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Can a Black Novelist Write Autofiction?

Why the hottest literary trend of the last decade is so blindingly white

Illustration by Ojima Abalaka

Quick: What names come to mind when you hear the term “autofiction”? Let me guess, you’re probably thinking about Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti, among a few others. I’ve seen these writers grouped together so often over the years that I’ve started to think of them as partners in a kind of literary professional services firm. (The Offices of Cusk Heti Lerner & Knausgaard—I can actually see the commercial in my mind’s eye.) Despite the popularity of autofiction and the many books that have been so labeled, there is not much agreement on the core features of autofiction beyond the autobiographical requirement (and even that is up for debate). But what nearly all writers of autofiction seem to have in common is that they’re white.

If we can say that autofiction generally lacks traditional character development and jettisons traditional notions of plot, while sometimes featuring fragmented structure and diaristic prose, I can instantly name a few books by people of color that qualify—among them, Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson, What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. A few of these books have been described as autofiction by critics—Freshwater was labeled as such in this magazine—but for the most part when the autobiographical content of these novels is addressed it is simply described as being, well, autobiographical. For example, The Residue Years is described as an autobiographical novel in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Publisher’s Weekly, and Freshwater is called the same in The New Yorker and The Seattle Times.

I myself wrote my debut novel, published last year, under the influence of autofiction, but it was not (to my knowledge) described this way by critics. Some mistook my book as an immigrant novel (in Harper’s, my protagonist is called an immigrant even though he declares in the opening pages that he was born in America), and in The New York Times, my novel was called a bildungsroman, which is a close cousin of the autobiographical novel.

This distinction—between autofiction and autobiographical fiction—is important because of the way each genre is assessed by critics. Autofiction is at the cutting edge of literary innovation; autobiographical fiction is as old as time. When a critic invokes the phrase “autofiction” they are essentially arguing that a writer is helping to create a new kind of literature. The phrase “autobiographical fiction,” on the other hand, denotes a book that could very well be artful but is drawing on a tradition that isn’t new at all.

Writers of color are sparingly featured in appraisals of autofiction. Indeed, the two writers of color who are consistently mentioned among the ranks of autofiction’s practitioners—Teju Cole and Tao Lin—use characters whose lives and preoccupations are likely comprehensible to most members of the literary critic class. The protagonist of Lin’s Taipei is a writer named Paul who lives in Brooklyn and is on a book tour to publicize his second novel. The first few pages of Open City, Cole’s debut novel, feature the protagonist, Julius, reeling off a dizzying number of Western artists and thinkers—including Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Rodion Shchedrin, Eugène Ysaÿe, Roland Barthes, Peter Altenberg, and St. Augustine—and describing his preference for classical radio stations from Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands (American stations, he says, “had too many commercials for my taste”). The effect is to signal to the reader that Julius is immersed in Western high culture, and that Western readers are entering a safe, well-appointed space in which their admiration for these same figures will be affirmed.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of the autofiction craze is that it is not a literary movement—or at the very least, that autofiction’s practitioners have not indicated they are working together or issued some earnest manifesto declaring their intentions to the world (indeed, some writers reject the term “autofiction” altogether). To the extent that autofiction is a movement it seems to be one created by critics, which perhaps explains why this genre’s generally acknowledged membership is so homogenous.

At the most basic level, this is an inevitable consequence of a Western literary landscape dominated by white editors, white critics, and white readers. Writers of color are rarely perceived as innovators who might establish trends that permanently shift literary culture writ large. Their books might achieve great commercial and critical success and be celebrated for providing invaluable insights about the moment we inhabit, but in the end, they are usually regarded as books by and about people outside the mainstream of life.

What does it mean when people of color are more or less walled off from a literary genre that is widely perceived as the most innovative and forward-thinking, a genre that critics seem to constantly write about and whose practitioners are held up as the preeminent voices of their generation? I say “walled off” because writers have virtually no power over how they are classified and marketed: Critics and publishing houses are in complete control.

One consequence of this divide is that autofiction writers benefit from an ongoing, ever-recurring conversation about their work that constantly probes and redefines what they have accomplished and extends the lifecycle of their work beyond the typical book promotional time frame. The status quo also signals that certain lives are worthy of being transformed into literature regardless of how prosaic and boring they may be, while others are not.

It’s not entirely surprising that white critics gravitate toward writers in whom they see themselves, and who write about topics and lead the kinds of lives they are familiar with. As a result, books by writers of color that could qualify as works of autofiction are still placed in literary categories—e.g., immigrant literature—that read as “exotic,” even if their subject matter is utterly normal to those writers and the people for whom they are writing.

Artistic movements are important because they offer artists who have new and startling ideas the space to migrate beyond the borders of the familiar. New movements generally happen away from the mainstream—oftentimes because they are challenging the mainstream—and the artists in these movements generally languish in obscurity before their contributions are recognized. In the case of autofiction, this pattern has been upended, and critics, even as they quibble with certain aspects of autofiction—its solipsism, its reflexivity traps—provide air support for a group of artists who already enjoy a fair bit of power relative to their Black, brown, and yellow peers. 

How would the conversation about autofiction evolve if the writers I named above were referenced more often? And how many more writers of color—already insecure about their place in the world of literature, already convinced that their lives aren’t worthy of appearing in print—would find the courage to begin working on their manuscripts? How many more publishing houses would begin to publish work by writers of color that does not fit within established categories?

The genre of autofiction would obviously benefit immensely from a fresh infusion of perspectives and ideas and talent. Instead of a profusion of stories about artists in New York, London, or (occasionally) some other Western urban locale, we would hear stories about the concerns and ideas of human beings in other parts of the world, those who are more likely than their peers in Brooklyn to be on the front lines of the crises that will define the twenty-first century, like climate change and economic injustice.

Something else could happen if publishers took more chances on more writers of color: We would have an opportunity to establish new literary movements ourselves, movements that would not be beholden to the frames of reference that predominate in the current literary environment. And perhaps we would have an opportunity to cultivate literary ecosystems in which our collective contributions would be recognized in something close to real time, as opposed to many years down the line.

In short, we would have a chance to experience freedom—real freedom, to explore, to create, to innovate, to be. A freedom that many white writers take for granted.