On the Philosophy of Autofiction (Panel)

Comparative Literature / American/Diaspora

Campbell Birch (Columbia University)

Valerio Amoretti (Columbia University)

"The contemporary autobiographical novel enjoys the prestige of confession and the freedom of fiction” (Edmund White, 1995). Considering the complex ways that selves are always entwined in the writing they produce, this panel asks presenters to scrutinize the ethics of the art and artifice that putting pen to paper necessitates, and autofiction foregrounds. While the nebulous genre of autofiction has garnered wide attention this decade in North American and British letters, particularly with the English-language translations of multivolume projects by Ferrante and Knausgaard, its European roots stretch back at least to Proust, if not much further, to the great confessionalists, Rousseau and Augustine. Originally a term coined by French critics in the 1970s to describe the rise of novels that troubled the facile distinction between truth and fiction, autofiction is yet another mode of self-writing, imperfectly falling somewhere between and beyond traditional publishing industry categories, such as, autobiography, essay, memoir, criticism, confession, and literary fiction.

These novels from life, created by otherwise dissimilar authors—including, Genet, Duras, Roth, Handke, Sebald, and, more recently, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Garth Greenwell—insistently stage the questions: What makes for a true story of the self? How does one write the story of a life? What is the relation of the author-subject to his or her history, or to history as such? The proposed session is specifically interested in the philosophy of the form and the diverse theoretical problems it raises: Aesthetically, how does autofiction bear witness to, capture, transform, and exceed the contours of existence or the feel of living? And, ethically, what responsibility to reality does autofiction bear, and how does its ambiguous truth status aid and impair judgment? Further, we ask: What are the politics of autofiction—“the fiction of solitude” (Nicholas Dames, 2016)—in this, the age of oversharing?
This session seeks to examine the theoretical questions generated by the autofictional impulse. Papers are sought that discuss the aesthetic, ethical, and political dimensions of a form which radically calls into question the boundaries of the self and the nature of truth. What can autofiction reflect and reveal about the important philosophical issues of our time, including those raised by the acceptance of alternative facts in public discourse, and by the emergence of social media platforms through which public personae are crafted and confessions performed?