- "The necessary disloyalty"The Year in the UK
Chris Kraus's After Kathy Acker: A Biography, which I wrote about for this feature last year, has been self-consciously used as part of the framework of some of this year's most high-profile works of life writing. Olivia Laing, author of three works of nonfiction including the autobiographically essayistic account of art and loneliness The Lonely City, is the most direct example. In a review of After Kathy Acker in The Guardian, she regretted that Kraus had not made more of her own place in the story, but praised the "real wit and beauty" with which she told it, "understanding without pandering to the painfully high stakes of her identity games." Thirty days earlier, Laing had used Twitter to announce that she had "come up with a quartet of novels which I am going to write in the first year of the next four decades" (Biggs). The first, apparently written in seven weeks and published in June 2018, became her novelistic debut, Crudo: Love in the Apocalypse.
The opening lines announce her intention of intertwining her own biography with that of Acker: "Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York" (1). Press interviews and her Twitter account provided ample material for cross-checking various aspects of Laing's life that summer—her marriage, for example—against the novel. In a section in the back titled "Something borrowed," Crudo acknowledges quotations from Acker's works, Kraus's biography, the specific language of recent news stories, and tweets, notably from Donald Trump. One recent methodological precedent for this is Ali Smith's Autumn and Winter, the first half of a projected seasonally themed tetralogy responding to contemporary news stories at extremely close range; the former begins with the result of the Brexit vote. Smith, indeed, is thanked alongside her partner, who is Laing's cousin, in the acknowledgements at the back of Crudo, and Laing interviewed her about the series in 2016 (Laing, "Interview"). Laing also recently directed readers towards Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin as an influence "showing how the political and personal intersect, or what the rise of fascism might look like in an ordinary, recognisable world" (Leszkiewicz). [End Page 154]
One image of what technology might have changed for life-writerly perspectives since Isherwood comes through the contemplation of the position of social media in a writer's life; Kathy spends a lot of the book "examining the world by way of her scrying glass, Twitter" (34). Another comes when an electronic drone hovers over the protagonist's sun lounger in her hotel, and she compares herself to its "compound eyes, hovering, havering, gathering data" (10).
Laing gave an interview to Kraus in The Paris Review in September 2018, in which she confessed that the contemporary use of the term "autofiction" to refer to what seemed to her tendencies visibly employed by Woolf and Proust made her feel "a bit sick" (Kraus). Kraus agreed that the term "diminishes our sense of the novel as an intimate communication between writer and reader with personal stakes" (Kraus).
This question was examined in Experiments in Life-writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction, a contribution to the Palgrave Studies in Life Writing series based on a 2015 conference ("Biography and/as Experimental Fiction," Goldsmiths, University of London), and edited by Lucia Boldrini and Julia Novak. In her introduction, Novak argues that life writing has not "developed in analogy to other literary fields," and thus such works that count as "experimental" today only do so in relation to "a tenacious historical standard" (4), which is essentially "realist" and Victorian (5). For a definition of these standards, Novak quotes Sharon O'Brien:
language is a transparent medium capable of representing the world; character and the self are knowable; the cause-and-effect linearity implied by the chronological plot is a reliable way of ordering reality; and the author is a trustworthy narrator who understands the relationship between the private self and the public world.(125)
Novak suggests that there may be a difference...