February 4, 2022 • By Jack Skelley
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.”