Auto-fiction: The Novel Comes Full Circle

Alex Clark of The Guardian penned an article that I came across in a manner that was entirely coincidental. My blog post about Daniel Defoe had been up for only a few days when, lo and behold, I found myself reading about a new kind of writing called “autofiction.” Clark provides a definition as he discusses the new genre:

“Suddenly this kind of ‘autofiction’ – fictionalised autobiography that does away with traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development – is everywhere” (Source).

As any person of the writerly type would do, I kept reading to find out what was going on, my curiosity leading the way, and that’s when I connected the dots as to what was happening in my mind. I saw that I was recognizing the characteristics of this new form of writing, and realized that I’d seen it before, very recently, and it had everything to do with Daniel Defoe.

In Defoe’s time other writers had published fictionalized narratives about life as it unfolds, from the perspective of a single person, sans the aspect of organized artistic form. Defoe elaborated on the style to produce what he termed the “private history.” The result of his efforts brought us a voluminous collection of breakthrough novels:

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe​ (1719)
The The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe​ (1719)
Memoirs of a Cavalier​ (1720)
Moll Flanders​ (1722)
Captain Singleton​ (1722)
The Journal of the Plague Year​ (1722)
Colonel Jack​ (1722)
Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress​ (1724)

The funny thing about recalling these works is how their content resembles the first two words of Clark’s definition, because they are, indeed, “fictionalised autobiography.” With regard to “traditional elements of the novel,” well, in Defoe’s time, such elements hadn’t come to exist yet.

When I found Clark discussing Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo (2018), in which he describes how “Crudo slips sinuously between ‘Kathy’ the pre-millennial icon of the American counterculture and a 21st-century woman on the brink of multiple life changes,” and that the “action slides from a luxurious holiday in Italy to Korea, Grenfell, Steve Bannon’s resignation, [and] a priest giving a sermon in Italian ‘in which the word WhatsApp was frequently discernible,'” I couldn’t help but to observe parallels to Defoe’s work.

From Defoe’s time, writers leading up to the current age, from Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Austen, to Hawthorne and Melville, to Dickens and Collins, to Brontë and Eliot, to Hardy and Wilde, to Woolf and Joyce, to Ellison and Lee, to Nabokov and Vonnegut, to King and Gaiman, and so forth and so on, the novel has been shaped into what we come to expect in today’s reading market.

And yet it is the “market” that concerns us here, because as Clark tells us, according to the frenzy of the internet-driven, social media age, in which publishing professionals are faced with notorious slush piles, comprised of ongoing novice attempts at the literary tradition, “Writers, then, need strategies to meet the darting eyes of those too powerful, or otherwise occupied, to listen to them.” In short, a new trend has developed in which writers are abandoning the classic structure of the novel — character development, plot, etc. — in favor of blending aspects of memoir-styled nonfiction with fictionally created characters to produce a reading experience that feels fresh and different, enabled by the power of its introspective traits.

The quality of introspection is the factor that drove Defoe’s novels into trail-blazing success (though he didn’t live to see much of the rewards). Introspective writing satisfies an innate need lurking within the human psyche, not only because people want to feel like they’re not the only ones experiencing life on life’s terms, but because the nature of introspective writing projects the opportunity for discovery. Imagine, for example, stumbling across your aunt’s diary from a few decades past, a document she may have meant to have kept hidden. Are you not enticed to find out what she went through? It is the subliminal element of attraction that underscores autofiction, to learn the experience of life from a personalized, lived-in perspective.

When the Internet came into the mainstream, not only did the publishing industry change, but we witnessed the curious onset of experimentation, from novels written on Twitter (micro-novels) to among others, the community-driven novel (collaborative fiction), staples in the abandonment of the literary tradition. As we are learning, however, it seems the writer’s ego never truly fades, never wholly recedes into the background. And so it is that they continue to seek that comfort zone in the cabin by the lake, the quietude stimulating as they seek to tap out their masterworks amid the fragrance of coffee as it wafts through the air. On this note, though the stylistic traits of autofiction will come across as modernized, much more intriguing and energetic, in comparison to the olden form that is the private history, it seems that from Daniel Defoe to Olivia Laing — almost 300yrs to the day — the novel itself as a species of writing has somehow managed to come full circle.

