Letter on Autofiction

by | Apr 15, 2023 | Contemporary Epistolary Forms Day 1

Dear Not Donald,
I’ve been asked to write a short flash fiction in which I attempt to convince you that autofiction is or is not a literary genre. Did your eyes glaze over when you saw the word “fiction” appear twice in that first sentence? I know, I know: you don’t read fiction anymore, you don’t understand how anyone can write or read a story that isn’t true, that didn’t really happen. You remind me of it every time I forget the new dispensation and ask if you might have read such and such a novel. Such and such. Am I even trying to get through to you, or have I already given up? Shouldn’t I drop a little Barthesian reality effect and give the title of some contemporary novel published after you took your vow of fictional chastity, or at least drop the name of Ben or Sheila or Vigdis or Karl? Do you still keep up enough to know who I’m talking about there? I think you might.
In the old days, I would have just called you up and we’d have riffed for an hour on the name autofiction. Fiction about cars? Too easy. Too polite. I’d have to push things, try to get you to laugh despite yourself. Is there was a form of autofiction in which the author seeks to heighten literary pleasure by writing sentences that deliberately restrict the supply of oxygen to the brain?
Every great work of literature founds a genre, or ends one, said someone once, maybe not that long ago. Once, back when you wrote novels, you could have told me who it was. I don’t know. Is autofiction what happens when every writer has that line tattooed on their bicep?
I take a break from writing this letter to you. Decide not to send it. Decide to finish it anyway. Look up the Derrida essay on genre, “The Law of Genre.” I had a paragraph imagining us talking about it without having read it, then I deleted it. Thinking about us talking about Derrida just made me sad. Anyway, the law of genre is that you don’t mix genres, ha ha, guess what, he’s going to mix them. I used to love Derrida so much, imagined him in a small room at the top of a library, sitting on piles of books, wearing a pointy hat, making writing laugh.
“But what’s a *literary* genre?” you’d say, I imagine you saying, would once not have thought twice about imagining what you would say, because it would have shown just how closely I’d listened to you, how much I’d thought about what and how you thought. Now it just feels presumptuous, like I’m putting words in your mouth. “What makes a genre literary?”
And as usual, I say, when I have too much to say, and no confidence in any of it: I have no idea.
I’ve changed my mind again. I want to send this to you. You can skip the fictional parts if you like.
Your old friend,
N.

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