Special Issue of Life Writing (Autumn 2021)
One of the main features of autofictional literature is its so-called ability to “sit on the fence” (Lejeune) and be simultaneously fictional and referential. Throughout the theoretical discussions on autofiction this has overshadowed some of its other features. This special issue explores one of them, namely the as-of-yet rarely addressed humorous dimension of autofictional writing, including the aesthetic, narrative and social function(s) of humour in autofictional literature. In 1996, Marie Darrieussecq, a French scholar who almost overnight became a literary celebrity with the publication of Pig Tales (Truismes), published an article entitled “Autofiction, a non-serious Genre” (“L’Autofiction, un genre pas sérieux”) in which she ironically lauded autobiography only to better support autofiction’s creativity and its noncommittal attitude toward reality. Even if Darrieussecq meant “non-serious” to denote a less respected, frowned-upon subcategory of autobiographical discourse, now almost 50 years after Doubrovsky first coined the term, it’s worth considering if indeed autofiction is a non-serious mode of writing, although along a different understanding of the non-serious than Darrieusecq’s.
Freud defined humour as a defence mechanism, a way of keeping reality at bay while still focusing on it. This could also describe the way autofiction relates to autobiographical practices and their attempt to describe somebody’s reality. Judging for example by the grandiloquent buffoonery of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, the wry self-deprecating tone of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and by how J.M. Coetzee pokes fun at his alter-ego in Scenes from Provincial Life, at times verging on self-parody, it seems high time to consider autofiction’s humorous dimension.
One of the comic features of autofiction lies in its capacity to mock the seriousness of the genre it seemingly belongs to and, taking Darrieussecq’s rhetorical twist as a perfect example, seems to sneer at autobiography’s desperate dependence on facts and memory knowing that both have been shown to be fluctuating and labile (see for instance Mark Rowlands’s Memory and the Self: Phenomenology, Science and Autobiography, 2017). Even if a writer such as Mary Karr scathingly pointed out in The Art of Memoir (2015) that this aspect has often been regarded as carte blanche by some memoirists to publish blatant lies, she also rightfully reminded us that this inherent fallibility of our memory doesn’t call into question the validity of autobiography as long as it’s aware of this flaw. Another comic feature stems from an amused, sometimes ironic outlook on life and on those who try to put it on paper. In other words, autofiction often generates “ironic signals with regard to the reality of reported facts” (“signaux ironiques quant à la réalité des faits rapportés,” Colonna). Of course, this doesn’t imply that autofictional literature foregoes all claims to narrate any form of reality, but it frequently does so through tongue-in-cheek humour. As noted by Yves Baudelle, even in more serious autofictions such as Chloé Delaume’s or Camille Laurens’s, often conjuring up ghosts and the general theme of Thanatos, this “phantasmagoria is only tolerated in a humorous mode, which bestows upon it both its specificity and its function” (“cette fantasmagorie n’est tolérée que sur le mode humoristique, ce qui lui confère à la fois sa spécificité et sa fonction”). Thus, autofiction’s very referential logic could be described as “apotropaic.” In Ariadne’s Thread, J. Hillis Miller, focusing on realistic fiction’s essential flaw, wonders why “this dissolution of its own fundamental fiction [is] as constant a feature of realistic fiction as the creation of the fiction of character in the first place,” suggesting that “the function is apotropaic. It is a throwing away of what is already thrown away in order to save it.” Is autofiction trying to save autobiography and simultaneously make a joke out of it? This might be the very core of its ironical nature.
We encourage cross-disciplinary and comparative approaches and papers discussing primary texts in any language. Proposed articles may consider the humorous dimension(s) of autofictional literature through themes like, but not limited to, those listed above.