program (with its paradoxical systematized creativity).
So, you know, there’s a lot of truth in these perspectives, but I would still claim that contemporary autofiction is something rather different. It’s a literature that addresses the becoming institutional of the individual.
It has more in common with Reality Television than metafiction.
Contemporary autofiction is a literature that confronts the reality that under neoliberalism, the individual is increasingly charged with the job of managing his own portfolio of human capital.
The individual becomes something like a firm, who must:
on the one hand, manage his own inner resources, his drives, his talents, and so on, and then,
on the other hand, must, like any independent firm, hire and fire agents, editors, and publishers and must navigate personal and professional relationships that will, in time, get absorbed back into the maw of his writing.
And this explains why contemporary autofiction, from Dave Eggers to Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti to Rachel Cusk, is so obsessed with the process of publishing and the mechanics of the writer’s life.
It’s not just that they’re writing what they know. It’s that managing their career is central to the content of their being as writers.
There are many relevant examples I could cite of this dynamic in action, but by way of evidence I’ll ask you to consider—with my apologies—these two magazine covers (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Great American Novelist vs. Great American Novelist
The first—the August 23, 2010 cover of Time magazine—depicts the author Jonathan Franzen. You may have heard of him. Many commentators made a point of noting that Franzen was the first writer to appear on the cover of Time in more than a decade.
And in the accompanying feature article, penned by the novelist and critic Lev Grossman, Franzen is described as a member of a “perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist.” Look! the cover screams. We still have at least one great novelist in America: and here he goes.
The Stranger cover, also from 2010, features the prominent Alt-Lit novelist Tao Lin.
The cover self-evidently mocks the pretentions of its Time counterpart.
And there is an obvious homology between Lin’s relationship to Franzen and The Stranger’srelationship to Time.
Lin and The Stranger represent the parody-friendly, irony-loving alternative or indie versions of Franzen and Time respectively.
I think we need to understand the Stranger cover as more than a satire.
We should read Lin’s self-description here—his claim to “show us the way we live now,” which is language that is directly drawn from the Time cover—as in a complicated sense sincere.
And the contrast with Franzen, I think, showcases what is uniquely at stake in the aesthetics of contemporary autofiction.
The nature of this claim’s sincerity becomes evident when we examine the occasion for this release of this article: namely, the publication of Lin’s 2010 novel Richard Yates.
Lin’s slim novel—which has been largely forgotten and certainly hasn’t been written about by scholars—is an autofictional rendition of a troubled, abusive relationship Lin had with the poet E. R. Kennedy.
In the novel, Lin and Kennedy are renamed Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, but other than Lin’s odd choice of character names, the novel is starkly literal minded in its autobiographical depiction of the unfolding relationship between them.
Lin documents the initial contact between Haley and Dakota over Gmail chat.
He describes how the relationship between them slowly degenerates into emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, and, for Dakota, bulimia.
And as is the case with other recent autofictions—such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be—Lin incorporates real primary sources—in this case actual email exchanges between him and Kennedy—into the body of the novel.
There’s much one could say about the book as well as the Alt-Lit scene of which it was a part. A decade on, in the wake of various #MeToo scandals associated with this community of young writers, the Alt-Lit scene has dissolved, but at the time, Alt-Lit—which was, almost definitionally, autofictional—seemed ascendent.
But what I want to mention today is that Lin was able to write this novel partly because he sold six shares of the future proceeds of the novel—each costing $2,000—to investors. Richard Yates is therefore a novel that is also a financial instrument, a promise of future return on the book’s royalties for Lin’s backers.
Lin claimed he was able to raise $12,000, and his stunt received press coverage from major news sources, including the New York Times.
We might read this self-capitalization as a gimmick on Lin’s part, another sign of his fundamental unseriousness. But—though I don’t have time to do a full reading of the book—I would suggest that Lin’s efforts at self-promotion are internal to his art.
There would, in short, not be much left of his art without this persistent foregrounding of his struggle to capitalize on his own name.
Much the same could be said for contemporary autofiction as such; this struggle is what distinguishes the contemporary mode of autofiction from prior modes sometimes conflated with it.
So, love him or hate him, I think it’s fair to say that Tao Lin internalized, and was arguably unusually successful at internalizing, if only for a moment, the functions of writer, publisher, and marketer within his own corporate person.
This process of internalization was the condition of possibility for his becoming a writer in the first place. And it is such a condition of possibility that, through his intense reflexivity, necessarily becomes the content of his art.
And so, his career and art teaches us something important—perhaps something we would rather prefer not to learn—about “the way we live now” or, more accurately, the way contemporary autofiction emerges from the unique collision of art and commerce under neoliberalism.