The Descent of Autofiction … and the Rise of the Literary Thrill-Seeking Industrial Complex

February 4, 2022   •   By Jack Skelley

Featured image by Penny Goring

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AUTOFICTION IS A fiction. It does not exist. More specifically, defined as a form of literature in which a first-person narrator may or may not represent the author, autofiction excludes next to nothing but genre fiction — e.g., crime stories, fantasy. If it’s everything, it’s nothing.

Just ask Chris Kraus. The co-publisher and editor (with Hedi El Kholti and the late Sylvère Lotringer) of Semiotext(e) has brought decades of character-narrative to light, including the early work of autofiction pioneer Kathy Acker. “I always hated the term,” Kraus tells me. “‘New narrative’ is more accurate.”

When it ignited in the late 1970s, Acker’s work had no specific classification. It did anything and went anywhere. Today, its giddy, free-range, punk-rock, first-person spews and cut-ups (spatula’d together equally from porno and the literary canon) liberate quasi-multitudes. Kraus was also among the first to consciously codify this non-genre when she detonated I Love Dick (Semiotext(e), 1997), her novel that plays with the “I” in supremely unsettling bursts. You could even argue that I Love Dick, which often slips into art criticism and political commentary, also opened the way for “autotheory” — e.g., the bio-based lyric essays of Maggie Nelson.

With the proliferation of indie presses, “now is as good a time as any in writing,” Kraus tells me.

People are inclined to adopt these forms. But Kathy Acker had something no longer possible: a chamber audience. The art and literary world of her day was like the French court of the 18th century: she was writing to a set of known persons. There was a real-life distribution network of bookstores, record stores, coffee shops, and other intimate hangouts. People don’t live in cities in the same way now.

But if intimacy abates, new narrative booms. Its dissociative forms and themes — the anxiety/bliss of romance/sex, psychic roleplay, identity-in-ideology, dream states, trauma, more sex — now serve a community of passion addicts, haunted memoirists, and mental thrill-riders hungering for a higher high, some even using books as panic management, with somatic responses in “triggered” modes or via sub-sub-subgenres. Raise your hand if you’re into “ambient body horror.”

Dennis Cooper — whose novels, including 2021’s swirling stunner I Wished (from Soho Press), have long inspired stories of the “I” — extols today’s renaissance of indie-lit presses. On his list: Dorothy, 11:11, Amphetamine Sulphate, Inside the Castle, Shabby Doll House, Apocalypse Party, Calamari, Kiddiepunk, Wave Books, Ugly Duckling, Infinity Land, selffuck, Publication Studio, Wonder, Future Tense, House of Vlad, and Roof Books.

“It seems to me,” says Cooper,

that virtually every daring and exciting fiction writer under the age of 60 (or maybe under 50) is either published by an indie press or proved themselves to their current corporate publishers by releasing their first book or three through an indie press before they were invited “upstairs.” The chance that a truly and unreservedly interesting new fiction writer whose work doesn’t coincidentally address some currently trending societal going-on or thematic will burst into view from the output of the giant presses is pretty much infinitesimal. So that’s one good reason why indie publishing is not just vital but a life saver.

To Cooper’s list, add the emergent online publishers boosting new narrative daily. They include Fugitives & Futurists, (mac)ro(mic), and Expat, which also has a thriving book business. Expat publisher Manuel Marrero says that autofiction “is an elastic word that covers almost any book in our canon.” He sees “a lot of intertextual lore among the novels.” (Not unlike Kraus’s French court.) As for publishers, “The big five are looking dusty. What do they have to offer except money? Their readers are the equivalent of an electorate. Like reliable Democratic voters. A base. But nowhere near as energetic or original as the stuff being put out by the small presses.”

To assess the present (and future) of the form, consider the recent titles listed below — a cross-section of Cartesian roleplay, high-wire trauma, cheap thrills, and format-fucking.

The Works of Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2021)

Written in the late 1990s but not published in English until now (Dustan died in 2005), these mini-novels descend less from Acker or Cooper than from Hervé Guibert, whose radical AIDS novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (Gallimard, 1990) is immediate and raw. Dustan’s hocus-pocus involves rough-trade BDSM in Paris discos, dungeons, and flats. Yet the experiences are all inside the author’s “I.” You pilot his id/ego as it gauges cock sizes and second-guesses every decision, Hamlet-like: to fist or be fisted? The effect is spectacular. (“A comic taxonomy,” says Kraus.) And poignant in the wake of AIDS. It’s more purely autofiction than anything else here, but the icy tone — exempt from self-mockery, yet frozen in self-consciousness — feels like its own genre.

