The genre is much more than this, but its appeal is tethered to our relationship with abjection and technology. Justin Taylor, reviewing William Brewer’s The Red Arrow, described autofiction as “a single genre with legible conventions and tropes: unnamed or coyly named narrators, flat affect, ample white space, rigorous self-surveillance (calorie and milligram counts, email and G-chat transcripts), ambiguous irony, pervasive despair, and a general inability to log off.” This could also be an adequate description of an entire generation’s neuroses.
If this genre is to last, I wonder how can it evolve into something new and enticing while building from its prior form. In a roundup for The Drift, Christian Lorentzen tracks autofiction’s cultural antecedents from market-driven memoir through frustration with nineties and early aughts New Yorker–style fiction (like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer) to the phenomenon of Karl Ove Knausgård. The progression, outlined in recent terms by Lorentzen but stretching back even further to postmodern works by John Barth or the suburban literature of John Updike, shows an increasing atomization of narrative, an academic aesthetic, and growing collective irritation at institutions historically concentrating on white male voices. But the 2010s iteration is distinct: youthful ennui, drug-addled indulgence, and technological dependence thrashing against the bulwark of well-mannered domestic tales and academic wordplay.
While most of alt-lit’s promise lies in its DIY quality and immediate cultural relevance, it often succumbs to a hollow inconsequentiality, due to its extreme contemporary lens and subjective concern. In today’s publishing climate, especially after the national trauma of the pandemic and the tragic loss of Tyrant Books editor Giancarlo DiTrapano, I wonder if autofiction is mutating into something altogether new. NDA: An Autofiction Anthology, edited by Caitlin Forst, arrives at this crossroads for the genre. The collection does not include, nor comment on, the tradition of autofiction (except for a pithy phrase in the opening pages), choosing instead to highlight contemporary work, either in veins that would be readily identified as autofiction or in pieces that divert off the path to create a new form entirely.
The excerpt from Rindon Johnson’s forthcoming novel, And If I Could, I Truly Would, is not what you typically describe as autofiction: it consists of fractured paragraphs, poems, and repeated imagery, which together form this cohesive yet nonlinear meditation on race, capitalism’s effect on the body, leather, Black Panther, and form fitting content. It’s a strange piece that suspends what we expect in an anthology labeled as autofiction — or really the short story as a whole — and embodies a conceptual makeup of several motifs rippling through a text. Forst intends to subvert your idea of autofiction and replace it with a more flexible, expansive definition. Johnson’s excerpt illustrates a possible mutation of the form and highlights a promising direction that is directly opposed to a hyperfocus on ordinary daily tasks crossed with a glorified narcissism.
A specific, modern melancholy runs through most of these stories, one predicated on patriarchy and technological adaptations, that leaves the narrators often attempting to flee reality or desperately seek meaning. Stories by Vi Khi Nao, Aiden Arata, Elle Nash, Aristilde Kirby, and others deepen this depression by using humor, abjection, and a fractured structure to redefine autofiction and shift it back to a tradition that is more connected to Annie Ernaux’s terse poetic investigations than it is to the usual perspective of the self-involved male.
Not long after Johnson’s story comes Brad Phillips’s “The Troubles,” which aligns more neatly with alt-lit expectations. “The Troubles,” even framed by the narrator’s own reference to this anthology’s genre tag (autofiction as “the narcissistic quicksand of literature”), is a revenge story focused on an ex-girlfriend who was molested by her uncle as a child, and later died by suicide. It’s told in Phillips’s blunt, caustic voice with surprisingly humorous anecdotes, like one about an irritable drunk agitating the narrator because he’s reading Philip Roth at a bar. The narrator hits the drunk once and instantly kills him. In prison, he meets someone who doesn’t have long to live, vehemently loathes child predators, and will soon be released. The narrator persuades this man to travel to the uncle’s house and kill him outside his home, thus facilitating the perfect crime and ensuring retribution is served.
Phillips’s story has the strange ability, like others in his collection Essays and Fictions, to mask often absurd or fantastical tales in a confessional tone that constantly pokes fun at the reader’s attempts to discern the veracity of what is happening on the page. This, therefore, proves Phillips’s argument: when it comes to fiction, the details — or at least their correlation to reality — do not matter. It is the conjuring of the moment that creates the effect of living the writer’s experience. This, perhaps, is the draw of autofiction: an immediate lens into the thoughts of another.
In Darina Sikmashvili’s “This Is What I Have to Show for Life,” the unnamed narrator, assumed to be Sikmashvili, frames her narrative with an introductory remark: “I moved to a small town in the Midwest, devoid of friends and acquaintances, so that I might escape the impulse to create meaning from my time. I thought this self-imposed isolation seemed defiant and painful enough to merit change.” The narrator remembers obsessing over the effects of sunlight on aging skin; she thinks about time impacting her own complexion. A song heard during an online exercise course triggers a memory of a psychedelic trip; she has the urge to get fucked up on either cocaine or “cold white wine,” but practices yoga instead. In the last moments of the story, the narrator returns to her aging self and wonders how it will change in the eyes of men: “I want to know when men are going to stop darting up from their side of the aisle to assess me […] When I will be discarded from their line of sight.” She’s thinking about her body, the ways it moves through the world, and the particular disconnect between how she perceives it, how other people experience it, and how she wishes it could be.
What, then, happens when the reality of a writer’s life — their machismo or injurious behavior, as suggested by Phillips’s “narcissistic quicksand” description — obfuscates or complicates their supposedly autobiographical fiction? Near the end of NDA comes Tao Lin’s “Canadian Gay Porn Site,” a story about a writer who decides to accept an offer to masturbate on camera in exchange for $5,000. In 2014, Lin was accused by a former partner of statutory rape, allegations Lin denied.
The question of his inclusion is less about cancel culture and more about which writers and types of fiction NDA chooses to emphasize. Where the current movement’s forebears, like Dennis Cooper or Chris Kraus, would deconstruct the form of autobiography by running it through a filter of horror (Cooper) or theory (Kraus) — and thereby exposing the writers’ private lives, rooting them in a tradition, and challenging the novel form as well — I am often left, after finishing a highly publicized work of contemporary autofiction, asking myself: “So what? Why should I care?” Titling this anthology after a contract designed to keep some information confidential highlights once again the complicated blur between the self and the stand-in, the vacuous and the purposefully spare, the shattered and the reconstructed.
Taylor Lewandowski is an educator and writer from Indianapolis, Indiana. He has written for Bookforum, Forever Magazine, NUVO, and The Gay & Lesbian Review, among other publications.