Schaal: Autofiction & the Selfie – Between Reality & Fiction

CATEGORIES: November 2016

by Dr. Michèle Schaal

In 1977, French author Serge Doubrovsky published Fils. To describe his narrative, Doubrovsky coined the term “autofiction” on the back cover. For the past forty years, both Fils and autofiction have been the object of countless literary analyses but also fierce debates. In particular, the label autofiction has been praised as a new genre that defied the definition French literary scholar Philippe Lejeune had provided for the autobiography, and by extension, for autobiographical novels. Yet, autofiction has also been denounced as a mere marketing scheme or as primarily narcissistic, thus lacking any literary quality. According to British scholar Shirley Jordan, this accusation has especially targeted women writers of autofiction.

Providing a definitive or even comprehensive definition for the genre “autofiction” proves to be a daunting endeavor as it continues to be debated. There is however a minimal consensus amongst critics, scholars, and authors: autofiction blurs and interrogates the borders between fiction and reality, eventually asking if autobiographical truth is achievable at all since the art of writing necessarily always transforms reality. In the case of autofiction, it has even toyed with truth purposefully.

Could the selfie be considered a form of visual autofiction? Some scholars, bloggers, and critics say it is. One, after all, stages oneself in a variety of situations: to mark a specific occasion, to inscribe oneself in an important event, to document one’s aging, etc. With apps such as Snapchat or Instagram, one may also use filters to enhance one’s self-portrait in beautiful yet also comical ways. And selfies have been decried as a shameless form of narcissism—again, an accusation often made against women. In the end, the question raised by autofiction begs to be asked of the selfie as well: is it truth or is it fiction? As for autofiction it is both and neither/nor. It is a staged self that the recipients, whether private or public ones, get to see. Yet, they are taken by actual individuals and in real spaces. In the end, the self in the selfie, the human behind the portrait, remains elusive.