With no official end or sentimental sendoff, it seems as though autofiction’s time as a reigning form, a privileged container for the contemporary moment, has begun to dwindle. In retrospect, it’s clear that we loved autofiction in part because it upheld deep-rooted myths about how special we were, even as we moved within the mundane career-building, self-constructing rhythms of our lives. In a scene from Rachel Cusk’s Outline where the narrator, on a flight to Greece, transcribes the longwinded stories about family, first marriage, and dog told to her by the man in the seat next to her, what reader would fail to identify with her penetrating gaze and self-restraint, rather than with the person blithely revealing their innards? Implicit in the premise of most fiction is the exceptional nature of its characters, even if they are exceptionally ordinary and representative. Autofiction seemed to shake off that artifice, even as it left its kernel intact: at the center was the idea of the writer as a person who saw more acutely than the average observer, and to whom the world was therefore revealed in greater detail or even depth.
This is an untruth — a writer is just a person who secretly yearns to shake free of their self-consciousness for long enough to tell a vast, sprawling, uneventful personal story to the person sitting next to them on the airplane. But maybe it would have been possible to maintain the myth of exceptionalism for a few years longer if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, which reduced the writerly populace to a single type. In roundups in magazines and threads on Twitter, writers meditated in roughly the same ways about what it meant to be isolated, what it meant to have to imagine and recreate the kinds of connections that we had mostly taken for granted.
What, then, was a writer? Just a person who watched Tiger King and also read little portions of The Decameron, who cooked and then renounced shallot bucatini, who disinfected fruits and vegetables for a few months and then stopped, but still continued to disinfect faucets sometimes. In short, a person just like any other in the sociopolitical class comprised of people who could work remotely and enjoy a mostly uninterrupted income. The most exceptional thing about me at this time was that I developed dyshidrotic eczema on my fingertips from too much water and hand sanitizer — my dermatologist told me that lots of people developed this during the pandemic for the same reasons, but I’ve been paying attention and I haven’t met a single one.
The result for me, a novelist and sometimes essayist, was a loss of resolution, a sort of pixelation of the self: I felt that I saw my components, and they were the same as anyone else’s. I could understand that the experience I was having was mine alone and particular in some dumb way, but it became difficult to pretend that it had anything to do with a precious essence. Maybe it’s for this reason that we haven’t yet seen the predicted wave of pandemic autofiction — it’s embarrassing to be utterly undifferentiable from those around you, like when you end up in a conversation where everyone is talking about how much they like chocolate.
But it makes me excited for literature when I imagine that a swath of other writers are also secretly disgusted by the idea that they once thought of themselves as meaningfully specific. There are so many things in the world that are difficult to envision at the scale of the individual — atmospheric rivers suspended in the sky and carrying the water content of 25 Mississippi Rivers, more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than in the wild — and I would like to know what I might see if I could push the convention of writing to the scale of the individual to one side. I’d like to see a novel with no people in it, no anthropomorphic anythings, no characters at all. I’d like to see someone like me, which is to say someone like anyone, without the convention or crutch of an exceptional gaze. Self-fatigue is a hunger for the world, maybe, or for the anonymous substrate beneath surface personality. Either way, after so much time spent being yourself, wouldn’t it be nice to try something different?
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of a story collection and two novels, most recently Something New Under the Sun. She teaches at The New School and is a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow.