In Defense of Navel-Gazing: Why We Read Memoirs and Autofiction

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I am one of those readers whose reading habits were invigorated by the pandemic. I get migraines if I try to read in moving vehicles, so reading on my daily commute was not an option for me. With work from home and greater flexibility to work on my own schedule, I was left with spare time — which I naturally filled with books. I have been almost exclusively a reader of novels and narrative history, but as the pandemic progressed and feelings of dread and insecurity increased, I found myself drawn to memoirs and personal essay collections. I was happy that the memoir seemed popular, and there was no dearth of reading recommendations on the internet. However, as I ventured beyond listicles, I was surprised to find that some critics consider memoirs to be too self indulgent, to engage in too much “navel-gazing,” to have literary merit.

If putting one’s thoughts and life experiences down on paper and expecting strangers to be interested in reading them is narcissistic or self-indulgent, then all writing is self-indulgent. A writer of fiction is narcissistic in assuming that the world and the characters that exist only in their mind deserve a place in the minds of readers. Philosophers, writers of some literary fiction, and their admirers are narcissistic in assuming that their view of the “human condition” is one worth serious contemplation. If assigning importance to one’s personal truth is self indulgent, so is assigning importance to one’s personal view of the whole truth. Art is not — and cannot be — impersonal. It is about discovering and rediscovering one’s self in connection to the world around. Why not leave it to the readers to ascertain if memoirs are worth their time? Why disparage a whole genre while discussing a particular book a critic might not have liked?

Despite lukewarm and sometimes hostile reactions from certain quarters, the memoir has been increasing in popularity as a genre over the past decade. As social media bombards us with heavily beautified snippets from other peoples’ lives, when everyone else seems perfect, we hunger for the affirmation that we are not the only ones with the mess and the ugliness that sometimes overwhelm our lives. We need need to know that despite that, we will be okay. Memoirs provide personal testaments that fulfill this need. A well written memoir is a conversation in the time of quick text messages, an intimate confession amidst the voyeurism of social media. They can bring catharsis and redemption — and are every bit as likely to be well written as a fictional narrative.

When I read Hunger by Roxane Gay, I had to face truths about my relationship with my body, and how it has been shaped by trauma: truths that I had repressed despite being theoretically aware of the importance of body positivity. It helped validate the debilitating effect of abuse, gave me the courage to call out an abusive ex, and to finally free myself from the shame of not being able to reconcile with my own memory. But it was not therapy — it was the strength that comes with the realization that I am not alone, it was the opening of my eyes to the possibilities of everything I could still be, and above all, it was a very satisfying reading experience. I wept after finishing Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, her memoir about cohabitating with a wild snail after being rendered unable to move by a mysterious illness, not because the ending was tragic, but because I was overwhelmed at the sense of connectedness and wonder the book evoked in me.

Between the premise of veracity of the memoir and of that of the imaginary in fiction, lies autofiction. Not everyone, including some of my fellow Rioters, is comfortable with this explicit mixture of personal truths and made up stories. But I find this form fascinating. At the basis of how a reader approaches a book is the way their contract with the writer is defined. We expect complete factual correctness from a book only when a writer intends it to be read as nonfiction. We understand that a narrative is fictional, despite the knowledge that the writer’s person, a real entity, has shaped it in their mind, when the author intends it to be read as fiction. When an author acknowledges the autobiographical underpinnings of a work of fiction, they are opening a window to the deepest recesses of their minds — because they are telling you what they want you to think they think, while not claiming that everything else they talk about reflects the absolute truth.

In autofiction, the author is not hiding behind a dozen different fictional characters. The author cannot evade responsibility for their views — we are saved the trouble of ever having to attempt separating the art from the artist. In Sylvia Plath’s ostensibly autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which, I believe, is a predecessor of the modern autofiction, the use of racial stereotypes and problematic language are as much a reflection of her own self as is this quote that I have on my wall.

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

In autofiction, the relationship between the reader and the writer is interactive. The reader gets to navigate on their own terms the region between fact and fiction. They can extract from the narrative as much honesty as they need to. I am free to believe that Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels are both personifications of different aspects of the author’s psyche, and Elena Ferrante’s writing and her acknowledgement of the extent to which her life has shaped her writing assure me that I cannot be completely wrong. She gives me new ways of looking at myself. The honesty of the prose, the evocative, immersive details which are impossible to produce in a narrative of such length if one has to stick to the objective truth, the dramatic flourishes, all contributed to the effect that the books had on me, and on readers all over the world. Autofiction has the potential to combine the strengths of the memoir and the novel. It is still fiction, but the author’s explicit acknowledgement of their active presence in it makes it a different, sometimes more interesting, reading experience than straight up fiction.

If you do not want to pick up a memoir or a book referred to as autofiction, that is your choice — you should read what you want to read. But please, do not disparage an entire approach to literature that appeals to other readers and writers.

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