Don’t you love a good literary buzz-word? The one that most recently caught my attention is auto-fiction, plastered across the reviews of many high-falootin’ literary new releases. Which, naturally, led me to wonder: what is auto-fiction? If you’re wondering too, I’ve got some answers.

What Is Auto-Fiction - Book Discussion - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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My initial misconception(s) about auto-fiction

Let’s kick off with a confession: for a long time, I had no idea what auto-fiction was.

In fact, the first time I heard the phrase “auto-fiction”, I just kind of guessed/assumed it was something like automatic writing, the semi-spiritual practice of writing without thinking. (It has a long history of being used as “proof” of psychic phenomena, but nowadays it’s mostly used as a technique for getting over writer’s block.)

Then I heard it used about a book (I can’t remember which one, possibly The Argonauts) where that definition didn’t really make sense.

I finally copped to the idea that I’d need to Google “what is auto-fiction”, and here’s what I found.

What is auto-fiction?

According to Wikipedia: “Autofiction combines two mutually inconsistent narrative forms, namely autobiography and fiction.”

That really clears things up, doesn’t it?

Different types of auto-fiction

Of course, there’s no straight-forward way of defining auto-fiction. It turns out there’s a few different types.

Autobiografiction is the most commonly recognised and widely understood form of autofiction. An author takes events from their own lives, and fictionalises them in some way. They might be altered slightly from what “really” happened, or happen to characters rather than to the author themselves. You know that feeling when you pick up a debut novel and realise it’s only a very, very thinly veiled version of what happened to the writer in their own lives? Well, this version of autofiction is one small step beyond that.

There’s also faction, which seems to me a more shady version of autofiction, where the author seems to use fictional elements almost in the hopes that the reader won’t even notice, and take the “facts” of their story as read. Indeed, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is cited as one of the early examples – his creative license was applied l-i-b-e-r-a-l-l-y in his retelling of the Clutter murders.

Let’s not even start on fake memoirs, I-novels, non-fiction novels… we’ll be here all day!

Writers use their real lives and stories for inspiration all the time (as Nora Ephron famously said, “everything’s copy”), but auto-fiction makes it explicit. They’re actually telling you that their auto-fiction books are at least somewhat true.

Basically, auto-fiction encompasses books that purposefully blend “real” stories with invented ones, in such a way that the reader is (usually) aware that it’s happening, even if it’s not always clear which specific parts are “real” and which are invented.

What makes a book auto-fiction?

Well, it depends who you ask.

Beyond incorporating “real” events, some critics and writers have specific (and, in my view, overly nit-picky) rules like: “Main characters in auto-fiction must have the same name as the author”, or that it must be a series (as opposed to a stand-alone book), it must not include any genre elements (so no crime or fantasy or romance tropes), it must be lyrical, it must be intimate…

I think we can all agree – even just from an etymology standpoint – that auto-fiction must include autobiographical elements and fictional elements. Anything else is up for debate.

Why is auto-fiction so popular all of a sudden?

It’s not, really. It’s just that it’s become a popular term to describe books that would have otherwise been shelved as either “fiction” or “memoir” without fuss.

Hywel Dwix, for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, explains:

“Although researchers have approached this question in different ways, many agree that autofiction is a form of writing that responds to the specific cultural conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including the relationship between celebrity and everyday life, a variety of scandals and controversies, and forms of public confession.”

Hywel Dwix (Autofiction)

Is auto-fiction a genre, then?

Brooke Warner wrote a brilliant article for Publisher’s Weekly, where she said (among other interesting things):

“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… The problem today is that the term is showing up more and more as a way to qualify what’s ‘true’.”

Brooke Warner (Autofiction: What It Is And What It Isn’t)

To me, it’s like the difference between saying a book is “scary” (description) and a book is “a horror novel” (genre). It’d be weird if we started categorising books as simply “scary”, because there are subjective interpretations of that description and many, many shades of grey. “Horror”, on the other hand, has been established as a specific genre that’s broadly recognisable, with some fuzzy bits on the edges. So, a book might be “auto-fiction” (description), but we’d need to know more about it to classify its genre.

Examples of auto-fiction

If you’re like me, you know a question like “what is auto-fiction” is best answered with examples. Here are some of the most popular auto-fiction books, some of which you might already be familiar with (which helps).

  • My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård (a series of epic novels that describe the Norwegian author’s life, translated into English by Don Bartlett)
  • The Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk (three novels by the British writer with an external, rather than internal, focus)
  • I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (it’s tough to describe this one in a pithy sentence…) – read my full review of I Love Dick here.
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (an epistolary auto-fiction novel styled as a letter from the Vietnamese-American poet to his mother)
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (which won the Booker Prize in 2020)
  • The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (a young-adult novel that was drawn largely from Alexie’s own life – read my full review of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian here)

So, as you can see, auto-fiction is as complicated or as simple as you want to make it – and we’re not likely to stop wondering or arguing about how it’s defined any time soon. The good news is, there’s a broad selection of books to choose from if you want to start reading auto-fiction, and chances are you already have (without necessarily knowing it).