The Facts, Crudo, and 10:04 all invite modes of autofictional reading. Because works of autofiction are by definition self-reflexive, albeit to different degrees, they often reveal how writers of autofiction conceptualize their craft: what they think about autobiographical writing, how they conceive of their act of fictionalization, and especially the act of autofictionalization. In this section, we link the formal makeup of these three autofictional texts to intimations of intentions in autofictional writing and the cognitive experience of autofictional reading.
The title of Philip Roth’s The Facts foregrounds the work’s global factuality, while its autofictionality is made apparent by its subtitle “A Novelist’s Autobiography.” While its primary generic coding is “autobiography,” the pre-modification carries a double meaning: on the one hand, it signals possession—the self-narration and the life being storied belong to the novelist Philip Roth; on the other hand, it intimates that techniques of fictionalization and literary craftsmanship have been used in the telling of Roth’s life story. Roth also presents readers with an epigraph attributed to “Nathan Zuckerman, in The Counterlife,” one of several earlier novels by Roth in which Zuckerman appears as a fictional alter egoSeeAlsoSeeAlsoFreud, Sigmund; Kristeva, Julia; Lacan, Jacques.Footnote 4 In the epigraph, Zuckerman—or Roth—comments on the cross-influence of life and text: “And as he spoke, I was thinking, the kind of stories that people turn life into, the kind of lives that people turn stories into” (original emphasis). By quoting his fictional character in an epigraph—a type of discourse commonly reserved for the words of real people—Roth puts the distinction between fictional characters and historical people under threat. At the same time, Roth signals through the epigraph that he uses Zuckerman as mouthpiece. The effect is an ontological ambiguity between the author and the character, the factual and the fictional, which gestures toward the need to engage with The Facts through an autofictional mode of reading.
Framing the central narrative of The Facts are two letters: the first, from “Roth” to Zuckerman; the second, Zuckerman’s reply. In their letters, the pair discuss the truth value of this ostensible manuscript in relation to Roth’s historical creation of explicitly fictionalized author surrogates. The discussion is apt, since, as Berryman puts it, “Roth has long used this figure [Zuckerman] to hold a dialogue with himself” (1990, 177). The framing letters constitute invitations for autofictional reading as they highlight the difference between Roth, as real author, and these two textual impersonations. This invitation is intensified through the letters’ content: “Roth” and Zuckerman debate the role of acts of imagination in memory, the relation of these acts to truth, and the power of fiction to (trans)form the self.
In the opening letter, “Roth” recognizes that what defines a fact is contentious, especially in autobiographical narration, as “the facts are never just coming at you but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience,” and that “[m]emories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imagining of the facts” (1988b, 8). In contrast, in his previous use of Zuckerman as a character in his fiction—in acts of autofictionalization, to use our terms—Roth, by his surrogate’s account, set himself the following rules: “imagin[ing] things not quite as they had happened to me or things that never happened to me or things that couldn’t possibly have happened to me happening to an agent, a projection of mine, to a kind of me” (6).
The “Roth” and Zuckerman surrogates present differing opinions on the affordances and effects of acts of autofictionalization. For “Roth,” they constitute “masks, disguises, distortions, and lies” (6), from which he claims to want to move away. Zuckerman, on the other hand, expresses doubt in his reply about whether such undisguised autobiography is possible, all the more so for a writer like Roth who has been formed or transformed by writing in autofictional modes: “My guess is that you’ve written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were. By now what you are is a walking text” (162; original emphasis). Zuckerman highlights the affordances of autofictional writing for self-insight and a more honest form of self-representation. He is of the opinion that “in the fiction you can be so much more truthful” (162), that “there is mystery upon mystery to be uncovered once you abandon the disguises of autobiography and hand the facts over for imagination to work on” (185), and that it is “through dissimulation that you find your freedom from the falsifying requisites of ‘candor’” (185; original emphasis). The dispute between the two alter egos warns readers against naively mining Roth’s oeuvre for biographical details or criticizing it for omissions or misrepresentations.Footnote 5
While the letters comment on acts of autofictionalization, they also constitute such an act. The ploy functions to counsel readers against reading The Facts as straightforwardly autobiographical (or, indeed, as straightforwardly fictional). The Facts does contain verifiable details: biographical events, such as the death of Roth’s first wife in a car accident; references to Roth’s own work on his journey to becoming a successful writer; mentions of published journalism about and critical responses to his life and work. Nevertheless, “Roth” is at pains to emphasize the fallibility of his memories. Recounting his interview for a place at Bucknell University in 1951, “Roth” writes that his interviewer was “a courteous middle-aged woman whose name I’ve by now forgotten” (43). To cover the gap in memory, “Roth” openly resorts to invention: “Miss Blake, let’s call her” (43). Later, he claims to have completely forgotten a disciplinary hearing in front of the student–faculty Board of Publications: “I don’t remember it at all and was only recently reminded that it took place by my former teacher, Mildred Martin” (67). To piece the episode together, he requested that “Mildred—who is now eighty three—sen[d] me entries from her 1953–1954 journals” (67), some material from which has purportedly been included in The Facts (69). While some elements of The Facts necessarily engender a factual schema for reading, this is undercut somewhat by such blatant memory blanks. Even in the closing letter, Zuckerman casts doubt on the wholesale veracity of The Facts, advising the author “I think you must give Josie her real name” (178); “Josie” being the character-pseudonym given to the first wife of “Roth” in the book.
Acts of fictionalization and autofictionalization throughout The Facts continually disrupt reading the book through an uncomplicatedly factual schema. Rather, the book openly debates and problematizes the distinction between factual and fictional schemata, asking instead to be read in an autofictional mode. The countervoices provided by “Roth” and Zuckerman serve to destabilize Roth’s self-presentation, allowing him to challenge his own memory and self-construction, and inviting readers to explore a range of interpretative possibilities.
Crudo is Olivia Laing’s debut novel
and a departure from her established profile as a writer of non-fiction. The work bears no subtitle providing its generic description but is marketed, on online bookselling sites and in published reviews, as a novel. Its bizarre epigraph—“The cheap 12 inch sq. marble tiles behind the speaker at UN always bothered me. I will replace with beautiful marble slabs if they ask me” (original emphasis)—is unattributed on the page itself but is later identified, in the book’s appended list of sources (2018a, 135), as words tweeted by Donald Trump (3 October 2012). The epigraph therefore sets up a tension in terms of the book’s overarching fictional schema. Trump’s tweet is a context-free assertion of sorts; here, its extratextual reality appears to enter into the fictional university of Crudo.
The novel’s opening is composed as a curious combination of both first and third person: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York. It was 19:45 on 14 May 2017” (1). As the narrative continues, readers learn that “Kathy had written several books—Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, I expect you’ve heard of them” (1). The named texts, particularly the latter, are easily identifiable to informed readers as Kathy Acker’s published works. However, as the real Kathy Acker died in 1997, the 2017 airport arrival described at the start of Crudo is a logical impossibility, at least according to a factual, biographical schema. In consequence, the narrator and “Kathy,” at the start of the novel and at various points thereafter, come together and fracture apart in fluctuating subjective transpositions. As such, the opening signals, at least to one reviewer, that “the novel is several things at once: a work of autofiction detailing key events in Laing’s life, a counterfactual fiction in which Kathy Acker is alive and getting married and a rigorous piece of fictional appropriation” (Kitamura 2018, 10). The play of subjectivities so central to Crudo is at the heart of its autofictional ambiguity. While Kathy Acker was a real person, the persona in Crudo is fabricated by, and merged with, Laing; the “Kathy”/I persona, therefore, represents freedom to depart from traditional autobiographical representation, including aims at factual accuracy. Crudo thus demands an autofictional mode of reading: readers must oscillate between imagining “Kathy” as a fictionalized counterpart of Kathy Acker reacting to the real events of 2017 and simultaneously attributing these reactions, as belonging, and happening, to Laing herself.