To view the matter from this perspective is to contemplate why the elements of character development and plot came about in the first place. There is a reason why Defoe’s private histories are recognized as fundamental novel writing, and so it is that with autofiction, a new kind of writing that is, according to Clark, nowadays to be found “everywhere,” the pleasure will be in not only coming to marvel and enjoy this new literature as it flies off the bookshelves, but to envision where the phenomenon will take us next.

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The Amazing Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) opted for a life of writing after years of struggling as a businessman. For the amount of non-fiction pamphlets he came to produce, in the modern age he would have been a blogger. Add in the scale of his fiction output and the man becomes quite the enigma, especially considering the spark of his imagination, putting his pen furiously to work at the age of 59, which led to the seminal masterwork that is The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). One peculiar and marveling aspect about the man, it seems, is that he is the only published author known to the literary canon to have been pilloried. Can you imagine? Being pilloried?

Ian Watt situates Defoe as among the triumvirate of authors whose literature participates in the founding of the novel writing tradition, the other two being Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Defoe’s work is of particular interest, both for its form, which seems a kind of meandering style that somehow ends up being well worth the read, and for its content which, in two of his novels, concern the lives of unfortunate women.

Unlike the olden medieval tales and their damsel saving heroes, and even in contrast to the amatory and scandal fictions of his day, Defoe’s work comes across as anomalous. Dubbed as “private histories” (and building on a lesser-scale tradition), he goes into copious detail about the daily lives of his heroines, Moll Flanders and Roxana, without so much as a single chapter heading to help digest the material. It seems he had beginning and end points roughly in mind, making up much of the middle based on his worldly experience, and then he set about the task of writing his works in seeming singular fell swoops, staggering for the length in which they came to encompass. At times his paragraphs are so long that it’s hard to imagine forcing a quill pen to perform in such a way, all without the luxury of a backspace button and copy/paste features. Most profoundly, the notion that he happened to stumble into the form — carrying on at length, elaborating on the minutia of daily life, experiencing the ups and the downs of a character — it all speaks to the mysterious manner in which nature itself intermixes with the human mind to produce that which will blaze new trails.

Where the form sneaks up on the literary establishment, the choice of characters and their experiences are equally as innovative. With no relation to the aristocracy, and with the debt that haunted him, Defoe knew well the trials of life. That he applied his ideas of misfortune to the lives of two fictional women is a fascination. Moll Flanders begins by telling us how renowned she was at the prison at Newgate, and that Moll Flanders is not even her real name. The sense of shame is immediate, yet with the enormity of detail that follows, revealing both her good and bad natures, readers are compelled to consider the “why” of it all; Defoe makes it difficult to pass judgment.

And if Moll Flanders entices readers with her escapades as a career criminal, Roxana’s tale confounds us with alternative schemes that are mind-boggling. Again we are presented with a woman caught in the throes of despair, where only a few pages pass before we find her labeling her first husband a “fool,” no less than seventeen times over the course of two paragraphs. She is ranting, for the man’s inability to care for her, which serves to underscore most pointedly how the chivalric days of gallantry are, indeed, long past. Unlike her literary predecessor, however, Roxana employs sexuality instead of thievery to make ends meet, which leads to her from one debasing situation to the next as she makes the effort to survive. Replete with a perplexing relationship with her devoted servant, and the willingness to throw her own daughter under the bus, that Roxana ends with a shallow portrayal of penitence, should come as no surprise. Realism is Defoe’s game play, unconcerned as he is with notions of making the reader feel good, much less the aspects of epic and spectacle.

When we consider how Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey was in production during the same years in which Defoe wrote these incredible works, it becomes a task to comprehend what it is that is so compelling about Defoe. Pope was among the elite, Homer is timeless and iconic; Defoe was not. Yet his lasting impact as a composer of those “private histories” can be traced and even summed up in that which has been threaded into the modern American consciousness, the desire to write the “Great American Novel.” Defoe’s endeavor to document fictionally the lesser known peoples of the world has, in a roundabout way, paved the way and given voice to the thousands upon thousands of writers who followed in his footsteps, shaping and modifying the realism of his style to give us the novels that we know of today.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia]