"Does Writing Autofiction Mean I'm Self-Absorbed?"

In which I talk about “The Happiest Season” for too long to make a single point.
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Dear Milo,

I started writing my first novel a month ago and realized that it is more autofiction than standard fiction. Is this a bad thing? Does it mean I’m self absorbed? Will anybody buy it? Is there anything I need to keep an eye on during writing?



Novel Narcissus

Boston, MA

Dear Novel Narcissus,

Congratulations on starting your first novel! I hope it’s a rewarding and enlightening experience for you.

There’s a saying in the writing community that a person’s first novel is always about themselves, no matter who the characters are or what they’re doing in the plot. But I’d wager that virtually every book by a writer is ultimately about themselves, as we can only ever truly write from our own experiences and ways of understanding the world.

So off the bat, no, there’s nothing wrong with writing autofiction. (To anybody unfamiliar with the term, “autofiction” is short for “autobiographical fiction,” which means a novel or other piece of fiction that is based off the writer’s true life, includes the writer as a character, usually the protagonist, and/or otherwise mixes autobiographical elements with fiction. However, the “auto” part versus the “fiction” part varies greatly by novel.)

Autofiction doesn’t automatically interpret as being self-absorbed or narcissistic. There are plenty of good reasons why someone would write autofiction rather than either a memoir or a purely fictional story. They may feel they have an interesting story to tell, but want to spare identifying factors of loved ones involved. They may not have all the factual evidence and want or need to fill in the gaps with fiction or best guesses. They may want to express their story through symbolism. They may be processing their experiences while keeping it safely at arm’s length. They may be trying to get difficult subject matter across without overwhelming the reader. The list goes on.

You also asked if anybody buys autofiction. Absolutely! There are plenty of successful examples out there and throughout time, including FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong, DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens, THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath, THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson, and THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez.

However, I’m guessing part of the reason for your questions is because you’ve picked up on the vibe that some folks in the reading/writing world find autofiction distasteful or otherwise resent its current trend. Part of me wonders if it’s because a notable part of the autofiction trend is marginalized, but that assumption is based off nothing.

But that aside, I feel at least part of the griping about autofiction isn’t that it’s autofiction, but rather autofiction that’s not done well. There are some pitfalls that are fairly unique to autofiction that I don’t feel are often discussed, and so writers keep falling into them.