As mentioned, in interviews Laing has openly discussed her compositional method for Crudo. In the early pages of the novel, her writing process is transposed into the routine of “Kathy”: “Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the present and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time” (8). In Crudo, engagement with “the present” takes place largely through digital media, from which Laing quotes freely and in so doing weaves real events and, more importantly, the voices of real people, into the fabric of her book. Worried about the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and North Korea, for example, “Kathy” decides to consult Trump’s Twitter account:
It was worse than she’d expected. He was retweeting Fox News about jets in Guam that could fight tonight, but he was also taking time out to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before …… Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world! (42–43)
The first-person voice here once again belongs to Donald Trump via Twitter (9 August 2017). The list, “Something Borrowed,” at the end of Crudo (135–141) discloses appropriated material from real-world textual sources included in the book. A significant number are from Kathy Acker’s work; others are taken from Twitter as well as news and magazine sources. Although Acker fans might notice the inclusion of the dead writer’s material, it seems unlikely that readers will be familiar with all of Laing’s appropriated sources. Factual and fictional materials thus repeatedly intrude into Crudo, at times imperceptibly. The appended source list does acknowledge them, however, and, in so doing, makes readers aware of how Laing merges modes of discourse (news, social media, autobiography, and novel) and voices (Acker
’s, Laing’s, and those of fictional characters as well as other real-world people).
In Crudo, “Kathy” thinks, “[t]his was the problem with history, it was too easy to provide the furnishings but forget the attitudes, the way you became a different person according to what knowledge was available, what experiences were fresh and what had not yet arisen in a personal and global frame” (82). Capturing the attitudes of other people is, according to “Kathy”/Laing, “the province of the novel, that hopeless apparatus of guesswork and supposition, with which Kathy liked to have as little traffic as possible. She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and ready-made”; “it was economic also stylish to help yourself to the grab bag of the actual” (84). Appropriated intertextual material and context-free assertions about 2017 intermingle with “Kathy”’s experiences of Laing’s autobiographical life (such as her wedding). Crudo is driven consequently not only by acts of autofictionalization but a form of collective socio-historical commentary which, by placing Laing and “Kathy” in the wider context, seems to be an attempt to capture not only the events of 2017 but the spirit of the times.
Within Crudo, “Kathy”/Laing admits to longing for some sort of interpersonal liberation: “She was bored, […] wanted novelty and heat, […] wanted to unhook herself” (72). Writing, especially autofictional writing, seems to make this possible. Toward the end of Crudo, “Kathy”/Laing repeatedly stresses that “she c[an’t] settle” (113), switches furniture, flats, cities, “want[s] a new coat, a new figure, a new lease of life,” “want[s] someone else’s life” (113). She realizes that this is possible in writing: “Writing, she can be anyone. On the page the I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly. Kathy takes on increasingly preposterous guises, slips the knot of her own contemptible identity” (125). Just as Zuckerman advises “Roth” in The Facts that freedom can be found only if the pursuit of autobiographical accuracy is abandoned, “Kathy”/Laing finds release by borrowing from the lives of others, both real and imagined.
Ultimately, Crudo’s composition not only problematizes any reading that seeks to pigeonhole the work through a wholly fictional or factual schema; it also encodes the experience of living in a social media–saturated culture, in which reality and textual mediation are sometimes difficult to separate. The result is a disorientating literary experience—in other words, an autofictional effect.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04
is subtitled “A Novel.” The three-part narrative features two author figures, presented as fictionalized versions of Lerner. “Ben,” the first-person narrator of the first and third parts, is a writer who lives in Brooklyn (as does Ben Lerner), writes one of Lerner’s poems (“The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me”), and is working on a book that turns out to be 10:04 itself. Part two consists of one of Lerner’s previously published short stories, featuring the second author-character, this time referred to in the third person as “the author,” who has made a debut with a novel identifiable to readers familiar with Lerner’s previous work as Leaving the Atocha Station
—Lerner’s first novel, published in 2011. Thus, while 10:04’s
subtitle immediately activates a fictional schema for readers, an autobiographical reading is simultaneously invited through the onomastic and biographical correspondences between author and protagonist and the references to actual publications that the author and character share. 10:04, in sum, signals an autofictional text and produces a corresponding reading mode.
There are, moreover, several instances within 10:04 in which the (real) effects of (fictional) stories are thematized. “Ben” is, for example, advised by a friend against writing “about medical stuff,” since, the friend claims, “you believe, even though you’ll deny it, that writing has some kind of magical power” and are “crazy enough to make your fiction come true somehow” (Lerner 2014a, 137–138). The narrator validates this allegation by first denying it and then confessing the dishonesty of his denial in the narration. In another instance, “the author” takes a stance against autobiographical readings of his/Lerner’s first novel, but follows suit with the acknowledgment that, as the narrator of this book “was characterized above all by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation, the more intensely the author worried about distinguishing himself from the narrator, the more he felt he had become him” (66). The act of (auto-)fictional distancing, these comments suggest, creates distance between author and narrator or character, but in turn transform the author. Through these instances of metanarrative commentary, 10:04 thus invites the kind of autobiographical, or rather autofictional reading, that the author-characters reject.
