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Eye of the Beholder

Objects in the Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

You used to believe in written things regardless of whether they were true or false. If they were lies, their traces would one day serve as evidence that could be turned against their authors: the truth had merely been deferred. Moreover, liars write less than they speak. In books, life, whether it was documented or invented, seemed to you more real than the life you saw and heard for yourself. It was when you were alone that you used to perceive real life. When you recalled it, it was made weaker by your memory’s many points of imprecision. But others had imagined life in books: what you were reading was the superimposition of two consciousnesses, yours and that of the author. You used to doubt what you had perceived, but never what others had invented.

—Édouard Levé, Suicide, translated by Jan Steyn

In autobiography there is a narrator, and the narrator claims to be coextensive with the author, and so “both” claim to be speaking to you, and this is the pact implicitly made. If there is no trust in this pact—that the author is who the author claims to be, and that the claims the author makes are true and not false, that I believe you are a human and not a chatbot—the whole message falls apart. While Édouard Levé’s “you” deals pretty neatly with this false (or untrue) binary of false vs. true—if it’s documented in writing but the author is intentionally dishonest, eventually the truth will surface, and if on the other hand, the author is honest, the truth is just there sooner, it’s all a matter of time—it still stands that the author/confessor/testifier is expected to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them god/the publisher/the executioner. Otherwise, “their traces would one day serve as evidence that could be turned against their authors.”

“Truth-genres”—by which I mean documentaries, autobiographies, confessions, legal testimonies, travelogues, academic essays, love letters, victim sketches, book reviews, etc.—have their own codes by which they operate to hide their own constructed-ness (they are genres) and to instead emphasize the (seemingly) natural development and presentation of the respective but shared primary constituent element of each: truth. In fiction, the author is expected to invent, but the author also can give away biographical disclosures; that’s completely fine. In autobiography, the author is expected to disclose, but cannot invent; that would invalidate the entire work. That would be autofiction, or “autobiographical fiction”—two words that are antithetical to one another—which, as theorist Frank Zipfel writes in Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction, comprise “the unresolvable paradox of contradictory reading instructions.”

Autofiction—due to its contradictory and conflicted, but thereby highly generative and compelling relationship to truth—often deals with extremely taboo subjects, among them suicide and sexual violence. As a genre or a mode that constantly makes the reader question “is this true” and “how is it that you’re even telling me this,” autofiction operates as a barometrically precise indicator of what subjects are taboo in our society, and what truths are being skirted in the discourse. This leads me, then, to the reason I’ve made Levé’s Suicide the epigraph of this essay: once you start telling the story of these untellable truths, storytelling itself changes.

NDA: An Autofiction Anthology, edited by Caitlin Forst, opens with Vi Khi Nao’s “Field Notes on Suicide or the Inability to Committ Suicide, or It’s Hard to Follow a Pomeranian Around.” The piece immediately subverts our expectations insofar as instead of a first-person narration from the author, we have a third-person narration of an unnamed “She.” Is this “she” Vi Khi Nao, and is this a way for the author to distance herself from her suicidal ideations, while also writing them? And why is such a painful and taboo subject treated so glibly, even in the very title? An autobiographical story would generally seek to resolve or at least engage these questions in the foreground, and the background would simply be the setting—in this case “Sin City,” or Las Vegas. Here, however, resolution is resisted: the internal state of the “she” is externalized, backgrounded, and then the infernal background becomes the foreground. The city begins to speak (albeit still in third person), and to become the main character:

How does a city find itself amongst the different narrative structures
of the city?
With which building should it ambush or clothe its soul?
When a city doesn’t clothe itself in the nightmares of the past,
what must a person who wishes to commit suicide but can’t do?

A city sprawled out, waiting for a pamphlet to kiss it.
A city within a city, crawling around, wanting a good fuck.
Who is willing to fuck it?
Will it have any good luck?

           Sin City will tell you all about it.

It’s exciting to see form stretched like this, and to see the “field” of autobiography so changed. The story serves as a kind of time-stamp—“Time passes through her and around her”—of a self in relation to her world, rather than isolated from it. It is a different kind of confession. I cannot be certain whether the mouth-piece issues from Nao, the desert, a Pomeranian, or 2001, “when the US got involved in a very romantic relationship with a fake nuclear psychoanalyst called Afghanistan.” I cannot verify whether the story is true or real, because I do not know whose story it is.

When you read autofiction and you wonder whether or not something is true, it’s not because you can’t believe something like this could have happened—a black hole recently burped—but because you can’t believe something like this could have been told. You’re not even sure it should be told. NDA opens on a note from Forst which responds, I think, precisely to this question:


Autofiction has recently been hit with moral, academic, and critical scrutiny.

I am not moral, academic, or a critic.