Four Circles, by Meg McCarville (Amphetamine Sulphate, 2019)

If Four Circles has a trigger warning, that’s part of the “transgressive” humor. A vomitus travelogue with meth heads, alkies, “wasteoid hog apes,” creeps, crummy hackers, etc., Four Circles is phreaking phunny. The cavalcade of filth would seem to slam “literary fiction” if Meg’s rap didn’t grab. Like the rest of the writers here, she’s a prose stylist at heart. Take this litany about one of book’s shitholes — the entire city of New Orleans:

Everything you could ever want. Drugs, sex, drive thru daiquiri shops, 24 hour liquor stores, seedy gay bars, 15 dollar hookers, Tina, heroin, crack, gambling, swamp tours, vampires, voodoo, magic, ghosts, parades, golden human statues, beautiful art, great music, carnival, a place to disappear, a place to let go, a place to suck you fucking dry, a place you can literally die on the street and have people stumble over you while this happens, while a brass band plays 3 feet away.

McCarville’s misery is language glee. (But wait, who is “Tina”?)

hatefuck the reader, by Penny Goring (5everdankly, 2016)

Emergency: Trauma ahead! And behind, and below … Goring is a visual artist whose installations feature a fright-burst of severed/sewn body parts served cold. But her book, were it a painting, would be hot, boiled Expressionism: boundary-free imagery — no beginning, end, or bottom — that the page grabs, mid-groan.

Someone said hatefuck the reader is Goring rewiring Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait (2005); it’s a flood of prose. Beyond the margins, something happened to the “I.” Violence, abuse, a trial, a marriage, gynecologists. But to dissect the matter is to pin a live butterfly.

when I say “you” I really mean: every you I ever knew, you in the grave, you in the wheelchair, you in the coma, you in the prison, you with no arms, you with 1 head, you the junky, you the reader, you etc. i don’t want to recover. when you shaved your head and got chubby, I saw you were hairy and thin. your well-to-do parents hoped I was a match for their monster, i let them down each time you hit me …

It’s the verbal version of Goring’s art gush.

The Superrationals, by Stephanie LaCava (Semiotext(e), 2020)

Its title referencing game theory, this stylishly smudged novel snares characters in the rigging of the high-end art world. Central among its glam-hollow international cast is Mathilde. An auction assistant, she gropes for “agency,” if such arterati buzzwords can survive LaCava’s sly asides. Fluid identity is a new-narrative deviation, along with the wit of ever-shifting structure.

Not dissimilar to I Love Dick’s veer into essay, the plot is punctured by Mathilde’s art-school dissertation, as it snowballs through transactional relationships among a-hole artists and dealers. Attractive Mathilde is more commodity than persona, and she touchingly laments that fact in this epiphany: “I was playing into the unregulated game between men and artwork, romance between buyer to seller — seller to buyer. Like any advertising to make one want the thing that could make life breezier, better.” Concluding with a sex assault couched in devastating understatement, The Superrationals’s cool tone flows, never wavers.

Pisti, 80 rue de Belleville, by Estelle Hoy (After 8 Books, 2019) 

Estelle Hoy — a star in today’s new-narrative galaxy — reenacts Kraus’s focus on performing to a chamber audience, à la Acker: in this case, 24 hours in a Paris flat with a crew of arty anarchists. Hoy specializes in post-hipster lingo, with sections perhaps sliced from other texts into the speed-narrative. Her rhetoric dings (compassionately) these earnest radicals, with the memorable Pisti character commanding center stage. It also shifts to a poignant mode with narrator Elke’s cringing introspections: “I have this susceptibility to self-examination that borders on defeat.”

Is Elke a stand-in for Estelle? It’s the Hamlet-like question again: who is the “I” here? Hoy pinpoints her ploy: “It’s blurred autofiction/theory with ficto-criticism. I also think it’s a meta-text that swirls around on itself. I mean, nothing even happens, which is kind of the point.” But the reader is on the edge of their page eager to find what doesn’t happen next, to hear the brittle dialogue (some in script form), and to a-ha the art-damaged characters/types. Even these seem composed of partial identities, turning the Marxist trope of false consciousness on suspicious Marxist minds. Pisti gathers, fractures, and smooths these isms into a play whose characters binge on oysters and rosé.

Forever, by Thomas Moore (Amphetamine Sulphate, 2021)

“I’ve never been needed in the way I’ve needed to be.” Simple words. Deep emotions. The verbal purity of a voice drugged — via grief — beyond prose to another plane. Toward the end, Forever is a self-threnody, as the “I” becomes ghost, post-death, shadowing a lost lover through city streets. The alchemy of loss transubstantiates to a spirit plane of feelz. In its crucible of compression, each sentence an artifact, Forever may descend more from Cooper than from other forebears. Openness that pours through you.

Fourth Industrial Revolution Slut, by Karina Bush (Tangerine Press, 2022)

Karina Bush’s online text Fourth Industrial Revolution Slut (password: Davos) is a She-Ra agency of urgency for pandemic daze. A poet and media artist (from Belfast, based in Italy), Bush preposterously debauches travel narrative. The quasi-cartoon “Karina” of FIRSLUT employs maximized tits, Gucci regalia, and sex magick to snag — by any means necessary — a COVID passport. In picaresque pursuit up and down the boot of Italy, she targets decrepit patriarchy-malarkey leaders of the one percent: Silvio Berlusconi, Klaus Schwab, George Clooney. Who will she gun for next? Will Berlusconi’s kidnapped poodle Dudu lose a paw?

It’s a neon-hued hyper- or augmented reality for a post-truth world, gamifying and eroticizing “new narrative” into mytho/persona blur. Since the protagonist is “Karina” on sex adventures, the question is raised: Is this autofiction in the spirit of Acker or Kraus’s I Love Dick? Who is its “I”? Bush explains, “I cranked up many personality traits: extreme determination, vanity, sexual manipulation. I satirized myself and the situation. The story reads like a nervous breakdown. Feeling cornered by powerful people brought her out. She’s a working-class hero to me. My Übermensch.”

Jacket Weather, by Mike DeCapite (Soft Skull, 2021)

The least “edgy” title on our list, DeCapite’s aria to New York City pushes the edges of realism and emotion into hybrid autofiction/memoir. The city is co-protagonist as narrator Mike refinds romance, life enriching his eye for the shifting of light, especially in Manhattan’s fall season. He sings the lyricism of the street: “Leaves utterly yellow, sky utter blue. It stops me inside. And that effect reminds me it’s me in there, and not some imposter. At the same time, this sight goes so deep, so far back, that am I even me anymore, at that point?” It’s the autumn of life and love for the “me” of Mike. Clear and cool, Jacket Weather is all those autumns and more. Shuffling hyper and atmospheric passages, DeCapite has an ear for dialogue, and a taste for Italian dishes. As DeCapite has said, “The book is about me the way a poem is about the poet.”

Ruthless Little Things, by Elizabeth V. Aldrich (Expat, 2021)

If Jacket Weather is fiftysomething Manhattan mood porn, Ruthless Little Things is a teen tour of Los Angeles on pills and probation. Aldrich’s debut blurts multiple stories: joy rides, girl-love, the aching dissipation of pimped-out runaways among Hello Kitty pillboxes, red-cup vodka and Gatorade, tampon applicator, and CD case for snorts. All are pretexts for panic-attack epiphanies, mascara-smeared and purple-bruised:

And it makes you sick, once you realize all relationships are business partnerships, are compromises with ourselves, masturbation by proxy. It’s all manipulation and power plays because no one understands the language we speak to ourselves.

… fraying into panic-verse:

Nostalgia for death.
Silent childhood:

Your inheritance
A wealth of understatement,

Quiet study in self-estrangement.

On my bookshelf, Aldrich’s Ruthless Little Things stands between Acker’s novels and Jane Austen’s Emma, which evolved into the 1995 cult teen flick Clueless.

And the evolution of autofiction, non-genre, still darkens as it self-fulfills.

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Los Angeles writer Jack Skelley’s books include Monsters (Little Caesar Press) and Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press). Semiotext(e) will publish Jack’s novel Fear of Kathy Acker in spring 2023. His psychedelic surf band Lawndale (SST Records) will release a new album in 2022.