In the first pages of 10:04
, Lerner sets up the premise that the book that “Ben” has been commissioned to write is 10:04 itself. At the end of 10:04’s opening scene, a celebratory meal in a Manhattan seafood restaurant, “Ben” promises “a novel” to his fellow diner and publisher in which their own act of “eating cephalopods” will “become the opening scene” (4). The genre designator “novel” together with the word “scene” clashes with the metatextual information about the author’s own process of writing. As the author-character is writing the very artifact we are reading, 10:04 must be seen as both an autobiographical narrativization of the writing process and a fictional representation of a writer-character. The clash demands combining or oscillating between the fictional and the autobiographical mode—a demand that is reiterated at intervals throughout the book. It is most apparent in other instances of indexicality; for example, when the narrator suggests, “say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them” (194). Lerner makes the movement from fictional story to real world materiality palpable even when the narrator puts before us the following image: “a bright glow to the east among the dark towers of the Financial District, like the eyeshine of some animal” (237). The light, we are told, comes from the Goldman Sachs building, and the narrator refers us to “photographs
in which one of the few illuminated buildings in the skyline was the investment banking firm, an image,” he notes in passing, “I’d use for the cover of my book” (237). Through this reference to the photograph, the book that “Ben” has been writing materializes in the reader’s hands, at least if they have the US edition of 10:04, which features this very image on its cover. 10:04 is, in other words, a book “on the very edge of fiction” (237)—a book oscillating between the fictional and the autobiographical.
Elsewhere, we have both argued that 10:04 has the potential to affect how readers think, feel, and possibly act in the real-world context of climate change and globalization. Gibbons (2021a) stresses that 10:04 creates an “affective effect” (144) of the anticipated future for readers and that 10:04 “positions Ben’s anxieties as already part of a reader’s past and present” making the potential future apocalypse “feel more meaningful to readers” (142). Alexandra Effe (2021) argues that 10:04
“works toward change by calling on the reader to take action in reality” and that Lerner’s text has high potential for inciting readers to do so as the autofictional dimension creates a feeling of direct relevance for readers in combination with the sense of possibility for transformation (739). Lee Konstantinou categorizes Lerner more generally in a group of “affective neorealists” (2018, 111), who aim to “facilitate new powers for fiction” (120). Empirical data on factual and fictional reading modes and Lerner’s own reflections on autofictionalization offer a possible explanation for the potential cognitive-affective effects of his book.
In this chapter, we have argued that autofictional texts should not be considered in isolation but rather as part of a literary event that includes the intentional production of an autofictional mode of writing and a corresponding autofictional mode of reading. Empirical data—in the form of writers’ self-reports in interviews and evidence from psychology concerning the cognitive-affective dimensions of fictional and factual reading modes—has enabled us to substantiate our claims and form theoretically and empirically grounded hypotheses about autofictional writing and reading. Writers’ own reflections, both in interviews and within their works, provide insight into the motivations for and cognitive affordances of their acts of autofictionalization, from interrogating memories to coming to terms with living in a contemporary society in which social media fuels a post-truth culture and climate change creates an uncertain future. Furthermore, readers of The Facts, Crudo, and 10:04 are likely to recognize and feel the rootedness of these works in their real-world contexts, be that a single author coming to terms with their life and the reception of their work, the disorientation of our media-saturated contemporary culture, or the reality of climate change. This rootedness in reality is likely to create personal relevance which, empirical studies suggest, is linked to higher emotional involvement—that is, to an affective effect. The fictional dimension of autofiction, in turn, is likely to lead readers to create detailed mental representations
and contemplate contradictory elements, such as different author avatars and different depicted realities. Such contemplation will also mean more critical, perhaps also more creative, engagements with the text, including the ways in which readers relate to autofictions and what changes they themselves might put into action in their lives. The cognitive and holistic perspective adopted in this chapter, combined with attention to the textual and paratextual apparatus of a work, has allowed us to draw out and to better understand such effects and affects. Especially in the light of the personal and psychological dimension of much autofictional literature, we believe that this perspective is ultimately best placed to account for the affordances and affective
resonances of autofiction as a holistic literary experience.