Autofiction, perhaps better called autobiographical fiction, has become a genre of writing in vogue. The term was coined in 1977 but the genre is much older. It is fictionalised autobiography, a piece of fiction that draws heavily on the life of the author. It is often written in the first person but can also use the third person. The author him or herself can be the named protagonist or this can be a made up term.
Arguably all writing is autobiographical to some extent. It draws on experience and memory, things learnt and recognised influences. But also unconscious or taken for granted ideas and attitudes and the doxa of the day, within a culture, a social group and a time that in nature and society seems self-evident. So fiction is a mixture of the sociological and the personal, a product of the intersection of the life of the writer with the historical and cultural context of their lives.
I carry within and on the surface of my body the marks of my biography – scars from accidents, infirmities the developing result of those accidents as well as life-style choices, a psychology the culmination, so far, of influences and education, a self-identity shaped by a history of experiences, roles played, groups and social networks belonged to. The result is a person who at any one stage of their life is a sort of collage, a gallimaufry, a multi-person. What I like about the metaphorical notion that a person is like a palimpsest, a document that bears the traces of past writings, is that in a person is in some respects a series of emergent layers. Each of us is like a Russian doll where within us there are earlier versions of our selves – child, teenager, young adult, married person, and so on.
A palimpsest can be a piece of material that has had several unrelated texts written on it. The only thread that runs through the existence of the material is itself and the changing cultural context of the various otherwise unrelated texts that it has had layered upon it. A palimpsest can also have had texts written upon it that are related sequentially, perhaps revisions of the same narrative, or at least influenced and shaped by earlier accounts. It is palimpsest of this type, ghostly stories still existing in the current version, that I see as a metaphor for a life.
If it is the case that all fictional writing draws in some way upon the biography of the writer in that it draws on experience, memory, influences on self identity, attitudes and beliefs – the taken for granted aspects of the world as well as those consciously deliberated and reflected upon – than all writing is a product of the palimpsest that is the author. It is autofiction.
Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up? [A Guardian article]. “Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Edward St Aubyn – authors are using their own life stories in their fiction. Does the boom in autofiction spell the end of the novel”?