This week, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, “strange to have come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination (Dostoyevsky, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner) & now find yourself praised & acclaimed for wan little husks of ‘auto fiction’ with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer...it’s as if expectations have withered with readers’ attention spans & the rise of social media. as a juror for several literary competitions I am grateful for anything that seems to have required more than diary-like entries: works of actual imagination, ambition, risk, wonder.”
I read this as Oates putting herself in that category of wan little husk-writers, self-effacing while complaining about a younger generation. It’s true, the scales are tipped towards memoir because of the culture, meaning there is more of one kind of writing than there used to be (logically, this is always occurring), and maybe the style of this writing is more memo-like, lines meant to stand alone, because of everything else going on and how it has changed our reading and writing habits. That it was Oates tweeting this, and that it was a tweet (one of dozens that day, not including retweets—petitions, celebrity birthdays, animal videos, bird watching, Simpsons clips, political news, Paris Review quotes), not an essay, is what makes it lighthearted, or stupid, I can’t tell. The tweet itself is, in a way, a wan little husk of auto fiction, isn’t it?
It’s considered embarrassing to be too autobiographical all the time. It’s mischaracterized as narcissistic, like our population, increasingly. It’s also considered embarrassing—inappropriate, even—to write about what one doesn’t know. In many cases, research doesn’t cut it: the story should come from a person of lived experience. And so it is embarrassing to write at all, I guess. I’ve been hearing iterations of a joke about novels that’s basically like, You made up that whole story? Why? More people I know don’t read fiction and actually can’t stand the idea of it.
In a conversation between Sofia Coppola and Paul Schrader for a podcast, Schrader says his best work is not autobiographical. For example, he was disappointed with Hardcore(1979), he says, because the loosely true story didn’t give him enough room to breathe as a writer. The protagonist, based on his father, was too close to home. Hardcore isn’t as good as Blue Collar (1978) or the movies Schrader was writing with Scorsese at the time, but it’s better than a lot of his later films, despite or maybe due to the uncomfortable dad characterization. Sofia Coppola’s latest movie, On The Rocks (2020), is awful. It’s also somewhat based on her dad stuff, as are some of her other movies, maybe all of them her worst ones, actually. Maybe the subject matter is too sensitive. As Schrader tells her, obliviously (he hadn’t seen On The Rocks), it’s a good rule of thumb to leave your family out of your scripts.
There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, I think. Tamara Jenkins only makes movies based on her own experiences, even if that means she only makes a movie every decade. They’re all great. I watched Private Life (2018) just after moving into a rent stabilized apartment near the one where a lot of this movie takes place, where a couple in their late forties complain of being stuck forever, priced in. They eat at the restaurant I eat at and went to the residency I went to and everyone is smart and sad. I honestly don’t see what there is to hate about auto fiction. If it’s good, it’s great, because it comes with this deeper access to a writer, which feels dangerous. Maybe most people don’t want that. When I read or watch a movie, I want to feel like I’m on a date and it’s not going well.
Other movies I watched alone recently are Anywhere But Here (1999), which is based on the autobiographical novel by Mona Simpson about herself and her mother, Georgia (1995), which was co-written by its star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and her mother, about sisters, and Marriage Story (2019), about the breakup of characters based on the writer, Noah Baumbach, and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. These kinds of movies are only as good as their dialogue: jealous fights, singing off key, overdosing, breaking down, shutting down. Good autofiction is like that, too. I mean, everything is, to me. The spaces between paragraphs don’t wink knowingly or fade out, they hold eye contact.
The problem is, everyone who writes about themself or some version of a dynamic they have lived is in danger of being found out as un-charming or pathetic or shallow or some other unsavory thing. That’s why so much autofiction sounds overeager and like self-parody. It can’t escape the author’s obnoxious conversational habits that try to keep everyone happy. It’s asking if you approve, or it’s pretending transparently not to care. But that just means it’s hard-earned when it works.
And Oates must know this. She might think of Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?(1966) as a wan little husk, but the movie, Smooth Talk (1985), holds up because of the dialogue and the way it’s delivered. You don’t need to know how true the story is to know it’s real. Anyway, her point wasn’t about autobiographical fiction, I know, or else she would not have mentioned Joyce and Woolf. It’s about that shruggy thing that so many novelists do now (do I?), leaving a little space after a start as if to say, You think about it, I don’t want to. Inverted epiphanies. It’s not the only thing happening, but it’s happening a lot. I’d guess it has less to do with slashed attention spans than it has to do with embarrassment over earnestness, over any kind of writing at all.