Marjorie Worthington is a professor of English and in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Eastern Illinois University. Worthington is the author of The Story of “Me”: Contemporary American Autofiction (November 2018).
I define an autofiction* as a novel that features a character who shares his/her name with the author. But these works are fictions, not memoirs. So, although the main character ostensibly is the author, the text we read is fictional, often quite noticeably so. Indeed, the autofictional novels that I find most interesting are not the ones that hew closely to the actual life of the author, leaving readers to guess which details are “true” and which ones “untrue.”
Rather, I like autofictions in which the author/character finds (usually) himself in unabashedly fictional circumstances. Like Lunar Park, where “Bret Easton Ellis” pitches a life-or-death battle with ghosts, monsters and demons who manifest as characters from his own novels. “Bret” is literally at war with his own creations. Or The Tragedy of Arthur in which “Arthur Phillips’s” father dies and leaves him a heretofore undiscovered work of William Shakespeare (included at the end of the novel). What I am drawn to are not the novels that tell a truthful story; to be honest, I sort of hate memoirs. They can be too earnest and obvious in their lesson-teaching. Also, real people are boring and real stories are annoying because they have to stick to the facts. Give me fictional characters instead—particularly those cheeky fictional characters who are pretending to be real people by using their authors’ names. It’s like they are doubly lying! My book is an exploration of WHY those novels are so interesting as I try to figure out what effect they have on readers, beyond simply confusing them of course.
The recently late and greatly lamented Philip Roth was perhaps the most famous autofictionist, although he wasn’t famous for that reason. In his 1990 novel Deception, “Philip” explains his insistence on including himself as a character in his fiction by saying, “I portray myself as implicated because it is not enough just to be present. That’s not the way I go about it. To compromise some ‘character’ doesn’t get me where I want to be. What heats things up is compromising me. It kind of makes the indictment juicier, besmirching myself” (Roth 177-8). By way of demonstration, here’s a clip:
I know Roth would not appreciate my juxtaposing his work with the very different sort of genius that is Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but there is a connection. The humor of the clip comes from “Neil Patrick Harris” besmirching himself a la “Philip.” When I first saw Harold and Kumar, I laughed at seeing the guy I knew as boy-genius goody-two-shoes “Doogie Howser, M.D” jonesing for a lap dance. The clip still is funny now because, since achieving superstardom (catalyzed by this 2004 Harold And Kumar tour de force), Harris leads a very public life as a happily-married gay man. So it’s still jarring to see him jonesing for a lap dance.
I’m sorry: I know nothing is more tedious than someone explaining why jokes are funny, but here’s my point: in this clip, as in autofiction, the humor—the titillation—comes from the ironic distance between the actor and the character, or the author and the author/character. Between Neil Patrick Harris and “Neil Patrick Harris.” It’s funny because we know that, as another character in Harold and Kumar says, “NPH wouldn’t do that!” It’s ironic because the portrayal of the author/character is different—even the opposite—of what the real author is like. And it’s fun because we are all in on the joke; we all know that the “real” NPH wouldn’t do that. In other words, what makes autofiction interesting, what heats things up, is the space between what is being portrayed in the novel and the reality outside the text.
*I should note that there is some debate over the proper definition of the term autofiction. I should further note that my definition deviates somewhat from Serge Doubrovsky’s definition, which might not be quite fair since he actually coined the term. In my defense, I’ve got people on my side as well and I marshal them in rather meticulous detail in the book.