Autofiction is Cheating, and You Cannot Change My Mind

I can’t keep my house tidy, so people think I must be cool with messes. I’m not. I like rules and I like structure. I live and die by my Google calendar, I have folders with subfolders with subfolders on my computer, and you know what? All those piles on the floor of my room? I know exactly what’s in them, I just don’t have the energy to pick them up, okay?

Anyway. I also like my literature to follow some rules. It’s not that I think all things have to fit precisely into one box — something can be both historical fiction and fantasy, for example. But I don’t like things to get too muddy.

One of the things I am most bothered by is something I didn’t even realize had a name until a few days ago, but I don’t like it: autofiction. This is stuff shelved in the fiction section, except the author is Jane Doe and so is the main character, and basically everything that happens is something that happened to Jane Doe, except for people’s names are changed and there’s the addition of like two minor plot points. Or maybe the plot is streamlined and omits some extraneous details.

My question is this:

y tho?

You have heard of memoir, yes? And autobiography? These are forms of nonfiction, because they tell real stories about real people, straight from the figurative mouths of the people themselves. Memoir, you could say, is a little more episodic, thematic, or curated, while autobiographies are ostensibly comprehensive, chronological tales. Either way, they are true. And either way, they do occasionally change names or identifying details for privacy, respect, or liability reasons.

Memoirs are great! (I’m not as interested in autobiographies, personally, but I do respect them.) Everybody should feel free to write a memoir! Everybody should read memoirs!

Autofiction, though? What am I supposed to do with this? Am I supposed to assume this is a slice of your life? Is this an imagined version of how you wish your life had gone? Is this actually all true, but you didn’t want to present it as nonfiction in case somebody got offended by the way you described them? Didn’t want to get slammed with a libel suit?

I don’t get it. And I don’t like it. It’s cheating.

I love reading, and you do too, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. I also hope that you, like I, think that all genres are worthy of love and respect and scrutiny and celebration and criticism. No one genre is superior to another.

Except autofiction. Autofiction is cheating, and you cannot change my mind.

I think it’s cheating because it feels like somebody wrote a memoir but thought it would sell better if they shelved it with the novels. (Apparently, I am not alone.) I realize publishing is capitalism like everything else, and it’s all about sales and blah blah blah, but I don’t like it when people try to manipulate or insult various genres just so they can try to get more sales (or more clout). You know the story — “I don’t write [insert genre the person doesn’t respect even though their book totally fits in it], I write LiTeRaRy fIcTiOn.” Or “I wrote this book as [insert genre or audience], but I thought it would sell better as [other genre].” Rude. When I hear “autofiction,” I hear “nobody likes or respects memoir, so I decided to re-categorize it.”

Not a fan. Again, I think all genres are valid and worthy of respect, and I just don’t understand why we need to invent new labels for things that already exist.

Books always leave you with a lasting impression (ideally): You’ve learned something new. Two characters you love found their happily ever after. You and a sleuth solved a mystery and caught a murderer. You gained new insight and feel more knowledgable about a political topic you’re passionate about. You’ve cleaned your house and sparked joy.

What do I do with autofiction? Is it just a good story? Is it a glimpse into the life of a real person I could actually meet in real life? Did it actually happen? Is it made up? What are you so afraid of?

Is it not enough that there’s a nugget of truth everything we write anyway? You’d be hard-pressed to find a novelist who didn’t put a little of themselves (and the people they know) into their fiction, so why this weird hybrid thing? Where do I shelve it, literally? Where do I shelve it, mentally?

Autofiction is nowhereland. Pick a lane.

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