- Autofiction in English ed. by Hywel Dix
Hywel Dix, editor
Palgrave Studies in Life Writing, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, xvi + 283 pp. ISBN 9783030078904, $109.99 paperback.
The ambition of this volume edited by Hywel Dix is twofold. Acknowledging the French genealogy of autofiction, whose very name was coined by French novelist, critic, and academic Serge Doubrovsky in 1977, it aims to pave the way for an Anglophone canon of autofictional literature, for which the final select bibliography of primary texts provides a necessarily provisional and partial, but very useful outline. And it attempts to redefine this hybrid genre in a contemporary Anglophone context, by delving into the ways autofiction combines its two contradictory components: autobiography, committed to referential truth according to an “autobiographical pact,” a contract between author and reader conceptualized by major French lifewriting scholar Philippe Lejeune in 1975; and fiction, which can involve the novelist’s freedom to create imaginary alternative worlds and to demand that readers willingly suspend their disbelief, or simply the use of stylistic devices borrowed from the novel (e.g., flow of consciousness, analepses, meta and intertextuality). While Lejeune’s definitions of autobiography and its “pact” are quoted [End Page 813] throughout the volume, the two broad-ranging theoretical chapters by Karen Ferreira-Meyers and Lorna Martens, as well as Todd Womble’s and Bran Nicol’s studies of American autofiction, also refer to another key French theorist, Gérard Genette (unfortunately omitted from the index), whose opposition between “narratives of diction” (meant to be received as a serious statement about the real world) and “narratives of fiction” (mimetic and borrowing from reality, but not pledged to referential truth) is a useful basis for narratological and literary analyses of autofiction.
The thirteen essays, organized around four main themes (“Theoretical Approaches,” “Writing After Trauma,” “Rethinking Creativity,” and “Beyond Post-modernism”), are introduced by a comprehensive overview by Dix of the theoretical, but also institutional and intercultural aspects, taking into account cultural capital, academic canon formation, and different national contexts of reception. Relevant echoes add to the volume’s coherence and outweigh inevitable overlaps. In most chapters, the point of reference and the basis for comparison are Doubrovsky’s tentative redefinitions of “autofiction” as he viewed and practiced it: a paradoxical “fiction of strictly real events,” which requires the same stylistic experiments that can be found in novels (Dix 2; Martens 51; Jensen 71; Foust-Vinson 146; Walker 206; Womble 222); sociologically speaking, the work of “a nobody” creating him-or-herself through writing, as opposed to well-known canonical autobiographers recording their lives for posterity (Dix 3; Jensen 71; Menn 166); and his more thought-provoking elaboration on the term “fiction”—not only the ontological category of what never actually or verifiably happened, but more essentially, the provisional self-narratives of a writing subject bound to remain opaque to himor-herself, closer to a psychoanalytical process or to the half-familiar, half-estranged identities reflected in an artwork than to an introspective, confessional quest for final meaning and unique selfhood (Dix 5; Hunt 180–184; Nicol 259).
Most of the essays focus on this third aspect and consider autofictional writers to be in search of self-narrative(s) otherwise hindered by the psychic effects of trauma or too marginal to follow preexisting narrative patterns. Since these writers are shown to be very much aware that one’s “self” is produced by language as much as the other way around (Hunt 182; Walker 200), dialogism, intertextuality, and metatextuality are often highlighted. Even though Dix and Ferreira-Meyers, following in the footsteps of Max Saunders’s work on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century “autobiografiction,” suggest that it may be possible to partly decontextualize the canon of autofictional works by opening it to a “prehistory” of earlier works like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (7, 35), the deconstructionist and poststructuralist context of the late 1970s appears to be key to understanding not only the narratological features of the genre (Martens, chapter 3), but also its ethical and political potential. Indeed, so-called “subjectivities,” writing and written about, narrating and narrated, far from being...