2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction


The postmodern novel is dead. It is no longer what William James would call a living hypothesis: no committed literary novelist would now choose to write a postmodern fiction. Sure, genre and YA novelists may continue to churn out commodified, page-turning, loosely Victorian versions of the postmodern novel, but the robust fictional project of Pynchon, DeLillo, Coover, and even David Foster Wallace no longer holds sway over literary writing. In 2014, instead, many of the best novels were autofictions that vigorously reasserted the self.

By this I mean that the self is no longer drowned in a system of disinformation, paranoia, and entropy, in the vein of Pynchon and DeLillo. Nor does the self get washed away in an ocean of hyperreality or unreality, in the (Baudrillardian) style of Ballard. Nor is it beholden to the logic of late capitalism, at least not entirely. We’re witnessing instead the induction of a new class of memoiristic, autobiographical, and metafictional novels — we can call them autofictions — that jettison the logic of postmodernism in favor of a new position.

Midway through Ben Lerner’s 2014 metafictional novel 10:04, the protagonist, a man named Ben, visits the “Institute for Totaled Art,” where he holds a Jeff Koons sculpture that has been shattered by a hurricane. As an artwork in a gallery, the sculpture was once valuable, expensive, the embodiment of postmodernism, or what the critic Fredric Jameson calls the “logic of late capitalism.” But now, in fragments, in Ben’s hands, it is worthless. It has been liberated from the “tyranny of price.” The shattered sculpture seems to him an object from a past or future:

It was as if I could register in my hands a subtle but momentous transfer of weight: the twenty-one grams of the market’s soul had fled; it was no longer a commodity fetish; it was art before or after capital.

At the close of Nell Zink’s 2014 debut The Wallcreeper, the unreliable protagonist briefly mourns the death of her young husband before rejecting this mourning altogether. But unlike, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson grieving his son, she refuses to see her husband’s death as a foundation for her own life. Instead, in a move resolutely against the grain of postmodern fiction — which is often defined as a distrust of metanarratives — she embraces a single, powerful metanarrative: she will believe exclusively in her own life, which is composed of the stories she tells herself and others. She begins to write The Wallcreeper. The novel becomes a künstlerroman.

In May, writing for the London Review of Books, Ben Lerner wrestled with volume 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (2014), a novel that is increasingly understood to be the In Search of Lost Time of its generation. Only Lerner notes that in Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel (unlike Proust’s) nothing is differentiated: a cornflake is as important as someone’s face. Everything, Lerner suggests, falls under the sign of Knausgaard’s looming, figurative death. He refers to the novel as a literary suicide note. He calls it a künstlerroman. He then writes:

Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends.

Elsewhere, in an interview in The Believer, Lerner explains about his own novel:

My concern is how we live fictions, how fictions have real effects, become facts in that sense, and how our experience of the world changes depending on its arrangement into one narrative or another.

All of these novels point to a new future wherein the self is considered a living thing composed of fictions. Although critics will endlessly retread tired discussions concerning fiction vs. reality (and therefore the exhausted conversation about “realism”), that isn’t really what’s at stake here. What’s happening is that new novels — like the abovementioned 10:04, The Wallcreeper, and My Struggle — are redistributing the relation between the self and fiction. Fiction is no longer seen as “false” or “lies” or “make-believe.” Instead it is more like Kenneth Burke’s definition of literature as “equipment for living.” Fiction includes the narratives we tell ourselves, and the stories we’re told, on the path between birth and death.

Nor is the infamous postmodern “pastiche” anywhere to be found in this year’s crop of autofictional novels. These authors have rejected the old patchwork of genres and styles and myths primarily because the life of the author is now the novel’s organizing principle. And life, drained of religiosity, often leads to questions of the body and its environment. It’s not surprising, then, that Zink’s The Wallcreeper concerns, in part, environmental terrorism, or that Lerner’s 10:04 frequently considers the impact of ecological disaster. And Lerner himself suggests that Knausgaard’s My Struggle “isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.”

No, autofiction isn’t new. It could even be argued that it’s as old as literature itself, especially if you consider something like Hesiod’s Works and Days an autofiction. But it’s clear that what previously defined (most) autofictional novels was the tension between the real and the unreal, the “made up” and the “truthful.” (And this perhaps why critics can’t seem to let this debate go.) The new class of autofictions, on the other hand, having passed through modernism’s Joycean and Proustian portraits of artists, as well as the defiant relativism of postmodernism and post-structuralist theory, eschews the entire truth vs. fiction debate in favor of the question of how to live or how to create. Or, to quote the title of another excellent, recent autofiction by Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be?

The best way I can describe the new autofictional novel: the oeuvre is the soul. The artist’s body of work, in other words, has come to replace the religious ideal of the immortal spirit. This is why the künstlerroman has become the weapon of choice for many of our most committed novelists: the story of the maturation of the artist or the creation of a work of fiction is tantamount to the unfurling of the soul on the page. It is also presumably why excellent post-war autofictions about artists, like Peter Weiss’ Leavetaking — books that never fit the postmodernist mold — are being rediscovered in 2014.

The current tendency toward autofiction, as Chris Kraus has recently suggested, may have been foreshadowed or even inaugurated by queer and women writers in the 1990s — I’m inclined to think she’s right. In both cases, there is a vitality of self in excess of systems — of control, capital, information, whatever — that cuts against postmodern fiction. Yet the rise or return of autofiction isn’t the work of a movement, campaign, or vanguard: it’s more of a murmur in the heart of the novel, one that lets us know that literature is alive, still-forming — a living hypothesis.