It was a quiet day in the Republic of Letters. Blurbers were blurbing, reviewers were reviewing and a thousand bright vital fresh young essential voices tapped away on their MacBook keyboards. They little knew that dark clouds were coming: clouds full of Controversy, ready to rain down Argument and flood the streets with fat puddles of Discourse. Joyce Carol Oates, the 104-year-old author of Candle in the Wind and grand dame of American letters, sparked outrage by saying Autofiction was ‘mostly a bit rubbish’ adding ‘why do they have so few words? And why do they all like swimming so much?’ Reaction was swift and frenzied, with makeshift effigies of Oates set ablaze in the squares of Clapton.
But has Autofiction had its day? Is Joyce Carol Oates entirely correct or is she a hateful elitist monster whose books should be tossed into a gully? And what is this crazy thing called Autofiction anyway? Your half-arsed cultural critic went to find out.
Autofiction was invented by the French in 1974, due to a legal loophole that meant fictional protagonists did not have to pay tax. By 1980 over half of French citizens were the main characters in their own hastily written novels, with titles like Claude Goes to the Bibliotheque and The Many Affairs of Jacques. Autofiction was subsequently banned by Francois Mitterrand for being ‘too annoying’, but returned in the twenty-first century, only this time in English, which made it better. Last year, a staggering 90 percent of all published novels were Autofiction, while recent studies show that publishing a haunting lambent exploration of memory desire the body and loss has replaced shoplifting and huffing glue as a central rite of passage for British youth.
At just twenty-four, Photogenica Moneyshire is the undisputed queen of Autofiction. Her first novel, Not Going To Bed Yet, was published when she was eight. Since then, she has enthralled readers with such works as Why Am I Like This (a vital and powerful account of pulling an all-nighter in student halls) and A Duckling Child (a moving and searing novella set in Hampstead Ladies’ Pond).
‘I think it’s generational jealousy really,’ said Moneyshire when asked about Carol Oates’ comments. ‘The typical reader of Oates’s time, the olden days, was probably wealthy, had a lot of time on their hands, maybe had a few slaves and could devote a lot of time to big complicated books. Whereas now, because of the internet, we don’t have to spend hours evoking trauma. We can just write the word ‘TRAUMA’ on a page of spotless creamy paper, with a grainy black and white image of some twigs or a bruised leg – and that really does the same job.’
I asked Moneyshire if she would ideally like to punish Oates, but the twentysomething doyen of the fact/fiction interface said no. ‘I think Oates is out of control,’ she said, ‘but really I’d just like her to read my new book, Online/On Life which is a found poem based on my DMs folder. I think that would change her mind.’
‘So you’re saying you’re going to show that wild Oates–’ I began, but Photogenica had left the Zoom call.
Tom Jouissance, Public Explainer of Difficult Thought at Goldsmiths College, believes autofiction is the most exciting literary development since the invention of the pen. ‘We call it autofiction,’ he says, ‘but I think of it as auto-da-fection, only what they’re setting on fire is the whole notion of the self. In his nine volume work My Fashy Breakfast, Sven Ove Mudgaard spends a good 400 pages telling us how he made a cup of tea. He only remembers to put the bag in on page 200, but the reader is totally gripped. By the time he gets round to eating a bowl of Shreddies (Vols 2 & 3) we’re ready to follow him anywhere. It’s a shame the last two volumes are all about Hitler, but genius follows its own rules.’
Elsewhere, there are dissenting voices, to be found. Ben Northman, the 56-year-old author of England is Piss and The Skipton Goblin, has no time for trendy movements. ‘We don’t have autofiction in Barnsley,’ he told me. ‘Folk round these parts want granite-hard muscular fiction, about witches building dry stone walls. I can honestly say that if, say, Bloomsbury offered me a reasonable advance to write some autofiction, say thirty thousand for hardback, plus audiobook, possible adaptation rights, I’d… sorry, what was the question again?’
It seems that on this matter, as on so many others, the literary world is in turmoil. We asked Oates herself for a comment, but her keeper said she was resting, as she normally does in the day. Peering at the back of her cage, we could make out a shadowy figure snoring gently in the straw, with no idea of the trouble she had caused.