Despite being perhaps the smallest editorial note to exist in print, and the funniest, the introduction does a large amount of heavy lifting. For one, it works as an implicit trigger warning: there will be morally offensive views here, as well as controversial persons. Second, it acknowledges the precarious literary landscape that autofiction finds itself in, and then firmly grounds the nascent or unwelcome genre in a defiant rhetorical gesture that could only be called autofictional. It grounds its response in a negative-definitional “I.” Forst does not disclose what she is, only what she is not, and even this disclosure is shadowy: is it an amoral stance, or immoral? Furthermore, she does not respond that she disagrees with those criticisms, but rather that she does not identify with the traits nor the vocations of the criticizers: I am not beholden to the institutions that you represent, therefore I do not need to testify to you.

Here we see the canniness of the title of the anthology: NDA. A nondisclosure agreement, whereby an individual agrees not to tell the truth to protect the interests of a larger party. While this would appear to be the inverse of the autobiographical impulse/the testimonial obligation, it’s actually foundational: in all cases, the individual is liable to a powerful entity—often to a business or institutional structure, like a publisher or a press, or to a person or collective of persons, such as a readership—who claims propriety over this truth and its provenance. In the case of Forst’s editorial note, and in the case of the autofictional works that comprise the anthology, the NDA at work is double: we, the readers, don’t even know what is being undisclosed. Reading this anthology, then, is akin to playing Two Truths and a Lie, but the reader is never told which is the lie. And what if, for example, there are more than two truths? What if all of it is true?

One such story in the anthology, “The Troubles” by Brad Phillips, not only engages with this question, but makes the question the energizing core of the story. On the level of plot, the story, written in first person, details how Phillips went to prison for killing a man in self-defense, and then while in prison, how he orchestrated the murder of an at-large rapist. On a metafictional level, however, the story focuses on the very telling of this story, i.e., whether it’s true and how a narrator convinces a reader it is true; at what point does an unreliable narrator contaminate a suddenly unreliable author; and what role does this very anthology play in the dissemination of such unknowables:

Autofiction. Darina told me this publication is dedicated to “autofiction,” the narcissistic quicksand of literature. But she didn’t want to know what was true and what wasn’t, helpful for me in that I often have trouble distinguishing between the two.

The reference is to Darina Sikmashvili, whose story “This is What I Have to Show for Life” follows directly after Phillips’s in the anthology. Sikmashvili’s story features what is, to me, one of the most beautiful and poignant lines I’ve ever read: “The smallest unit of writing is not the word, it is the intention.” Nowhere does this seem to be more true than in autofiction, where the authorial intention is often explicitly stated, and then toyed with at the level of the word; i.e., it becomes part of the plot itself.

In this case, editorial intention becomes a part of the world as well, insofar as Forst’s intention, it seems, is to make this intertextuality structural and literal via the anthology’s juxtaposition. The only precedent I can think of is Chris Kraus’s seminal work of autofiction I Love Dick, which features the story of a love triangle between the narrator, Chris Kraus, her biographical husband Sylvere Lotringer, and the eponymous character “Dick.” Lotringer and Kraus are also the co-editors of Semiotext(e) within the book—within the word—as well as of the book within the world.

It is interesting also to note the parallel-to-Levé dismissal of the truth/lie dichotomy in the epigraph of this essay. But where this dismissal of the dichotomy is where Levé ends—it’s all truth, it’s just a matter of time before even lies are revealed as such—it becomes for Phillips the staging point for various rhetorical manipulations and engagements. Anticipating the critique that this story could face—that, as autofiction, the story belongs to “the narcissistic quicksand of literature”—Phillips transforms the egoistic critique into the focal point of the story, while simultaneously turning the mirror to our societal faces. That is, the narrator devotes the very next paragraph to a musing on the most unreliable narrators conceivable—serial killers:

When Ted Bundy was arrested after massacring a sorority house at Florida State University he denied it all. But Ted had a big ego and loved an audience[…]Bundy, who the public often mistakenly thinks was charming and intelligent, when told that he was of interest to science, and that FBI profilers wanted to learn from him (feeding into his insatiable ego), began to provide specific details to dozens of the murders he’d been charged with, but did so in the third person…

Suddenly writers are being compared to serial killers (think of serial novelists), and the insatiable ego of Ted Bundy serves as analogue to the insatiable ego of Brad Phillips. Phillips could have argued that, rather than being a narcissistic writer, he is owning up to his putative crimes and aiding and abetting his own character assassination; instead, in counterargument to the possibly exonerating counterargument, Phillips points out that monsters are proud of their monstrousness, too. And then Phillips further plunges autofiction into the controversy:

So in the spirit of autofiction I’ll take advantage of all that this most dubious category of writing allows me, I will tell my revenge story in Ted Bundy pre-appeal exhaustion style. I do so in part because while I did serve the time handed down to me, minus two years for good behaviour, I’m uncertain of the statute of limitations on certain crimes in Canada, and my own culpability in what happened is murky and uncertain. I don’t have the energy to spend weeks researching the Canadian legal system to find out which tense I can write this in, so will later follow the lead of Bundy and Simpson, two champions of intellect, so that I can tell my story with complete accuracy[…]

We don’t know if the story that follows is true; we just know that under the statute of limitations —think NDAs—the truth cannot legally be told. Under the auspices of autofiction, however, it can, but it is unverifiable. I will say that by the time Phillips details the most controversial of his exploits, he has switched to the third person.

In autobiography, not only is it assumed that the reader knows the author by way of knowing the narrator—the genre convention being that they form a one-to-one correspondence—but it is an act of betrayal, a breach of trust, if such authors have failed, through a lack of integrity or capability, to make themselves known. While such levels of scrutiny are chosen by authors who enter into the arena of autobiography, there is still something naive about the desire to know such authors: “I is another,” said Rimbaud and, I think we can say in this particular context, too, “I is an author.”

Other pieces in the anthology highlight examples wherein the inability to tell the truth is not a legal issue, but a societal and even metaphysical one. B.R. Yeager’s “Roman Soldier,” for example, is a high school story of alcohol abuse, toxic masculinity, repressed queerness, shame, violence, and possible murder. It is as crushing as it is funny as it is distanced as it is vulnerable as it is cynical as it is lyrical: “Simple and perfect, like an orchid, or a scalpel. Like all the best jokes.” It is told from the perspective of a dead youth—a logical impossibility that the formal elasticities of autofiction make possible—whose several peers count among them a “Brian,” possibly a cipher for the author. Is the author hiding behind an invented character? Possibly yes which, metafictionally, aligns more with the story’s themes of hiding and denial.

Another example is Elle Nash’s “Livestream,” which (nearly) discloses to the reader a variety of secrets—interpersonal, romantic, occupational—that, if they’re true and told, would completely compromise the author’s life. This itself becomes part of the plot of the story:

My future now stands before me like a city of tall buildings. Everything is already built. There is no changing the location of skyscrapers. I can see them in the distance. One building is the birth process, the pain and fear of the unknown; one building is a career path; one building is a job with no upward mobility; one building is retirement and savings; one is my relationship with ________.

When it comes to autobiography, such disclosures of such truths might in fact level the future where “[e]verything is already built.” In a work of autofiction, however, the author is permitted to meditate on the sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive mediation between truth and the future. Rather than “recreating the world through his or her own experience” and erecting a fictive barrier inside which the author can comfortably tell truths, Nash metaphorizes these buildings as being only provisionally built; the gap between the narrator’s “Everything is already built” and the reader’s reactive “but publishing this would tear everything down” is a dynamic shutter that opens and closes with each “authorial” exposure.

Such ontological messiness regarding the telling of truth is, I think, at the heart of the scrutiny with which critics hit autofiction. Some of this scrutiny is academic. For example, this is from Brooke Warner’s article in Publishers Weekly, “Autofiction: What It Is and What It Isn’t,” from January 1, 2021:

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.

To be sure, there are a lot of genres that, for centuries, had not and had never been genres. Memoir is one of them. Similarly, I’m unclear why autofiction’s lack of presence on the generic wall of Jeff Bezos’s popular Goodreads site invalidates it as a genre, or form, or label: you do not find Memoir or Autobiography listed as categories under “Books” on Amazon either, and as far as I can tell, “Calendars” and “Test Preparation,” which I do find, are not genres. What I find here then is an industry and marketability argument that masquerades as an academic one: when genres migrate, marketability does as well. This argument then isn’t convincing to me. In the same article, however, Warner levels a moral argument, pointing out the relationship between genre and gender:

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.

So it is memoir that, as a genre, is under threat. Warner’s point is that women who write memoir —who write anything, really—are more maligned than men, and that memoir is always fighting for legitimacy, and that this is itself a sign of misogyny. An argument on the other side of the aisle hails Warner’s fear as a refuge point: members of disenfranchised communities ought to write autofiction, because autofiction allows them to claim their truth. The following is the opening of Nina Bouraoui’s article “Top 10 Books of Autofiction,” by The Guardian, published on September 16, 2020:

An autofiction is a work of truth; the author is not hiding behind an invented character, she is that character. The character’s spiritual and philosophical quest is the author’s own; the “I” of the narrative is the author, recreating the world according to his or her own experience.

Bouraoui argues the diametrical opposite: autofiction is as true as autobiography, in that the relationship between character and author forms a one-to-one correspondence. The only difference is “the world,” which is reinvented to better cast to the mold of the author’s experience. If Warren is afraid memoir writers will make a mass exodus to autofiction, Bouraoui likens autofiction to a kind of Ellis Island:

I can lay claim to having a triple status: I’m a woman, I’m of mixed race and I’m gay. With the rise of the extreme right, I felt it was important to tell my parents’ story: a French woman marrying an Algerian man, my mother’s arrival in Algiers after 1962, a time when the French were all leaving Algeria; our life there, full of beauty, poetry and sometimes, danger; the discovery of my sexuality. It takes courage to step outside of the norm and become the person you are.

In the case of Bouraoui, the veil of autofiction is like a secure and protective envelope through which the truth can be safely developed; because of her “triple status,” she cannot safely speak her truth without fear of political reprisal, and therefore autofiction is a sort of refuge for the truth.

I wonder about the obverse side of this; if the first sort of autofiction protects a writer who is part of a vulnerable and historically disenfranchised population from further disenfranchisement and violence, does it also protect a writer who is in a position of power and who has abused that power? I’m not sure. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Tao Lin is included in the anthology, and E.R. Kennedy’s accusations against Lin of statutory rape and emotional abuse, as well as plagiarism of Kennedy in his autofictional book Richard Yates, are well-documented.

The unsettling part, however, is that they are well-documented in the book. The 2010 work Richard Yates details a toxic romantic relationship between a sixteen-year-old girl and a twenty-two-year-old male writer wherein the latter character’s many commissions of emotional abuses, including constant humiliations and fat-shaming of the former, are quite accurately echoed in the accusations Kennedy made against Lin in 2014. The one accusation that isn’t part of the narrative, however, is structural to the narrative: plagiarism. Kennedy, who has since transitioned, claimed that Lin published his portion of their emails without his consent; Lin responded soon after in a Facebook post that the age of consent in Pennsylvania is sixteen, that they had a “bad relationship,” and that Kennedy had originally consented to having those emails published. After Lin threatened a character defamation suit, Kennedy took down his tweets alleging the abuse and hasn’t published a book since his 2009 collection, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs.

There have been very few articles written about the issue since 2016, and Tao Lin has continued to publish to great acclaim. I’m not taking a stance on whether or not the allegations are true; rather, I point out the case as an example of Brooke Warner’s point: women who write memoir are more maligned than the men who do. I think this goes for autofiction, too.

But autofiction isn’t a genre, and Tao Lin didn’t, like Bouraoui advocates in autofiction, show the “courage to step outside of the norm and become the person [he is].” Rather, in a strange inversion, Lin stepped inside the norm of authorship and became an author of fiction, retroactively annulling Richard Yates’s autofictional stance or impulse. Autobiography’s pact with the reader is that the author documents, and fiction’s pact is that the author invents— plagiarism is not invention. Therefore, in suing E.R. Kennedy for character defamation, Lin commits the most absurd but most telling pun imaginable: you are accusing my character of being real. Lin ultimately chooses character defamation over authorial defamation, and fiction over nonfiction, not for the sake of art, but for the sake of legal security. This is the least interesting form of autofiction to me because it puts no pressure on the category of truth, and stays safely ensconced within the genre of fiction. Tao Lin’s story in the anthology—“Canadian Gay Porn Site”—while very funny, falls into the autofictional category that the aforementioned Frank Zipfel describes as a conflation of fiction with autobiographical transcription. As in Mad Libs, some of the nouns and proper nouns are switched, and otherwise it reads like autobiography. Insofar as this genre is nevertheless called Fiction, it in the best of cases allows vulnerable writers to safely voice their truth, and in the worst allows those who have abused their power to escape accountability.

Zipfel’s second conception of autofiction is of a fictional narrative wherein a fictional character happens to share the same name as the author. We see this in a number of films—e.g., Adaptation—and it recalls to me many of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, as well as many of the short stories in Steve Orth’s The Life and Times of Steve Orth, as well as Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the character Dante traveled to hell and all he got was this shitty Thanatos t-shirt. While such instances are often really entertaining and refreshing and even interesting, if we know it’s fiction, it kind of doesn’t matter. There’s no pressure on the notion of truth.

Zipfel’s third and final conception, however, is the kind of autofiction that destroys my entire world: the one where there is a combination of autobiographical and fictional pacts. This is the one that really disturbs and really disrupts, because the reader has the unresolvable dual expectations that the author will be truthful, on the one hand, and inventive on the other; or, again, “the unresolvable paradox of contradictory reading instructions.” It’s the kind of work that makes me question what I thought I knew about reading literature, and that up to this point, my reading expectations had become generic in response to genre conventions I otherwise don’t question. The majority of the works in NDA achieve this. The anthology is the first of its kind. It’s about time.

Jared Joseph is boring.

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